06 Nov 2011

Peter, the Rock

Religious 27 Comments

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.”

27 Responses to “Peter, the Rock”

  1. Durbo says:

    Peter missed out on true greatness partly because his failures continued after the events in the Book of John. Although he is the rock of the Church, the New Testament was fleshed out by Paul and John.

    In Acts 10:9-16 we read where in a vision, he refused to eat unclean foods. He did it three times.

    In Galatians 2:11-14, Paul had to rebuke him to his face because he starting living like a Jew when certain men came from James.

    And through all this Jesus never gave up on him. Tradition has it that Peter was crucified up-side down, because he did not consider himself worthy of dying in the same manner as Jesus.

  2. Durbo says:

    Great article by the way

  3. K Sralla says:

    “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.”


    Believe me. I really like and appreciate you. I really think you are trying to understand this in your own mind.

    However, this is a case where you mangle the substitutionary theory of the atonement through a new theory (God did it this way where man would be more apt to forgive himself). I realize that most folks don’t know or care about these things, and one may ask why it matters, and how any heathan is won to Christ with the ancient tale of violence and brutality that makes up the core of the gospel message. But it matters for the most profound reasons.

    God, by definition, can do anything he wants that is consistent with his character and his being. If his nature would have allowed, he might simply have waved his divine hand over every person that ever lived and pronounced them “forgiven”. *If* such a hypothetical god (with the attributes of perfect justice and love) had done this, by definition, we would be forced to conclude that such a plan would have been perfectly just. The God of the Bible did not do this.

    The fact that God did not see fit to accomplish redemption in such a manner might suggest that such a method was not perfectly just and loving. Christians can be confident in stating that the most perfect plan for accomplishing the redemption of mankind was through the substitutionary atonement of Jesus. This was a bloody human sacrifice that propitiated God’s just wrath toward sinful humans, and expiated the offenses of the same. In other words, it pleased God the Father to completely vent his just anger owed sinful human beings on the perfect, sinless man Jesus. God provided himself an unblemished “lamb” to lay upon the alter as a sin offering. Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

    As Christians, before we make new “rational” theories of the atonement, it is good to think deeply about the old substitutionary theory of the atonement, and discover the unspeakable beauty that is foolishness to the perishing, but eternal bliss and joy for those who trust in Christ, God’s own perfect lamb, who was the only sufficient sacrifice capable of removing our guilt.

    One last suggestion. Read Arnold Dalimore’s biography of George Whitefield. In this very enjoyable read, you see the power of preaching sound doctrine in a compelling way. It was the doctrines of grace that broke the hearts of two nations. When the Wesley’s finally gave up on preaching self-righteous efforts, that’s when the power was also manifest in their preaching. The power in the gospel lies in it’s seemingly foolish story. Yet when we believe it, floods of joy unspeakable fill the soul. As humans beings trapped in an age of atheism and nihilism, try telling the old old story. There is still power there.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      K Sralla, I am not denying that the way God did it is the most perfect and just. I am trying to figure out why that is the case.

      There is precedent for God’s laws vis-a-vis humans being influenced because of our limitations. E.g. Jesus saying Moses gave them the law regarding divorce because of the hardness of their hearts.

      You can classify it as nihilistic atheism, but I think it is entirely fair when critics of Christianity say, “Let me get this straight: Your system is based on a view of justice that says your sins are forgiven for a little while if you slay an animal and spread its blood over the altar, and for all time if you murder an innocent man? That’s disgusting.”

      Yes, since you and I believe God instituted that very system–which I think you would agree would strike us too as barbaric if we encountered Aztecs doing it–then we know it is actually perfectly just. And I don’t see what is so heretical in me suggesting that maybe one of the things God had in mind was that the ancient Israelites needed some kind of venting mechanism to relieve their guilt, since they couldn’t keep the law. Etc.

      • Major_Freedom says:

        And I don’t see what is so heretical in me suggesting that maybe one of the things God had in mind was that the ancient Israelites needed some kind of venting mechanism to relieve their guilt, since they couldn’t keep the law. Etc.

        What did the ancient Israelites do that humans since then have not done, that necessitated a more barbaric God back then (OT), but not now (NT)?

        • Bob Murphy says:

          They didn’t have you and the Internet to set them straight, for one thing.

