If it were possible to ask Peter what he considered to be his ‘finest hour’, I rather think that he would recall that unforgettable experience ‘in the holy mount’, concerning which he would later write, we ‘were eyewitnesses of his majesty’. The scene was still fresh in his memory some thirty years later, the voice ‘from the excellent glory’ still rang in his ears as he wrote, ‘we were with him’; the emphasis being on ‘him’ rather than ‘we’.
The Apostle Peter has now, of course, been ‘with him’, enjoying His presence for the best part of 2000 years. Yet the Spirit of God has given to us an account in the New Testament writings which enables us to benefit from the life and experiences of Simon the son of Jona, the fisherman from Galilee, who became Peter the disciple and apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
The disciples of the Lord Jesus provide us with a very rewarding study. We love to trace the devotion of John, the zeal of Andrew, the hesitant honesty of Philip and the unquestioning obedience of Matthew. But there is something which draws us irresistibly to Peter. Maybe we can more readily identify with the mountains and valleys which marked his path. The roller-coaster experience so familiar to many believers, who know the exhilaration of a victory, only to succumb to defeat and despair before the sun has set.
The scriptures record for us more detail of Peter’s character and experiences than most others in the New Testament. We know that he grew up in Bethsaida, he was married and had a house in Capernaum (the guide will still take the credulous tourist to it today!). His given name was Simon, his father was called Jona and he was a fisherman, in partnership with his brother Andrew and the sons of Zebedee, James and John. We can glean from the Gospel records that he was brave, impulsive, outspoken and a natural leader. Peter could walk tall in his native Galilee, but felt uncomfortable and even intimidated among the religious men, the scholars and lawyers in Jerusalem.
The Gospel writers are faithful in their presentation of individuals, whether virtuous or otherwise. Inspired by the Spirit of God, they record historical events, precisely, accurately and without embellishment; yet the Gospels are not just a tedious textbook. The personalities come alive, they have feelings, show emotion, take on character and draw the reader into their lives and experiences.
Simon Peter is an excellent example. It does not require a particularly fertile imagination to have a picture in our minds of Peter. We envisage a man, a little older than his immediate contemporaries, with weather-beaten bearded face, open and honest, broad of shoulder and demonstrably strong. A man who would not lightly take a backward step, a loyal friend, but a potent adversary. Little did Peter know on that day when the Man from Nazareth simply said, ‘follow me’, that all his natural abilities and instincts were to be put to the test in the years that followed. The synoptic writers are clear in their presentation, that Peter, together with others, left the boats and nets that represented their lives hitherto; the proving time had begun, and it would be costly! It would seem, however, that Peter did not sell his boat, that would be used by the Master on a number of occasions. Did he also continue to carry his serviceable fisherman’s blade? – one never knew when that might be useful!
Peter’s, or Simon’s first meeting with the Lord Jesus is recorded in John chapter 1. His brother Andrew had been attracted by the preaching of John the Baptist, but John had directed his followers’ attention to a young man called Jesus, from neighbouring Nazareth, whom John declared to be ‘the Lamb of God’. It was to this One that Andrew introduced his brother. It was a brief encounter, and may have left Peter rather puzzled, with his new identity – a stone. Later, he would write of a ‘spiritual house’ made of ‘living stones’ and of the One whom he came to know as both the foundation and the ‘chief corner stone’. It would all fall into place for Peter at the appropriate time.
Peter received three commissions from the Lord Jesus, apart from those which were directed to all the disciples. The first is recorded in Matthew chapter 4, Mark chapter 1 and, with certain other detail, in Luke chapter 5. It was the challenging call, ‘Follow me’. If this was the Lord’s first instruction to Peter, then the last is found in John chapter 21 when he questioned the Lord’s plans for John. The answer came direct to Peter’s heart, ‘what is that to thee? Follow thou me’. The intervening years had not changed the instruction to Peter, and for ourselves, whether we are on the path for a few years or many, the directive to us does not vary, as we still hear Him say, ‘Follow me’.
Peter’s second personal commission is found in Luke chapter 22, verse 32. Luke’s detail of events in the upper room takes on a different order from that of the other Gospel writers, in keeping with his overall presentation of the Lord Jesus. With omniscient perception the Lord made known to Peter that he would shortly experience the winnowing of Satan’s sieve. Yet, through the Lord’s prayers for him, he would be restored and was commissioned to use the experience to be a strength and support to his brethren in similar circumstances.
