One day Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” Of all the questions Jesus asked his followers, this was probably one of the most important, because the answer would determine not only the nature and quality of their relationship with him, but also their response to the things he asked them to do.
What was applicable to them also applies to us and if we were to look at our relationship with Jesus we would see that our responses to him depend on how we see him. We would also realize that the way we look at Jesus changes with time, so our answer to the question—Who do you say I am?—also changes. It is vital, therefore, that although our understanding of who Jesus might never be entirely clear—he is, after all, God—we see him as he wants to be seen. The sooner we do this, the better it is for us—and the world around us.
In the apostle Peter, we find a wonderful example of how shifting perceptions of Jesus lead to different responses, and how, once the picture of Jesus becomes clear, Peter becomes a world-changer.
Let us look at a few key instances in Peter’s life, and as we go through them we will get the answers to these questions as well as acquire understanding about an important truth: the way we respond to Jesus is determined by how we look at him.
Let us begin with Peter’s first recorded encounter with Jesus which took place by the lake of Gennesaret. In this story we find that Peter has spent the entire night fishing and caught nothing. As the narrative begins, Peter is cleaning his nets, undoubtedly severely disgruntled, while just a few feet from him Jesus is preaching to the crowds.
“One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.
When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”
Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”
When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.
When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.
Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him” (Luke 5:1-11).
Peter knows he is in the presence of somebody not quite ordinary. He doesn’t know who yet, but he knows he stands before somebody who is divine. Faced with this knowledge, his reaction is immediate. He drops to his knees and pleads for mercy. Why? Because he knows that when a sinful human is confronted with a divine being there is only one result possible: instant death (see Exodus 33:20). But Jesus’ response staggers him as he is reassured: Don’t be afraid. And in this assurance we can almost hear the famous words from John 3:17: “I am not here to condemn you, but to save you.”
Then Jesus asks Peter to follow him. Scripture says that Peter leaves everything and follows Jesus immediately. Why? This question has direct relevance to us as evangelists, so let us study this deeper by contrasting his response with the response of another young man who was asked to follow Jesus. You will find this story in Matthew 19:16-22.
“Then someone came to him”, (in the gospel of Mark, it mentions this person fell to his knees before Jesus, just like Peter had), “and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”
And he (Jesus) said to him, “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”
He said to him, “Which ones?”
And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?”
Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (Matthew 19:16‑22).
Why did Peter follow Jesus immediately and not the rich young man? There are two main reasons. One, Peter was conscious of his sinfulness; the rich young man was very self righteous—he believed he was good. If we believe we are good (read: self-righteous) then we have no need for salvation. This has special relevance to evangelism and we will look at it in depth in our next lesson.
The second reason is Peter realized it was better to be with the blesser than with the blessings! Imagine this. Peter looks at his two boat loads of fish and fantasizes about the future. He would start his business called Peter Fisheries, selling Fried Fish, Pickled Fish, Salted Fish, Dried Fish, and become a huge fishing magnate! But then Peter looks at the man who made this happen and thinks: These blessings may not always be with me. But if I am with this guy I will always have the blessings!
So he goes with Jesus, leaving the miracle catch, and over the next several months Peter hears Jesus preaching, speaking the most extraordinary things he has ever heard. A lot of it sounds downright weird (Blessed are the poor? Really?), but he is fascinated, especially when Jesus starts to do some really cool things. He heals a leper, then a centurion’s servant, then Peter’s mother-in-law. Then he stills a storm before he kicks out a whole lot of demons in the country of the Gadarenes. Then he feeds five thousand people by multiplying five loaves of bread and two fish. And if all that wasn’t cool enough he proceeds to walk on water!
Which brings us to another story.
“Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 14:22-33).
This is one of the most amazing stories in the Bible because there are about a hundred lessons that can be learnt from it, but the important lesson to be learned for this session is how a little imagination combined with some spontaneity can catapult someone from the ordinary into the extraordinary.
The other apostles were in the boat along with Peter when they saw Jesus walking on the water and one can only wonder what went through their minds. Incredulity? Wonder? Fear? Awe? Whatever it was it left them dumbstruck, except for one man whose mouth always seemed to work faster than his brain, and while this can often be a liability, it can also be an asset. Peter sees Jesus doing something unnatural—or should I say extraordinary—and it triggers in his heart the desire to do something extraordinary too. So he says to Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He waits for Jesus to answer. Jesus says, “Come.” And then he steps out and does this amazing thing.
Not only is Peter beginning to realize who Jesus is, he is also beginning to realize his own potential when Jesus is with him. He is beginning to think of the things that Jesus said about those with faith moving mountains and working other miracles and begins to realize that all this might, indeed, be possible.
