4.9 Bible Students
4.9.1 Peter: As A Bible Student
Peter was likely illiterate, and yet Peter was a Bible student.
We can almost sense a rather rare exaltation of spirit in the mind
of our Lord Jesus when Peter said those words: " Thou art the
Christ, the Son of the living God" (Mt. 16:16). In His humanity,
the Lord Jesus must have suffered so much from feeling totally misunderstood,
unrecognized, not appreciated for who He really was. The fact that
Peter so artlessly expressed his true grasp of who Jesus was led
Him to respond: " Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: for flesh
and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is
in heaven" (:17). And then Jesus goes on to say that the nature
of Peter's belief will be exactly copied by all members of His church;
it was to be on the rock of a similar faith that Christ would build
His church (v.18). So Peter's faith in Christ is being held up to
us as an example which we should all follow. Closer analysis makes
it evident that his attitude to God's word was the secret of Peter's
faith. Unless he had made some kind of personal effort to achieve
the faith which he did, the Lord would not have commended him for
it. God did not just chose to reveal the true nature of Jesus to
Peter as opposed to other people for no good reason. Faith is related
to our own effort in responding to God's word (Rom. 10:17); Peter's
faith in the Messiahship of Jesus must have therefore been related
to his attention to the word. For this Christ praised him, mentally
He enthused over that fisherman as they stood (or walked) on the
road to Caesarea.
Later on, we see another cameo of the Lord's love for Peter. There
was a crisis in the Lord's ministry, when " many of his disciples
went back, and walked no more with Him. Then said Jesus (surely
with a lump in His throat, a slight quiver in the voice) unto the
twelve, Will ye also go away? Then Simon Peter answered Him, Lord,
to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal
life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the
Son of the living God" (Jn. 6:66-69). Notice how again Peter's
faith in Jesus' Messiahship is related to his attitude to Christ's
words. His faith came by hearing the word. How Jesus must have loved
him in that moment. Peter loved Christ because of His words; that
was why he stuck to him, through the thick and thin of his own spiritual
collapses, through persecution, desertion and humiliation at the
hands of his own brethren. In other words, Peter realized that Christ
was His words, He was the word made flesh (Jn. 1:14). Unless we
too realize this in a practical rather than purely academic sense,
we just will not have the motivation to hold on like Peter did.
We can love the Bible, but not love the Christ it breathes. The
Jews searched the scriptures, thinking that by their Bible study
alone they would receive eternal life. But they never came to Christ
that they might know the eternal life that is in Him (Jn. 5:39,40).
They thought “eternal life” was in a book, a reward for correct
intellectual discernment and exposition, rather than in the man
Christ Jesus. And for all our Biblicism, Bible Christians need to
examine themselves in this regard. For like Peter as a Bible student,
we must be Christ-centred more than purely Bible-centred; we must
see Him “in all the Scriptures”, knowing that the whole word of
God’s revelation was made flesh in Him.
‘Simon' means 'hearing', one who listens. This was one of his distinct
characteristics. I'd like us to consider a number of points which
reveal Peter's attitude to the word.
- Firstly, something which indicates the depth of Peter's familiarity
with the Old Testament. Look at Mt. 16:22: " Peter took him,
and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord: this
shall not be unto thee" . Peter is quoting verbatim here
from Is. 54:10, which speaks (in the Septuagint) of showing mercy
to oneself. As an illiterate fisherman, he must have meditated
and meditated upon the words he heard spoken to him in the synagogue
readings. Let's be aware that in the preceding verse 21, Jesus
had been explaining that passages like Is. 53 pointed forward
to Christ's suffering and resurrection. Peter is responding by
quoting a verse a little further on, in the same context. If Peter
as a Bible student understood that Jesus was the Old Testament
Messiah, he surely understood, in theory at least, that the Old
Testament required a suffering Messiah. For him, of all men, to
discourage Jesus from fulfilling this was serious indeed; hence
Christ's stiff rebuke, likening him to the satan of His wilderness
temptations, in that Peter too misquoted Scripture to provide
an easy way out.
- Another example of relevant Old Testament quotation is shown
when Christ asked Peter to kill and eat unclean animals. He replied
by quoting from Ez. 4:14, where Ezekiel refuses to eat similar
food when asked to by the Angel. Perhaps Peter saw himself as
Ezekiel's antitype in his witnessing against Israel's rejection
of the word of God in Christ (note how Ez. 4:16 is a prophecy
of Jerusalem's destruction in AD70). 'In the same way as God made
a concession to Ezekiel about this command to eat unclean food',
Peter reasoned, 'so perhaps my Lord will do for me'. But the Lord
was to teach him even greater things than Ezekiel.
- Peter's unswerving respect for his Lord's word is seen as he
looked out of that sinking ship on Galilee, battling with his
own humanity as he weighed up in his own mind whether to be spiritually
ambitious enough to get down into that raging water. He only felt
able to take such a leap of faith if he had Christ's word behind
him. So he yelled out above the noise of the wind: " If it
be thou, bid me come unto thee" (Mt. 14:28).
