One of the most interesting characters in the Bible is Simon Peter, whom Jesus made the rock of the new Church. (Catholics consider Peter to be the first Pope.)
Peter is interesting because he had a “great attitude” and wanted to do the right thing. However, he was, after all, just a man, and would often slip up either because his zeal would “overshoot” or because of simple (and totally understandable) fear.
For example, when Jesus walked on water and approached the disciples who were in a boat, Peter had the boldness to step out himself onto the water. But after a few moments his “reason” kicked in and he began to sink, calling out to Jesus to save him.
On the mountain when Jesus is transfigured, Peter recognizes the significance of the moment but suggests building a tabernacle to Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, which isn’t really the appropriate thing to say–but it’s sort of cute from our comfortable perspective.
At the Last Supper, when Jesus begins washing the feet of His apostles as an example of how they too must be servants, at first Peter refuses to let Jesus do it. Jesus explains that unless Peter allows Him to wash his feet, then Peter has no part in Jesus. So then Peter overshoots and says, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!” You can almost hear Jesus thinking, “It’s all or nothing with this guy.”
One of the most amusing parts of the entire Bible, at least to me, is this story from Matthew 16: 21-23:
21 From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day.
22 Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!”
23 But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”
I love everything about that little tale. What’s particularly funny is that this occurs just a few lines after Jesus declares Peter to be the rock of His Church. Perhaps that’s why Peter was feeling confident enough to actually rebuke the Man he had recently declared to be the Christ, the very Son of God. (I also love that Peter took Jesus aside before rebuking Him. I think Peter was trying to be discreet when he set Jesus straight about what was going to happen.)
Of course, the other incredible thing about this episode is that Jesus doesn’t say, “Actually Peter, you are in error. The whole purpose for my life is to die on the cross.” No, Jesus actually calls him Satan. Yikes! But Peter is the kind of guy that can shake it off and end up winning (while filled with the Spirit) three thousand souls for Christ in a single sermon.
Naturally I’ve saved the most obvious failure of Peter for the end: He denied Jesus three times after Jesus had been delivered by Judas into the hands of His enemies. Those of us familiar with the gospel accounts know them so well, that it’s hard to recreate just how badly the other humans treated Jesus right before His death. It wasn’t simply that Judas literally sold Him out for 30 pieces of silver, and it wasn’t even that the crowds who had recently sung hosannas to Jesus (and who had seen Him heal many of the sick) now called for His brutal murder. No, even Jesus’ closest followers and friends ran for their lives when He was arrested. And even Peter, of all people, who had proclaimed at the Last Supper that he would die with Jesus, would deny that he even knew Him–three times in a row, and (apparently) within earshot of Jesus (though I can’t find that detail right now, it’s not in all the gospels).
It’s hard to grasp that. If you wanted to, you could focus on that (and it is entirely plausible, now that I’m an adult and have witnessed firsthand what we’re all capable of) and walk away thinking humans are really worthless wretches, who deserve to wallow in the misery they impose on themselves. And yet, what turns the whole story around into a “happy ending” is that Jesus doesn’t draw that conclusion, and indeed even after being literally tortured to the point of death, looks to heaven and asks God to forgive everyone. As Napoleon reputedly said, “I know men, and I tell you that Jesus Christ is not a man.”
Last thing to wrap up this post: At the end of the gospel of John, after Jesus has risen from the dead and sporadically appears to the disciples, we read this:
15 So when they had eaten breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of Jonah,[a] do you love Me more than these?”
He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.”
He said to him, “Feed My lambs.”
16 He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of Jonah,[b] do you love Me?”
He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.”
He said to him, “Tend My sheep.”
17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of Jonah,[c] do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?”
And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed My sheep…”
It’s pretty obvious, but I don’t think I heard anybody spell this out: Jesus is here giving Peter a chance to affirm Jesus three times in a row.
I think this is a good metaphor for how God interacts with humans in general. Obviously Jesus isn’t suffering from self-esteem issues here; He has literally just defeated Satan and conquered death itself, so I’m guessing He was in the zone as it were.
No, clearly the reason He keeps asking Peter if he loves Him is to help Peter forgive himself for his awful failure just a short while before. Until Peter totally gets over that, he won’t be able to be the leader that Jesus has been constructing for years.
I don’t have all the details worked out in my mind, but lately I’ve been thinking that this type of consideration explains why God has such an apparently “monstrous” system of justice, whereby an innocent Man has to die, in order for God to forgive everybody else for their sins. I think a large part of the story is that we wouldn’t accept it if God just forgave us directly. But when we see that Jesus suffered and died, it’s easier psychologically for us to say, “OK well Jesus did that, so such a work could overcome the magnitude of all the awful things I’ve done so far in my life.”