Following the vivid description of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus in the first part of Acts 9, Dr. Luke returns to the key figure and most prominent leader in the first half of Acts–the Apostle Peter.
There could not be a greater contrast between Peter and Paul. One was the son of privilege with impeccable credentials and pedigree, the other a fisherman from the North cut from the rough clothe of the average man, with little or no formal education.
To put this contrast in terms we can understand, imagine Paul as a New Englander, a modern-day blue blood. He attended the premier prep schools as a boy, and then received his degrees from Harvard and Yale. He is well connected within the power elite, and a rising star within the political class of his time.
Peter, on the other hand, grew up in Mississippi, the son of share croppers. He dropped out of school after the 8th grade to begin working as a share cropper, just as his father had done and his grandfather. There was nothing smooth or refined about Peter. He was a man’s man who was fully devoted to his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Understanding the cultural differences between the apostles and the political and religious leaders in Jerusalem helps us understand some of the amazement the Jews expressed. In Acts 2 and in Acts 4, people were amazed at the eloquence and intelligence with which Peter and the apostles spoke. “After all, aren’t these men from Galilee?” (Acts 2:7).
Of course, the Peter we see in Acts is quite different from the man we were first introduced to in the gospels. As one commentator described him, he was “Peter–the Apostle with the Foot-Shaped Mouth.” Peter was a man of many opinions, and it was his firm conviction that an opinion not shared was an opinion wasted. Today, we would probably label Peter Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and seek to control his outburst through some medication.
Peter was not born Peter, he was named Simon, a very common Jewish name. His full name was Simon Bar-Jonah, Simon, son of Jonah. In our culture, this would be similar to a name like John Smith, very common, very vanilla.
Simon was given another name, however, one that would bring honor and distinction to him as a leader in the church. Jesus began calling Simon by the name of Cephas, or as we know him, Peter. This name was significant because Jesus gave it to him, and because it’s meaning–Rock–came to symbolize Peter’s place within the church.
Jesus saw a greater strength within Peter. In the gospels, whenever the disciples are listed by name, Peter is always first. If Jesus had an inner circle during his earthly ministry, men he leaned upon and relied upon more than any other, it was Peter, James, and John, with Andrew running a close fourth.
The darkest hour of Peter’s life, however, was a night in which his beloved Lord and Savior was crucified. For almost three years, Peter had been an outspoken supporter and defender of Jesus the Messiah. Unashamedly, he had followed Jesus into hostile environments and advanced through angry crowds without fear. One night, while fishing on the Sea of Galilee, Peter even went so far as to step out of the boat and walk on water to meet his Savior. What faith and boldness!
Yet, when all the world turned against Jesus, and the darkness of sin and death fell upon him, Peter cowered in fear. On three separate occasions, he denied even knowing Jesus. He cursed and swore to show he was “not one of them.” Then he saw Jesus turn and look at him, and the rooster crowed.
Oh, he wept that night.
After the Lord’s resurrection, it was several days before Peter came face-to-face with Jesus. Would Jesus be able to forgive Peter? The first words Jesus spoke were not encouraging: “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these?”
Simon. Not Peter. Simon.
“Yes, Lord; You know that I love you.”
“Tend My Lambs,” Jesus said.
“Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?” Jesus asked again.
“Yes, Lord; you know that I love You,” Peter replied.
“Shepherd My Sheep.”
A third time Jesus asked, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?”
This time, Peter was stung to the core. “Lord, you know all things; You know that I love you.”
“Tend My Sheep.”
Jesus restored Peter, but my guess is the shame of his denial never fully left Peter.
You see, it is not uncommon for the Lord to forgive us of the great sin in our life, yet we cannot forgive ourselves. And when we try, Satan, the accuser of the brethren, is right there to remind us of our shame.
“You can’t claim to belong to Jesus, you’ve had an abortion!”
“You can’t claim to belong to Jesus, you’ve fathered a child that is now unknown to you, the result of a one night stand years ago.”
Fill in the blank, we all have our moment or moments of great shame. Something Satan reminds us of whenever we begin to take another step in faith to follow Jesus.
Know this, Christian, you are forgiven. The chains of bondage you feel are phantom chains, like the phantom pain an amputee feels in the limb that is no longer a part of his body.
Like Peter, you must trust in Jesus and in His power to forgive, and then move on in service to Him. The Peter in the gospels is only a shadow of the Peter in the book of Acts. Filled with the Holy Spirit and with his complete trust and faith in his risen Savior, Peter charged the gates of hell with a boldness!
You, too, can live like Peter. Take a minute right now and acknowledge before the Lord your great shame and ask Him to give you the faith to walk in freedom, free from the bondage of the past. Let this be your prayer this week.–Chris Eller