What does it take to be a Christian or a disciple of Jesus (Acts 11:26)? How good do you have to be? How strong does your faith have to be? How certain do you have to be about who Jesus is and what He’s done and His will and promises? How much do you have to know and understand? What if you find yourself often scratching your head not understanding Jesus or things that He says? What if you have wrong beliefs about some things and you don’t know it? In “Churches of Christ” there’s a tendency sometimes I’ve noticed to think that in order for someone to be a true disciple there’s a whole list of doctrinal issues that they have to believe correctly on. But what if someone doesn’t yet understand all those matters correctly yet? Can they be a disciple? What is it to be a disciple of Jesus?
I’d like us to do a little character study of a certain disciple we’re told about in Scripture, one that we all know was a true disciple, we might even say one of the greatest disciples to have ever lived.
John 1 tells us…
How his relationship with Jesus began
It was about 26 A.D. He was a young ordinary married Jewish man. He lived in Bethsaida Galilee. He made his living as a fishermen. He was not the shy, quiet, reserved type. He was outspoken, enthusiastic, energetic, and often impulsive. He was the sort of guy to often act or speak first and think second. His name was Simon.
Like many Jews, maybe most of them in the area at the time, Simon believed that that interesting fella named John who was preaching out in the wilderness and baptizing people in the Jordan River was a true prophet of God. And so did Simon’s brother, Andrew. One day Andrew was standing beside the prophet John when Jesus walked by, and saw and heard John point at Jesus and say, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” So Andrew and another guy who heard John say that went and hung out with Jesus for a day. After spending one day with Jesus, Andrew was so excited that he went to his brother Simon and said, “Simon, we have found the Messiah,” which means the anointed one; it’s a title for the one God has chosen to be king over His people. “Simon, we’ve found the king that the Scriptures promised that God would raise up among us. You’ve got to come check this guy out.” And so Simon was brought by his brother to meet Jesus.
You never know. Somebody that you bring to church just to check things out, just to get an idea about Jesus from a sermon and the songs and interaction with His people, that may being a relationship with Jesus and that person may even become great in the kingdom.
When Simon came to Jesus he came with baggage.
With bags full of misconceptions and flaws and misplaced ambitions. Simon was a typical Jew in that day, molded by the culture he lived in. He was prejudice against Gentiles. He thought God didn’t care much for them and he shouldn’t have to either. His hope and dream was for the coming of this great King and Savior promised in the ancient Scriptures and for the kingdom that He would establish. But in Simon’s mind, and to his great delight, the coming of that kingdom entailed driving the Romans out of their land and conquering those pagans, and the king would sit on a throne in Jerusalem, like King David and Solomon of old, and the Jews would rule the world and enjoy earthly peace and prosperity and live happily ever after. Simon believed strongly that that was what was going to happen, and he believed it was going to happen soon, because the prophet John the baptizer was saying, “The kingdom is at hand,” and, “after me is coming the one whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.” So Simon believed that this great triumph of the Jews over the Gentiles was on the horizon and he was zealous to be a contributing part of it. Simon brought of all that misguiding thinking and passion with him to Jesus.
We all, when we first come to Jesus, come with baggage, don’t we? We just bring other misconceptions that we’ve acquired from our upbringing or from our family or our culture. We bring our own thinking about the world, about certain other people, about what’s right and what’s wrong, and how things should be. We have our own desires for what we want Jesus to be and what we want Him to do.
When I look at Peter’s story I see…
Three qualities about Peter that enabled him to become a genuine saved disciple of Jesus
#1, Peter was…
Humble enough to be open to the possibility that his expectations and his way of thinking could be wrong in some way
He wasn’t so arrogant to think that he couldn’t be wrong. As Andrew led Simon to Jesus and Simon saw Jesus for the first time, he may have been a little disappointed at Jesus’ appearance. There was nothing kingly about Jesus’ appearance. He wasn’t what you’d expect of a great warrior who would lead the overthrow of the Romans. He was pretty plain ordinary looking. But though Jesus wasn’t in appearance what hewas hoping for, Simon was quickly amazed because he didn’t even need to introduce himself to Jesus. Jesus spoke first when they met and He said, “You are Simon the son of John; you shall be called Cephas” (in Aramaic, Petros in Greek, Peter we say). It’s a word that means a stone or a rock. So this man Jesus that he’s never seen before somehow knows him a bit and seems to claim to know something about his future, that he’ll in some way be like a stone.
