It started like any ordinary Sunday morning Sunday school class.
I had my usual nerves. No matter how many years I have spent teaching, I’m still never comfortable with it. I ALWAYS get nervous before teaching a class. You never know if you have prepared enough or if THAT QUESTION would come… you know the one I mean.
The one, every Sunday school teacher, dreads to get…
I spent time studying leading up to the day I would be teaching about the meaning of the last supper and the significance of Jesus’ humility in washing His disciples’ feet. The lesson was going well until…
I fielded the usual questions. The typical questions that were the “most predictable” about the Last Supper. But then the question came that I didn’t suspect. It came in the form of a statement… almost as an accusation.
“Why did Peter tell Jesus that “I am ready to go with thee, both into prison and to death… (Luke 22:33)” knowing he would not??? Peter was just a coward like the rest of them… and he knew it!”
Taken a little aback at how Peter was being portrayed, I attempted to shed light on Peter’s statements. I wanted to explain how someone, especially in his position, might honestly believe he would be willing to suffer along with Jesus, not knowing what that would entail.
But before long, it seemed that my explanation caused more confusion than clarity. Before long, the whole class erupted in even more pointed questions.
After the class was over, I met with my senior Pastor, as was customary.
He asked me the SECOND most dreaded question Sunday school teachers hate to get… especially when things didn’t go so well, “how did Sunday school class go?”
“Well…” I began. “Yeah, I heard,” he politely interrupted. “You know, many people feel the same way about Peter that some of your class does. It is a quite common interpretation”.
He was right. I also have heard that negative critique of Peter many times in the past myself…often from very seasoned preachers.
But that view of Peter didn’t sit quite right with me.
There was more going on with Peter and the other disciples that didn’t fit neatly into the category of cowardice hidden behind “bravado.” “Why don’t you go and do some research on it and let me know what you find,” encouraged my pastor. “Hmmm… I think I will,” I replied.
Sincerity or cowardice Packaged as Bravado
Many people come down extremely hard on the Disciple Peter and his seemingly impetuous statement at the last supper that he would die before denying Jesus (Matthew 26:35).
Peter is often characterized as a “loudmouth” who spoke and acted impulsively and was possibly a “coward” at worst. There is no doubt that fear indeed precipitated his denial of Jesus.
However, to characterize Peter as a coward misses an opportunity to understand what was going on and does not allow us to observe the real problem. More importantly, it prevents us from learning a valuable lesson from scripture about an issue that is still very pervasive among modern-day believers.
And the problem is essentially our inability to understand God is larger than our view of Him.
Peter, much like the modern-day believer, was not isolated from the thinking of the times. Many people of Peter’s day, along with the other disciples, believed the Messiah would be King and conqueror that would deliver them from the ruling Roman Empire (Mark 10:35-37; John 6:14-15; Act 1:6).
Ever since Israel lost their sovereignty, they desired to be delivered by the promised Messiah and restored to an independent nation. With their Prophets (such as Moses, Isaiah, Zachariah, and others), they were encouraged, hoped, and longed for their Messiah, who would set them free from oppressive pagan rule once and for all.
They dreamed of THE KING and PROPHET, who would come from among them and defeat the earth’s powers to restore Israel forever, never to be occupied again (Isaiah 9:1-7).
Jesus: King Clothed in Humility
Jesus was, in fact, the promised Messiah, but he did not come in a way that many thought He would. Despite the Prophets’ description (Moses, Daniel, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Zachariah, Hosea, Micah, to name a few), the people still had their view of what the Messiah would be and do when he arrived. But as God would have it, there must be spiritual deliverance before a physical one. When Nicodemus visited with Jesus, Jesus remarked that Nicodemus should not marvel at the idea that one must be born again (John 3:1-15). Freedom from the captivity of sin requires a spiritual re-birth.
We see evidence of this view of the “Messiah as conqueror” at several critical points throughout the New Testament. With his entry into Jerusalem people hailed him as one “one who brought” salvation (Matthew 21:9). Yet many of the same people either yelled “crucify him” or stayed silent at Jesus’ trial before the Roman Governor Pilotonly days later.
What caused this change in attitude towards Jesus?
A week earlier, they saw Jesus as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies that rode triumphantly into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-11). A week later, they saw a man beaten, whipped, scourged, spat upon, mocked, crowned with thorns, and sentenced to die. Their view of the “Messiah” did not match what they saw happen to Jesus and consequently lost their faith.
Walking by Sight… and Self-Interests
The disciples were not different than many in the crowds when it came to their perception of what the conquering Messiah would be. In the last few days leading up to the last supper, scripture provides the narrative of both James and John jockeying for “political position” in Jesus’ “new kingdom” (Luke 22:24-26; Mark 10:35-37).
We see that even the disciples right up until the end of Jesus’ ministry… had their ideas about who Jesus was and what His mission would be. And remember that these were the people closest to Him!
Although Jesus told them on several occasions of his death, burial, and resurrection, they still chose to believe what they wanted. The disciples may have thought Jesus had some “symbolic meaning.” However, what was evident by their actions is that they neither believed nor accepted the truth the Lord told them about what was going to happen.
At the last supper, Jesus explained again that when the “Sheppard is struck, the sheep will scatter” (Matthew 26:31).
And that brings us back to Peter.
Peter’s thinking was in line with that of James and John… as well as those that placed palms at Jesus’ feet a week prior. Peter had enough experience now as Jesus’s closest friend and disciple to “know” that Jesus was the promised King that would deliver Israel.
