We’re starting a sub-series within our study of the Gospel of Mark where we are going to look a little more closely at the lives of the Apostles. As we go through these mini-biographies that I want you to do a few things:
First, I want you to find yourself in this group. Without a doubt one of the Apostles’ personalities will jump out at you and you’ll be able to see yourself in them. Look for the ones who were tempted like you are tempted, have the same weaknesses and strengths as you, and see what meeting Jesus and following Him did for them.
Second, I want you to notice how different these people are and embrace the understanding that God calls lots of kinds of people into His kingdom. The differences between you and the believers around you are created by God Himself, and it is through those differences that He can be most glorified by His Church.
Third, I want you to be thankful that you have been chosen by God, just as Jesus chose the disciples, and that you have a divine purpose for your life. You may stumble and fall, but God’s grace is always available to you and once you accept that grace and begin to walk in faith, you can discover that divine purpose.
Full disclosure: I was powerfully impacted and inspired by this sermon by J.D. Jones when writing this. You can read it here on Google Books.
Peter is not the First Pope
Let’s begin with the first name in the list, Simon Peter. In Mark 3:16 it says Jesus “appointed the twelve” and then begins the list of who the 12 Apostles are. Each of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) there is a list of Apostles and Peter is always first, and Judas is always last. In each list it says that his name was “Simon” and then follows it by telling us that Jesus renamed him Peter.
We’ll get into the name change a little later, but I want to park here for a moment to mention that without question, Peter was the leader of the apostles – but he wasn’t the first pope.
The Catholic Church holds that Jesus made Peter the head of the Apostles, but there’s nowhere in scripture that He does that. Matthew 16:16-20 is one of the most controversially debated passages in all of scripture.
Jesus says to His disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” and after some speculation Jesus says to them, “Who do you say that I am?”. Simon Peter replies, “You are the Christ the Son of the living God.” Jesus then says to Peter,
“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
The Catholic Church uses that scripture to say that Peter was the first Pope and that in this passage Jesus was placing Peter above the rest of the Apostles. But this is a misinterpretation because Jesus wasn’t making Peter the foundation of the church, but his confession that Jesus was the Christ. Jesus was saying that He Himself, and the pronouncement of Himself as the Son of God would be what the church was founded on.
Peter wasn’t given greater authority than the other Apostles. In fact, Paul corrects him publically in Galatians 2. He isn’t presented as the sole foundation of the church either. In Ephesians 2:20 it says that the foundations of the church is the “apostles and prophets”. It also didn’t mean that Peter would be infallible in his teaching, as the Catholic Church teaches the Pope is, because only a few verses later Jesus says that Peter is speaking the words of Satan! (vs 23). There was certainly no mention of a special office given to Peter and his successors. In Acts 15 Peter is presented as a powerful voice in the church, but is only one of many, and it seems that James, the brother of Jesus, was the leader of the church in Jerusalem.
So, Peter wasn’t the first pope.
A Man of Contrasts
That being said, however, Simon Peter did seem to rise above the rest of the apostles. He’s always mentioned first, he speaks the most of all the apostles, and Jesus speaks more to Simon Peter than any other apostle. We don’t know much about some of the other Apostles, but we know a lot about Peter because of his prominence in the church. It isn’t until Acts 8 when the Apostle Paul shows up on the scene that Peter starts to fade into the background.
Peter’s primacy, his leadership of the Apostles, wasn’t something that was conferred to him by Jesus – but it was a gift from God. His position wasn’t given to him, it was something that he earned because of his God given character. He was a forceful guy, driven by his passions, and deeply in love with Jesus. One word that kept coming up in my study was the word “unpredictable”, and he certainly was!
I’m convinced that of all the apostles, except maybe John, Simon Peter loved Jesus the most, but he was a man of incredible contrasts. In one moment he would be at the heights of spiritual revelation and understanding, and in the next moment would be completely misunderstanding what was going on.
Consider some of these stories from the life of Simon Peter that show his contrasting character:
The Miraculous Catch (Luke 5:1-11)
When Jesus first calls Simon to be his disciple – not an apostle, but right at the beginning when Simon didn’t know Jesus at all yet – he comes up to a fishing boat with Peter, James and John in it. They haven’t caught anything all night and were washing their nets, and Jesus… the wandering teacher who is trained as a carpenter… zeroes in on Simon and says, “Go fishing again, right now, and you’ll catch lots.”
Here we see some contrast. Simon, with respect, though probably with a bit of an eye-roll says, “We, the professionals, worked all night and didn’t catch any fish.” Many people would have stopped there, but Simon says:
“But at your word, I will let down the nets.”
He sets out and gets so much fish his nets start to tear and break.
But what I want to point out here is something else. Simon is the only one who sees something deeper. Let me read what it says in verses 7-11,
“And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’ For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.’ And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.”