          • Major_Freedom says:

            That’s strange, I always thought that what a person does are the actions they themselves engage in, and not what someone else says or does.

  4. antiahithophel says:

    Good afternoon, Dr. Murphy.

    I have read many times about this post-resurrection conversation. Today, because of some personal things and some heart and mind reflection, this conversation strikes me in a different — yet very comforting — way. Thank you for posting it.

    Question: You mention that Jesus was in earshot of Peter when Peter denied Jesus. Was it “earshot” or “eyesight?” In Luke 22:60-61, we read: But Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you are talking about.” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.

    Jesus seems to have been in earshot of the rooster’s crow. And, of course, he knows that the tell-tale crowing means that one of his most trusted friends has (emotionally) betrayed him.

  5. K Sralla says:

    More on penal substitution when I have a few minutes to gather my thoughts and state as clearly and concisely as possible. But please don’t look for a rationalized explanation of the plan of salvation that will satisfy an unbeliever. It will never happen.

    I trust that the plan is true and rational, but I can’t fully form a logical construction in precise words that will convince the unbeliever. If one must rationalize everything before he is willing to believe anything, then the universe will remain a place where knowledge is scarcely possible.

    Yet if one does have faith, then I can indeed give an explanation that will satisfy. I will do this when I have a few minutes. I just got home from the office, and my kids need their dad to play for a while.

    • Dan says:

      I think Dr. Murphy would say he is an example of someone who came to be a believer through using reason and logic. He can of course correct me if I’m wrong.

      • Bob Murphy says:

        Dan, well it also involved direct revelation of a sort, but yeah I first believed that Jesus really healed people etc. but was mistaken about being the Son of God. I.e. I could “rationally” explain how that all worked (power of suggestion etc.) and that made sense to me, because it had bothered me somewhat (when I was an atheist) that Jesus had had such historical importance, if He were actually a fraud.

        And then once I conceded that the most rational explanation of the evidence was that Jesus really had healed people (albeit with methods that modern scientists could’ve explained, had they lived back then), then it was a short step to saying, “Well gee whiz, what else would the natural world look like if the Bible were true? Of course nature obeys the will of God.”

  6. Kyle says:

    @Bob Murphy, In reference to the “Peter as the first pope” comment in your first sentence, I encourage you to read Acts chapter 15. In it, it is very interesting to note how much authority Peter has and how the other apostles accept that authority, almost like that authority to interpret Christ’s word and make it law was given to him by Jesus and accepted by the apostles.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      I just started Acts yesterday, so I’ll be hitting Chapter 15 pretty soon. Thanks..

  7. Dr Y says:

    Hello. I came upon your site via my interest in Von Mises, however, I became interested in this blog post of yours. I appreciate very much that you see the apparent barbaric nature of the story and seek an explanation. I also appreciate that you realize that indeed the Bible does not include passages which state that God made the second person of the trinity incarnate as man for the purpose of being tortured to death on a cross in order that all other men could be forgiven and some (or all?) brought to salvation, with the justification somehow dependent on the killing of the perfect man. In other words, you will not read “And Lo, verily, the Lord God instituted penal substitution for the atonement.” Review of the extensive debate in the early church (and on to present) regarding the actual mechanics of the atonement, is a very lengthy project indeed. Theories ranged from paying off the devil to the idea that Christ simply was a good example and we killed him for it, and all manner of ideas in between. Frankly, one could make a case that the penal substitution view is just a tad too close for comfort to a conceivable ploy to sanction the altruist ethic. I.e. Look, your God, in Christ, your perfect model – *He* and His Father are the highest example, and look – He lives only to die for everyone else as a sacrificial animal. This is uncomfortably close to what you would expect any dictator to hold up as THE way for the people to behave. Ah, but that seems so jaded. True, but the story, as it stands, simply conflicts with the ideas of justice (and love) that we get elsewhere in the Bible.
    Though I don’t think he has the whole thing sorted out, I do like Rufus Jones’ comments on the atonement, here: http://www.williamyavelak.com/Others%20Commentary/jones_on_atonement.htm (He was a quaker.)
    My own views can most briefly be described as follows. I believe Christ indeed accomplished something that HAD to be done for anyone to have any actual way of grasping and enjoying a new life with God (Christ accomplished this in his incarnation, LIFE, and constancy (unlike Adam) to his Father through his life and death.) This something was akin to the ‘pioneer’ imagery that Paul uses, but of course I do not know and can not expound on all the likely supernatural hurdles that had to be overcome (the natural hurdles seem daunting enough). Christ pioneered the first fully human life, not rebelling against the Father – the only source and sustainer of life and good that exists. Without that work, we, already buried in the darkness and confusion of our own sins, misunderstandings, confusions, and those of others, were in fact quite lost.
    You could say it this way. We could conceivably have been forgiven prior the work of Christ, but neither we, nor God, had any way to ‘make’ us enjoy or partake of the forgiven (and then redeemed) life, let alone the beatific life, without breaching our free will and thus canceling our ‘in His image – personhood’ (or negating our status as real moral actors, if you will…). Of course God didn’t ‘make us’ partake of his forgiveness and redemption with Christ either. As CS Lewis said, “he can only woo, He can not, ravish!” So we are wooed by God through Christ, and we are wooed to a real journey that has been accomplished. We are wooed to a life story with God that is at the same time our learning and loving Him and our perfection in Christ, who has already accomplished, as a human, the journey we need to take.
    That’s my take. Frankly, I’m not interested in the likely penal sputtering from the sure to be present penal gallery. I especially take issue with the commonplace attitude that even questioning the penal view is heresy. We have people *wrestling* with God in the Bible. He can jolly well deal just fine with our honest intellectual grappling to understand. v/r Dr Y

