13-4-3 The Letters Of Peter
Peter’s letters are packed with allusion, consciously and unconsciously,
to the Gospel records. And yet closer analysis reveals that he has
an undoubted fondness for two areas: the cross, and incidents which
include his own weakness, both morally and intellectually. In this
lies Peter’s power, and it must have made him quite some pastoral
figure in the early ecclesias. He could plead with men, both in
and out of the Faith, with a credibility that lay in his ready acceptance
of his failures, and his evident acceptance of his Lord’s gracious
forgiveness and teaching. Consider how he tells Ananias that Satan
has filled his heart (Acts 5:3), alluding to what everyone full
well knew: that Satan had desired to have him too, and in the denials
he had pretty well capitulated (Lk. 22:31,32). Peter’s disciplining
of Ananias, so soon after his own deference to the pressures of
Satan as opposed to those of the Lord, would have been done surely
in subdued, saddened and introspective tones. There also seem to
be a number of unconscious allusions by Peter back to his own failures-
e.g. “Go shew these things unto James, and to the brethren” (Acts
12:17) was an allusion to the women being told to go and shew the
news of the resurrection to the brethren and Peter, who
was then in spiritual crisis. Those words, that fact, was ingrained
upon Peter to the point that he unconsciously builds it in to his
own words. Consider the following examples in the letters of Peter
of how he uses the areas of his own failures as the material for
- Peter must have felt to the false teachers with whom he contended
as he did towards Ananias. He warns that they even deny the Lord
who bought them (2 Peter 2:1). They even do this- as
if denying the Lord was the worst possible, imaginable sin. And
it was the very thing which he had so publically done, three times,
and had effectively done again when bowing to Judaist false teaching.
They deny “the Lord”- and that had been Peter’s favourite title
for Jesus during the ministry (see Peter And Christ).
As he warned of the evil of the apostate brethren, his own sense
of personal failure and frailty was so evidently shown. And yet
it was no reason for him to simply say ‘So, I can’t judge, I can’t
criticize another after what I did’. What he had learnt from the
whole experience of forgiveness and grace was that the wondrous
grace and atonement of Christ must at all costs be preached
and preserved. Pliny records how Christians were asked to make a threefold denial of Christ (Epistles 10.97). It has been suggested that the account of Peter's threefold denials of Christ has been included in the Gospel records as an encouragement to those whose faith failed them that still there was a way back to restoration with the Lord Jesus, just as there had been for Peter. When Peter encourages his persecuted brethren to resist the "roaring lion" of Roman / Jewish persecution (1 Pet. 5:8), he is therefore to be seen as writing against a background in which he had actually failed the very test which his brethren were facing. Yet he can therefore even more powerfully encouraged them, because he had also experienced the Lord's restoring grace.
- And he goes on to speak of how these men loved “the reward
of unrighteousness” (2 Peter 2:13), using the very same Greek
phrase he had used earlier about how Judas betrayed the Lord for
“the reward of iniquity” (Acts 1:18). Judas and Peter had committed
in essence the same sin of denying their Lord, and at the very
same time. Peter would have intensely been aware of this. And
yet he holds up Judas as a prototype of all who fall, as if to
say: ‘And there, but for the Lord’s grace, nearly went I. See
the terror of it, and turn away from that road. I of all men can
tell you that’.
- These Judas types “are carried with a tempest [in] the mist
of darkness” (2 Peter 2:13). The Greek for “carried with a tempest”
only occurs elsewhere in Mk. 4:37 and Lk. 8:23 in description
of how Peter and the disciples, proud of their sailing ability,
were driven by the storm / whirlwind in the darkness. The Greek
for “tempest” is highly specific- it refers only and specifically
to the whirlwind storms which can arise on Galilee. Peter clearly
intends the allusion back to the night when he too was driven
in a Galilee whirlwind, and had been rebuked for his lack of faith.
He is really saying that he too has been a condemned man and can
relate to how they feel; yet he was converted out of it, and came
to gracious forgiveness. And so, he implicitly appeals, can each
of you my readers be.
- He urges his brethren: “Gird yourselves with humility to serve
one another” (1 Peter 5:5 RV). This is a clear reference to the
Lord’s humility at the last supper. But it had been Peter who
didn’t perceive it. Now, it is as if he pleads with his readers
not to be as slow as he had been to perceive the supremacy of
- The letters of Peter urge his readers to “be mindful of the
words which were spoken before” (2 Peter 3:2). Yet this is evidently
alluding to the frequent references to the disciples being slow
to “remember” [s.w. “mindful”] the words which their Lord had
“spoken before” (Lk. 24:6,8; Jn. 2:17,22; 12:16). Indeed, the
same word is used about Peter ‘remembering’ [s.w. “be mindful”]
all too late, the words which his Lord had “spoken before” to
him (Mt. 26:75). So Peter was aware that his readers knew that
he had not ‘remembered’ the words his Lord had “spoken before”
to him- and yet, knowing that, he exhorts his readers
to ‘remember’ or ‘be mindful’ [s.w.] of words which had been previously
spoken. His readers likely had memorized the Gospels by heart.
