Andrew McFarland Campbell  

Looking at Peter

These exhortations were given by me between 1999 and 2005. That was a long time ago, and I have grown a lot since then. They may not reflect my current beliefs.

This morning I want to look at the contrast between Peter before the resurrection of Christ and Peter after the resurrection. Before the resurrection he is keen, but he never quite has the courage to back up his keenness with action. After the resurrection he is still just as keen, but now he has the courage to back it up. I think we can all draw comfort from that contrast because we all know there are times when we lack the courage to manifest our faith in the way we want to.

I’m going to look at three pairs of incidents: Peters failed attempt to walk on the water in Matthew 14, contrasted with his swimming to meet the risen Christ in John 21, Peter’s denial of Christ in Luke 22 contrasted with his courage to stand up before the Sanhedrin in Acts, and his promise that he was ready to follow Christ to prison or death, also in Luke 22, contrasted with his actual willingness to go to prison for Christ’s sake, also in Acts.

As I talk through these I want you to think about what was different about Peter. After all, when he denied Christ he had already seen several miracles, from the razing of Lazarus to the feeding of the five thousand, so I don’t think it could just be that he believed more after seeing Christ resurrected.

Lets look at the first pair, starting in Matthew 14, verses 22 to 31:

Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

Peter had remarkable courage here. He was prepared to walk across water to his Lord. Its not quite enough though, because half way through he loses the courage, his faith fails and he begins to sink. There is the tremendous triumph of Peter’s faith, marred by its failure.

Compare this with the incident at the end of John. John 21, verses 1 to 9:

Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Tiberias. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” “No,” they answered. He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.

Once again Peter jumps out of the boat to meet Jesus. This time there is no fear of drowning, he doesn’t get half way there and lose his nerve. He just wraps his garment around him and jumps into the water.

What was different? Why did Peter have no fear the second time?

Moving onto the next example, we’ll take a reading from Luke 22, verses 31 to 34:

“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” But he replied, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” Jesus answered, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.” 

We all know what happened don’t we? When asked, Peter denied Christ. Denying Christ was unthinkable to him, yet just a few hours after the last supper he denied his master three times. He wasn’t on trial. He wasn’t before the authorities. He was just speaking to a group of ordinary people. Verses 54 to 62:

They had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them. A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, “This man was with him.” But he denied it. “Woman, I don’t know him,” he said. A little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.” “Man, I am not!” Peter replied. About an hour later another asserted, “Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean.” Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.

What a difference a couple of months can make. Peter was now prepared to stand up in front of a large, potentially dangerous crowd, and not only proclaim his faith in Christ as a Godly man, but was prepared to hammer home what the people of Israel had done when they crucified Christ. Peter had no reason to weep bitterly now.

What was the difference? It wasn’t the gift of the Holy Spirit, although that undoubtedly helped. The Holy Spirit was given to Peter because he was prepared to use it. But why was he now so prepared? Peter has transformed from a man unable to confess Christ to a man who was able to address a large number of people, and he didn’t pull his punches, he didn’t shy away. What was different? Why did Peter have no fear the second time?

The third pair of events is less well defined. It is more about Peter’s attitude rather than his actions. Remember he said to Christ: “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” I’m sure he meant that, but it wasn’t really true. He denied Christ, as we have read, and he is conspicuously absent at the crucifixion.

In Acts chapter 12 we find Peter in prison. Its not the first time he’s been in prison for preaching – it is at least the third – and it won’t be the last. Despite his earlier weaknesses Peter is strong enough to keep preaching. If you asked him while he was weeping he would have told you he couldn’t follow his master to prison. Yet after the resurrection he can.

What was different? Why did Peter no longer fear?

I don’t know the answer. I know he was stronger, braver, more faithful after the resurrection of Christ, but I don’t know why. Peter had seen resurrection before, why did this one have such an effect on him?

Peter’s heart was always in the right place. His faith made him set standards that he couldn’t achieve, but I don’t think the weakness of his body ever made that faith desert him, even when that weakness caused him to fail. There is a lesson here for all of us.

Looking back at Peter we can all agree that in the parable of the talents he would have been one to get ten talents. He was taught the gospel by Christ himself. He was considered a rock.

Think about poor Peter weeping bitterly after denying Christ. We see a man who must have felt that his talents were buried deep in the ground. He didn’t feel like a rock at all.

But we know that was just a temporary blip. From depths deeper than most of us will see, Peter went on to climb heights higher than most of us could imagine.

I am sure that each of us has wept bitterly about our failures, just as Peter did. They may not have been as public as Peter’s failures were, and the weeping may only have been internal. But each of us has been there.

Peter recovered, and we can recover too. The important thing is to not give up. Even if you feel that you have buried all your talents you can still pick them up again, just as Peter did. Our God is compassionate, and stumbling does not mean the end of the walk.

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