Everyone sees the miracle, everyone is astonished, but it is Simon that has the deepest experience with Christ. He doesn’t just see fish, he sees his own sin and gets a new sense of who Jesus really is. He has an Isaiah (6:5) like experience, realizing He’s standing before God and that He’s not worthy to be there. He goes from calling him “Master” to “Lord.” And though James and John also go with, it is to Simon that Jesus speaks.
The Words of Eternal Life (John 6)
Remember the time when Jesus had just given some very hard teaching to a group of people. He had built a large following, but there were many in the group who were not believers, but were merely tagging along to witness miracles and in hope that they would gain some power if Jesus decided to rebel against Rome. In short order Jesus clears out the riff-raff by revealing some difficult truths about Himself and the cost of following Him.
Then Jesus turns to his disciples:
“After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’”
Of all the twelve that are there. Confused, wondering, watching hundreds turn away from Jesus, seeing the reputation of their teacher go down the tubes… who do you suppose answers?
“Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.’”
We can obviously see that Simon Peter was one in the group who had great courage, spiritual insight, and a deep love for Jesus. At times, when no one else understood, Simon Peter got it.
But at the same time, he didn’t get it. Listen to Matthew 16:21-23:
“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.’”
That’s the same guy who had just said “You are the Christ the Son of the Living God!”
He fell asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus was in desperate need of prayer and support. The one Peter most loved was in distress and Peter needed a nap.
He was the one who denied Jesus three times to some servant girls and strangers, only hours after looking Jesus right in the eye and saying, “They all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” (Matt 26:33)
Peter, the one who proclaims the Christ, the leader of the Apostles, the one who got to see the transfiguration of Christ on the mountain, and stand in the presence of Moses, Elijah, and hear the voice of God the Father – was also Simon the boaster, Simon the coward, Simon the blasphemer.
No one heard such words of praise from the lips of Jesus, and no one faced such terrible reproach.
The Contrasts of Our Own Hearts
The story of Peter’s relationship with Jesus gives me a lot of hope because it echoes the “unbelievable contrasts of our own hearts.” I read a sermon this week which had a marvelous quote. It said:
“Is it possible… for one to behold the glory of the Lord on the mount and then to forsake Him in the garden? Is it possible for one to confess Christ in Caesarea, and then forswear Him in the judgment hall? Yes, it is quite possible. Look into your own hearts, and you will know it is quite possible. Gaze steadily and bravely into that awful abyss, your own heart, and you will know it is quite possible. For in your own heart you will see both heaven and hell, aspirations and desires born of God, and hideous lusts of foulnesses that issue from the pit.” (“Peter” by John Daniel Jones)
That’s so true isn’t it? This is a difficult thing for many Christians. We are often like Simon Peter, experiencing the joy of knowing Jesus, and then jumping into temptation and sin as though He doesn’t even exist. We go from saying we love Him and worship Him as Lord, to forgetting about Him and setting idols in our lives. We go from the proclaiming Him as Supreme God over all, Saviour of our Souls, to being paralyzed by worry and anxiety. We go from saying He is our greatest treasure, to filling our credit cards with junk we don’t need. We go from saying He is all we need, to giving our hearts to a human who can’t possibly meet our needs.
From Simon to Peter
Jesus, after only knowing Simon for a short time renamed him “Peter” which means “Rock”, but it took a lifetime of walking with Jesus to turn Simon into Peter. He wasn’t a rock during his time with Jesus before the crucifixion – he was sand. His foundation was shifty and unsecure. He was strong at times, but weak in others. He vacillates.
But there is a moment in history where we see Simon turn into Peter. “He is the man of sand all through the gospels; but in the book of Acts” (source) he becomes Peter the Rock.
On the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, all who were gathered in the room received the gift of the Holy Spirit and were able to speak in different languages. Some people were astonished, others confused, as they heard these Galileans speak foreign languages from all over the world. They all proclaimed the mighty works of God, and people were amazed and perplexed… and it started to get out of hand… and others started to mock saying that they were drunk.
And then we read in verse 14:
“But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words.’”
Peter takes charge of the situation, speaking for all of the apostles, gives a sermon. Simon was afraid to be associated with Jesus or he might be crucified. Simon wasn’t sure about who Jesus exactly was when He was alive. Simon was passionate but wavering…
The man standing here before the crowd was not Simon… it was Peter. He looked into the eyes of the people standing there and preached scripture boldly. He opened up the Old Testament before them with courage. He stood before a crowd of thousands and proclaimed Jesus as resurrected and alive, as the son of God, exalted at God’s right hand. Without wavering or worrying about what anyone would say, Peter proclaimed before this huge crowd:
“Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
Who would be the one they came after if they turned into a mob? Peter. Who would get hauled before the Jewish High Courts? Peter. Who would be stoned for blasphemy? Peter.
But Peter had become the Rock that Jesus had told Him he would and was the voice by which thousands would repent and believe.