And yet Peter asks them to learn from his mistake, not to be as
slow to remember as the disciples had been, and he especially.
This is the basis of powerful exhortation- a repentant life, not
an appearance of sinlessness.
- Peter had found it hard to accept that truly “God is no respecter
of persons” (Acts 10:37). And, as was well known, there had come
a time when he had slipped back into the old mindset, and had
once again respected persons by refusing to break bread with Gentiles.
And yet he reminds his Jewish readers that their prayers ascend
to a Father “who without respect of persons judgeth according
to every man’s work” (i.e. Jew or Gentile, 1 Pet. 1:17).
He was asking them to learn what he had so slowly and falteringly
come to accept as the articulation of the very same grace to the
Gentiles which had been his salvation too.
- He asks his sheep: “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of
man…unto governors…as free…honour all men” (1 Pet. 2:13-17). This
is all evident allusion to the way he had once felt that as free
in Christ and in Israel, he didn’t need to submit to men and pay
taxes. But the Lord had gently rebuked him, and provided the coin
to pay for them both (Mt. 17:25-27). The Gospels records would
have been well known amongst the early believers; there is a tradition
that at least the Gospel of Mark was learnt by heart as part of
instruction for baptism. Peter’s readers would have known of the
incident, and now, here he is telling them to learn the lesson
he had had to learn.
- The letters of Peter recount the transfiguration experience,
and tells his brethren that they need to take heed to the word
(2 Pet. 1:16-18), just as he had to be almost rebuked: “This is
my beloved Son: hear him”. Peter loved the word (see
Peter: Bible Student), but so often didn’t hear it, and
at the crucial moment didn’t remember his Lord’s word. He had
said “at thy word” I will let down the net; but when he saw the
huge catch, he was amazed; he realized that he hadn’t really believed
his Lord’s word. And he knew he was simply “a sinful man”, worthy
of condemnation for his lack of faith (“depart from me”). He had
to be taught that his own natural abilities were nothing at all.
He was taught this in relation to fishing (see Peter And The
Cross), to his faithfulness, commitment to laying down his
life for Christ. He was made to learn that he knew nothing as
he ought to know. And he implicitly admits this to his readers,
when he asks us to take heed of the word which we may think we
well know, just as he had to. Peter learnt the lesson of the transfiguration,
for he told the Jewish authorities that he had to hear God’s word
rather than theirs (Acts 4:19).
- ‘Be babes’ he exhorts, ‘and grow as they do’ (1 Pet. 2:2).
The same word occurs in Lk. 18:15 in description of the “infants”
whom Peter rebuked. The Lord’s response had been to tell Peter
to be like them (Lk. 18:17). And, having been humbled into learning
something of a child’s teachableness, a babe’s desire for the
sincere milk, Peter now asks others to learn the lesson.
- James and John had desired the senior places in the Lord’s
Kingdom. “And when the ten heard it, they were moved with indignation
against the two brethren”, and we can imagine Peter to have been
the most indignant. For he had thought then that he loved the
Lord more than any of the others (cp. Mt. 26:33; Jn. 21:15). “But
(in admonition) Jesus called them unto him” and taught that only
in the world did men worry about who was greatest and mind that
others were over them, and went on to teach that the true greatness
was in humility: “whosoever will be great among you, let him be
your servant: even as the Son of man came not to be ministered
unto, but to minister, and to give his life…” (Mt. 20:25-28).
These words were lived out in epitome at the last supper- and
again, Peter had objected to it. He had failed to grasp the Lord’s
teaching here. And having learnt the lesson finally, he can teach
others that they like their Lord should not ‘lord it’ over their
brethren, but rather be clothed with humility after the pattern
of the kneeling Lord in the upper room (1 Pet. 5:3,5).
- They were to “be watchful” (1 Peter 5:8 RV), watching unto
prayer as the end approaches (4:7), as Peter had not been watchful
in the garden and had earnt the Lord’s rebuke for going to sleep
praying (Mt. 26:40,41). They were to learn from his mistake. Their
watchfulness was to be because the devil was prowling around,
seeking whom he could desire (5:8). This was exactly the case
with Peter: satan desired to have him, he should have prayed for
strength but didn’t do so sufficiently (Lk. 22:31). He was warning
his brethren that they were in exactly the situation he had been
in, a few hours before he went into that fateful High Priest’s
- The “day of visitation” is coming for us all, according
to the letters of Peter (1 Peter 2:12). The Greek is related to
the word describing how after the denials, Christ turned and looked
upon Peter (Lk. 22:61). This was for him his day of judgment,
which we must all pass through.
