Monday, March 22, 2010

A Man Called Peter (1 Peter 1:1a)

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I remember a conversation soon after I entered the ministry with an older Christian who told me that I simply must see the film entitled, “A Man Called Peter.” He said that as a young preacher, I could learn a lot from that movie. He didn’t bother to tell me that the man called Peter was not the apostle but rather Peter Marshall, one time pastor of the historic New York Avenue Presbyterian Church and chaplain of the United States Senate. So, when the opportunity came for me to see the film, I was a bit disappointed. I was expecting the story of a first-century Galilean fisherman, and found instead the story of a Scotch Presbyterian who influenced the halls of American political power in the middle of the 20th Century. And though certainly, preachers and Christians can learn much from the story of Peter Marshall, there is another man called Peter from whom we stand to learn much more. It is this Peter who puts pen to paper to record for all generations the divinely inspired truths we will explore in coming weeks and months as we dive into the first epistle that bears his name. He identifies himself in the opening words as “an apostle of Jesus Christ.” By the gracious will of God and the work of Christ and His Spirit, this man called Peter became the most prominent character of the New Testament period aside from the Lord Jesus Himself. His name occurs in the Gospels more often than any other name except Jesus. No one aside from Jesus speaks as often in the gospels, and no one is spoken to by Jesus more than Peter.

While we most commonly refer to him as Peter, others in the New Testament will refer to him as Simon (his birth-name, making him 1 of at least 9 Simons in the NT), Cephas (the Aramaic equivalent to Peter), and Simon Peter. People have characterized him as a quick-tempered man, impulsive, eager, aggressive, bold, and outspoken. MacArthur says of him that he had a “habit of revving his mouth while his brain was in neutral,” and therefore calls him “the apostle with the foot-shaped mouth.” Others have been more generous in assessing Peter. G. Campbell Morgan writes, “I never come to the study of this man without being reminded of something which Henry Drummond said concerning D. L. Moody, namely, that he was the greatest human that he had ever met. This characterization seems to me to apply to Peter.” As in most cases, the truth is somewhere in between these perspectives. I find in Peter a man who is unashamedly real. I don’t mean “real” as opposed to imaginary, but real, as in authentic and genuine, transparent, and thoroughly human. Scripture tells us about his highs and his lows. Few people were used so greatly by God, few people failed the Lord as terribly as Peter. And this is of great encouragement to us. We have a tendency to elevate the apostles to a super-spiritual status, but this would only indicate that we have not studied our Bibles very well. These are real men with real struggles, and Peter is perhaps the most real of them all as we come to know him in Scripture. So today, as we begin to walk through 1 Peter, I want to begin by introducing you to the man who wrote it. I think you will find, as a result, that he is no so much different from you and me.

I. How Peter Met the Master

Here is what we know about Peter’s life before he met Jesus. He had a brother named Andrew, and their father’s name was John or Jonah. They were fishermen. Originally Peter was from the small village of Bethsaida but had moved at some point to Capernaum. We know that he was married, but we do not know if he had children. We also know that his mother-in-law lived at least some of the time with him in Capernaum. Aside from this, we know nothing more about his life before he met Jesus. We know a great deal about Peter compared to other apostles, but almost everything we know about him comes from the time after he came to know Jesus. I wonder, do the people who know us know more about who we were before we became Christians, or do they know more about who we are in our relationship to Jesus? Peter is an example of how we ought to see and be seen by others – our primary identity consists of our relationship to Christ. So, how did Peter come to know Jesus? Compared to some biblical stories, his story may seem rather pedestrian. There was no blinding light on the Damascus Road like with Paul, no burning bush like with Moses. In fact, Peter came to know Jesus very much like most of us did.

