How Jesus trained and shaped Peter to be the Leader by John MacArthur
All the following passages are from John MacArthur’s book, “Twelve Ordinary Men,” published in 2002.
“FOLLOW ME, AND I WILL MAKE YOU FISHERS OF MEN”
Simon Peter was a fisherman by trade. He and his brother Andrew were heirs to a family fishing business, centered in Capernaum. They caught fish in the Sea of Galilee. Commercial fishermen on that lake in Jesus’ day caught three types of fish. The “small fish” mentioned in John 6:9 in connection with the feeding of the five thousand are sardines. Sardines and a kind of flat bread were the staples of the region. Another kind of fish, known as barbels (because of the fleshy filaments at the corners of their mouths) are a kind of carp and hence are somewhat bony, but they can grow to be very large—weighing as much as fifteen pounds. (A barbel was probably the kind of fish Peter caught with a coin in its mouth in Matthew 17:27, because it is the only fish in the Sea of Galilee large enough to swallow a coin and also be caught on a hook.) The third and most common type of commercial fish are musht—a type of fish that swims and feeds in shoals and has a comb-like dorsal fin. Musht of edible size range from six inches to a foot and half long. Fried musht are still served in restaurants near the Sea of Galilee and are popularly known today as “St. Peter’s Fish.”
Simon and Andrew spent their nights netting those fish. The brothers were originally from a small village called Bethsaida on the north shore of the lake (John 1:44), but they had moved to a larger town nearby called Capernaum (Mark 1:21,29).
In Jesus’ day, Capernaum was the major town on the north tip of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus made Capernaum His home and the base of His ministry for several months. But He pronounced woe on both Capernaum and Bethsaida in Matthew 11:21—24. And those cities are merely ruins today. The ruins of the synagogue in Capernaum are still visible. Nearby (just a block to the south) archaeologists found the ruins of an ancient church. Early tradition, dating back at least to the third century claims this church was built over the house of Peter. Indeed, archaeologists have found many signs that Christians in the second century venerated this site. It may very well be the house where Peter lived. It is a short walk from there to the edge of the lake.
Simon Peter had a wife. We know this because in Luke 4:38 Jesus healed his mother-in-law. The apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:5 that Peter took his wife on his apostolic mission. That may indicate either that they had no children or that their children were already grown by the time he took his wife. However, Scripture doesn’t expressly say that they had any children. Peter was married. That’s really all we know for certain about his domestic life.
We know Simon Peter was the leader of the apostles—and not only from the fact that his name heads every list of the Twelve. We also have the explicit statement of Matthew 1O:2: “Now the names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter.” The word translated “first” in that verse is the Greek term protos. It doesn’t refer to the first in a list; it speaks of the chief, the leader of the group. Peter’s leadership is further evident in the way he normally acts as spokesman for the whole group. He is always in the foreground, taking the lead. He seems to have had a naturally dominant personality, and the Lord put it to good use among the Twelve.
It was, after all, the Lord who chose him to be the leader. Peter was formed and equipped by God’s sovereign design to be the leader. Moreover, Christ Himself shaped and trained Peter to be the leader. Therefore when we look at Peter, we see how God builds a leader.
Peter’s name is mentioned in the Gospels more than any other name except Jesus. No one speaks as often as Peter, and no one is spoken to by the Lord as often as Peter. No disciple is so frequently rebuked by the Lord as Peter; and no disciple ever rebukes the Lord except Peter (Matthew 16:22). No one else confessed Christ more boldly or acknowledged His lordship more explicitly; yet no other disciple ever verbally denied Christ as forcefully or as publicly as Peter did. No one is praised and blessed by Christ the way Peter was; yet Peter was also the only one Christ ever addressed as Satan. The Lord had harsher things to say to Peter than He ever said to any of the others.
All of that contributed to making him the leader Christ wanted him to be. God took a common man with an ambivalent, vacillating, impulsive, unsubmissive personality and shaped him into a rocklike leader—the greatest preacher among the apostles and in every sense the dominant figure in the first twelve chapters of Acts, where the church was born.
We see in Peter’s life three key elements that go into the making of a true leader: the right raw material, the right life experiences, and the right character qualities. Let me show you exactly what I mean.
1. THE RAW MATERIAL THAT MAKES A TRUE LEADER
There is an age-old debate about whether true leaders are born or made. Peter is a strong argument for the belief that leaders are born with certain innate gifts, but must also be properly shaped and made into a true leader.
Peter had the God-given fabric of leadership woven into his personality from the beginning. He was made of the right raw material. Of course, it was the Lord who fashioned him this way in his mother’s womb (cf. Psalm 139:13—16).
There are certain rather obvious features in Simon Peter’s natural disposition that were critical to his leadership ability. These are not generally characteristics that can be developed merely by training; they were innate features of Peter’s temperament.