- They were to be ready always to give an answer to those who
ask, albeit with fear (1 Pet. 3:15)- exactly what Peter failed
to do on the night of the denials.
- Peter, in a rare autobiographical comment on his life before
conversion, admits that he “walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess
of wine…running with them (the Gentiles) to the same excess of
riot” (1 Peter 4:3,4). He uses the same Greek word as in Lk. 15:13
regarding the riotous behaviour of the prodigal. He saw himself
in that younger son, rejected by the Judaistic elder brother,
who would not sit at meat in table fellowship with him. According
to other NT allusion, we are to see the prodigal as a symbol of
all of us who will ultimately sit at meat with the Father in His
house. And yet Peter makes the link plain for all to see.
And the power of David’s exhortations in later life was because
he had been through the Bathsheba humiliation; James could tell
others not to speak against their brother (James 4:11 RV) knowing
full well he had done the same to Jesus, his brother. Preaching
and pastoral work is so often powerfully achieved on the basis
of having personally experienced grace.
Not only in warning does Peter allude to his own weaknesses. The
two on the way to Emmaus commented that they thought Christ would
have “redeemed” Israel (Lk. 24:21). A.D. Norris makes a powerful
case for one of those two being Peter (Peter: Fisher Of Men
p.109). The only other time the Greek word is used is (again?) by
Peter in 1 Pet. 1:18,19, where he reassures his weary sheep that
“Ye were redeemed by the precious blood of Christ”- as if to say
‘it’s really all wonderfully true! I too doubted it, as you know.
But I know now that it is true; even I was redeemed, from the shame
of those denials, and so much else. Believe it with me!’. After
all the Lord had taught about salvation, the eloquent and yet simple
explanation of salvation in the Kingdom through His death, Peter
and the others thought that His cross (“precious blood”) hadn’t
brought redemption. How weak their understanding was, how slow they
were. And Peter again is gently prodding from his own example and
pattern of growth: ‘Can’t you see the reality of it all? Or are
you still as inexplicably slow to see it all as I was?’.
Looking back, it must have been shameful for Peter to recollect
how he had sought to dissuade the Lord from going up to Jerusalem
to die there for the world’s redemption. At that time the Lord had
called him a rock, upon whose declaration of faith he would build
his church, and then soon afterwards a stumbling-stone, an offence.
Peter combines these two descriptions in styling the Lord “the head(stone)
of the corner (upon which the ecclesia would be built), and a stone
of stumbling, and a rock of offence” (1 Pet. 2:7,8). There is undoubted
allusion to the very titles which the Lord had given Peter. And
yet here Peter applies them both to the Lord Jesus, even the “rock
of offence”. His point perhaps was to show that he saw Christ as
manifest in him, and he being “in Christ”, even in his weakness.
Nothing could separate Peter from the love of Christ; and therefore
he merges the titles of Christ with those of himself, even when
they describe his weakness. This was the unity that was possible
between a man and his Lord, and Peter holds it up in inspiration
to his readers.
‘The Lord’ to Peter meant ‘the Lord Jesus’. He comforts them that
the Lord knows how to deliver the Godly out of temptation (2 Pet.
2:9). Surely he was referring back to how the Lord Jesus had prayed
for him, knowing the temptation that was to come upon him in the
High Priest’s house, knowing Satan’s desire to have him (1).
And although it might have seemed that in the short term Peter’s
weakness rendered that prayer powerless, in fact in the end, his
faith didn’t fail, just as the Lord had prayed. And so from his
own example he could comfort his readers that surely their Lord
knew how to deliver from temptation, even if like Lot and like Peter
those he delivers may deserve to be left to the outcome of their
own words and actions.
Remembering The Word
One of the themes in Peter’s second letter, written as it was at
the very end of his life (2 Pet. 1:14), was that of the need to
“remember” the words of the Lord Jesus (2 Pet. 1:12,13,15; 2:3;
3:1). This was with evident allusion (the same word is used) to
the way that on his shameful night, Peter had remembered the word
of Christ, and wept those bitter tears of ineffable regret (Lk.
22:61). As Paul in his time of dying remembering his row with Mark
(2 Tim. 4:11), so awareness of sinfulness is a sign of spiritual
maturity in us all (2).
Peter knew some of his sheep were weary with the way, and needed
a like repentance and subsequent energizing which he had known.
