We can learn a lot about our relationship with God by studying the life of Peter. His journey with Jesus is a study in contradictions. In the midst of a raging storm, he impulsively climbed out of his boat at the invitation of Jesus to walk on water, only to divert his attention and sink like a stone (Matthew 14:28-30). His affirmation, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” brought him high praise and the prediction he would someday lead the church (16:13-19), but from that great height, he soon fell to receive a sharp rebuke (16:21-23). Then, after risking his life to defend his Master against a cohort of soldiers, he denied knowing Jesus to the rabble huddled in the courtyard at His trial (John 18:10, 17, 25-27).
But, after Jesus’s death and resurrection, a seaside reunion with the risen Lord changed everything. Peter learned that being a disciple requires one primary qualification: a willingness to follow.
1. “Follow Me.”
Simon’s brother, Andrew, had been a follower of John the Baptiser for some time when he first encountered Jesus. After witnessing the remarkable events surrounding Jesus’s baptism, Andrew took his brother to the man they would come to know as the Messiah (John 1:35-41). Soon after meeting Simon, Jesus gave him the name Peter (Cephas in Aramaic, Petros in Greek), which means “rock” (1:42).
Sometime later, perhaps after weeks or even months of interaction, Peter and his business associates were cleaning their nets by the Sea of Galilee after a long night of fishing. As they carried out the task, Jesus used Peter’s boat as a speaking platform.
When He had finished speaking, He said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered and said, “Master, we worked hard all night and caught nothing, but I will do as You say and let down the nets.” When they had done this, they enclosed a great quantity of fish, and their nets began to break; so they signaled to their partners in the other boat for them to come and help them. And they came and filled both of the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw that, he fell down at Jesus’ feet, saying, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” For amazement had seized him and all his companions because of the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, ”Do not fear, from now on you will be catching men.” When they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed Him. (Luke 5:4-11)
Peter’s reaction to the miracle of Jesus was similar to several Old Testament encounters (Exodus 20:19; 33:20; Judges 13:22; Job 42:5-6; Isaiah 6:5). When the simple fisherman recognized the divine power of Jesus, knowledge of his own sinfulness brought him to his knees, trembling with fear. Jesus responded to Peter’s act of worship and submission with two phrases: a reassurance and a call.
Peter had never been accused of being overly humble. In fact, throughout the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s ministry, Peter was frequently brash, quick to blurt out what others merely thought, impulsive, and let his emotions propel him through life.
On the night of Jesus’s arrest and trials, Peter warmed himself over a fire as the first trial of Jesus drew to a close. A relative of the man Peter had injured stood nearby, recognised him, and asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with [Jesus]?” (John 18:26). Peter’s vehement protest marked his third denial of Jesus that evening (18:27). Just then, as a rooster crowed in the distance, the door to the court chamber opened and Peter, gazing across the glowing embers of the fire, caught his Master’s eyes. Suddenly the weight of disappointment crushed the life out of him and he wept bitterly (Luke 22:60-62).
Shortly thereafter, a squad of executioners led Jesus to the outskirts of Jerusalem, stretched out His arms, and slowly killed Him. Three days later, He left the grave and began appearing to His many followers, including Peter and the other disciples. But after the flush of excitement had passed, an obvious question arose among the twelve who had left everything and followed Jesus: “What now?”
2. “I Am Going Fishing.” (John 21:1-14)
Peter, perhaps convinced that his failure had disqualified him from leadership, returned to the familiarity of his fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee, where at least he had a rudder to steer him through the tempest and where an honest day’s labour earned a decent catch of fish.
As the blue-grey twilight turned pink on the horizon and the prime time for fishing passed, Peter and his crew steered the boat toward the shore. Soon, however, his life would take a very different course.
But when the day was now breaking, Jesus stood on the beach; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. So Jesus said to them, “Children, you do not have any fish, do you?” They answered Him, ”No.” And He said to them, “Cast the net on the right-hand side of the boat and you will find a catch.” So they cast, and then they were not able to haul it in because of the great number of fish. Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” So when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put his outer garment on (for he was stripped for work), and threw himself into the sea. But the other disciples came in the little boat, for they were not far from the land, but about one hundred yards away, dragging the net full of fish. So when they got out on the land, they saw a charcoal fire already laid and fish placed on it, and bread. (John 21:4-9)
As the other disciples made it to shore, Jesus had a fire burning with His own supply of fish cooking over the flame. He invited His pupils to add their fish to His as He finished preparing their breakfast. After breaking the bread and dividing the cooked fish among them, Jesus sat by the fire and enjoyed the company of His friends (21:9-14).