So Simon/Peter began to hang out with Jesus often to get to know Him. And the more he hung around Jesus, the more Jesus did not meet his expectations. I think Jesus was far more peaceful and gentle and loving of His enemies than Peter thought He would be. And Jesus never talked about fighting the Romans. At Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, the locals wanted to throw Jesus off a cliff because He suggested that there would be a time when He would turn from the Jews to bless Gentiles. That wasn’t at all a part of Peter’s picture. His teaching was totally different from that of the Scribes, from the scholars who were supposed to be the experts on the Bible. Jesus wasn’t fitting with Peter’s way of thinking. But the more Peter hung out with Him, the more impressed and amazed he was with Jesus. His teaching, though not traditional, was amazing and made so much sense. I think he was impressed with Jesus’ unselfishness, the beauty of His character, and His power to heal all kinds of diseases and handicaps and to cast demons out of people. And when the demons saw Him they would cry out things like, “What business do we have with each other, Jesus of Nazareth? I know who you are – the Holy One of God.”
And so the more Peter hung out with Jesus the more convinced he became that his way of thinking had just been wrong. That’s crucial to becoming a disciple, to be open to the possibility that I’ve been wrong, to be willing to honestly consider evidence that goes against what you’ve thought before.
Here’s a second quality that I see in Peter, it’s what we call…
Poor in spirit
I see this early in his relationship with Jesus (Luke 5:1-8). One morning, after he’d been fishing on the Sea of Galilee in his boat all night and not caught a thing, he was back at shore cleaning his nets, tired, disappointed, mad, stressed about how he was going to pay the bills. There was a huge crowd of people on shore because Jesus was nearby. Jesus came and got into Peter’s boat, and said, “Peter, can you take us away from shore a bit so I can get some space between Me and the crowd.” And so Peter got in the boat with Him and rowed them out from shore a little ways. Then Jesus taught the crowds from the boat for a while. Then when He’d finished His teaching, He said, “Peter, let’s go out in the deep water and you throw your nets in and let’s catch some fish.” Peter said, “Are you kiddin’? You know I just fished all night and didn’t catch a thing, and I’ve already cleaned up the nets, and it’s the wrong time of day for fishing right now?” “I know that. Let’s go catch some fish.” “Okay, I think it’s an exercise in futility, but because You say so I’ll do it.” So they go out in the deep water and Peter take his clean nets and throws them in. Immediately he’s got fish! He’s got fish galore! He’s got so many fish he can’t pull the net up. The boat’s leaning over and the net’s starting to tear. It’s like every fish in the lake trying to squeeze in. He calls his buddies James and John to get in a boat and come help him. They somehow manage to get the net up and pour the fish into the boats, and the weight of the fish almost sinks the boats. Peter falls down on the deck the boat at Jesus’ feet and says, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” What is that? That’s what Jesus calls “poor in spirit.” Peter didn’t think that he had any credit with God. He knew God did not own him a thing. He knew that He was unworthy of God’s favor, and unworthy of being in the presence of someone so close with God that God’s power is at His command. He felt undeserving of Jesus’ friendship.
That’s a right attitude, isn’t it? God didn’t have to give us life to begin with. That was an undeserved gift. And we’ve been ungrateful for it and we’ve sinned. We don’t deserve anything more from God.
And I think that attitude is very attractive to Jesus and made Peter stand out to Jesus. Remember how Jesus began the sermon on the mount? The first beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Why is that? Well, you think about it, it is those people who know that they are unworthy and undeserving of a relationship with God, that are going to be very grateful at the opportunity of a relationship with Him, and they’re going to take advantage of that, and they’re going to cherish that relationship, and they’re going love Jesus for His forgiveness and friendship, and they’re going to stay with Him even when it gets to be difficult, and so the Lord can work on a person like that.
Here’s a third thing I see about Peter.
He came, because of the evidence, to trust Jesus enough to follow Him, even to the extent of leaving everything.