Peter’s introduction to Jesus involved the human agency of personal evangelism. Someone introduced him to Jesus. In Peter’s case, that someone was his brother Andrew. John 1:35-42 tells us that Andrew met Jesus through John the Baptist, and soon he went to his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah!” The Bible says that Andrew “brought him to Jesus.” I would imagine that all of us could reflect back and identify the one person who first brought us to Jesus, that person who came to us and told us about the faith they had found in the Messiah. Do you remember who that person was? … And all of us know people who don’t know Jesus. How are they going to find Him? The same way we did, and the same way Peter did. Someone is going to have to tell them and bring them to Him. So why not you? Why is anyone else in the world better qualified than you are to be that person? We all know how difficult it can be to talk to our family members and closest friends about our relationship with the Lord – but aren’t you glad Andrew didn’t say, “I’d like to talk to Simon about Jesus, but you know, it’s just so hard because he’s family.” Who’s to say? Could it be that your brother, your parent, your child, your grandchild, your friend may be the next person God intends to use in great ways like he used Peter? So, perhaps He will use us like He used Andrew, to be that person who will bring the good news of Jesus to them.

Peter’s introduction to Jesus involved the human act of one person sharing his faith in Jesus with another. But it was not merely a human transaction. It never is. Spiritual conversion is never exclusively about one person talking someone else into believing something. There is a divine agency involved. A transformation of the heart must take place, and only God Himself can do that. He certainly uses the words we speak, but ultimately, God calls, God reveals, and God transforms. We see that in Peter’s case. Some time after this initial meeting, Jesus was walking along the shores of Galilee and saw Simon and Andrew fishing. The story is recorded in Matthew 4:18-20. Jesus called out to them and said, “Come, follow Me.” And they did. It was His initiative to draw them into a relationship with Himself. He was inviting them to know Him personally. And over the next three years, He would spend nearly every waking moment of life with them and the others He called. They would hear Him speak and see Him perform miracles as God made Himself known to them in the person of Jesus.

And then came that great day recorded for us in Matthew 16 when Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” It was Peter who spoke up to say, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus said, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona (meaning “Son of John”), because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” Saving faith is the result of God doing a work in human hearts to reveal Himself in Jesus and drawing that person by the power of His Spirit to make a confession of personal faith and trust in Him. This was no random decision Peter had made. As we hear about Christ and see the work He is doing in and around our lives and the lives of others, God is making Himself known to us and bringing us to the point of belief where we will be saved in relationship to Jesus. This happened for Peter as He confessed Jesus to be the Christ at Caesarea. It happened for us the moment we realized who Jesus is and that we would be utterly and hopelessly lost without Him, and then placed our faith in Him to save us. It will happen for others as we tell them about who Jesus is and what He has done for them. They will become aware of how Christ is working in our lives and theirs and in the circumstances around them to bring them to that point as well.

When Peter first met Jesus, the Lord told him, “You are Simon the son of John; you shall be called Cephas (which is translated Peter).” Jesus was pointing him forward to the day when he would become something more than what he was at that moment. He would become a rock, which is what the names Cephas and Peter mean. And when Peter finally confessed Christ as Messiah and Lord, Jesus said to him, “I say to you that you are Peter.” Now he had become what Christ had called him to be – a rock. And Jesus said to him, “upon this rock I will build my church.” Now this does not mean that the church is built on Peter. The church is built on Christ. But Peter was the first stone set in place in the building. And every person since Peter who has professed faith in Christ as a result of the drawing, calling, revealing, and transforming work of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit becomes a stone that Christ fits together in the building of His church. For this reason, Peter will write in 1 Peter 2:5, “You also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house.”

Peter met the Master through the human agency of his brother and the divine agency of Christ calling, revealing, and transforming him. You and I are no different. Our lost friends will be no different. As we share our faith in Christ with them, God will work in their lives, just as He did with Peter and with us.

II. How Peter Followed the Master

Jesus’ first command to Peter was “Follow Me.” And Peter followed. You and I have also been called to follow Jesus; that is what being a disciple is all about. And so we can learn a lot about following Him by looking at one of the first people who did.