1.1 The first one is inquisitiveness.
When you’re looking for a leader, you want someone who asks lots of questions. People who are not inquisitive simply don’t make good leaders. Curiosity is crucial to leadership. People who are content with what they don’t know, happy to remain ignorant about what they don’t understand, complacent about what they haven’t analyzed, and comfortable living with problems they haven’t solved—such people cannot lead. Leaders need to have an insatiable curiosity. They need to be people who are hungry to find answers. Knowledge is power. Whoever has the information has the lead. If you want to find a leader, look for someone who is asking the right questions and genuinely looking for answers.
This sort of inquisitiveness normally manifests itself in early childhood. Most of us have encountered children who ask question after question—wearying their parents and other adults with a nonstop barrage of petty puzzlers. (Some of us can even remember being like that as children!) That is part of the fabric of leadership. The best problem-solvers are people who are driven by an unquenchable enthusiasm for knowing and understanding things.
In the Gospel accounts, Peter asks more questions than all the other apostles combined. It was usually Peter who asked the Lord to explain His difficult sayings (Matthew 15:15; Luke 12:41). It was Peter who asked how often he needed to forgive (Matthew 18:21). It was Peter who asked what reward the disciples would get for having left everything to follow Jesus (Matthew 19:27). It was Peter who asked about the withered fig tree (Mark 11:21). It was Peter who asked questions of the risen Christ (John 21:20—22). He always wanted to know more, to understand better. And that sort of inquisitiveness is a foundational element of a true leader.
1.2 Another necessary ingredient is initiative.
If a man is wired for leadership, he will have drive, ambition, and energy. A true leader must be the kind of person who makes things happen. He is a starter. Notice that Peter not only asked questions; he was also usually the first one to answer any question posed by Christ. He often charged right in where angels fear to tread.
There was that famous occasion when Jesus asked, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” (Matthew 16:13 NKJV) Several opinions were circulating among the people about that. “So they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (v. 14) Jesus then asked the disciples in particular, “But who do you say that I am?” (v. 15, emphasis added). It was at that point that Peter boldly spoke out above the rest: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 16). The other disciples were still processing the question, like schoolboys afraid to speak up lest they give the wrong answer. Peter was bold and decisive. That’s a vital characteristic of all great leaders. Sometimes he had to take a step back, undo, retract, or be rebuked. But the fact that he was always willing to grab opportunity by the throat marked him as a natural leader.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, when Roman soldiers from Fort Antonia came to arrest Jesus, all three synoptic Gospel writers say there was a “great multitude” armed with “with swords and staves” (Matthew 26:47; cf. Mark 14:43; Luke 22:47). A typical Roman cohort consisted of six hundred soldiers, so in all likelihood there were hundreds of battle-ready Roman troops in and around the garden that night. Without hesitating, Peter pulled out his sword and took a swing at the head of Malchus, the servant of the high priest. (The high priest and his personal staff would have been in the front of the mob, because he was the dignitary ordering the arrest.) Peter was undoubtedly trying to cut the man’s head off. But Peter was a fisherman, not a swordsman. Malchus ducked, and his ear was severed. So Jesus “touched his ear and healed him” (Luke 22:51 NKJV). Then He told Peter, “Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). (Thus He affirmed the equity of capital punishment as a divine law.)
Think about that incident. There was an entire detachment of Roman soldiers there—perhaps numbering in the hundreds. What did Peter think he was going to do? Behead them all, one by one? Sometimes in Peter’s passion for taking the initiative, he overlooked the obvious big-picture realities.
But with all his brashness, Peter had the raw material from which a leader could be made. Better to work with a man like that than to try to motivate someone who is always passive and hesitant. As the familiar saying goes, it is much easier to tone down a fanatic than to resurrect a corpse. Some people have to be dragged tediously in any forward direction. Not Peter. He always wanted to move ahead. He wanted to know what he didn’t know. He wanted to understand what he didn’t understand. He was the first to ask questions and the first to try to answer questions. He was a man who always took the initiative, seized the moment, and charged ahead. That’s the stuff of leadership.
Remember, these characteristics are only the raw material from which a leader is made. Peter needed to be trained and shaped and matured. But to do the task Christ had for him, he needed moxie, chutzpa—courage to stand up in Jerusalem on Pentecost and preach the gospel in the face of the same population who had lately executed their own Messiah. But Peter was just the sort of fellow who could be trained to take that kind of courageous initiative.
1.3 There’s a third element of the raw material that makes a true leader: involvement.
True leaders are always in the middle of the action. They do not sit in the background telling everyone else what to do while they live a life of comfort away from the fray. A true leader goes through life with a cloud of dust around him. That is precisely why people follow him. People cannot follow someone who remains distant. The true leader must show the way. He goes before his followers into the battle.