And then comes this question from Jesus to his disciples: Who do you say I am?
Son of the Living God
One day, when “Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:13-19)
There were many disciples who were asked the question; only one answered. Impetuous, impulsive, and spontaneous, Peter declared that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the living God. And Jesus told him that this was a revelation from his Father in heaven. Yet one has to wonder if Peter and the other apostles hadn’t known, or at least suspected, who Jesus was. So why was Peter the only one who answered? And why was he commended for his answer?
The other apostles know the answer; they have declared it after that amazing episode in the sea (see Matthew 14:33). But it is Peter who steps out and answers in this moment of truth. How does he do this? Because Peter is impulsive. He lets his heart speak for him and while the world always advises it should be the mind that should control the mouth many times it gets in the way! “Be practical,” it advises. That might very well be sound advice for worldly living, but it can get in the way for coping with spiritual truths. While the other apostles pondered over the question and how to answer it without making asses of themselves, Peter boldly declared that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
Let us engage in a little exercise of the imagination now. What if Jesus were to be with us for the first time in human history and after spending a couple of years with us, during which time we saw the same things the apostles saw, and heard the same words the apostles heard, and then one fine day were to ask us: “Who does the world say I am?”—how would we answer? This one is easy. We would probably say, “Well, the Muslims say you are a prophet; the Jews say you are a teacher; the Atheists say you are a fairy tale.”
“Very well,” he says. “What about you? Who do you say I am?” We respond by saying that he is the long awaited Messiah (which means savior), the son of God.
And he says, “Yes, you are right.”
The question here, after we have digested this amazing truth, is what would we expect him to do next. We’d expect him to destroy ISIS, smash Boko Haram, vaporize all his enemies, and set up a new kingdom on earth; it’s payback time.
That’s exactly what the apostles expected and why not? What else would you expect the Son of God to do? But then he tells them that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And do you know what our good friend Peter does? Let me quote Matthew 16:22-23 (incidentally, this passage immediately follows the one where he told Peter how blessed he was and how he was going to be given the keys to heaven).
“And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he (Jesus) turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Matthew 16:22‑23).
Talk about a paradigm shift! The Messiah was not going to be like Rambo who was going to kill his enemies, but was going to let his enemies kill him! Imagine if Jesus, in our imaginary situation, told you that he was not going to destroy ISIS but was going to let them kill him! We’d probably say the same thing that Peter said to Jesus out of love and concern. And in response Jesus calls him Satan! But then he gives us the reason why. He says we think in terms of the world; not of heaven.
That must have given Peter a lot to chew on. He had to; he needed to understand why he was called Satan by the Son of God.
Jesus, the Unfathomable
Now let’s move to another instance in Peter’s life, which follows directly from this story. At the Last Supper Jesus tells his apostles once again that he is going to die. This time Peter doesn’t shoot off at the mouth. He pauses to think first. “If I tell him that he shouldn’t die, he will call me Satan again. This time I will tell him that I am ready to die with him! Surely Jesus will now say that I think in divine terms.” But to his shock, Jesus scolded him again.
“Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” And he said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!” Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you have denied three times that you know me
As we all know that is exactly what happened.
Jesus was arrested, and watching the treatment he received, Peter had a very human reaction. He became afraid and tried to hide, but people recognized him. He denied that he knew Jesus and when he did so for the third time, the cock crowed. And Peter remembered what Jesus had said. Then Scripture says: “The Lord turned and looked at Peter” (Luke 22:61).
One can’t even begin to imagine what went through Peter’s mind at that time. Shame, guilt and despair must have chased each other, and weeping his heart out didn’t serve to alleviate any of it. He felt so bad, he went into hiding, choosing not to be there during his Lord’s final moments on the earth. And when Jesus died, all his plans died with him. How do we know that? Because Peter went back to fishing!
The God of Second Chances
One morning when Peter was fishing (again he caught nothing, which makes one wonder how good a fisherman Peter was) the resurrected Jesus appeared and told him to throw his nets to the right of the boat. When Peter tossed the nets into the water, they come up full with fish again and Peter instantly knew who stood before him. He jumped out of the boat to come to Jesus and after a breakfast of fried fish, Jesus asks Peter the second most important question of his life.
And this is another question that we need to answer. He asks Peter: “Do you love me?” He asks him this not once, but three times.
“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt 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.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
After this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:15-19)
In the end this is what it comes down to: do you love God? And if you do, then there is only one thing needed: feed his lambs and sheep and tend to them.