In other words: 'With your word behind me, I'll have a go; without
it, I won't'. How much spiritual ambition is there within us?
Or do we huddle in the sides of the ship, or desperately expend
our own strength to bring about our salvation, without even seeking
the word of Christ?
- Peter's preaching in Acts is largely comprised of quotations
from Old Testament passages- probably ones he had eagerly meditated
upon during his fisherman days, and then throughout the three
and a half years of foot slogging round Galilee that followed.
- He was one of the few who really grasped the meaning of the
Lord's miraculous provision of bread, and the discourse which
followed. The Lord had said that He was the living bread, of which
a man could eat and live for ever. Peter's comment that only the
Lord had the words of eternal life showed that he quite appreciated
that it was the words of the Lord Jesus which were the
essential thing, not the physicality of the miracle (fascinating
as it must have been to a fisherman; Jn. 6:51 cp. 68).
- Despite having toiled all night and caught nothing, Peter as
a Bible student was able to subdue his natural wisdom, his sense
of futility, and the sense of irritation and superiority which
exists in the experienced working man: " Nevertheless (how
much that hides!) at thy word I will let down the
net" (Lk. 5:5). It would seem that the parallel record of
this is found in Mt. 4:18, which describes the call of the disciples
soon after Christ's triumphant emergence from the wilderness temptations.
We learn from Jn. 1:41,42 that it was Peter's brother, Andrew,
who first told Peter about Jesus, and who brought him to meet
Jesus first of all. The point is that at the time of Peter's call
as he was fishing, he had probably heard very few of Christ's
words personally. He had heard about Him, and listened to His
words for perhaps a few hours at different times in the past.
So where did he get this tremendous respect for the word of Christ
from, which he demonstrated when Christ called him? The answer
must be that he meditated deeply on those words that he had heard
and understood, and came to appreciate that the man saying them
was worth giving all for. Our far easier access to God's word
does not seem to make us more meditative as individuals. We have
access to hearing God's word which previous generations never
had. We can listen to it on a Walkman, have tapes of well read
Scripture playing at home, analyze it by computer, hear it sung
to us according to our taste in music, read it from pocket Bibles
as we work and travel... we can and could
do all these things. My sense is that we just don't make use of
our opportunities as we should. Why has God given our generation
these special opportunities to be ultra-familiar with His word?
Surely it is because our age contains temptations which are simply
more powerful than those of former years. So it is vital,
vital for our eternal destiny, that we do make as much use as
possible of all these opportunities. We should be cramming,
yes cramming, our hearts and brains with the words of God. I certainly
get the feeling that Peter as a Bible student would have listened
to a tape of Isaiah on his Walkman if he had one, as he went out
fishing; that he'd have had tapes of the Psalms going all evening
long in his little fisherman's cottage, wife and kids caught up
in his enthusiasm too (Mk. 10:10,15 suggests that the incident
with the little children occurred in Peter's house). There are
a handful of Christian homes where this spirit is truly seen.
- With this background, it is not surprising to read that when
a nervous Peter heard Moses and Elijah speaking God's word to
Jesus, " he wist not what to say" (Mk. 9:5,6), and earnestly
desired to make the three tents so that the wondrous experience
would last the longer. There was Peter, hearing words intended
to encourage the Son of God, fearful of his own humanity, evidently
not understanding the depth of the glory which God's word was
revealing, yet ever eager for more, to just bask in the experience
of it. Would our sense of our own sinfulness, and our thirst for
the word of God, was like that man's.
- Years later Peter as a Bible student was to comment on this:
" There came such a voice to (Christ) from
the excellent glory...and this voice which came from heaven we
heard...we have also a more sure word of prophecy,
whereunto ye do well that ye take
heed" (2 Pet. 1:18,19). Notice the progression in his reasoning
here. Peter considered it such an honour that he could hear the
words which God primarily intended for Christ. And even more wondrous,
the word of prophecy which we have all heard is an even more
wondrous revelation of God's glory than the word of God which
came at the transfiguration. Yet do we even begin to reach that
sense of wonder which Peter had on the mount? That sense of rapture,
of real spiritual transport, of reaching out of earthly things
into Heavenly, that desire for the experience never to end, even
though we realize that we only understand a fraction of the infinity
which is revealed by God's word?
- Paul was Peter's hero, partly because of the spiritual depth
of his writings " according to the wisdom given unto him"
(2 Pet. 3:15,16). And Paul made precisely the same point as Peter;
that the Scriptures which were relevant to Christ are actually
directly applicable to us too, who are in Christ. Thus Paul reasons:
" Christ pleased not himself, but as it is written (he quotes
Ps. 69:9), The reproaches of them that reproached thee fell on
me. For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written
for our learning...." (Rom. 15:3,4). So here
Paul points out a well known Messianic prophesy, applies it to
Christ, and then says that it was written for us. This
is exactly Peter's point, when he says that the words which were
spoken to Christ at the transfiguration were also for our benefit,
and that the word of prophecy which we have is to be treated in
the same manner as if we had been cowering with Peter on the mount,
hearing the words which Moses and Elijah spoke to Jesus.