Jesus came to the disciples one night out in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, walking on the water in the midst of a violent storm. Who out of all the disciples jumped out of the boat? Peter. There’s the Lord, he must have thought. I’m here; I’ve got to go where the action is. The other disciples wondered if they were seeing a ghost (Matthew 14:26). But Peter said, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” Jesus answered, “Come” (vv. 27—28)—and before anyone knew it, Peter was out of the boat, walking on the water. The rest of the disciples were still clinging to their seats, trying to make sure they didn’t fall overboard in the storm. But Peter was out of the boat without giving it a second thought. That is involvement—serious involvement. Only after he left the boat and walked some distance did Peter think about the danger and start to sink.
People often look at that incident and criticize Peter’s lack of faith. But let’s give him credit for having faith to leave that boat in the first place. Before we disparage Peter for the weakness that almost brought him down, we ought to remember where he was when he began to sink.
Similarly, although Peter denied Christ, keep in mind one significant fact: He and one other disciple (probably his lifelong friend, John) were the only ones who followed Jesus to the high priest’s house to see what would become of Jesus(John 18:15).And in the courtyard of the high priest’s house, Peter was the only one close enough for Jesus to turn and look him in the eyes when the rooster crowed (Luke 22:61). Long after the other disciples had forsaken Christ and fled in fear for their lives, Peter was virtually alone in a position where such a temptation could snare him, because despite his fear and weakness, he couldn’t abandon Christ completely. That’s the sign of a true leader. When almost everyone else bailed out, he tried to stay as close to his Lord as he could get. He wasn’t the kind of leader who is content to send messages to the troops from afar. He had a passion to be personally involved, so he is always found close to the heart of the action.
That was the raw fabric of which Peter was made: an insatiable inquisitiveness, a willingness to take the initiative, and a passion to be personally involved. Now it was up to the Lord to train and shape him, because frankly, that kind of raw material, if not submitted to the Lord’s control, can be downright dangerous.
2. THE LIFE EXPERIENCES THAT SHAPE A TRUE LEADER
How did the Lord take a man cut from such rough fabric and refine him into a leader? For one thing, he made sure Peter had the kind of life experiences that formed him into the kind of leader Christ wanted him to be. It is in this sense that true leaders are made, not just born.
Experience can be a hard teacher. In Peter’s case the ups and downs of his experience were dramatic and often painful. His life was filled with tortuous zigs and zags. The Lord dragged him through three years of tests and difficulties that gave him a lifetime of the kind of experiences every true leader must endure.
Why did Jesus do this? Did He take some glee in tormenting Peter? Not at all; the experiences—even the difficult ones—were all necessary to shape Peter into the man he needed to become.
Recently I read the results of a study involving all the young people in America who have been involved in the epidemic of school shooting rampages. It turns out that the common denominator among the shooters is that virtually all of them are young people who were prescribed Ritalin or other antidepressant drugs to control behavior problems. Instead of being disciplined for wrong attitudes and bad behavior, they were drugged into a stupor. Instead of training them to behave and teaching them self-control, child psychologists prescribed mind-numbing drugs that only temporarily curbed their rebellious behavior. The defiant, rebellious attitudes that were the root of the problem were never confronted or dealt with. Those kids had been artificially sheltered from the consequences of their rebellion in their younger childhood. They missed the life experiences that might have shaped their character differently.
The apostle Peter learned a lot through hard experience. He learned, for example, that crushing defeat and deep humiliation often follow hard on the heels of our greatest victories. Just after Christ commended him for his great confession in Matthew 16:16 (“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”), Peter suffered the harshest rebuke ever recorded of a disciple in the New Testament. One moment Christ called Peter blessed, promising him the keys of the kingdom (vv. 17—19). In the next paragraph, Christ addressed Peter as Satan and said, “Get behind me!” (v. 23)—meaning, “Don’t stand in My way!”
That incident occurred shortly after Peter’s triumphant confession. Jesus announced to the disciples that He was going to Jerusalem, where He would be turned over to the chief priests and scribes and be killed. Upon hearing that, “Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!” (Matthew 16:22 NKJV) Peter’s sentiment is perfectly understandable. But he was thinking only from a human standpoint. He did not know the plan of God. Without realizing it, he was trying to dissuade Christ from the very thing He came to earth to do. As usual, he was speaking when he ought to have been listening. Jesus’ words to Peter were as stern as anything He ever spoke to any individual: “He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men” (v. 23).
Peter had just learned that God would reveal truth to him and guide his speech as he submitted his mind to the truth. He wasn’t dependent upon a human message. The message he was to proclaim was given to him by God (v. 17). He would also be given the keys to the kingdom—meaning that his life and message would be the unlocking of the kingdom of God for the salvation of many (v. 19).
