CHRISTIAN CHARACTER BUILDING
Principles from the Life of the Apostle Peter
Peter was a plain man. He was not a man of learning, a political or civil leader, or a man of celebrated reputation. The New Testament accounts of Peter present him as an ordinary, hardworking person. When we first meet Peter in his initial encounter with Jesus in Matthew 4:18, he is introduced as a fisherman plying his trade on the Sea of Galilee. In accord with the Jewish cultural imperative of the era that every son must be schooled in how to make a living, his father (or perhaps a close relative) would have taught him—and his brother, Andrew—the trade-craft of commercial fishing. This infers Peter was raised by his family as a conventional Jew in the Jewish traditions, as is well borne out a little later in his life; “I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.” (Acts 10:14)
It is true, of course, Peter does become a man extraordinaire under the tutelage and commission of Jesus Christ and the later gifting empowerments of the Holy Spirit. However, that is something Peter realizes only as his commitment to Jesus Christ deepens and his spirituality matures. Therefore, so as not to get ahead of ourselves, let’s look at some of the developmental aspects of Peter’s emerging Christian character. We will discover some lessons and insights which will apply to every Christian.
First of all, we ought to find it most encouraging that Jesus Christ calls ordinary people to follow him and serve him. The apostle Paul rehearses this in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29:
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.
Out of his ordinary life, Jesus called Peter to follow him. Are you among those who have likewise felt that strangely warm and welcome tug toward the Lord Jesus Christ? Have you in some way sensed a pull toward God? In your spiritual quest have you carefully considered yourself and found yourself woefully wanting, desiring a peace and a freedom you have been unable to attain? Have you heard the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s only Son and the Savior, Redeemer of fallen and lost humankind? Having listened to the gospel of Christ, have you responded, wholeheartedly embracing the grace of God and allowing God’s gift of eternal life in his Son to become real and actualized for you? Are you a believer in God’s good news about his Son?
Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)
How wonderful! Becoming a Christian by believing the gospel of God’s grace in Christ Jesus is the very first step in building Christian character. Such a personal decision of faith in Christ opens the prospects and privileges of what the Bible promises to believers when it says:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. (Ephesians 1:3)
Jesus Calls Peter
But let’s get back to Peter. Jesus called him. Peter laid down his fishing gear and followed him. For Peter, God’s call was peculiarly intense. God asked Peter to immediately and completely surrender his customary life and work and literally, unreservedly accompany Jesus full-time. For the great majority of those whom Jesus calls, he does not ask that level of discipleship. He expects us to continue in our societal roles, but nonetheless to now approach life with a renewed godly frame of mind and purpose.
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:2)
As we are progressively exposed to Peter’s personalty in the New Testament, we see him as a lively, eager, even impetuous person. He seems to act out his thoughts and impressions before carefully thinking them through. But isn’t that just like so many of us too? So often we just blurt out or act out without really considering the effects of our behavior. Ahh, but God knows our personalities and is patient with us as the Holy Spirit comes alongside to help us become more and more molded to the image of Christ, the author and finisher of our faith.
As Peter “follows” Jesus, we see one thing happening over and over and over again; Jesus is teaching and Peter is learning. Peter hears Jesus teach in synagogues, he hears him dispute with opponents, he observes him heal the sick and do acts of great mercy. Peter talks with the other disciples about what they are hearing, seeing and doing. Jesus speaks with Peter, personally as well as with the other disciples in a group, instructing him more carefully and with greater detail what his calling is all about.
This is an essential principle; once you have become a believer, it is imperative you put yourself under the influence of a properly prepared Christian teacher who is well grounded in the Bible and personal godliness. Normally, this would happen in a good Bible assembly with sermons/messages that clearly expound the Word of God and with classes and groups led by seasoned Christian leaders.
There is no shortcut, no substitute for learning Christian teaching or doctrine. After salvation, this is essential in Christian character building. Learning Christian doctrine is a fundamental truth, the very foundation upon which everything rests. Christian character cannot be built and formed without Christian doctrine. Peter exemplifies this aspect of Christian character development by affirming his learning of basic truth in Matthew 16:13-20 when Jesus asked who people were saying the Son of Man is. Speaking for the Twelve, Peter’s response was:
You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.