- Appreciating the extent of Peter's devotion to Christ's words
enables us to more fully enter into the man's spiritual and emotional
tragedy when he denied Christ. He paid no attention to Christ's
words of warning concerning Peter's own spiritual weakness. After
that third cock crow, " Peter remembered the word
of the Lord , how he had said unto him..."
(Lk. 22:61; " how" may refer to the physical manner
in which Christ spoke to Peter, as well as to the content of his
- When he received a vision he didn't understand, Peter "
doubted in himself what this vision... should mean...while Peter
thought on the vision..." (Acts 10:17,19). His seal for understanding
was rewarded. Perhaps the revelation was made to him first because
the others were not sufficiently sensitive to the word to accept
- When the Angel told Peter as a Bible student " Gird thyself,
and bind on thy sandals...and follow me" (Acts 12:8), he
was alluding back to the Lord's words to Peter, that when he would
be old, others would gird him and carry him to his death (Jn.
21:18). The Angel was therefore saying that the time of Peter's
death had not yet come. The lesson is, that the amount of comfort
and reassurance Peter took from the Angels' words would have been
proportionate to the degree to which he had meditated on his Lord's
prophecy. And so with us.
Now this Peter, our example of faith, was a working man. He freely
recognized this, yet (in later life) he was unafraid to rebuke the
high flying intellectuals who were wrecking the first century ecclesia.
He likens his rebuke of them to the " dumb ass speaking with
man's voice" which rebuked Balaam (2 Pet. 2:16). This was what
he chose to identify himself with; that inspired donkey. There was
no great trained intellect in Peter; yet his zeal for God's word
puts us to shame. As the time of the end progresses, it seems that
more and more of Christ's church (in the Western world) are educated
people. In this I see a tremendous danger. A man who could probably
not read, who probably wrote his inspired letters by dictation because
he couldn't write himself, had a zeal for understanding which puts
us to shame. Paul correctly made the point (and who more aware that
his intellectuality could run away with him than Paul) that God
has chosen the weak things to confound the mighty; He has chosen
the simple of this world to confound the wise (1 Cor. 1 and 2).
I get some kind of intuitive feeling that Paul had Peter at the
back of his mind as he wrote this letter to working class Corinth
(1 Cor. 1:26). The deep mutual respect between theologian Paul and
fisherman Peter is a real working model for our ecclesias. And we
could go on to show how although John used a very limited vocabulary,
he rose to depths of insight that are well beyond his most intellectual
critics. Martin Hengel asserts of John’s Gospel: “This Gospel cannot
come from a Galilean fisherman”(1).
But why not, given the example of Peter?
So Peter as a Bible student is a sure encouragement to all those
who feel that Bible study is beyond them. If we have a true love
of Christ, we will have a love of His words, because He is to be
identified with His words. Likewise God is His word (Jn. 1:1); to
love God is to love His word. If we love Christ, we will keep His
words (Jn. 14:15,21; 15:10). This is evidently alluding to the many
Old Testament passages which say that Israel's love for God would
be shown through their keeping of His commands (Ex. 20:6; Dt. 5:10;
7:9; 11:1,13,22; 30:16; Josh. 22:5). Israel were also told that
God's commands were all related to showing love (Dt.
11:13; 19:9). So there is a logical circuit here: We love God by
keeping His commands, therefore His commands are fundamentally about
love. Thus love is the fulfilling of the law of God; both under
the Old and New covenants (Rom. 13:10). It is all to easy to see
our relationship with God and Christ as a question of obedience
to their words, as if this is somehow a test of our spirituality.
This is to humanize God too far, to see God as if He were a fallible
man; for if we were God, we would institute some kind of written
test for our creatures: 'Do this, and if you don't, then I know
you don't love me'. The God of glory is beyond this kind of thing.
He is His word. If we love Him, we will be eager to know His words,
we will dwell upon them, we will live them out in our daily experience
as far as we can. In our seeking to know an infinite God, we will
of course fail to see or appreciate the spirit of all His words.
But He appreciates this. Yet in a sense our attitude to His word
is an indication of our state of 'in-loveness' with God. Reading
His word will not be a chore, a mountain to be grimly climbed and
achieved each day; it will be a vital and natural part of our daily
life, as natural and spontaneous as our desire to eat; and even
more so (cp. Job 23:12). Now there's a challenge;
not to relate to God's word as we do to daily physical
food, but even more so .
(1) Martin Hengel, The
Johannine Question (London: SCM, 1996 ed.) p. 130.