And Peter was dragged before the high courts (acts 4). He stood near the place where he had denied Jesus as Simon, and Peter looked at the Counsel and said, “We won’t listen to you, we will listen to God.” And on another occasion he stood before the high court, Peter said the same thing, (Acts 5) but this time was flogged with the apostles and ordered not to speak of Jesus. He leaves and starts preaching right where he left off.
Jesus Changes People
How can we do that? How do we turn from Simon to Peter? How do we go from shifting sand to solid rock?
The world would tell you that you need more discipline, that you need more willpower, that you need to get stronger, exercise more, get educated, get better friends, tap into your inner strength.
What Christians realize is that we don’t have any “inner strength”. We need to go outside ourselves to a greater source of power – someone that can turn sand into rock, someone that can make the dead rise, someone who can make the blind see. It is Jesus who turns Simons into Peters.
Peter had strong character, and was certainly a bold individual before he met Jesus, but he was unstable, unreliable, unpredictable, and dangerous. It was by the power of the Holy Spirit that Jesus took Simon and turned him into Peter.
Peter loved Jesus and knew in his heart that Jesus had the answers. Every time Peter started working in his own power, his own intelligence, his own understanding, his own strength… he became Simon. But as long as Peter was with Jesus, listening to Jesus, working in the power of the Holy Spirit, obeying the voice of God inside of him, He was Peter.
Even at the very end of his three years with Jesus Peter was still immature in mind, heart and spirit… but the most important thing that we learn about Jesus through the life of Peter is that Jesus is willing to forgive! We can stumble and fall and sin and make messes, argue with Jesus, deny Him, be a coward, be a fool, crumble into nothing… and Jesus will still forgive, and still love us and use us.
We can frustrate and annoy people until they drop us. We can disappoint our friends, family and spouses, until they sigh, walk away and write us off. We can get to the end of the grace and patience of our parents, our counsellors and our Christian brothers and sisters… but we will never get to the end of the grace and patience of Jesus Christ.
Remember, the Gospel of Mark is a collection of the sermons of Peter. And The Gospel of Mark was source material for Matthew and Luke. Peter used himself as a chief illustration of a person who can fail over and over, and who Jesus will forgive over and over.
And Jesus doesn’t just forgive, He restores. He recreates us. There is no person so messed up that Jesus won’t pursue, find, forgive, cleanse and restore. There is no one that is so helpless that Jesus won’t intervene. There is no such thing as a lost cause for Jesus.
At the beginning of our call we can hear the words of Jesus… looking at us in our mess, our shame, our fear, our loneliness, our addiction, our control issues, our idolatry… and hear Him say, “I’m going to make you into a rock.” And we wonder, “How can that be possible.”
“How can I become a rock? I’m not brave. I’m not strong. I’m not immovable. I don’t know what I’m doing. I change every day. My appetites control me. My fears control me. I’m like a boat in a storm… I’m no rock.”
We can see in the life of Simon Peter, that Jesus can do it. He can turn Simon into Peter. He can turn sand into rock.
To the one who is frightened of what people think of them, of what might happen to them… Jesus says, “I will make you into a rock” which is absolutely unshaken by what people say to you.
To the one who keeps sinning, keeps falling for temptation, hating it but still doing it, ready to just give in and give up the fight, Jesus says, “I will make you into a Rock” on which temptation will come and will be broken. You will not be a ship tossed by your sin, you will be the rock on which it is smashed.
To the one who has no idea of their future, who can’t understand their purpose, who is merely existing in this life, weak of will and weak of spirit, Jesus says, “I will make you a Rock” that will be steadfast, and sure, always abounding with purpose and work. Someone who has shoulders on which others can stand.
The story of Simon Peter and Jesus reminds us that He is able to take the weakest of us and make us strong in Him.
How? Love Jesus.
What must we do to get this kind of strength? What must we do to be able to go from Simon to Peter, from Sand to Rock, from weak to strong? We must love Jesus.
What Peter had was a powerful love for Jesus. With all his heart, He loved Jesus. It was a love for Jesus that made him leave his fishing boat to follow Him. It was misplaced love that made him tell Jesus that he would never be crucified. It was love that told Jesus that he would never wash his feet… and then love that said, then wash my head and hands as well.” It was love that made Peter pull a sword out to defend Jesus in the garden. It was love that made Jesus follow him on the night of his crucifixion. It was love that made him weep bitterly after he had denied Him.
Peter loved Jesus. At the end of the book of John we read this:
“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ He said to him a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’”
Three times Simon had denied Jesus… three times Jesus gives Simon the chance to take another step towards becoming Peter. Peter loved Jesus more than anything else.
This is the answer to how we can stop vacillating in our life and become firm. The answer is to love Jesus. It’s not about how much we can know about Jesus. Or about what we do for Him. It’s not about how much we give, or earn, or have. It’s about how much we love Jesus.
Our love for Jesus will give Him the permission to make us firm. Our love for Jesus will cause us to flee temptation. Our love for Jesus will have us remove the idols from our life. Our love for Jesus will give Him and His Word the greatest voice in our hearts.