  8. K Sralla says:


    I encourage a careful reading of Galatians chapter 2 to get another vantage point on Saint Peter, directly from the pen of Saint Paul. It was James, Peter, and John, in that order, who were purported to be “pillars”. Peter is the apostle to the Jews, and Paul to the Gentiles. I know that is not how the Roman Catholic tradition sees it, but it seems hard to argue with Paul’s own words.


    Bob clearly states above that he accepts penal substitution, but struggles for words to describe the logic therein. So even if he thinks he rationalized himself into believing, a close inspection of the evidence might suggest otherwise. He believes first, then turns on his rational thinking cap.

    Bob believes, and believes his belief is rational, while Major Freedom does not believe, and believes his unbelief is rational. Bob believes in something, and that something is rational in his eyes. Major Freedom first believes in nothing, and yet demands that the nothing be first rationalized, or he refuses to believe in anything. Go figure.

  9. Bob Murphy says:

    Incidentally K Sralla whenever I write a post like this I brace myself for you to chastise me, but I think that’s good. I.e. I don’t want to be shooting my mouth off on such important matters, so for what it’s worth I do reflect on posts like this (knowing you are waiting in the wings to zing me) to make sure I can offer a Biblical defense. Obviously it doesn’t mean I’m right, I’m just saying I am glad that you “keep me honest” as it were.

  10. K Sralla says:

    I especially take issue with the commonplace attitude that even questioning the penal view is heresy

    Dr. Y. I appreciate your post. However, I distinctly did *not* accuse Bob of heresy.

    • Dr Y says:

      Wasn’t aiming that at you. Didn’t read your post. As you were.

  11. K Sralla says:


    I really take no joy in scolding you. I consider you a brother in Christ, and always look forward to reading your words.

    As an aside, in Dallimore’s book, Whitefield the Calvinist, and Wesley the Arminian remain close friends and continue to work together (although sometimes strained in latter years) for the spread of the Gospel despite their theological disagreements.

    One of my favorite stories is when some of Whitefield’s more zealous Calvinist followers asked if he thought he would see Wesley in heaven. Whitefield replied NO. John Wesley would be much too close to throne of God.

  12. Another Joe says:

    This is a wonderful discussion. K Sralla, I especially appreciate the answers you’ve set forth.

    As for Peter being pope… it’s impossible. There is one and only one potentate (1 Tim 6:15). There is one High Priest to end all High Priests (Hebrews 9). And we all have equal fellowship with God the Son and God the Father (1 John 1:1-4).

    I might be able to stimulate some biblical thought here in regard to the sacrificial system of the OT. There are at least three things we need to remember about the sacrificial law. A careful study of Hebrews helps shed light on this as well.