Therefore, Peter’s problem was NOT that he was disingenuous in saying that he would die for Jesus. The problem was that he didn’t know, at that point, what that death would entail. Being arrested by the religious establishment in Jesus’ day was akin to a Catholic family being arrested by the Pope today. It was a tremendous social blow and an extremely embarrassing affair.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, scripture tells us that it was ONLY Peter who drew his sword to defend Jesus (John 18:10). Peter not only drew his sword but engaged the temple officers in a fight that resulted in one of the ears of the guards being cut off (Matthew 26:51-52). This was not the act of a “coward” by any means or someone who is afraid to die for his master.
What then really happened to change Peter’s perception of Jesus in those few decisive minutes? What motivated Peter to deny Jesus out of fear of persecution just a short time later?
Dying Without a Fight?
Most people could understand a fight to the death. People can conceptualize fighting for a cause that is more important than their life. Soldiers go to war and readily give their lives for their country. Husbands will jump in front of a car to save their wives. Mothers would shield their children from the blast of an explosion or a hail of bullets. But few… very few… can understand, allowing someone to extinguish their life without a fight.
To lay down their lives when they have the power to stop it or at least fight for it. And yet this is what Jesus did.
The Prophet Isaiah described the Messiah as, “oppressed, … afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb…” (Isaiah 53:7). Jesus characterized the giving up of his life as something no one takes from Him, but “lay it down of myself…” (John 10:18).
Scripture tells us that Jesus stopped Peter from fighting by STRONGLY rebuking him (healing the guard’s severed ear in the interim). In this way, he allowed himself to be captured and led away in chains and ultimately, to the cross (Luke 22:47-51).
Dreams of a Glorious Future… Go Down in Flames
Ready to FIGHT … Prepared to go to WAR… but to lay down??? How can we just lay down??? Didn’t we have the TRUTH… Aren’t we on God’s side… Don’t we have the Messiah? But that is what Jesus commanded of all his followers leading the way himself. At this turn of events, Peter and the other disciples must have been devastated!
Peter’s whole world COLLAPSED, and with it, any faith he had that Jesus was the “triumphant ruler come to overthrow Rome and restore Israel.”How could he? How could the Son of God allow himself to be captured… chained… tried… mocked… beaten… spit on… whipped… by SINNERS no less!
Peter’s view of God was limited.
And like many of us, our view of God is also extremely limited at times… Peter’s problem is also OUR problem.
Just as the people of Jesus’ day had the Prophets’ words, today, we have the Holy Bible. Likewise, many people of Jesus day ignored the Prophets in favor of what they desired; today, we too largely ignore scripture in favor of our view of Jesus.
Hence, what was Peter’s problem is also our problem. The Prophet Isaiah explained that the Messiah would be betrayed and handed over to sinners and put to death (Isaiah 53). Jesus carefully told his disciples that he would be arrested, put to death, but (huge “BUT” here) on the third day will rise again (Matthew 20:17-19).
However, that knowledge did not make a dent in their perceptions, likely fueled by self-interest and ignorance of scripture. Jesus reminds us that even the sincere person can err if they are ignorant of scripture (Matthew 22:29).
Modern Day Discipleship
Comparably, the scriptures warn the modern-day believer of being afflicted, suffering hardships, and fractured relationships that often accompany the Christian life.
However, as many who follow a “prosperity gospel” will substantiate, that does not make a dent in our perceptions of wealth, continuous happiness, and abundance fueled by self-interest. And that same ignorance of scripture hindered the early followers of Jesus.
Every Sunday, we attend church, pay our tithes (and our taxes), and volunteer to feed the homeless every Thanksgiving that guarantees our prosperity and favor with God.
Yet when something wrong or unexpected happens to us, we lose faith and question God (at best) and sometimes, just like Peter, deny Him or walk away from the Faith at worst.
Some of the most common occurrences often beset the modern-day believer who does not learn to apply scripture to their daily lives. Anything from losing a job, death of a loved one, or even natural disasters cause many to doubt that God is still in control.
Our view of God can become limited by what we think God should be and what He should do for us. However, God is much, much, much larger than our view of Him.
Jesus reminded us, what is impossible for man is not impossible for God (Luke 18:27). Jesus also reminded those who follow Him to “let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24).
The Christian life is neither characterized by a life of ease nor freedom from problems but is one where God has promised to, “never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).
Walking by Faith; Not by Sight
The scriptures tell us that without faith, it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6) and that we should not lean unto our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5).
God can deliver us from any circumstance. But our attitude should always be that of the three Hebrew boys when they exclaimed, “Our God has the power to save us, but even if he does not…”
- Meshach, Shedrach, and Abednego’s exemplified faith in God were NOT limited in the face of certain death (Daniel 3:16-19) and yet remained open to any possibility that God would choose a means of deliverance.
- Joshua and Caleb understood that their God was greater than their enemies despite the opposing army’s military and physical superiority (Numbers 14:6-9).
- Job, not knowing the reason for his sudden calamity, reminded those around him that he would glorify God regardless of his situation (Job 1:21).
- David, the boy, anointed King, knew that the same God that delivered him in the past from the lion and the bear would deliver the giant Goliath into his hands (1 Samuel 17:34-37).
David’s actions showed that he knew God was bigger than the enemy he faced.
This article is intended to encourage all believers to know that God is more powerful than you can imagine. Despite what the circumstances may be in our lives,… know that God is greater! The Apostle John wrote that “greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
The great victory we as believers have is that when Jesus rose from the dead, He gained the victory over sin and death. All who believe in Him have the victory also that begins in this life and will carry over into the next. Man’s view of Him does not limit God, so neither should our view of God be likewise limited.