He’s on the deck of the boat in front of Jesus and Jesus says, “It’s alright, Peter. Do be afraid. I’ve got a new occupation for you. From now on you’re going to be catching men.” Jesus called Peter and James and John according to the other gospel accounts saying, “Come follow me.”I think these men figured if Jesus has this kind of power and authority and they have Jesus, then they don’t need fishing. All they need to be alright is Jesus. And they trusted Jesus power and authority and goodness and wisdom enough, that they left everything, left all the fish for other people to have and they followed Jesus.
I think Peter was a genuine bona fide disciple of Jesus right there, don’t you? And I think Jesus accepted him and he was saved. Jesus would tell his followers later, “Don’t rejoice that the demons are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven” (Lk 10:20). I think Peter was saved and he was a disciple, but Peter was still carrying lots of bags of misconceptions and flaws. Peter still had lots to learn and lots of corrections and improvements to make. But he was saved.
It appears to me that the Lord Jesus still takes in the same sort of people as His disciples. I think you see it all through the book of Acts. I think of those 3,000 in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost from various parts of the world. They learned from Peter that Jesus, the miracle worker, whom they crucified God has raised from the dead and made both Lord and the promised King. And they were convicted, “That’s right. We were wrong. We crucified the risen Lord. What do we do?” And Peter said, “Well, first of all repent. You need to change how you’ve been thinking and living, and realize that Jesus is Lord and decide that now you’re going to listen to Him and try to do His will in your life. You need to make that commitment. And each of you be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins. And God you will give you also the Holy Spirit.” And it says as many as received his word were baptized and that day there were added 3,000 souls. Jesus accepted them and took them in as disciples. But you know those Jews had a lot to learn about their new king and His will and His plans. They had a lot of misconceptions to be corrected. They still had prejudices to be overcome. Think about Cornelius and his household and the pagan Philippian jailer, they each had just one lesson on Jesus that convinced them that Jesus is the risen Lord and Judge of all creation and that He has forgiveness and eternal life to give to all those who will trust Him enough to leave whatever and follow Him and they’re supposed to be baptized in His name. But how much more did they know than that? I don’t think much more. But they committed themselves to Jesus and were baptized and the Lord took them in with all of their baggage.
Peter’s progress as a disciple was sometimes kind of rough and sometimes kind of slow and sometimes kind of ugly.
Not just for Peter, but for all these disciples, progress was rough. A regular description Jesus had for His disciples, Peter included, was “you of little faith,” because they struggled sometimes with uncertainty. I think Peter was in the group arguing about which one of them was the greatest. He still had a selfishness problem, like we all do. He still had selfish ambitions that had to be overcome.
One day in Caesarea Philippi after Peter been following Jesus around for a couple years, Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Well, some say your John the Baptist risen from the dead. Some say you’re Elijah, or Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter as usual spoke up first and said, “I know who you are. You are the Christ,” which means the Messiah, the anointed one, the King. “You are the Son of the living God” because that’s what the king that God chose to be over His people was called in the OT, God’s Son. “Your Him, Jesus. You’re the one we’ve been waiting for. You’re going to be our ruler.” Jesus said, “Blessed are you Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you but My Father who is in heaven. Good job, that’s the right answer.” But though Peter got the language right, he had wrong ideas in his mind about what that meant that Jesus is the Messiah. He was thinking, “You’re going kick out the Romans and rule from Jerusalem and things are going to be much better for us here in Palestine.” So then Jesus began to explain to them that He’s going to go to Jerusalem, He’s going to be arrested and beaten and crucified and die and then rise again on the third day. And Peter said, “Whoa, whoa, no way hose,! You are not going to do that. Jesus, that’s just not going to happen. Quit talking like that.” Jesus said to him, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” Peter’s feelings were hurt, I’m sure. Do you ever feel like arguing with Jesus? Do ever read something in His word that honestly you don’t like? It clashes with everything you’ve thought and what your family believed. Or you don’t like how He’s handling your life? You don’t understand Him. But though Peter wasn’t understanding Jesus at the time and his feelings were hurt, He stayed with Him, He’d kept listening to Him, He kept trusting Him, He kept learning. He kept asking questions, like, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus had to help him understand, “How about like 70 times 7.” “Lord, we’ve left everything and followed You; what then will there be for us?” “Lord, when will the temple be destroyed like You say and what will be the sign of your coming that you speak of?” That’s being a disciple of Jesus. It isn’t understanding everything or liking everything Jesus says, but it’s trusting Him and continuing to follow Him and continuing ask questions and learn from Him.
