Part 11 of the series:
When Faith Doesn’t Work
by Don Enevoldsen
Even though Peter’s understanding radically changed, he didn’t instantly become a different person. The understanding still had to move from his head to his heart. And several steps were involved in that process.
He practiced the confession of his new knowledge. Immediately after Jesus made the declaration, “Now you are Peter,” Jesus began talking about going to Jerusalem to die. Peter, in his new identity, stepped into the role of Jesus’ defender and protector.
Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said, “This shall never happen to you!” (Matthew 16:22)
Jesus responded rather harshly, considering Peter’s good intentions, and considering Jesus had just validated this new identity. He blurted out, “Get behind me, Satan!”
One minute God has blessed Peter and foretold that on his new understanding, Jesus will build the church. The next minute, Peter is Satan. No doubt Peter was a little confused. He thought he had finally gone from reed to rock, but apparently he was mistaken. I suspect Peter uttered some unrecorded exclamation at that point. “Oh, God, how much longer do I have to put up with this?”
Fortunately, Jesus identified the problem: “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” Then he expounded on what that meant:
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25)
The hardest part of changing core beliefs is letting the old beliefs go. They have been the epicenter of self-identity. We are what we believe at the deepest level. To change that, we must admit that the old identity is a sham. Letting it go really is a process akin to death. You are walking away from everything that you’ve ever thought of as you. But until the old identity is gone, there’s no place for the new one to live.
Peter intellectually understood his new identity as a rock, but his core belief still insisted he had to perform according to the new image in order to be included in the church Jesus planned to build. That had to change. Jesus essentially said, “You mentally understand where I want you to go, but your heart still overrules your head. We’ve made progress, but you’re not there yet. You must die.”
Death isn’t an easy task. People in this kind of transition feel very conflicted. They have emotional ups and downs. One day they are the perfect picture of victory, fist pumping and shouting. The next day they are curled up in a corner, rocking back and forth in helpless despair. If that describes you, take heart. It’s normal. The most extreme opposites are at work in you. You want the old identity to die. You will do anything to get rid of it and all the misery it brought you. At the same time, that old identity is you. And you will do anything to keep it alive. It’s hard to imagine anything more conflicted than that.
Peter tried everything he knew. Even as late in the game as the Last Supper, he still tried to perform to perceived expectations by confessing all the right things. Jesus told him he was about to fail one more time. He would deny Jesus three times before the sun came up. Peter discounted even the possibility. His confession was that of Peter the Rock.
But he replied, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” (Luke 22:33)
Of course, we all know what happened to that positive confession. Peter clearly meant what he said at the time. And just like the moment when he stepped out of the boat, he had enough will power to act when the time came. Later that night, when Judas showed up at the Garden of Gethsemene rendezvous with a bunch of armed guards, Peter drew his sword and fought, as he had said he would (John 18:10).
Out on the lake, Peter’s faith had failed. In the Garden, his vision failed. He was behaving completely out of sync with Jesus’ purpose. At last he was able to act with the courage he wanted to demonstrate, only to find that his action got in the way of the fulfillment of the real reason they were all there. He was still acting from a desire to prove himself worthy. But he missed the big picture.
And Jesus rebuked him again. There seemed to be no winning. No matter what he did, it turned out wrong.
Under the weight of that rebuke, Peter fled for his life. When he said he would go to death with Jesus, what he really meant was, “I will die with you as long as we go down in a blaze of glory that will be talked about for the ages. Then they will know who I really am.”
When he said he would go to prison with Jesus, what he really meant was, “And if we are overpowered and somehow are not killed, then I will go to prison after a noble defense that will be talked about for the ages. Then they will know who I really am.”
Just standing there without acting in any way that could prove his identity never occurred to him as an option.
Peter left his courage and his determination in the Garden. By morning, he had denied three times that he even knew Jesus. Within a couple of weeks, he had abandoned any thought of being a teacher in the image of Jesus, even though by that time he had seen Jesus alive and knew the resurrection was not just an allegorical story. He returned to Galilee and resumed his career of fishing. He was a total failure. Simon appeared to have triumphed. And the knowledge made Peter miserable.
That was the condition in which Jesus found him when they next met. Peter had decided that Jesus would have to get somebody more competent.
In the last chapter of John, Jesus had a crucial and life-changing dialogue with Peter. It began with a question: “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” (John 21:15).
Most commentaries indicate that “more than these” referred to the other disciples. Peter had declared in the past that his love and devotion to Jesus was greater than anyone else’s.
“Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” (Matthew 26:33)
Now Jesus wanted to know if he still made that claim with the recent evidence to the contrary. We can sense a touch of sarcasm in Jesus’ voice.
A former pastor of mine, whenever he read this passage, made it a point to add “fish” to “these,” indicating that the question would be, “Do you love me more than your old life of fishing?” Either interpretation leads us to the same place. If Peter really loved Jesus, then he would “feed my lambs.” He would pick up the ministry of teaching, shepherding and leading for which Jesus had trained him.
Peter’s side of the conversation showed that he had quit trying. When Jesus asked, “Do you truly love me?” he used the Greek word for the highest form of love, agape. Agape describes love that is an act of one’s will, a decision. It has the stability of a commitment that is kept regardless of feelings or circumstances. It is the kind of love that should emanate from someone who pictures himself as a rock.
When Peter answered, “Lord, you know that I love you,” he used a different word, philos. Philos refers to a passionate love. It is what we think of when we speak of falling in love. It is strong, but it is based on emotion, and as such, philos is remarkably unstable. It comes and goes in response to circumstances and feelings.
In other word, for the first time, Peter gave up pretending to be something different than his core beliefs. He saw into the deepest part of his being and in a moment of brutal honesty, admitted, “I really am Simon the Reed.”
Jesus asked the question again, perhaps to make sure Peter understood the gravity of his honesty, and he got the same response. Peter understood.
The third time, however, Jesus changed the question. He used the word philos, lowering his expectation. Jesus met Peter at the level of his transparent honesty. The third question was more of a statement:
“Peter, do you understand that my acceptance of you doesn’t depend on your performance? As long as you think it does, you will continue to come up short. I’m delighted that you’ve stopped trying to earn it. Now we can get somewhere.”
Peter was hurt by the implication. The Greek word, lupeo, indicates great sorrow. Simon the Reed finally died that day. And Peter the Rock started living. Something radically changed. I believe it is connected to the place this thread started. Peter was finally in a place where he was known, understood and heard. Jesus truly knew his name. Jesus truly knew him and understood him. Peter would always have an identity in that place, no matter how poor his performance was.
The next time we see Peter, he is standing in the middle of the Temple courtyard, loudly preaching the message of the Messiah, and defying the same religious leaders who had crucified Jesus to stop him.
On one further occasion, the old Simon seems to have tried to reassert himself, at least one occasion that we know of. Paul spoke of a time when Peter submitted to pressure from believers who wanted Gentiles to be circumcised before they were accepted into the church. Paul confronted him publicly (Galatians 2:11-16) and nothing more was said about it. Peter continued with his ministry without any apparent effects of the confrontation or rejection.
The difference from earlier experiences was that Peter no longer defined himself by his behavior. If he needed to change something, he changed, but he was not incapacitated by what others thought or said about him, even when they were right. His core belief attached to the identity of his new name.
And that’s how he is remembered. When you think of the most outspoken of the twelve disciples, what name comes into your mind? Simon or Peter?
Do you have an additional thought on this subject that will assist our search for truth? Please join the discussion and share your insights.