McLaurin Memorial

Peter, A Failed and Then Great Leader

MORNING MESSAGE – John

Text:  Various Scriptures; Scripture Reader:  Rain Mair

The apostle Peter’s life is, perhaps, the greatest redemption story ever recorded. The first called of the 12 apostles, anointed by Jesus to be a great leader, he failed him over and over again, but was later redeemed by him, and Peter became, along with the apostle Paul, one of the most influential people of the first century, A.D. and in the history of humankind. Now, stereotypically fishermen of that day were manly men, commonly with hot tempers and vulgar language. In fact, in the Greek we read that when confronted about being a disciple of Jesus, Peter denied it and used coarse language in doing so. Fishermen were known to act first and think later. They were uneducated but would’ve had ample wits and survival skills acquired by working hard and braving the seas and fish markets. Fishermen were stereotypically men of action, very physical, and unafraid of others. Jesus called such a man to be his very first apostle. That fisherman, Peter, would fail Jesus often but later become a powerful leader and servant for him. To that fisherman, Peter, Jesus said, “until now you have been a fisherman. I am going to make you a fisher of men”, as the old King James Version puts it. Peter would have a new identity from then on. So, when Jesus started his earthly ministry, announcing that the Kingdom of God/Heaven had come to earth with him, he first left his hometown of Nazareth, and then went east, to the Sea of Galilee area where he would find his first followers/partners.

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him. (Matthew 4:18-20)

The gospel writer Luke adds that upon seeing that Peter and Andrew were having trouble catching fish, Jesus instructed them to cast their nets in a certain spot. When they did as Jesus said, the result was such a huge haul of fish that both their boat and the boat of their fishing partners, the brothers James and John, overflowed and were in danger of tipping over. At that, Peter recognized, that with Jesus, he was in the presence of someone very special, maybe even divine.

“Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8)

Jesus responded:

“Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” (Luke 5:10)

Those two sets of brothers, Simon Peter and Andrew, and James and John, immediately dropped everything, including their identities as fishers of fish, to follow Jesus and become “fishers of men”, of people. They would become his disciples, a disciple being a world for someone who followed his or her leader around, learning from their teacher. Now, quite a while later, Jesus wanted to know how his disciples were doing in this whole enterprise of learning about him and understanding what he was teaching and so he asked them all, “who do people say that I am?” Some said one thing, others said another, but none of their answers had it right, and so Jesus turned to Peter and asked him point blank what his answer would be.

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:13-19)

Peter, again, would have a new identity. Not Simon, the person he was born as, but Peter, a word which means, “a rock”. On an aside, the whole silly myth of Peter greeting people at the pearly gates of heaven upon their deaths and him deciding whether or not that person will be allowed into heaven is based upon this passage and a poor understanding of Jesus’ words to Peter about giving him “the keys to the kingdom of heaven”. In that wider context, Jesus was speaking to the plural “you”, to all the apostles. In any case, returning to today’s sermon and topic, Peter is to be admired in that he gave up everything to follow Jesus. By contrast, on another occasion, a rich, young ruler asked Jesus how to get to heaven. When Jesus responded with, “keep the commandments”, the rich, young ruler bragged that he had kept all of God’s commands. Jesus was not impressed and probably because he didn’t believe that the rich, young ruler had never sinned, particularly in the areas of coveting or greed,

Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again, I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. (Matthew 19:21-30)

Now, I don’t want to today go down rabbit-holes digging up information about those two very famous statements by Jesus about it being “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God”, and that “with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible”. I don’t want to go there today because they will overshadow what we want to focus on today, the benefits of following Jesus. Peter had complained, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” Jesus responded that Peter would gain a hundred times more valuable things on this earth, than what he had given up – as well as eternal life – as a result of giving up everything in following him. Peter’s new identity as a “fisher of people”, as well as a “rock” would gain him many benefits and riches. Ironically, when Jesus told them that he himself was going to give up everything and go to Jerusalem where he would be put to death by the authorities there, Peter argued with him that he would not allow such a terrible thing to happen, and boasting that he would not allow that to happen to Jesus. Then, later, at the Last Supper, on the night before Jesus was put to death, Peter was disgusted with Judas Iscariot when Jesus identified the one who had dipped his hand with his into the bowl would be the one who would betray Jesus. It was Judas Iscariot who had been that person, and he had left to go and do that deed. Peter was disgusted with Judas Iscariot but Jesus cautioned him to not be too sure of his own heart and righteousness:

“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of 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.” (L. 22:31-34)

Now, after Jesus was arrested, Peter went to the courtyard of the high priest’s house, to a spot from where he could see and hear what was happening at the trial of Jesus and, sure enough, while there, he was twice identified as being a follower of Jesus. Both times Peter had vehemently denied it, because he was afraid that, being identified as one of Jesus’ disciples, he might also be arrested and face a trial and a cross. He was sweating bullets and was on edge, only to have this happen:

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. (Luke 22:59-62)

This is one of the most heart-wrenching moments in human history! Can you imagine the agonizing shame and fear Peter felt when Jesus looked him in the eye after he had denied him for the third time, just as Jesus had predicted? After Jesus was crucified, Peter, still ashamed and afraid, hid with the other apostles, for fear of the authorities. Time must have gone by so slowly for them, but then, Sunday morning came and Mary Magdalene and some of the other female followers of Jesus went to his tomb but, upon arrival, they saw that the huge round stone shutting the tomb had been rolled away and an angel standing outside the tomb. The angel spoke to the women.

“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” (Mark 16:6,7)

“Go, tell his disciples and Peter…” Did you hear that wording? Peter alone was singled out to hear that Jesus was alive, because the Lord wanted him to know that his failures had not resulted in Jesus’ eternal death. Jesus was alive and Peter needed to hear this amazing news because Peter was the one apostle most needing restoration by Jesus. The angel then said for the disciples to go to Galilee where they would meet the risen Lord. After two wondrous events in which they met the risen Lord on Easter Sunday, Resurrection Day, Peter and some of the other apostles went to Galilee, possibly to clear the cobwebs out of their brains but probably because of the angels’ words. Peter told the others, “I’m going out to fish.” They responded, “We’ll go with you.” In the meantime, the risen Lord appeared on the shore where he started a fire for cooking breakfast over. After telling the disciples where to throw their fishing nets in order to catch fish, (in a scene reminiscent of the calling of Peter scene), Jesus then told them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught and come and have breakfast.” By the way, the number of large fish they caught – 153 – is believed to be the same number of known people groups at that time, thus the catch was a symbolic statement of how many people groups those “fishers of people” were to catch – 153 – all the people on earth. In any case, we read,

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” (John 21:15)

Unfortunately, our English translations don’t do this passage justice in that the exchange between Jesus and Peter involved two Greek words for “love”. Jesus had asked Peter, “do you agape love me?”, agape being the Greek word for unconditional love, so “Peter, do you agape, unconditionally, love me more than these?” (the “these” probably referring to the other disciples) to which Peter replied, “Lord, you know that I phileo love you”, phileo being the Greek word for brotherly love, the love of a friend. “Lord, you know that I phileo love you as a friend, as a brother.” Next, Jesus questions Peter a second time but instead of asking, as he did the first, a comparative question about how much love Peter has for him in comparison for others,

Again, Jesus said, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” (John 21:16)

This was a simple declarative question: “Peter, do you agape, unconditionally, love me?” to which Peter again answered, “Lord, you know that I phileo, brotherly, love you as a friend.” Jesus tries a third time, stooping to what Peter can affirm, “Peter, do you phileo, in a brotherly love sense, love me?”