But now, through the painful experience of being rebuked by the Lord, Peter also learned that he was vulnerable to Satan. Satan could fill his mouth just as surely as the Lord could fill it. If Peter minded the things of men rather than the things of God, or if he did not do the will of God, he could be an instrument of the enemy.
Later, Peter fell victim to Satan again on the night of Jesus’ arrest. This time he learned the hard way that he was humanly weak and could not trust his own resolve. All his boasting promises and earnest resolutions did not keep him from falling. After declaring in front of everyone that he would never deny Christ, he denied Him anyway, and he punctuated his denials with passionate curses. Satan was sifting him as wheat. Thus Peter learned how much chaff and how little substance there was in him and how watchful and careful he must be to rely only on the Lord’s strength.
At the same time, he learned that in spite of his own sinful tendencies and spiritual weaknesses, the Lord wanted to use him and would sustain him and preserve him no matter what.
All those things Peter learned by experience. Sometimes the experiences were bitter, distressing, humiliating, and painful. Other times they were encouraging, uplifting, and perfectly glorious—such as when Peter saw Christ’s divine brilliance on the Mount of Transfiguration. Either way, Peter made the most of his experiences, gleaning from them lessons that helped make him the great leader he became.
3. THE CHARACTER QUALITIES THAT DEFINE A TRUE LEADER
A third element in the making of a leader—besides the right raw material and the right life experiences—is the right character. Character, of course, is absolutely critical in leadership. America’s current moral decline is directly linked to the fact that we have elected, appointed, and hired too many leaders who have no character. In recent years, some have tried to argue that character doesn’t really matter in leadership; what a man does in his private life supposedly should not be a factor in whether he is deemed fit for a public leadership role. That perspective is diametrically opposed to what the Bible teaches. Character does matter in leadership. It matters a lot.
In fact, character is what makes leadership possible. People simply cannot respect or trust those who lack character. And if they do not respect a man, they will not follow him. Time and truth go hand in hand. Leaders without character eventually disappoint their followers and lose their confidence. The only reason such people are often popular is that they make other people who have no character feel better about themselves. But they aren’t real leaders.
Lasting leadership is grounded in character. Character produces respect. Respect produces trust, And trust motivates followers.
Even in the purely human realm, most people do recognize that true leadership is properly associated with character qualities like integrity, trustworthiness, respectability unselfishness, humility, self—discipline, self-control, and courage. Such virtues reflect the image of God in man. Although the divine image is severely tarnished in fallen humanity, it has not been entirely erased. That’s why even pagans recognize those qualities as desirable virtues, important requirements for true leadership.
Christ Himself is the epitome of what a true leader ought to be like. He is perfect in all the attributes that make up the character of a leader. He is the embodiment of all the truest, purest, highest, and noblest qualities of leadership.
Obviously, in spiritual leadership, the great goal and objective is to bring people to Christlikeness. That is why the leader himself must manifest Christlike character. That is why the standard for leadership in the church is set so high. The apostle Paul summarized the spirit of the true leader when he wrote, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1 NKJV).
Peter might just as well have written the same thing. His character was molded and shaped after the example he had witnessed in Christ. He had the raw material for becoming a leader, and that was important. His life experiences helped hone and sharpen his natural leadership abilities, and that was also vital. But the real key to everything–the essential foundation upon which true leadership always rises or falls—is character. It was the character qualities Peter developed through his intimate association with Christ that ultimately made him the great leader he became.
J. R. Miller wrote, “The only thing that walks back from the tomb with the mourners and refuses to be buried is the character of a man. What a man is survives him. It can never be buried.”1 That is a true sentiment, but there is something more important than what people think of us after we are dead. What is far more important is the impact we have while we are here.
What are some of the character qualities of a spiritual leader that were developed in the life of Peter? One is submission. At first glance that may seem an unusual quality to cultivate in a leader. After all, the leader is the person in charge, and he expects other people to submit to him, right? But a true leader doesn’t just demand submission; he is an example of submission by the way he submits to the Lord and to those in authority over him. Everything the true spiritual leader does ought to be marked by submission to every legitimate authority—especially submission to God and to His Word.
Leaders tend to be confident and aggressive. They naturally dominate. Peter had that tendency in him. He was quick to speak and quick to act. As we have seen, he was a man of initiative. That means he was always inclined to try to take control of every situation. In order to balance that side of him, the Lord taught him submission.
He did it in some rather remarkable ways. One classic example of this is found in Matthew 17. This account comes at a time when Jesus was returning with the Twelve to Capernaum, their home base, after a period of itinerant ministry. A tax collector was in town making the rounds to collect the annual two-drachma (half-shekel) tax from each person twenty years old or older. This was not a tax paid to Rome, but a tax paid for the upkeep of the temple. It was prescribed in Exodus 30:11—16 (cf. 2 Chronicles 24:9). The tax was equal to two days’ wages, so it was no small amount.
