The Peter I Never Knew

The Peter I Never Knew

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Published:
June 19, 2021

Pretty much every sermon I’ve heard about the apostle Peter describes him as someone who got into trouble primarily because he was a headstrong, impulsive, know-it-all. I’ve come to view that description as a very bad rap. I now believe that Peter got into trouble much of the time because he loved Jesus so intensely. Impassioned devotion to the Savior was the motivation behind most of his major blunders.

 

Walking on Water

Take the night on the lake. The disciples are sailing across the Sea of Galilee. Strong headwinds descend from the surrounding hills and slow their progress dramatically. They toil at the oars all night but by 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. are only halfway across the lake. (Matt 14:25; Jn 6:19)

White capped waves splash over the gunnels. Suddenly lightning flashes and illuminates an apparition walking on the tempestuous sea. The disciples let out a collective scream. Jesus reassures them, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” (Mt 14:27 NIV)

Excited, Peter cups his hands over his mouth and shouts the most amazing thing I can imagine, “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” (Matt 14:28 NIV) What?! Pause and let that text sink in. No one has ever wanted to be with Christ so much that they entertained such an incredible thought. At that moment there is no showing off. No element of pride or self-sufficiency. Only one thing dominated Peter’s thinking – “I’ve got to be with my Lord!”

Peter sits on the edge of the gyrating rail, swings his legs outward and steadies himself. He places one foot on the foamy, roiling water and, remarkably, it holds firm. Then the other foot. And in a historic moment of spinetingling faith, he pushes off. “One small step for man…”

Eyes locked on Christ, the apostle wobbles forward, arms outstretched to each side like a tightrope walker. Yes, he eventually failed, but look what he failed at! The other disciples were all glued to their very familiar, firmly attached seats.

 

Arrest in the Garden

I have also had to rethink the time Peter cut off Malchus’ ear on the night of Christ’s arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. (Matthew 26:51Mark 14:47Luke 22:50John 18:10)  Peter, James, and John awaken to the sound of yelling and the flickering of numerous torches less than thirty yards away. They quickly identify the familiar garb of priests and scribes, the Temple police, plus a band of Roman soldiers. The word for “band” is speira which can mean from 200 to 600 individuals. [1] As the multitude draws closer, it is clear that they are full of menace, wielding an arsenal of clubs and swords.

Jesus courageously steps in front of His disciples and inquires whom they are seeking. He is quickly identified, arrested, and bound. At that moment, Peter rushes forward, raises a sword above his head, and lunges at the nearest assailant, the servant of the high priest. The victim sees moonlight glint off the blade just in time to shift his head to the left. The blade misses the center of his skull and slices off his right ear. (John 18:10)

Christ frees His tied wrists then reaches out and touches the right side of the man’s head. Miraculously a brand new, custom-made, grade A, wax-free, ear appears.

Should Peter have intervened? Clearly not. But think of the enormous, self-forgetful courage it took to single-handedly take on hundreds of irate men armed to the teeth. There is much more going on here than mere impulse. Such an act would certainly mean instant death for the apostle, but self-preservation does not enter his thinking. Peter’s only thought is, “I’ve got to protect Christ!” Jesus saved his follower’s life by healing the grievous wound. No harm, no foul.

 

Trial in the Home of Caiaphas

Then we come to Peter’s infamous denials. Of course, the three denials were bad, without question. He certainly failed in that regard. But to call him a coward or disloyal is unfair. There is another, more fundamental, plot line that unfolded that night that we must not fail to appreciate. The heart of the story should be Peter’s repeated refusal to leave the high priest’s courtyard.

After Christ’s arrest, His followers all abandon Him in the Garden and scatter in abject terror. John and Peter, however, continue to follow Jesus “from afar off.” (Matt 26:58) The Savior is taken to the home of the high priest Caiaphas to be put on trial before the Sanhedrin. The two intrepid disciples make the fateful decision to enter the expansive courtyard in order to be as close to their Master as circumstances will allow. The atmosphere is electric, and a mob mentality prevails.

Out of all the disciples, Peter is, by far, most at risk of being jailed and potentially executed because of his attempt to murder the high priest’s servant back in the Garden. Most likely there are plenty of witnesses from that earlier encounter lurking nearby now. And yet, with pounding heart, he chooses to enter the lion’s den.