He was wishing all his readers (and that includes us) a path of
growth that followed his. He had always known the words
of Christ; indeed, he had loved them. He shows himself an enthusiast
for Bible study and reflection on the Lord’s words (see Peter:
Bible Student). But he didn’t remember them in that they weren’t
living as a compelling force within his conscience. After his first
denial and the cock crowing, surely he ‘remembered’ the Lord’s words:
that before the cock crowed twice, he would deny Him thrice. He
must have shrugged off that first cock crowing as coincidence, sure
he wouldn’t deny again. And then the second denial- well, there
was no cock crow, so, don’t worry… But he wasn’t aware enough of
his own liability to failure to have the Lord’s warning words in
the forefront of his mind. He didn’t pause to reflect that the cock
would soon crow again, and therefore he would be sorely tempted
to make the third denial. He knew the word of the Lord, but failed
to remember it. And this he now realized. And he urges his readers
to learn more quickly and less painfully what he had to be forced
When dealing with the tricky ecclesial situation which arose over
the admission of the Gentiles, Peter had truth and right on his
side. But in his account of what happened to the elders, he constantly
makes allusion to his own failures. “Then remembered I the word
of the Lord, how that he said…” is an unmistakeable reference
to his remembering of the Lord’s word all too late after his denials.
It’s as if he was saying: ‘And there I was again, not remembering
the Lord’s word, not facing up to what it obviously implied, almost
denying Him again by hesitating to accept these Gentiles’. He comments
that the vision of the unclean animals came “even to me”, as if
he was the least worthy to have been involved with this work.
The point of all this is that we will only strengthen our brethren
as Peter did after ‘conversion’ in the sense of facing up to our
own sinfulness (see Peter’s Conversion). “When thou art
converted, strengthen thy brethren”, the Lord had said (Lk. 22:32).
His appeal for repentance and conversion was evidently allusive
to his own experience of conversion (Lk. 22:32 cp. Acts 3:19; 9:35).
He invited them to seek forgiveness for their denial of their Lord,
just as he had done. He dearly wished them to follow his pattern,
and know the grace he now did. He reminds his sheep of how they
are now “returned” (s.w. ‘converted’) to the Lord Jesus (1 Pet.
2:25), just as he had been. Now Peter was converted, he was strengthening
his brethren. This theme of strengthening was evident in Peter’s
letters (s.w. 1 Pet. 5:10; 2 Pet. 1:12; 3:17). Some of his last
written words were that “Ye...be established in the present
truth” (2 Pet. 1:12); he uses the same Greek word which the Lord
used when He asked Peter so strengthen his brethren (Lk.
22:32). Peter at the very end knew that he had made it. His awareness
of his own failures was at the root of his appreciation of his Lord’s
grace, and this was the motive power behind all his pastoral work.
We’re all priests, Peter reminds us (1 Pet. 2:5); we’re all converts,
and therefore strengtheners of our brethren. But it can be that
we are nervous to show any chink in our armour. A speaking bother
who frankly confesses an intimate failure would likely not be asked
to speak again. Some would twitch in awkwardness as he made his
confession from the platform. We’re all fine, we’re all obedient,
just a few surface failures, and we want to help you and teach you…that’s
the feeling so many a church, gathering and member can give. When
if we are honest, we each have some huge skeletons in our cupboards.
We all struggle, if we know the call of Christ at all, with the
frailty and laziness of our natures, with a low, low pain threshold,
over which we so easily say ‘this shall not be unto thee’. What
I am suggesting is a more frank admission of failure, more open
and unashamed personal testimony to the Lord’s grace and the newness
of life that there is daily in Him (not to the exclusion of the
ministry of the word, of course), a preaching and exhortation by
example to our brethren.
(1) Not only did the Lord pray
that Peter’s faith wouldn’t fail. He repeatedly made the point in
the lead up to Peter’s temptations that His disciples really did
know Him (Jn. 14:7,17; 15:21; 17:3), and He taught them that
all men must know they were His disciples, if they truly
were (Jn. 13:35). He was trying to strengthen Peter against the
trial He knew would come: to deny that he knew Him. Likewise we
may try to strengthen those prone to specific temptation, but the
power of it depends on their recognition of their own weakness,
and whether they have ears to hear. It would seem Peter didn’t,
so confident was he of his own strength.
(2) One wonders about the way
that Peter describes the apostate believer as drunk in the day time
(2 Pet. 2:13), when he had dismissed with a confident logic the
claim that he was drunk at Pentecost by saying that it couldn’t
possibly be so, because it was early in the day and people can only
get drunk at night (Acts 2:15). Could it be that his perception
of sinfulness and the grossness of this present evil world had increased
by the end of his life?