    1. It could never be satisfied. The constant offering of sacrifices were a constant reminder of sin that could never be completely atoned for.
    2. The sacrificial system was a shadow of the reality of Christ. They pointed toward Him. But Jesus is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices.
    3. Squeamishness over a bloody sacrifice is because of our orientation. We tend to look at it as rather gross, from a fallen perspective. What we fail to consider is how awful sin is, that even these gruesome sacrifices that took days and caused blood to flow freely in channels dug out for them could not satisfy God’s righteous justice. The horror of the rebellion of God’s image bearers is far greater than any amount of bloodshed can compare.

    As for penal substitution, it is the only logical conclusion in light of the character of God. In this, it is really quite simple, though being concise is a challenge.
    God is righteous. The standard He demands of His image bearers is to be holy as He is holy.
    Obviously we are not. The penalty/wages of sin is death. As sinners, we are condemned already.
    In light of our depravity, any effort we make at atoning for our own sin is tainted by our very sinfulness. It’s like trying to clean a muddy window with a greasy rag, for our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.
    Jesus lived a perfectly righteous life, fulfilling the law and all righteousness; something we are utterly incapable of.
    Not only did He fulfill all righteousness, but He paid the penalty our sin demands, death. When He pleaded with God the father that “this cup” would pass from Him, He referred to the cup of God’s wrath.
    As sinners we deserve God’s wrath for all eternity. That is the penal code of God, in His perfect justice. He cannot allow sin to go unpunished. To do so would be unjust and contrary to His character. This is part of the immutability of God. He does not change. If He changed in this regard then He could not be God, for He would be changeable and unjust.
    “He made Him who knew no sin to become sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” This is imputation. As Christ had fulfilled all righteousness, by imputing this righteousness to men they are then “seen” as being righteous as Christ is righteous. However, as we are sinners and deserve God’s wrath for all eternity, never able to finish the punishment because we are defiled sacrifices, our guilt was imputed to Christ on the cross in order for Him to fully pay the penalty we could never pay off for all eternity. The ability to truly understand the awesomeness of this is beyond our imagination. Jesus bore the wrath that millions deserved to endure for eternity, all compressed into moments on the cross. This is why He cried out to the Father, “Why have You forsaken Me?” God the Father could not fellowship with God the Son when He became sin. But when after He had endured the wrath of God almighty, which did not take the righteous God the Son an eternity to accomplish, He stated emphatically, “It is finished.”
    In the end, God the Father punished God the Son for the sin of His own image bearers, in order that they might be restored to fellowship with the Trinity. There is no other way, for there is none who could fulfill what we can’t and pay what we couldn’t. To claim that there is another way is to claim that God the Father denied His Son what may have been His most heartfelt prayer, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will” Matthew 26:39. If it was possible, the cup would have passed.

  13. K Sralla says:

    Well Dr. Y. Now I am quite confused. I am the only poster who mentioned penal substitution. Or did you simply foresee from reading the post that we in the penal gallery would make charges of heresy with a trigger finger?

    As you were too.

    • Dr Y says:

      “…from the sure to be present penal gallery.”

      BTW, now I’ve gone back and read your post. I don’t think you called him a heretic either. What do you know – I wouldn’t have been referring to you even if I had read your post.

      I might have written that the meat of your post was just one big non sequitur, but that’s a different matter.
      K Sralla wrote: “Christians can be confident in stating that the most perfect plan for accomplishing the redemption of mankind was through the substitutionary atonement of Jesus.”
      No. Christians can be confident that whatever God did was most perfect, NOT that it was exactly the version of the mechanics most prevalent in churches today, nor the one K Sralla says happened.

  14. K Sralla says:

    “No. Christians can be confident that whatever God did was most perfect, NOT that it was exactly the version of the mechanics most prevalent in churches today, nor the one K Sralla says happened.

    Yep! we agree 100%. So take heart you upper middle-aged man wearing a shaggy scholarly beard, and enjoying your smug life having been tenured long ago.

    Yes, I can tell something about your appearance and profession just by the way you write. I can almost smell you.

  15. K Sralla says:

    36yo Christian (of the “mere” variety), husband, father, physician

    Well, Inspector Clouseau could be wrong.

  16. Bob Murphy says:

    K Sralla, normally I think I have a pretty good “radar” for what people are trying to say, sarcasm, etc., but a lot of your comments are difficult for me to understand. Are you foreign? (I’m not kidding.) If I picture, say, a guy who looks and talks like me writing the stuff you write, it is pretty aggressive. But maybe I should be picturing someone from Lithuania?