Peter followed Jesus immediately. He was fishing with his brother when Jesus called him to come and follow, and Matthew 4:20 says, “Immediately they left their nets and followed Him.” We would perfectly understand if Peter had said, “Yeah, about that … listen, I’m kind of busy right now, got a job to do, but when things slack off a bit, I’ll be happy to come follow you. Leave your card on the beach and I’ll get back to you in a bit.” We would understand that because sometimes that is how we want to follow Jesus – we want to make it a matter of convenience. But following Jesus is a matter of urgency, not convenience. We don’t choose the times or circumstances, He does. And if we say that we will obey later, then we have chosen to disobey now. Some of us are perhaps waiting for a more opportune time to follow Jesus faithfully, but now is the only moment we know we have, so we need to be like Peter and put other matters aside immediately for the sake of following Christ.

Peter also followed Jesus intimately. When Jesus prayerfully chose His disciples, Mark 3:14 says that His purpose was that they might “be with Him,” and that “He might send them out to preach.” But the sending out to preach was secondary to the “being with Him.” His call to follow was a call to fellowship. Multitudes of people flocked to see and hear Jesus, but only 12 were chosen to be with Him all the time. Of those 12, it seems that 3 were a part of a special inner-circle of intimate fellowship with Him: Peter, James and John. These three were among the first to be called by Jesus and were with Him in some very significant moments. They were the only disciples present when Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead in Mark 5; when He was transfigured in the fullness of His glory in Mark 9; when He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane in Mark 14; and it was Peter and John whom Jesus sent ahead to prepare for the last Passover meal in Luke 22. These three were granted virtually unlimited access to Jesus and had opportunities to see and hear things that even the other 9 apostles didn’t. Why is this? It is not because they were greater than the others in and of themselves. It was simply a matter of Jesus’ gracious choice to have this kind of intimate fellowship with them. And He has chosen each of us to have that same kind of fellowship and access to Him. Because of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives, we have access and opportunities for intimate fellowship with Jesus at all times. So the real question for us is, “Are we making the most of those opportunities?” Are we following Him intimately? Do we make time for Christ and look for opportunities to be with Him and learn from Him?

Then we should also point out that Peter followed Jesus imperfectly. It seems in the Gospels that for every step forward he makes, he takes at least a step or more backward. And it often seems that the moments of his most significant failures come fast on the heels of his greatest successes. After confessing Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Peter heard Jesus foretell about how He would be crucified, and Peter had the audacity to rebuke Jesus! Matt 16:22 says that Peter said, “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.” And Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” He had just called him a rock a moment before, and now He calls him Satan because Peter had yet to understand the purposes of God fully. Like Satan, Peter would have Jesus avoid the cross that He came to bear for the salvation of the world. This is but one example of Peter’s imperfect following. In fact, of the apostles, none ever attempted to rebuke Jesus to His face like Peter, and none were rebuked so frequently by the Lord as Peter. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus alternately uses his names Simon and Peter to reflect Peter’s spiritual condition. When he fails the Lord, Peter calls him Simon, as if to say, “You are still acting like the man you were before I called you.” But then there are those moments of greatness when Jesus calls him Peter, as if to say, “Now you are acting like the man I called you to be.”

So Peter is much like us. At our best moments, we are still imperfect followers – sometimes tremendously spiritual, while at other times, tragically carnal. Sometimes we are strong in the Spirit, walking in the new nature Christ has given us, and sometimes looking far too much like the old person who is supposed to be dead to sin now. But thanks be to God, Jesus never gave up on Peter, and this encourages us that He will never give up on us when we falter in our following. Peter learned that in spite of his sinful tendencies and spiritual weakness, the Lord still wanted to use him and would restore and uphold him. Just like Peter, we should follow Jesus immediately, we can follow Him intimately, but we will continue to follow Him imperfectly. But the perfect grace of God will continue to rescue and restore us, even if we have to undergo a season of rebuke and painful correction.