3. “Do You Love Me?” (John 21:15-22)
Jesus gazed across the fire and put a difficult question before His impulsive student, Peter. When Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” He used the verb agapao the first two times. To these questions Peter responded using the word phileo. Of his own affection, Peter could be sure. As to commitment, his failure had left him with grave doubts. On the third inquiry, Jesus adopted Peter’s word choice, as if to accept the humbled disciple’s timidity.
We naturally expect that the person most qualified to be a leader is the man or woman who has the greatest natural ability and accomplishments. A significant failure usually means termination or demotion. That’s the way the world works. But not the kingdom of God. The chief duty of a spiritual leader is to follow Jesus!
After Peter’s dismal failure in the courtyard, humility displaced his bravado. Jesus took His emptied, forlorn disciple back to the beginning. With a huge haul of fish flopping in the background, the result of obedience to the word of Jesus, Peter heard—perhaps for the first time clearly—the simple call of his Master: “Follow Me” (John 21:19). The last recorded words of Jesus in the gospel of John appear especially emphatic in Greek. Literally translated, Jesus said to Peter, “You . . . Me . . . keep following.”
Peter’s personality resonates especially well in our democratic, entrepreneurial, self-determined culture. We cheer those who desire more power and wealth and those who inspire others with their infectious desire to conquer new territory or overcome daunting challenges. Those are the people we love to follow.
Leadership from the perspective of God is very different. Only one quality is required: a willingness to follow Jesus Christ. Your calling is unique because your journey will be unlike anyone else’s. Though it will affect others, it applies only to you. It is both costly and rewarding. It will likely lead you to places that frighten you now but will feel as natural as home when the time is right. Your only responsibility is the same as the only requirement of discipleship: obedience to the call. Follow Him!
As you examine the specific calling of Jesus Christ on your life, consider three important lessons from the call of Peter in John 21:1-23.
- When the Lord offers an opportunity to change futility into fruitfulness, be open to change. Be careful to avoid interpreting circumstances as indicators of God’s will. Note that Jesus called Peter to leave his profession as a fisherman—a significant change in direction—even after giving him a miraculously large catch. The Lord never hides His will from us. The difficulty lies in keeping other concerns from diverting our attention.
- When He plans to move you in a new and challenging direction, expect a period of deep soul-searching. Finding clarity can be a difficult challenge when distractions clamor for your attention. The days following the resurrection of Jesus were probably quiet ones for Peter, and he likely felt cast aside. But when the time was right, Jesus confronted His formerly impetuous disciple with a challenge. For Peter, the defining issue was love. Whom did he love and would honouring that love be his first priority? Once those questions had been answered, his future became clear.
- When He makes it clear that you are to follow Him in this new direction, focus fully on Him and refuse to be distracted by comparisons with others. Beware the power of comparisons! Even as Peter heard the call of Jesus for the fourth time, he could not resist a glance over his shoulder. John was the only disciple who had remained with Jesus throughout His ordeal. Jesus had even entrusted him with the care of His mother (John 19:26-27). Peter must have thought, Who am I compared to Mr. Faithfulness? But Jesus clarified the issue. John was responsible for John. Peter was responsible for Peter. And each had only one command to heed: “Follow Me.”
If anyone had disqualified himself as the leader of the Christians, it was certainly the one who denied his relationship with Jesus when the situation grew tense. Who would want an emotional, vacillating, firebrand to lead the people of God? Jesus did. After Peter came to recognize his own inadequacy apart from Christ, he became a rock-solid leader. As his story unfolds in the book of Acts, we can clearly see that when Peter fixed his eyes on Jesus and followed Him, others followed too. And they followed by the thousands.
Adapted from Charles R. Swindoll, Jesus: The Greatest Life of All (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 259-72. Copyright © 2008 by Charles R. Swindoll, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. Also from Insight for Living, Jesus: The Greatest Life of All Bible Companion (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 174-84. Copyright © 2007 by Charles R. Swindoll, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.