The third time he said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!” (John 21:17-19)

Now, did you notice how Jesus addressed Peter each of those three times? Not as Peter, the rock, but as Simon, the son of Jonah, his earthly name, the one he was born with. Being renamed, “Peter, a rock” by Jesus, Peter must have been shattered that Jesus was now referring to him as, “Simon”, the name he had before he was called into leadership by Jesus. That must have hurt Peter, but you see, Peter loved Jesus as a brother, however Jesus knew that a time was coming when such a love would not be enough for who is willing to die for a friend? Jesus knew that Peter would die as a martyr for Jesus, and here he told him that would happen, but in order for Peter to be a threat enough to the authorities that they would put him to death for witnessing for Jesus, Peter’s love for Jesus would have to transform from that of a love for a brother to that which was unconditional, never-ending, sacrificial, a love that only agape, unconditional, love could accomplish. Jesus then told Peter to look after, take care, and feed his flock. Jesus believed in him, after all! Peter’s new identity as a leader of Jesus’ flock, as one who would feed and take care of Jesus’ sheep, would mean death. Peter did die a martyr, crucified upside down at his own request because he felt he was not worthy to die in the same, standing upright manner as his Lord.

In Rome is a church building, The Basilica Cathedral of Peter and Paul, built over the traditional burial spots of Peter and Paul. When Karen and I went there with Naadu Ofosu’s father, Ernst, we stood outside the bronze doors on which are depicted Peter being crucified upside down and Paul being beheaded, and we wept. So great was their agape, unconditional, love for Jesus that they were willing to put their lives on the line as witnesses for him. As Graeme Rattray so powerfully put it last Sunday, the thing about martyrs dying for Jesus is that they are martyrs already, before they physically die, having had their old way of thinking and living die, when they were dying to self but gaining a new life through their faith in Jesus. Going on with Peter’s story, now, and having been restored by Jesus, Peter and the others would then spend time with their resurrected Lord before Jesus’ ascension into heaven. But that time of precious reunion would have to come to an end and Jesus would need to go back to heaven and pass on to his followers the task of taking the Gospel message of the Kingdom of God/heaven on earth through Jesus. Here were Jesus’ last words to his followers:

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8).

After the Holy Spirit came upon the believers on Pentecost Sunday, the church grew by thousands in Jerusalem. Those were heady days for the early church, but the early Christians seem to have forgotten the second part of Jesus’ command where he told them to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. True, their witnessing would start in Jerusalem, but Jesus told them that he wanted them to next take the Gospel message to Judea, the Roman province in which Jerusalem was located, and on to Samaria, the province beside Judea, and then to the ends of the earth. But things were comfortable and exciting for Peter and the other Christians in Jerusalem and they seemed to have forgotten about going to the ends of the earth as witnesses for Jesus. What changed their comfortable living was persecution.

Listen, none of us want persecution but good can come of it. The fact that any of us is here today, as believers, is due to the persecution that broke out against the early Christians in Jerusalem. What happened was that a young man and church deacon named Stephen had been arrested for witnessing and in his trial before the High Priest and the other members of the Jewish priestly ruling council, the Sanhedrin, he looked up to heaven and told the priests that he saw Jesus standing in heaven at the right hand of God and he called Jesus “the Son of Man”, the prophet Daniel’s term which was reserved only for the Messiah. The “Son of Man” was the term Jesus always referred to himself in the third person as being. This identification of Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah horrified the Sanhedrin priests:

At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul approved of their killing him. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. (Acts 7:57-8:1)

Beginning with Stephen who so infuriated them, the Sanhedrin – and a man named Saul, who would later convert to Christianity and become known as Paul – were determined to wipe out Christians, and thus a great persecution of the Christians in Jerusalem began. Thousands of Christians fled the city. Where did they go to? Judea and Samaria, the exact places Jesus had said to take the Gospel message to. Interestingly, we read that the only Christians who didn’t leave Jerusalem were the apostles, including Peter, but that would be because the Lord wasn’t finished dealing with their hard-hearted attitudes. You see, they didn’t want to take the Gospel message throughout the world because it would mean interacting with Gentiles, people who those apostles believed were unworthy of salvation because they were uncircumcised and unclean in the foods they ate. They didn’t follow Jewish laws and thus were unredeemable, in the eyes of the apostles. So, the Lord shook that thinking out of them by arranging for a Gentile, a Roman army leader named Cornelius, a man living in the Mediterranean Sea coastal city of Caesarea, to have Peter come to his house to tell him and his household about Jesus. Peter didn’t want to do that so Jesus gave him a vision about “unclean” animals being lowered down from heaven on a sheet, mixed in with “clean” animals” and Peter got the message that no person was unacceptable to Him. So, Peter reluctantly went to Cornelius’ house. There, he was amazed to see that Gentile Cornelius and his entire household profess faith in Jesus. Observing what was happening,

Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears Him and does what is right.” (Acts 10:34,35)

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So, he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. (Acts 10:44-48a)

Peter then returned to Jerusalem but, once there, he had to explain his actions to the other apostles, who were appalled that Peter had taken the Gospel message to “uncircumcised, unclean Gentiles”. But Peter convinced them that witnessing to Gentiles is what Jesus wanted, and they soon realized the truth of that and that they needed to send evangelists to the Gentile world. However, before the apostles sent anyone anywhere, the persecuted, non-apostolic Christians who had fled from Jerusalem, were beating them to the punch.

Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. (Acts 11:19-21)

So, the Gospel message was already spreading, not because the apostles were spreading it, but because of the witnessing of the non-apostolic but persecuted Christians who took the message of Jesus with then throughout the Mediterranean Sea world. We read, that one day, in the church in Antioch, in northern Syria, that with those Christians an amazing thing happened. The 12 were still ensconced in Jerusalem but the Lord had raised up other men to be apostles, specifically Saul/Paul and Barnabas,

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So, after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus. (Acts 13:2-4)

Thus, Cyprus was the first evangelistic stop for the apostles Paul and Barnabas with Asia Minor (today’s Turkey) being next.

From Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, where John left them to return to Jerusalem. From Perga they went on to Pisidian Antioch. (Acts 13:13,14a)

Now, turning to the letters of Peter that we have begun preaching through, who was it that Peter wrote his two letters to? His letters were to those Christians of Asia Minor, Turkey, those same people whom Paul and Barnabas had taken the Gospel to, believers scattered because of persecution throughout the five political Roman provinces of Asia Minor. At some point, Peter got with the programme and travelled outside of Jerusalem, ending up in Asia Minor. There, he was following up on Paul and Barnabas’ earlier evangelistic and missionary work. We need to know that thought they fled persecution in Jerusalem, persecution still followed them. It wasn’t an easy time for those Christians – I will show you some caves next week that they lived and hid in. Persecution and suffering were a daily part of their existence. And so, Peter, who by now, was really not Simon son of Jonah, but Peter the rock wrote to encourage them and to remind them that if they were to survive the persecution and suffering they were going through, they would have to affirm their identity in Christ.

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia. (1 Peter 1:1)

Peter knew that if those Chrisitians in Asia Minor were to survive they would need to do as he did: embrace their identities as Christians, and then mature and grow in their faith. Now, by the time of his writing, Peter had been a follower of Jesus for about 30 years and he had changed from being a person who merely loved Jesus as a brother into a leader who unconditionally loved Jesus. Peter’s failures as a Christ-follower didn’t cancel his identity in Christ but served to make him more determined to be faithful to his Lord. We need to not give up on young Christians who make mistakes or who fail or deny the Lord. Peter knew that once a decision to follow Jesus has been made, a new identity is established but for followers of Jesus to be his image-bearers, it takes determination and a desire for maturity and growth.

Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. (1 Peter 1:22)

Peter instructed them, and us, to love one another with phileo, brotherly, love, but to do so deeply, with agape, unconditional, love. Both Greek terms for love are used in that passage.

For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For, “All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” And this is the word that was preached to you. Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 1:23 -2:3)

So, how are we to live then? By embracing our identity as Christ-followers, by laying aside sinful practices as Peter said, by longing to be fed by God’s Word as Peter wrote, by intentionally growing ourselves spiritually through what we feed our minds, souls, and thoughts as Peter instructed. Then we will taste and see that the Lord is good. When we do that, no persecution or suffering can destroy or stop us. Peter’s life is our example. More on this next week. Amen.

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