The third charge to Peter was given in that early morning encounter, recorded only by John at the end of his Gospel. The risen Lord had already met with Peter privately; Luke says He ‘appeared to Simon’, 24. 34; Paul recalls, ‘he was seen of Cephas’, 1 Cor. 15. 5. But John records the public restoration of Peter in view of his threefold denial. Having drawn from Peter the affirmation of his affection, the Lord gave him the task of tending and feeding His sheep and lambs.
When Peter came to write his Epistles, we see just how faithfully he carried out these responsibilities to scattered, persecuted believers. He encouraged them to follow, 1 Pet. 2. 21, and his purpose throughout was to strengthen their faith and provide food for the flock.
We have already noted that Peter had undoubted leadership qualities; he is always the first mentioned in the lists of the twelve disciples. In Matthew’s Gospel, of those who followed the Lord only Peter is heard to speak, apart from the traitor Judas. Yet, those occasions when Peter does speak provide us with further insight to his character, and also some of his finest moments. In chapter 14, lately come from seeing the multitude fed by the Master’s hands with seemingly meagre fare, the disciples, following the Lord’s instructions, were in ‘the midst of the sea’, but, ‘tossed with waves’. To add to their fear, a form, spirit-like to their troubled minds, drew near, ‘walking on the sea’. Above the tempest the familiar voice was heard, ‘it is I; be not afraid’. It was Peter who responded. We know the story well, the invitation given, the remarkable step of faith and outstanding bravery, the boisterous wind, the cry for help, the outstretched hand of salvation; that was a fine moment in Peter’s experience.
Matthew chapter 15 commences with one of those occasions when the Lord’s censure of the Pharisees developed into teaching which the disciples struggled to grasp. In verse 15, it is Peter who ventured to ask the meaning. The Lord, with patient sympathy, responded, ‘Are ye also yet without understanding?’ It would be reasonable to suggest that the fishermen of Galilee were not known for their academic prowess. However, the time would come when, arraigned before the religious hierarchy in Jerusalem, Peter and John, though reckoned to be ‘unlearned and ignorant men’, confounded their accusers, who marvelled and, ‘took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus’, Acts 4. 13. Peter would have considered that a fine moment!
Once again, in chapter 16, the Lord reveals their lack of understanding and graciously explains to them the lessons set forth in His teaching. Luke will tell us that it was about this time that the Lord turned His face towards Jerusalem and, with the work of the cross before Him, He asked His disciples, ‘Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?’ Opinions among the people varied and each suggested name had some merit. But when the challenge was made personal, ‘Whom say ye that I am?’, again it is Peter who steps forward with an answer that could only have been revealed from above. ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God’, a fine response, a truly fine moment! In view of such a clear confession of faith, the Lord reveals His purpose, ‘I will build my church’, with Himself the foundation against which the powers of darkness will ultimately fall.
Before the chapter closes, however, Peter challenges the Lord’s words that He must ‘suffer many things … and be killed’. The Lord’s rebuke was not forgotten by Peter as he later writes his first Epistle. One leading subject, mentioned in each chapter is, ‘the sufferings of Christ’.
Peter learned much in the school of God. He learned there was One who can meet present need, as he took the coin for the tribute money from the mouth of the fish. He learned the dangers of self-confidence, as in Matthew chapter 26 he stated his willingness to die with the Lord, rather than deny Him! Peter, with others, learned how frail we are, even when our intentions are good, as he slept on the mount of transfiguration, Luke 9. 32, and in Gethsemane, Matt. 26. 40.
Matthew, in his Gospel, leaves Peter weeping bitterly outside the high priest’s palace without further mention. Other writers take us further and tell us of the resurrection morning, Peter’s entry into the vacant tomb and the events which followed, culminating in the Lord’s ascension and the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost.
My personal choice of Peter’s finest hour is recorded in Acts chapter 2, verses 14 to 40. Now endowed with the Spirit, no longer struggling to decipher the Lord’s teaching and speaking out of turn, but standing boldly, drawing on Old Testament prophecy and speaking of the ‘man approved of God’ whom ‘ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain’. Certainly, one of the most challenging gospel messages ever delivered – and the result? Three thousand saved, a fine hour certainly, but Peter would, without doubt, give God all the glory.