Matthew writes, “Those who received the temple tax came to Peter and said, ‘Does your Teacher not pay the temple tax?’” (Matthew 17:24 NKJV) Peter assured him that Jesus did pay His taxes.
But this particular tax apparently posed a bit of a problem in Peter’s mind. Was Jesus morally obliged, as the incarnate Son of God, to pay for the upkeep of the temple like any mere man? The sons of earthly kings don’t pay taxes in their fathers’ kingdoms; why should Jesus? Jesus knew what Peter was thinking, so “when he had come into the house, Jesus anticipated him, saying, ‘What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take customs or taxes, from their sons or from strangers?” (v. 25)
Peter answered, “From strangers.” Kings don’t tax their own children.
Jesus drew the logical conclusion for Peter: “Then the sons are free” (v. 26). In other words, Jesus had absolute heavenly authority, if He desired, to opt out of the temple tax.
But if He did that, it would send the wrong message as far as earthly authority is concerned. Better to submit, pay the tax, and avoid a situation most people would not understand. So although Jesus was not technically obligated to pay the temple tax, he said, “Nevertheless, lest we offend them, go to the sea, cast in a hook, and take the fish that comes up first. And when you have opened its mouth, you will find a piece of money; take that and give it to them for Me and you”(v.27).
The coin in the mouth of the fish was a stater—a single coin worth a shekel, or four drachma. It was exactly enough to pay the temple tax for two. In other words, Jesus arranged for Peter’s tax to be paid in full, too.
It’s intriguing that the miracle Jesus worked demonstrated His absolute sovereignty, and yet at the same time, He was being an example of human submission. Christ supernaturally directed a fish that had swallowed a coin to take the bait on Peter’s hook. If Jesus was Lord over nature to such a degree, He certainly had authority to opt out of the temple tax. And yet he taught Peter by example how to submit willingly.
Submission is an indispensable character quality for leaders to cultivate. If they would teach people to submit, they must be examples of submission themselves. And sometimes a leader must submit even when there might seem to be very good arguments against submitting.
Peter learned the lesson well. Years later, in 1 Peter 2:13—18, he would write,
Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men; as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king. Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh.
This was the same lesson Peter learned from Christ: You are free in one sense, but don’t use your freedom as a covering for evil. Rather, regard yourself as the Lord’s bondslave. You are a citizen of heaven and merely a sojourner on earth, but submit to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake. You are first and foremost a subject of Christ’s kingdom and a mere stranger and pilgrim on this earth. Nonetheless, to avoid offense, honor the earthly king. Honor all people. This is the will of God, and by submitting, you will put to silence the ignorance of ungodly men.
Remember, the man who wrote that epistle was the same man who when he was young and brash slashed off the ear of the high priest’s servant. He is the same man who once struggled over the idea of Jesus’ paying taxes. But he learned to submit—not an easy lesson for a natural leader. Peter especially was inclined to be dominant, forceful, aggressive, and resistant to the idea of submission. But Jesus taught him to submit willingly, even when he thought he had a good argument for refusing to submit.
A second character quality Peter learned was restraint. Most people with natural leadership abilities do not naturally excel when it comes to exercising restraint. Self—control, discipline, moderation, and reserve don’t necessarily come naturally to someone who lives life at the head of the pack. That is why so many leaders have problems with anger and out-of-control passions. Perhaps you have noticed recently that anger-management seminars have become the latest fad for CEOs and people in high positions of leadership in American business. It is clear that anger is a common and serious problem among people who rise to such a high level of leadership.
Peter had similar tendencies. Hotheadedness goes naturally with the sort of active, decisive, initiative-taking personality that made him a leader in the first place. Such a man easily grows impatient with people who lack vision or underperform. He can be quickly irritated by those who throw up obstacles to success. Therefore he must learn restraint in order to be a good leader.
The Lord more or less put a bit in Peter’s mouth and taught him restraint. That is one of the main reasons Peter bore the brunt of so many rebukes when he spoke too soon or acted too hastily. The Lord was constantly teaching him restraint.
That scene in the garden where Peter tried to decapitate Malchus is a classic example of his natural lack of restraint. Even surrounded by hundreds of Roman soldiers, all armed to the teeth, Peter unthinkingly pulled out his sword and was ready to wade into the crowd, swinging. It was fortunate for him that Malchus lost nothing more than an ear and that Jesus immediately healed the damage. As we have already seen, Jesus rebuked Peter sternly.
That rebuke must have been especially difficult for Peter, coming as it did in front of a horde of enemies. But he learned much from what he witnessed that night. Later in life, he would write, “Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: ‘Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth’; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Peter 2:21—23 NKJV).
