November 13, 2021 - Peter

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Today we’re going to take a look at the apostle Peter. His name was Shimon, the Hebrew way to say Simeon (in Greek it becomes Simon). Jesus calls him Simon bar-Jonah, although in John Jesus calls him “Simon son of John.” For those who say Peter was the first Pope, take note that the first Pope is married: Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, who was sick with a high fever. Peter’s house appears to be the one around which an early church is built in Capernaum.

Peter is a fisherman by trade. You can tell by his Greek. Peter appears to be the one who dictates the entire Gospel of Mark, which most scholars believe to be the earliest Gospel. Mark is written in a style that has been called “sailor’s Greek,” and contains numerous Aramaic sound bites. It reads like an account full of eyewitness detail. Who better than Peter to tell the story?

Peter is a name that was coined by Jesus himself. Peter is Greek for the Aramaic name Cephas or “Rocky.” No one else is named Rocky in all of Greek literature until Jesus does it, and it’s hard to find anyone else with that name for a long time afterward.

Peter is bold, brash, and always putting his foot in his mouth. Peter is the first one who tries to walk on water when Jesus invites him to (no one else does). Peter offers to set up tents for Moses and Elijah when they appear, not knowing what else to say. (Peter is one of only 3 witnesses to this event. He is part of Jesus’ inner circle. He is there when Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter from the dead. He is asked by Jesus to stay with him as Jesus prays at Gethsemane.)

Peter is willing to let down the nets 1 more time after an exasperating long night with no catch of fish. When he sees the miraculous catch, Peter falls at Jesus’ feet in the boat and cries “Go away from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” Peter won’t let Jesus wash his feet at the Last Supper, but when Jesus says “You’ll have no part in me unless you do,” Peter cries “Not only my feet, Lord, but also my hands and my head!” And when Jesus is arrested, Peter makes a clumsy attempt to defend Jesus by cutting off the right ear of the slave of the high priest!

But sometimes Peter stumbles gloriously into the truth. While Jesus is on a retreat with his followers in the woods at the head of the Jordan River, Jesus asks who the polls say that he is. Every answer he hears is wrong. Only Peter gets it right: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus says, “Simon! Blessed are you! (Which means: You lucky guy!) You didn’t get this answer from any human source; you got it straight from God! So I’m going to call you Rocky. You have just unearthed the rock on which I will build my Knesset (my Assembly / Church), and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

Jesus makes Peter the chief rabbi in charge of the teaching that Jesus is passing down to his followers. Jesus gives Peter the keys to his kingdom, the authority to make binding decisions based on Jesus’ teaching after Jesus is gone. Jesus is not making Peter his Prophet or Pope. Peter is never called a prophet in the whole NT, and he doesn’t function like a channel for new revelation. Jesus simply says, “Whatever you bind (or loose) on earth shall be bound (or loosed) in heaven.” Any issue that Jesus did not specifically address on earth, or needs more explanation, Peter is authorized to address, to forbid or permit, with Jesus’ authority.

How did Peter fulfill this role? First, Peter is the one who plays a major role in certifying what Jesus said and did over the next 3 decades, when all sorts of disputable claims start cropping up about Jesus’ life and teachings. Nobody was present to see and hear all that Jesus said and did more than Peter, and only James and John had witnessed as much as Peter did.

Peter’s job is not to invent new words from Jesus, but to separate true from false. Peter will also be involved in settling 2 huge pieces of unfinished business: 1. Circumcision (do Gentiles have to convert to Judaism to follow Jesus?). 2. Kosher food. (In Mark 7:19, we read that Jesus “cleansed all foods,” probably a ruling from Peter, based on what Jesus said here.)

Jesus never said one word on abortion. But by 95 AD, a book called the DidachÄ“ or “Teaching of the 12 Apostles” makes it clear that abortion is part of what God forbids, along with sins like witchcraft and child molestation (which Jesus didn’t mention, either). How did the Church come up with this list of sins? No doubt Peter helped confirm Jesus’ position on these issues. But we see no evidence that Jesus intended these “keys of the kingdom” to last beyond Peter’s lifetime or to last beyond the lives of the apostles.

Peter hits the nail on the head on who Jesus is. But then he misses it by a mile when Jesus proceeds to tell them what that means. When Jesus warns that he must suffer many things and be killed, Peter takes him aside and says, “Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not happen to thee!” And Jesus says, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” Talk about whiplash! Any possibility that Peter would be an infallible leader gets quickly disproved. (You can bet that nobody made this up. Why would the early church record an episode that makes their leader look so bad unless it was undeniably true? It appears that Peter himself is the source.)