Now we turn to that blackest spot on Peter’s record and consider …

III. How Peter Failed the Master

As Jesus gathered His disciples together for a final meal, He told them what was getting ready to happen. He reminded them that He would be handed over and taken away to be put to death, and He warned them that they would all fall away from Him on that very night. Again Peter rebuked the Lord. Matt 26:33 records that Peter said, “Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away.” But Jesus assured Peter that he would in fact deny him three times before the rooster crowed twice. And we all know what happened. Mark tells us in Ch 14 of his Gospel that Peter had followed Jesus to the hall of judgment from a safe distance, and as he observed what was going on, he was warming himself by a charcoal fire with others gathered there. The people began to question Peter about his relationship with Jesus, and Peter denied the Lord, and denied Him again, and denied Him a third time, each time more forcibly than before. And as Peter heard that rooster crow the second time, Luke 22:61 says that Jesus “turned and looked at Peter.” Looking through the mob around him, Jesus’ eyes met Peter’s, and Peter fled weeping from the scene. He had failed the Lord terribly.

Though his failure was terrible, we can give thanks to God that it wasn’t terminal. Jesus knew what Peter would do, He warned Him about it, and He even told him before it happened that He had prayed for him. In Luke 22:31-32, Jesus told Peter, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers." This was an assurance that though he would fail away temporarily, he would “turn again,” and Jesus would use him once more. I knew a Christian lady once who said to me, “I have no respect for Peter because of what he did to Jesus!” Perhaps you have been critically judgmental about Peter because of his denials too. But consider these two things: 1) Have you not failed the Lord terribly yourself? I dare say we all have, with some of us denying Him many more than three times. 2) Have you ever thought about the fact that Peter stayed with Jesus that night longer than any of the other disciples? They had all fled long before, disappearing like a vapor into the night. Peter alone had stayed with Jesus all the way to the high priest’s courtyard. And though we would not make excuses for him, we can agree with William Barclay who says of him, “Peter’s failure was the kind of failure that could have happened only to a brave man. He alone was in a position to fail; the others had fled long ago.” And in the same situation, there would be precious few of us with enough courage to stand as long as Peter did!

On the Sunday morning following Jesus’ death, some women had come to the tomb to anoint His body, and they were met by an angelic messenger who reported to them that Jesus had risen from the dead! And the messenger tells them in Mark 16:7, “Go, tell His disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you.'” Did you notice that? “His disciples AND PETER!” Jesus had a special message for Peter. He wasn’t finished with him yet. And as Peter and some of the others were out fishing on the Sea of Galilee early one morning, they heard the risen Jesus calling them from the shore. Peter was the first to jump out of the boat and splash through the water to meet Him. In those tender moments recorded for us in John 21, Peter found Jesus cooking fish on “a charcoal fire.” Why that detail? Why “a charcoal fire”? There is only one other time in the NT where this word is used. It is the same kind of fire that Peter was warming himself by when he denied the Lord. Now Jesus confronts him about his denials and says, “Simon, son of John (using his old name), do you love Me more than these?” What did He mean, “more than these?” Remember that when Jesus told the disciples that they would all fall away, Peter brashly asserted, “Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away.” I think Jesus was saying to Peter, “Well, now, its all been done, and can you still say that your love for Me is greater than any of the other disciples?” And Peter’s response is, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” But he no longer suggests that his love is greater than the others. Three times the Lord asks Peter if he loves Him. Three times, Peter affirms that he does. Three times Jesus recommissions Peter to serve Him. Once for each time Peter denied Christ. His failure was terrible, but it wasn’t terminal. In grace, in mercy, and in love, Jesus restored Peter to his place of service in the Kingdom. And from that day forward, Peter served the Lord faithfully. Have you failed the Lord? It might have been terrible, but it doesn’t have to be terminal. You can turn again, and Christ will receive you in His grace, restore you, and recommission you to serve Him. If He did it for Peter, you have no reason to doubt that He will do it for you.

And that brings us to the final point.

IV. How Peter Served the Master

From the time of his recommission, Peter stands out as a remarkable servant of Christ. The remainder of the NT shows us that he was a great leader among the earliest generation of Christians in the ancient church. We find him serving the Master with an open mouth. No longer the timid denier of Christ, Peter is transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit into the boldest preacher of the church. In Acts 2, when the Spirit came on the Day of Pentecost, it was Peter who rose to speak to the crowd, and 3,000 were saved. He preaches again at the Jerusalem Temple in Acts 3 and Acts 9 tells us that he ministered far and wide throughout the region. Peter had apparently learned to make the most of every opportunity to serve the Lord with his mouth open for the cause of the gospel.