How different that is from the young man who tried to grab a sword and whack his way through his opposers! Peter had learned the lesson of restraint.
He also had to learn humility. Leaders are often tempted by the sin of pride. In fact, the besetting sin of leadership may be the tendency to think more of oneself than one ought to think. When people are following your lead, constantly praising you, looking up to you, and admiring you, it is too easy to be overcome with pride.
We can observe in Peter a tremendous amount of self-confidence. It is obvious by the way he jumps in with answers to all the questions. It is obvious in most of his actions, such as when he stepped out of the boat and began to walk on water. It became obvious in the worst and most disastrous way on that fateful occasion when Jesus foretold that His disciples would forsake Him.
Jesus said, “All of you will be made to stumble because of Me this night, for it is written: ‘I will strike the Shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered” (Matthew 26:31 NKJV).
But Peter was cocksure: “Even if all are made to stumble because of You, I will never be made to stumble” (v. 33, emphasis added).Then he added, “Lord, I am ready to go with You, both to prison and to death” (Luke 22:33).
Of course, as usual, Peter was wrong and Jesus was right. Peter did deny Christ not once, but multiple times, just as Jesus had warned. Peter’s shame and disgrace at having dishonored Christ so flagrantly were only magnified by the fact he had boasted so stubbornly about being impervious to such sins!
But the Lord used all of this to make Peter humble. And when Peter wrote his first epistle, he said, “be clothed with humility for ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble: Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time” (1 Peter 5:5—6). He specifically told church leaders, “[Don’t act like] lords over those entrusted to you, but [be] examples to the flock” (v. 3). Humility became one of the virtues that characterized Peter’s life, his message, and his leadership style.
Peter also learned love. All the disciples struggled with learning that true spiritual leadership means loving service to one another. The real leader is someone who serves, not someone who demands to be waited upon.
This is a hard lesson for many natural leaders to learn. They tend to see people as a means to their end. Leaders are usually task-oriented rather than people-oriented. And so they often use people, or plow over people, in order to achieve their goals. Peter and the rest of the disciples needed to learn that leadership is rooted and grounded in loving service to others. The true leader loves and serves those whom he leads.
Jesus said, “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). The Lord Himself constantly modeled that kind of loving servant-leadership for the disciples. But nowhere is it more plainly on display than in the Upper Room on the night of His betrayal.
Jesus and the disciples had come to celebrate the Passover in a rented room in Jerusalem. The Passover seder was an extended, ceremonious meal lasting as long as four or five hours. Celebrants in that culture usually reclined at a low table rather than sitting upright in chairs. That meant one person’s head would be next to another person’s feet. Of course, all the roads were either muddy or dusty, so feet were constantly dirty. Therefore the common custom was that when you went into a house for a meal, there was usually a servant whose job it was to wash guests’ feet. This was practically the lowliest and least desirable of all jobs. But for any host to neglect to arrange for his guests’ feet to be washed was a significant affront (cf. Luke 7:44).
Apparently on this busy Passover night, in that rented room, no provision had been made for any servant to wash the guests’ feet. The disciples were evidently prepared to overlook the breach of etiquette rather than volunteering to do such a menial task themselves. So they gathered around the table as if they were prepared to start the meal without any foot-washing. Therefore, Scripture says, Jesus Himself “rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself. After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded” (John 13:4-5)2.
Jesus Himself—the One they rightly called Lord—took on the role of the lowest slave and washed the dirty feet of His disciples. According to Luke, at about the same time this occurred, the disciples were in the midst of an argument about which one of them was the greatest (Luke 22:24). They were interested in being elevated, not humiliated. So Jesus did what none of them would do. He gave them a lesson about the humility of genuine love.
Most of them probably sat there in stunned silence. But when the Lord came to Simon Peter, “Peter said to Him, ‘Lord, are You washing my feet?” (John 13:6).The sense of the statement is, What do You think You’re doing? Here is the brash and bold Simon, speaking without carefully thinking things through. He even went on to say, ”You shall never wash my feet!” (v.8).
Peter was the master of the absolute statement: “I will never deny You” (cf. Matthew 26:33). “You shall never wash my feet!” There are no shades of gray in Peter’s life; everything is in absolute black and white.
Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me” (John 13:8). Jesus, of course, was speaking of the necessity of spiritual cleansing. Obviously, it wasn’t the literal foot-washing that made the disciples fit for fellowship with Christ; Jesus was speaking about cleansing from sin. That was the spiritual reality this humble act of foot-washing was meant to symbolize. (Proof that He was speaking of spiritual cleansing is found in verse 10, when He said, “You are clean, but not all of you:’ He had just washed their feet, so they were all clean in the external, physical sense. But the apostle John says in verse 11, “He knew who would betray Him; therefore He said, ‘You are not all clean’”—signifying that Judas was not clean in the spiritual sense of which He spoke.)