Peter sticks his foot in his mouth again big-time when he promises that he will never deny Jesus. Yet Jesus’ prediction comes true: Peter denies Jesus 3 times, another piece of historical bedrock. What does this do to Jesus’ teaching that “whoever endures to the end will be saved”? Does Peter’s denial mean that Peter is lost? Does Peter need to get baptized again? Or have we misunderstood what it means to “endure to the end”?

What is amazing is that Judas’ sorrow over betraying Jesus leads to suicide, but not so with Peter’s denial. Peter weeps bitterly, but does not throw away his life, which keeps Peter alive to see the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection. When reports about the empty tomb begin to circulate, Peter runs to the tomb to see if it’s true, before anyone hears that Jesus is alive and on the loose. But an empty tomb (by itself) only leaves Peter “wondering what had happened.”

When Jesus rises, Jesus makes sure that the women carry the news to Peter, and when the believers on the Emmaus Road return to Jerusalem, the believers in Jerusalem tell them, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” Paul also reports that Jesus appears to Peter before he appears to the 12. Oh, how I wish that we had coverage in God’s word for that scene when the Lord appears to Peter! But God decided that we didn’t need it.

After Jesus rises, Peter goes back to fishing in Galilee. But that doesn’t last long. Jesus appears onshore, and when Jesus engineers another miraculous catch of fish and the disciples realize that “It is the Lord!”, Peter jumps into the lake and rushes to meet him. After breakfast, Jesus gives Peter 3 chances to answer the question, “Do you love me?”

Certainly the fact that Jesus forgives Peter and restores him to leadership in the Church becomes a reason for mercy toward whoever may have denied Jesus when Nero began killing Christians. Later on, when the Christian faith was legalized in Rome, the fact that Jesus forgave Peter’s denial becomes the reason why church leaders who denied Jesus under threat of death were restored to office, although that mercy produced a serious split in the Church at that time. But Jesus’ mercy was not wasted on Peter. When Nero comes for him, Peter follows Jesus all the way to the cross – upside down, no less.

After Jesus ascends to heaven, Peter is in charge during the earliest days of the Church. At Pentecost, Peter serves as a powerful witness to Jesus’ resurrection: 3000 souls turn to Christ that day. Peter performs healings that grab people’s attention. He even raises Dorcas the beloved saint from the dead at Joppa.

But soon Herod executes James the brother of John and throws Peter into prison, hoping to do the same to him as well. James dies, but God miraculously sets Peter free from prison to go into hiding. Why does God save Peter, but not James? All we can say is that God wasn’t finished with Peter yet. Peter still has work to do, to settle unfinished business. Peter has a Gospel to dictate, and 2 letters to write. Imagine how much of our NT would have had to be written by someone else if Peter had died at this point! But one important change in the early church where Peter plays a major role is to open the door for Greeks and Romans to follow Jesus without converting to Judaism.

It all starts with a devout Roman sergeant named Cornelius. If ever there was a truly good man who was truly seeking God but had not heard how to reach God, it was Cornelius. God sends an angel to Cornelius who tells him to send for Peter, and tells him where to find Peter. Meanwhile, God must convince Peter to go when he hears from Cornelius, since Peter has been taught that non-Jews are unclean to eat with or visit their homes.

So God sends Peter a vision where he sees a sheet full of unkosher animals. It’s right before lunchtime, Peter is hungry, and he hears a voice saying, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat.” Peter says, “No, Lord! I’ve never eaten anything common or unclean.” But the voice says, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.” After Peter sees this vision 3 times, the Holy Spirit says to Peter, “Three men are looking for you. Go with them, and don’t ask questions.”

Peter has never been inside the home of a non-Jew before. Cornelius explains why he sent for Peter. He’s got all his friends and family there, waiting to hear whatever God has told Peter to tell them. God had to push Peter hard to get him inside this door, but now Peter can see that Jesus is for Jews and non-Jews alike. So Peter tells the group all about Jesus, and when he tells them about the forgiveness of sins, the Holy Spirit falls on the whole group, and Peter can see no reason not to baptize them. When the news gets back to the rest of the Church, and they hear the whole story, the Church begins to actively tell Greeks and Romans about Jesus.

Peter is not an infallible leader. Despite what God has taught him through his visit to Cornelius, later on at Antioch, Peter is afraid to hang out with non-Jews in the Church – he keeps his distance.. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul says he had to set Peter straight on that issue. Paul had to set the Galatians straight on that issue, too. Eventually, the Church figured out that they needed to make a clear church-wide policy decision on whether non-Jews needed to become Jews to follow Jesus. Jesus had not settled that issue in his teaching on earth.