How did Peter (and the Twelve) come to this knowledge? By following and listening to Jesus Christ. Therefore Christ responded to Peter by saying:
This was not revealed to you by man, but my father in heaven. (Matthew 16:17)
Listening, observing, questioning, reviewing, hearing parables, witnessing debates and putting into practice what Jesus was teaching over a three year period—becoming a thorough disciple of Jesus Christ—was how Peter and the other apostles learned biblical truth. They were instructed and encouraged to query both their instructions and their Instructor. They spent time listening and thinking and working out what they were learning. Their text was the written Word of God (the Old Testament) and the living Word, the Lord Jesus Christ himself (“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of God’s being,” Hebrews 1:3). They became steeped in the things of God and divinely illuminated in the process. Learning God’s truth—through the Scriptures and godly teaching—is how Christian character is built and formed. This is the pathway believers need to follow.
When this foundation is effectively laid down, then the Holy Spirit uses this Christian doctrine and experience base to further enlighten, encourage and enlarge one’s Christian character. To use an old metaphor, the early months and years of initial discipleship in getting to know the written and the living Word is grist for the mill (“grist” is the wheat, buckwheat, oats, corn, etc. brought to the mill to be ground and prepared for practical value and profit.)
Peter’s Spiritual Progress
Did Peter move flawlessly through this process, never missing a beat and understanding everything the first time he was exposed to it? Of course not. No one ever does. The Scripture give us many examples of this process of missed steps and floundering. Remember Mark 3:17, when Jesus gave John and has brother James the not so flattering moniker “Boanerges,” which means sons of thunder? And recall also the apostle Simon, who was nicknamed “the Zealot;” one who was considered too politically right wing (Luke 6:15). Recall when Peter, near the end of his three year discipleship with Jesus and supposedly close to his “graduation,” reverts to the worldly tactic of whipping out his sword and slicing off the ear of Malchus, the high priest’s servant (John 18:10).
Once again, it is Peter who emotionally explodes in Matthew 26:33, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” But in just a matter of hours thereafter when he is exposed and accused by guards in the vicinity of Jesus’ trial before Caiaphas, the men say, “Surely you are one of them, for your accent gives you away.” At that charge Peter “began to call down curses on himself and he swore to them, ‘I don’t know the man’” (Matthew 26:73-74). Peter is here in a grievous departure from his discipleship.
Indeed, the process of spiritual growth and Christian character development is fraught with errors and stumbling blocks. Just like Peter, all believers grow gradually into their spiritual maturity. But occasional failing and falling, even severely, is not the central issue. What is imperative is to learn from our shortcomings and accept the tender patience and loving kindness of our Lord’s continuing instruction in our ongoing life as his disciple.
Peter’s Final Lesson
This leads to the crowning insight in Peter’s Christian character building as recorded in the last chapter of the Gospel of John. It would be helpful and wise to pause in your reading of this article and carefully read John 21 right now . . . .
Now recall the context: The tomb is empty, the women have reported what they witnessed to the apostolic band, Jesus has appeared to the disciples in the upper room and confronted doubting Thomas with:
Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe. (John 20:27)
Then our text tells us that some time later, “Jesus appeared again to his disciples by the Sea of Tiberius.” Several of the disciples had gathered together there and were simply waiting. Jesus had told them after his resurrection he would return to Galilee and meet with them there (Matthew 26:32; 28:7). How long they were supposed to wait is undisclosed. To stay occupied, Peter says “I’m going out to fish,” and his fellows agree to go with him. Apparently they intended this to be not merely a pleasure trip but a commercial enterprise to supply their economic needs because these several men stayed out all night in a fairly large boat equipped with nets.
However, by early morning they had caught nothing. In the dawning light they noticed a figure on the shore. The man called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” They called back, “No.” The man told them to cast their net on the other side of the boat … and suddenly their net was altogether full of good size fish. Then the disciple whom Jesus loved recognized who it was on the shore and said to Peter, “It is the Lord.”
As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, ‘It is the Lord,’ he wrapped his outer garment around him and jumped into the water.