Peter’s answer is typical of his usual unbridled wholeheartedness: “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!” (v 9) Again, there was never any middle ground with Peter. It was always all or nothing. So Jesus assured him that he was already “completely clean:’ (The Lord was still speaking in spiritual terms about forgiveness and cleansing from sin.) Peter now needed nothing more than a foot-washing.
In other words, Peter, as a believer, was already fully justified. The forgiveness and cleansing he needed was not the kind of summary pardon one would seek from the Judge of the universe—as if Peter were seeking to have his eternal destiny settled. He had already received that kind of cleansing and forgiveness. But now Peter was coming to God as any child would approach a parent, seeking fatherly grace and forgiveness for his wrongdoings. That was the kind of cleansing Peter needed. It is the same kind of forgiveness Jesus taught all believers to pray for daily (Luke 11:4). Here, Jesus likens such daily forgiveness to a foot-washing.
Those truths were all wrapped up in the symbolism when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. But the central lesson was about the way love ought to be shown. Jesus’ example was a consummate act of loving, lowly service.
Later that evening, after Judas had left, Jesus told the other eleven, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (vv. 34—35). How had He loved them? He washed their feet. While they were arguing about who was the greatest, He showed them what loving, humble service for one another looks like.
It’s hard for most leaders to stoop and wash the feet of those whom they perceive as subordinates. But that was the example of leadership Jesus gave, and He urged His disciples to follow it. In fact, He told them that showing love to one another in such a way was the mark of a true disciple.
Did Peter learn to love? He certainly did. Love became one of the hallmarks of his teaching. In 1 Peter 4:8 he wrote, “Above all things have fervent love for one another, for ‘love will cover a multitude of sins.” The Greek word translated “fervent” in that verse is ektenes, literally meaning “stretched to the limit:’ Peter was urging us to love to the maximum of our capacity. The love he spoke of is not about a feeling. It’s not about how we respond to people who are naturally lovable. It’s about a love that covers and compensates for others’ failures and weaknesses: “Love will cover a multitude of sins.’” This is the sort of love that washes a brother’s dirty feet. Peter himself had learned that lesson from Christ’s example.
Another important character quality Peter needed to learn was compassion. When the Lord warned Peter that he would deny Him, He said, “Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat” (Luke 22:31). Wheat was typically separated from the chaff by being shaken and tossed up into the air in a stiff wind. The chaff was blown away and the wheat would fall into a pile, thus purified.
We might have expected Jesus to reassure Peter by saying, “I’m not going to allow Satan to sift you:’ But He didn’t. He essentially let Peter know that He had given Satan the permission he sought. He would allow the devil to put Peter to the test (as God did in the case of Job). He said, in essence, “I’m going to let him do it. I’m going to let Satan shake the very foundations of your life. Then I’m going to let him toss you to the wind—until there’s nothing left but the reality of your faith.” Jesus did reassure Peter that the apostle’s faith would survive the ordeal. “I have prayed for you,” Jesus told him, “that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren” (v.32).
It was then that Peter arrogantly insisted that he would never stumble. Yet despite his protestations, before the night was over, he did deny Jesus, and his whole world was severely shaken. His ego was deflated. His self—confidence was annihilated. His pride suffered greatly. But his faith never failed.
What was this all about? Jesus was equipping Peter to strengthen the brethren. People with natural leadership abilities often tend to be short on compassion, lousy comforters, and impatient with others. They don’t stop very long to care for the wounded as they pursue their goals. Peter needed to learn compassion through his own ordeal, so that when it was over, he could strengthen others in theirs.
For the rest of his life, Peter would need to show compassion to people who were struggling. After being sifted by Satan, Peter was well equipped to empathize with others’ weaknesses. He could hardly help having great compassion for those who succumbed to temptation or fell into sin. He had been there. And by that experience he learned to be compassionate, tender—hearted, gracious, kind, and comforting to others who were lacerated by sin and personal failure.
In 1 Peter 5:8—10, he wrote, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world. But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you.”
Peter understood human weakness, and he understood it well. He had been to the bottom. His own weaknesses had been thrown in his face. But he had been perfected, established, strengthened, and settled by the Lord. As usual, he was writing out of his own experience. These were not theoretical precepts he taught.
Finally, he had to learn courage. Not the impetuous, headlong, false kind of “courage” that caused him to swing his sword so wildly at Malchus, but a mature, settled, intrepid willingness to suffer for Christ’s sake.
The kingdom of darkness is set against the kingdom of light. Lies are set against the truth. Satan is set against God. And demons are set against the holy purposes of Christ. Therefore Peter would face difficulty wherever he went. Christ told him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, when you were younger, you girded yourself and walked where you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish” (John 21:18).