So in 49 AD, we had the Council of Jerusalem, a meeting of the “apostles and elders.” Notice that Peter does not chair this meeting. Peter is not the Church’s Prophet or Pope here. But Peter has tremendous clout. Paul and his converts can testify to all that God has done to lead the non-Jewish nations to faith, but Peter is the key voice they will listen to.

Peter says, “God chose that the Gentiles should hear the Gospel from me and believe. God gave them the Holy Ghost, just like he gave to us. God made no distinction between us, purifying their hearts by faith [not by how well they obeyed the Jewish law]. Now therefore, why tempt ye God, to put a yoke on the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? [He’s talking about trying to obey the Law of Moses.] But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, just like them.”

Peter lays out the bottom line: we are saved by the grace of God alone, both Jew and non-Jew, not by how well we obey God’s law. Paul unpacks that message, but Peter puts his seal of approval on that message. And James the brother of Jesus simply announces the decision: you don’t have to convert to Judaism to follow Jesus.

After this, we don’t have any hard information on what Peter did or where he went for the final 15 years of his life. It sounds like Peter gained some fans at Corinth after Paul, and there are bits of evidence that Peter spent time in Rome. In fact, it would appear that all 3 pieces of God’s word that he helped produce were written in Rome: his 2 letters, and the Gospel of Mark, which was dictated by Peter, according to an early church writer named Papias around 100 AD.

Peter writes his first letter by the hand of Silas or “Silvanus” as his secretary. Peter addresses this letter to all the churches in 5 provinces of what is modern-day Turkey. Peter knows that believers are beginning to suffer for their faith. Peter points them to Jesus on how to handle it: “Christ suffered for us.” “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return. When he suffered, he did not threaten.” He didn’t yell, “I’ll sic my Dad on you!”

Peter makes the Gospel clear: “Christ suffered once and for all for our sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” Peter writes, “You know that you were ransomed…not by perishable goods such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ.” Peter also spells out the fact that Christ was without sin: “he did no sin, nor was deceit found on his lips.” (Peter spent 3 whole years with him; if there was any dirt on Jesus, Peter would know.) Therefore, Peter says, be holy yourselves, not like the wild lives the Romans live. After all, Peter declares to all who read his letter, “You are a royal priesthood.”

Peter writes his second letter, reportedly by the hand of a secretary named Glaucias. Because the Greek is so different from 1st Peter, many scholars through the ages have expressed doubts whether the letter is genuine. In fact, there is very slim evidence that early Christians accepted 2nd Peter as part of God’s word until after 300 AD. Because so few early Christians seem to have been aware of 2nd Peter, it may have survived at one point in only 1 copy. But eventually, the Church ended up recognizing it as true. I have written a post on the subject called “Is Second Peter a Fraud?” Search for it online. My answer is no, 2nd Peter is not a fraud.

The writer of 2nd Peter makes his letter impossible to accept as a pious fraud. Peter writes, “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” He claims to be an eyewitness. Surprisingly, Peter points not to Jesus’ resurrection as the event that validates his faith, but the Transfiguration: “We were there on the holy mountain!” In this letter, Peter says that “no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For no prophecy in old time came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.”

In this second letter, he knows that death is coming soon for him. So Peter addresses scoffers who ask, “Where is the promise of his coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation.” Here is where Peter declares that “one day with the Lord is as 1000 years, and 1000 years as one day.” Finally, Peter endorses the writings of Paul. He says that some of Paul’s points are “hard to understand,” but says that the ignorant and unstable “twist them to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.”

After his final letter, the apostle Peter ends up being crucified by Nero around 65 AD. No, he was not infallible as a leader. Yes, he had one major misstep along the way, and yet that failure gives us hope. We all wonder, “Will I die for my faith if I have to, or will I break under the strain, like Peter did?” We are told in Revelation that those who receive the mark of the beast are automatically lost. But Peter’s restoration after denying Jesus gives us hope – not an excuse to sin or deny Christ, but hope that the same Jesus who restored a broken follower like Peter can also restore us if we fail, God forbid.

We will soon be celebrating Thanksgiving. Next week, we’ll be taking a look at all the reasons God has given us for gratitude. Join us next time on Biblical Words and World!

A listener from West Jordan asks, “Does Elijah have the authority to execute people for falsely prophesying?” Excellent question! Deuteronomy 13 says that if any prophet (even if their predictions come true) says, “Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them,” that prophet “shall be put to death.” Does Elijah have the authority to invoke this law? All it takes is 2 or 3 witnesses, and the crowd that witnessed Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal is sufficient to be the witnesses and to carry out the sentence.