A time a great testing and failure came for Peter.
Testing I think that’s part of being a disciple. I Peter 4:12, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you…” It’s part of being a disciple. There will be tests. They were in the Garden of Gethsemane and Jesus is a stone’s throw away and He’s crying and praying, then here comes the mob led by Judas to arrest Jesus. Peter is no coward. The first thing Peter does is takes out a sword. And he thinks, “Now is the time. Finally, we’re going to fight. Finally, we’re going to rise up. Finally, we’re going take Jerusalem. Finally, we’re going to put Him on the throne as king.” And Peter swings the sword at somebody in the mob intending to split open his head, but the guy ducked like this and Peter just sliced off his ear. Jesus said, “Stop! No more of this! Peter, put your sword away. Don’t you know I could appeal to My Father and at once have at my disposal more than 12 legions of angels if I wanted to fight.” And He picked up the guy’s ear and restored it back on his head. Peter must have thought, “What? What have I been following You all this time for? How can You take Jerusalem and drive out the Romans if you’re not going to fight?” Then when Peter followed from a distance into the court of the high priest, shaking his head, “I do not understand this guy,” and his distraught at what’s happening to Jesus, and a slave girl points at him and says, “Aren’t you one of His disciples?” And he says, “No, I don’t know the man.” Then he was warming himself by a fire with the servants and officers of the high priest, and they say, “You’re one of his disciples.” “No, I swear by God don’t know him.” And someone later, “Certainly you are one of disciples, you even have a Galilean accent.” And he cursed and swore, “I do not know the man.” Then the rooster crowed and Peter remembered that Jesus told him he would that. Then Jesus turned and looked right at him. And so he went out and wept bitterly. He was so ashamed of himself, so sorry, so distraught at what was happening to Jesus, so confused.
Have you been a failure of a disciple for a time in your life? Was there a time when you fell away, turned your back on Him, decided you’re going to do things you’re own way in life? Does that mean that you are not disciple material? Does that mean you’ve burned your bridges with the Lord?
Was this the end of Peter’s discipleship and his relationship with the Lord?
Absolutely not! After the resurrection when Jesus had appeared to them a couple times and they knew He was alive, but He wasn’t staying with them. He’d come and talk to them for a bit and then He’d leave. It had been a few days since they’d seen Him, and Peter said, “Well, I’m going fishing.” Some of the other disciples said, “We’ll go with you.” They fished all night and didn’t catch a thing. As day was breaking in the morning there was this man standing on the shoreline, too far away to really make out who he was. And the man called out, “Hey, have you caught anything?” And they say, “No, we haven’t caught a thing all night.” He said, “Well, cast your net on the right-side of the boat, there’s fish over there.” That makes no sense at all. How does this guy know there’s fish over there? But they do it. The nets aren’t clean yet. Might as well give it one more cast. Immediately they’ve got so many fish they can’t pull the net up. John said, “It’s the Lord!” And Peter threw himself into the water and swam to shore. The others rowed the boat to shore, dragging the net along. And there’s Jesus sitting on the shore with a fire built, cooking breakfast. He said to them, “Well, bring some of those fish and come eat.” They eat fish and bread together. And after they’d all eaten, they’re all sitting there next to the huge pile of fish and looking at Jesus, and they’re all just flabbergasted He’s alive and they’re eating breakfast Him. Then Jesus looked right at Peter who denied Him 3 times and He asked Him 3 questions. He said, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” Some think He means more than these other disciples. But I think He may mean more than these fish. Do you love me enough to leave fishing behind for Me like you did before? Now that you have a better idea of who I am, now that I’m different than you thought, do you still love Me more than fish?” Peter said, “Yes, Lord; You know I love you.” Jesus said to Him, “You tend My lambs. You be a shepherd of My people. This isn’t over between us, Peter. You don’t go back to fishing.” Then He asked him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” “Yes, Lord; You know I love you.” “Shepherd My sheep.” Then a third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” “Lord you’re breaking my heart. You know all things. You know I love you.” “Tend my sheep.” And then Jesus told him something about the kind of death by which he would glorify God when he’s an old man. Church history tells us that he was crucified, but crucified upside down at his request because he didn’t consider himself worthy to die in the same manner as his Lord. Jesus tells him a bit about that, and then said to him, “You follow me, Peter. You follow Me to death.” And Peter turned around and pointed at John and said, “Well, Lord, and what him? Does he have to die for you too? Why are picking on me?” And Jesus said, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!” And Peter recommitted Himself to Jesus and to the work that the Lord wanted Him doing. And the Lord took Him back and empowered him with the Holy Spirit and used Peter as a foundation stone on which He built his church.