What did that mean? The apostle John gives a clear answer: “This He spoke, signifying by what death [Peter] would glorify God” (v. 19).
The price of preaching would be death for Peter. Persecution. Oppression. Trouble. Torture. Ultimately, martyrdom. Peter would need rock-solid courage to persevere.
You can practically see the birth of real courage in Peter’s heart at Pentecost, when he was filled and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Prior to that, he had shown flashes of a fickle kind of courage. That is why he impetuously drew his sword in front of a multitude of armed soldiers one minute but denied Jesus when challenged by a servant girl a few hours later. His courage, like everything in his life, was marred by instability.
After Pentecost, however, we see a different Peter. Acts 4 describes how Peter and John were brought before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling counsel. They were solemnly instructed “not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus” (v. 18).
Peter and John boldly replied, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (vv. 19—20). Soon they were brought back before the Sanhedrin for continuing to preach. Again they told them the same thing: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit and driven by the knowledge that Christ had risen from the dead, had acquired an unshakable, rock-solid courage.
In Peter’s first epistle we get a hint of why he was filled with such courage. Writing to Christians dispersed all over the Roman Empire because of persecution, he tells them:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:3—7 NKJV)
He was secure in Christ, and he knew it. He had seen the risen Christ, so he knew Christ had conquered death. He knew that whatever earthly trials came his way, they were merely temporary. The trials, though often painful and always distasteful, were nothing compared to the hope of eternal glory (cf. Romans 8:18). The genuineness of true faith, he knew, was infinitely more precious than any perishing earthly riches, because his faith would rebound to the praise and glory of Christ at His appearing. That hope is what gave Peter such courage.
As Peter learned all these lessons and his character was transformed—as he became the man Christ wanted him to be—he gradually changed from Simon into Rock. He learned submission, restraint, humility, love, compassion, and courage from the Lord’s example. And because of the Holy Spirit’s work in his heart, he did become a great leader.
He preached at Pentecost and three thousand people were saved (Acts 2:14—41). He and John healed a lame man (Acts 3:1—10). He was so powerful that people were healed in his shadow (Acts 5:15—16). He raised Dorcas from the dead (Acts 9:36—42). He introduced the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 10).And he wrote two epistles, 1 and 2 Peter, in which he featured the very same lessons he had learned from the Lord about true character.
What a man Peter was! Was he perfect? No. In Galatians 2 the apostle Paul relates an incident in which Peter compromised. He acted like a hypocrite. We see a brief flash of the old Simon, Peter was eating with Gentiles, fellowshipping with them as true brethren in Christ—until some false teachers showed up. These heretics insisted that unless the Gentiles were circumcised and following Old Testament ceremonial law, they could not be saved and should not be treated as brethren. Peter, apparently intimidated by the false teachers, stopped eating with the Gentile brethren (Galatians 2:12). Verse 13 says that when Peter did it, everybody else did it, too, because Peter was their leader. So the apostle Paul writes, “I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed” (v. 11). Paul rebuked Peter in the presence of everyone (v. 14).
To Peter’s credit, he responded to Paul’s correction. And when the error of the Judaizers was finally confronted at a full council of church leaders and apostles in Jerusalem, it was Peter who spoke up first in defense of the gospel of divine grace. He introduced the argument that won the day (Acts 15:7—14). He was in effect defending the apostle Paul’s ministry. The whole episode shows how Simon Peter remained teachable, humble, and sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s conviction and correction.
How did Peter’s life end? We know that Jesus told Peter he would die as a martyr (John 21:18—19). But Scripture doesn’t record the death of Peter. All the records of early church history indicate that Peter was crucified. Eusebius cites the testimony of Clement, who says that before Peter was crucified he was forced to watch the crucifixion of his own wife. As he watched her being led to her death, Clement says, Peter called to her by name, saying, “Remember the Lord:’ When it was Peter’s turn to die, he pleaded to be crucified upside down because he wasn’t worthy to die as his Lord had died. And thus he was nailed to a cross head-downward.3
Peter’s life could be summed up in the final words of his second epistle: “Grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:1 8).That is exactly what Simon Peter did, and that is why he became Rock—the great leader of the early church. (37-60)
1. John C. Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 71.
2. The King James and New King James Versions seem to suggest that this event occurred after the meal—“supper being ended. . .” Other versions say it occurred “during supper (NASB) or while “the evening meal was being served” (NIV). The Greek word translated ‘ended” in the KJV is ginomai, a verb with a broad range of meanings, including “to be assembled, to be brought to pass, to be finished.” The context makes it clear that it was the preparation of the meal, and not the eating of it, that was “finished” when Jesus arose to wash feet. Obviously, it was after this that Jesus dipped the sop and handed it to Judas (v.26). So the foot-washing obviously occurred (as protocol demanded) before the meal, not afterward.
3. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3:1,30.