While the text does not say so directly, I believe it infers Peter was expecting a repeat of his earlier experience in Matthew 14:29 when he actually walked on water. In that experience, Jesus asked Peter to come and join him to walk amidst the waves. In the present instance Peter fully clothes himself, seemingly not expecting to get wet, and impetuously leaps into the lake anticipating a neat walk to the shore on top of the water. After he realized he was going under rather than remaining on top of the water, Peter struggled back into the boat. He had been in no evident danger because the boat was at hand and they were not far from shore.
When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.
We are specifically told the fire was “of burning coals.” This involved the common practice of using charcoal, which gives off a definite, peculiar odor and atmosphere—as most of us recognize from our on forays into backyard barbecue cooking. It is a very understandable fact that our sense of smell is quite acute, and familiar odors have a remarkable way of recalling incidents and situations associated with the olfactory ambiance. How remarkable, then, that the last time we read of Peter sidling up to a charcoal fire was in the courtyard of Caiaphas after Jesus had been taken into custody.
Simon Peter and another disciple were following Jesus. Because this disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the high priest’s courtyard, but Peter had to wait outside at the door. The other disciple, who was known to the high priest, came back, spoke to the servant girl on duty there and brought Peter in.
‘You aren’t one of this man’s disciples too, are you?’ she asked Peter. He replied, ‘I am not.’ It was cold, and the servants and officials stood around a fire they had made to keep warm. Peter also was standing with them, warming himself. (John 18:15-18)
Having voiced his denial of Jesus Christ, Peter maintained his place by that fire alongside the guards who had forcefully taken Jesus (Mark 14:54). For about an hour he repeatedly and vehemently kept on denying Christ when he was confronted with the recognition he was indeed a follower of Jesus (Luke 22:59).
Now, as that band of disciples sat around the fire on the beach and ate breakfast with Jesus, lovingly exchanging glances with the Lord, isn’t it highly likely Peter would have a flashback about sitting around a similar earlier charcoal fire in Caiaphas’ court yard—at that time sucking up and agreeing with a group of men who were enemies of Christ? At the height of Peter’s slippage at the earlier fire when Peter mounted his final denial, a rooster crowed and Jesus “turned and looked straight at Jesus” (Luke 22:60,61). I believe all this was very much in Peter’s consciousness at this second fire in John 21.
After they finished breakfast, Jesus turned his attention squarely on Peter. The remainder of the account in the chapter is all about personal instruction for Peter. Much is often made of the different words for “love” in the consequent exchange between the Lord and Peter, and that is a good and helpful study. But there is something else here that is quite instructive. Three exhortations seem to stand out. While they are specifically addressed to Peter, the principles they present are applicable to every believer.
First, the Lord calls upon Peter’s memory and emphasizes forgiveness. Faults and failures are to be expected in Christian growth. But God is exceedingly patient. Don’t stare at your past transgressions; look steadily forward to God’s gracious forgiveness of all your sin because of Christ. Remember, Jesus paid it all.
Then Jesus motivates Peter with an emphasis on faithfulness; love me and serve me. Note carefully, loving the Lord deeply must come before serving him effectively. We must be very careful not to try and serve the Lord out of our own fleshly interests and strengths. It is never about you, it is always about him. The only proper motive for serving others is because of our love for the Lord Jesus Christ.
Thirdly, Jesus emphasizes focus on a personal Christ-centered forward movement; “You must follow me” (John 21:22). It really, truly does not matter what God is doing or will do with someone else. Peter exclaims, “Lord, what about him?” And the Lord’s response is, “What is that to you?” (John 21:22-23). Get your eyes off of everyone except Christ. There is only one Author and Finisher of our faith; the Lord Jesus Christ. He and he alone is worthy of our worship and service.
So what do we learn from Peter about Christian character development? When you hear the call of Jesus Christ, believe the gospel of God’s Son. From the Bible and godly teachers, learn the essential foundational truths of Christianity. Grow, progress, advance in your Christian experience over time as God develops your Christ-like character. And as you move into spiritual maturity, learn to practice and stress Christ’s exhortations of forgiveness, faithfulness and focus.
Rid yourself of all malice and all deceit,
hypocrisy, envy and slander of every kind.
Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk,
so that by it you may grow up in your salvation,
now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 2:1-2)