Even as an apostle and leader of the early church Peter still wasn’t perfect.
Peter still had things to learn and improvements to make. The Lord still wasn’t done working on Peter. For about eight years he still had his prejudices against the Gentiles. He still looked down on them and didn’t associate with them. You remember what God had to do to get Peter to go to Cornelius’ house and preach the gospel to those Gentiles? He had to send an angel to Cornelius telling him to send for Peter, and had to give Peter that vision telling him “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy,” and then the Spirit had to tell Peter, “You go with the Gentiles that are downstairs looking for you. I’ve sent them.”
But then after he got the lesson that God does not show favoritism, that God loves the Gentiles too and will accept them just like He does Jews, the Lord still had work to do on Peter. One day both Peter and Paul were at Antioch and they were meeting with the Christians there and Peter was sharing meals with the Gentile Christians and fellowshipping with them like they were just as important as the Jewish brothers and sisters, until some Jewish brethren from Jerusalem walked in the door, and Peter thought, “Uh oh, they’re going to see me eating with Gentiles as if we’re all equal, and they’re not going to like me if I’m treating Gentiles as equals. And they’ll probably go back and spread rumors about me.” And so Peter immediately got up and moved away from the Gentiles and went and hung out with just the Jewish brethren. Hurt the Gentile brethren’s feelings, I’m sure. He’s treating them like there’s something unclean about them. Well, Paul was there and Paul saw Peter do that and he saw even Barnabas follow Peter’s lead and move away from the Gentiles. And so Paul stood up in front of everybody and rebuked Peter, said, “Your behavior does not match the gospel we’re preaching.” Oh, I bet that embarrassed Peter. It embarrasses me and I hate when people take me aside just in private and show me where I did something stupid or said something wrong in my sermon, let alone if they were to do it publicly. But a cool thing about Peter is that even at this stage in his walk with the Lord, when he’d come so far as a disciple and he was a leader of the church, he was still open to the possibility of being wrong in some way, and he had the humility to listen to a rebuke, to take it, to think about it, to realize it was deserved, to admit he was wrong and change.
I love the story of Peter, because he was like me, in that he was weak, he was flawed, he struggled to know what was right often, he messed up many times as a disciple. But he had the humility to be open to correction and change and to continue to repent as he saw where he was wrong and he continued to trust the Lord and learn from Him and be molded by Him. I think that’s what it really is to be a disciple.
I want to end with one passage from Peter that he wrote toward the end of his life when he knew the time was imminent that he would die as the Lord told him he would.
Peter’s summary of what it is to be a disciple
He wrote this in letter to be circulated among Christian churches. He gives this summary what it is to be a disciple of Jesus. II Peter 1:4ff, “For by these [God’s glory and excellence] He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust [in other words God wants us to become like Him and unlike the world]. 5 Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, 6 and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, 7 and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love.” You keep working on developing these Christlike qualities in your life, keep learning, keep growing. And then he tells them in the verses that follow that if these qualities are yours and are increasing, if you’re progressing spiritually in these ways, then you’re going to be fruitful for the Lord and the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord will be abundantly supplied to you (v8,11).
I think the Lord has lots of grace and lots of patience and lots of continued forgiveness for disciples who stay open to correction and change and who continue to try to be like the Lord and let Him continue to shape them into who He wants them to be.
– James Williams