We see him serving the Master with a courageous heart. Every time he preached in Jerusalem, he had to know that in the crowds of people were many who had cried out for the crucifixion of Jesus. In the middle of his sermon in Acts 3, he was interrupted by the temple guard and Sadducees who imprisoned him along with John. When they commanded the apostles to speak no longer in the name of Jesus, Peter replied in Acts 4:19-20, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” And after receiving more threats and being released, Peter and the others prayed that the Lord would give them even more boldness to speak for Christ. After being arrested once more in Acts 5 for preaching, he and the others were miraculously released from their captivity and returned to preaching yet again. When they were confronted, Peter said defiantly in Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men.” Courageously, he defied social customs to enter the home of the Gentile Cornelius in Acts 10 and share the Gospel with him and his family. Though Paul would come to be known as the Apostle to the Gentiles, it was Peter who first took the Gospel to the Gentiles as he preached to the household of Cornelius. This paved the way for the church to take the mission of Christ beyond the bounds of Israel to Gentiles all over the world. Following the martyrdom of the Apostle James in Acts 12, Peter was imprisoned once more, this time knowing that he would have faced his own death, had it not been for another miraculous jail break. And then he departed, Acts 12:17 says, and went to “another place.” But he didn’t stop serving Christ courageously. We know, for instance, from 1 Corinthians that he had likely traveled through and perhaps ministered for a while in the wicked city of Corinth. And there is good reason to believe that he was among the first to take the Gospel to the pagan imperial capital city of Rome where legendary accounts demonstrate him serving boldly there in the face of much opposition.

And yet, Peter had the rare ability to combine the prophetic boldness we see in those scenes with a pastoral tenderness that is so necessary in service to Christ’s church. We see it most clearly in the two epistles that bear his name. Addressed to those whom he had perhaps pastored in Rome before they were exiled to Asia Minor under the emperor Claudius, First Peter is called by one NT scholar describes as a “model of a pastoral letter.” He comes along side of his friends in that letter comforting them in the midst of their suffering. He is shepherding the sheep against the attacks of lions from the outside. But in the second letter, he shepherds them against the attacks of wolves on the inside, false teachers who had arisen within the church proclaiming heresy. And Peter, who calls himself in 1 Peter 5 a “fellow elder,” a NT term for a pastor, knows that both of these dangers are destructive. So he does what all great pastors should do by encouraging the believers to be on alert against the attacks that face the church from the outside and inside.

Then finally, we see how Peter served the Lord with persevering faith. In John 21:18, after restoring Peter to right fellowship, Jesus says to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go.” John had the luxury of looking back on that statement many years later and realizing that Jesus was talking about his death. He writes in John 21:19, “Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, ‘Follow Me!’” And Peter would follow Jesus in faithful perseverance all the way to his death. The Bible doesn’t record it, but the tradition is virtually uncontested which says that Peter was apprehended by Roman authorities sometime in the 60s AD and put to death under the hand of the maniacal emperor Nero. A lesser known tradition states that Peter was forced to watch his wife put to death first, and that as she died, Peter cried out to her, “Remember the Lord.” Days later, Peter would be crucified like Jesus was. The exception is, according to legend that Peter requested to be crucified upside down, for he felt unworthy to die like Jesus did. He was faithful to the end, following Jesus through much hardship until death brought him together face-to-face with the Lord once more. He had travelled a rough road full of spiritual ups and downs, but he finished well for Christ.

Like Peter, we know that death is coming for us as well. How will we finish? And what will we do with the days we have left? Peter lived out his days in service to the Master, proclaiming the gospel with courage and boldness, serving God’s people in the church, and overcoming all obstacles by his persevering faith. We could never hope to improve on that. The epitaph on Peter’s life is his final words recorded in Scripture: 2 Peter 3:18 “Grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.” That’s what Simon Peter did, and it is what each of us should do as well … spend the rest of our days growing in our relationship with Jesus and bringing glory to Him.

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