An angry, curious crowd has gathered after midnight in the pre-dawn chill. The light from a central fire plays across people’s faces with an indistinct, yellow-orange glow. Peter has never been here before and moves about slowly, cautiously. Armed Temple Police patrol the grounds. The air is thick with danger. The place is rife with rumors about the Rebel who is on trial only yards away. People speculate about what it all means.

It is not clear what Peter hopes to accomplish. Does he still have his sword? Surely, he knows that any attempt at a rescue is futile. He is clearly following his heart, not his head.

At one point, the maid who kept watch at the door asks Peter if he is one of Christ’s disciples. Peter replies, ‘I am not.” The first denial.

Having now been fingered as a follower of the Person on trial, the danger to Peter escalates dramatically. He nonetheless feels compelled to remain. In order to draw attention away from himself, he tries to mingle with others nearer the fire. The strategy backfires however because the flames now illuminate his face more fully. The scriptures tell us that another maid looks “steadfastly upon him,” studying his features, and declares too loudly, “This man also was with him.”  (Luke 22:56-57) Peter utters the second denial.

Peter must have been a very persuasive man because neither accuser so far chooses to press the issue. At this point, he has most likely been in the courtyard for a couple of nerve-wracking, high stakes hours. [2]

The harried apostle now changes his strategy again and makes his way to the edge of the courtyard near the entrance. Luke then provides us with what I consider to be an astonishing detail. Another full hour goes by between the second and third denials. (Luke 22:59) After being singled out twice, Peter still refuses to leave.

The tendency is to pull the three denials out from the narrative and look at them as if they all happened within five to ten minutes. Far from it. It is only fair to look at things through the eyes of Peter himself. Everyone knows that time ticks by very slowly when you are in danger or filled with anxiety. Think of sitting in a waiting room while a loved one is undergoing emergency surgery. Or imagine seeing a tornado in the distance and wondering if it is coming your way. Seconds become minutes, and minutes become hours. One hour becomes an eternity. The longer Peter stays the greater the danger of being arrested. To hang around that volatile situation for one very long hour after the second denial is really quite extraordinary.

The third accuser ratchets up the pressure dramatically because he is actually a relative of the man whose ear Peter sliced off. (John 18:26) The apostle denies knowing Christ again but still chooses not to run even though he could easily slip out the nearby exit.

Ultimately, it is not being identified as a follower of Christ that drives Peter from the courtyard that awful night. It is the compassionate look in the watery eyes of His Savior that is too much for him to bear. After the Lord looked deeply into Peter’s soul, the apostle “went out and wept bitterly.” (Luke 22:61, 62)

 

Post-Resurrection Appearance

My favorite portrayal of Peter’s intense devotion to Christ and overwhelming desire to be with Him comes from the Gospel of John. The resurrected Lord appears to the disciples early one morning while they are fishing. On the shore, Jesus cups his hands over his mouth and shouts out to the men, “Did you catch anything yet?” (John 21:6) He knows they haven’t. Not even enough for one respectable fish sandwich.

The Savior instructs them to cast their nets on the other side and the nets quickly fill to overflowing. John turns back in wonder at the Stranger on the shore. He squints, stares, then shouts, “It’s the Lord!”

We are told that the boat is only about 100 yards away and will be onshore in eight minutes max. [3] (John 21:8) That’s much too long for Peter. He jumps over the side and swims one of the fastest freestyle strokes in history just to be with His beloved Master a couple of minutes sooner. [4] (John 21:7-8)

 

Notes & References:

[1]  William Barclay, The Gospel of John Vol. 2 (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1975) 222

[2] Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, Vol. 5, 1956) 532

[3] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971) 864

[4] Ibid. 865.

 

 

Kim Allan Johnson retired in 2014 as the Undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife Ann live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for SDA journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The GiftThe Morning, and The Team. He has also written three sets of small group lessons for churches that can be viewed at www.transformyourchurch.com (this website is run by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists). He is also the author of eight "Life Guides" on CREATION Health.

Kim has recently started an exciting new ministry to teachers at www.hi54teachers.com, which is currently accepting donations. Read an interview about this organization here.

Photo by Emmanuel Phaeton on Unsplash

 

 

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