The ancient first-century Jews were looking for a Messiah who would liberate them from Roman oppression. For hundreds of years they had been ruled over by pagan, enemy nations. First, the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Greeks, then the Syrians, then finally the Romans. And the Romans, in particular, had a tendency to be rather violent and oppressive.
And the Jewish people were sick and tired of it, to put it mildly. Over the course of several centuries, the prophets had promised them that God was going to raise up a Messiah, a coming King who would deliver them and establish his kingdom, reigning forever. And they were desperately longing for this Messiah.
But when they dreamed about what this Messiah would be like, they imagined him to be sort of a “Braveheart” figure – a charismatic personality who would gather the people to himself, mobilize them into an army, rebel against Rome, stick it to their enemies, and once again restore the kingdom of Israel once and for all.
Simon Peter was clearly an enthusiastic supporter of that view of the Messiah. I’m convinced that when Peter took out his sword in Gethsemane and started swinging it, he was convinced that Jesus would jump on board and call on legions of angels and annihilate Israel’s enemies. That’s why he didn’t wait for instruction. He was convinced that Jesus would be the “Braveheart Messiah” that everyone was looking for.
And it’s pretty surprising how off-base Peter’s understanding of Jesus was. For three years he’d been following him around and listening to Jesus talk about the kingdom of God. Jesus had been saying, “I’ve come to give my life…I’ve come not to be served but to serve…You also must expect to suffer and follow my example” for three years. He’s been hearing Jesus teach about loving enemies and turning the other cheek and never retaliating and leaving all vengeance to God and so on and so on and so on.
And yet, here at the very end Peter still is holding on to that prizefighter view of Jesus. Peter had this false view of the Messiah, false view of God, false view of the kingdom, false view of leadership. If God was ever going to use Peter to build the Jesus-looking kingdom, then this prize fighter view had to go. And I submit to you that this is why Jesus gave the prophecy at the Last Supper about Peter denying Jesus three times before the end of the night (Lk. 22:34). He was setting Peter up to reveal something to him about the true character of God and of his Messiah.
Peter’s experience of denying Jesus on the night of his arrest shattered his self-confidence. But it also broke him loose from his false understanding of what the Messiah and his kingdom were all about. The whole episode was designed for Peter’s transformation, to eventually make him fit to be a leader in the kingdom that Jesus was coming to build.
And so several days later, we see this discussion between Peter and the resurrected Jesus. And here we find three times, corresponding to the three denials of Peter, Jesus asking Peter, “Do you love me?” Three times Peter says, “Yes, I love you.” And then three times Jesus says, “Then feed my sheep.”
And then Jesus gives another prophecy about Peter. This one, however, is not about how Peter will deny him. This one is about how Peter will now follow him, because he finally understands what following him means.
Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:17-19)
Now that this false view of the Messiah had been squeezed out of him, and now that Christ’s character is beginning to be squeezed into him, and Peter sees that the way of the cross actually wins the world…Peter is finally ready to follow Jesus. And now he’s finally ready to be a leader in the Jesus-looking kingdom.
And he’ll demonstrate it by the fact that he’ll glorify God at the end of his life by being crucified the exact same way that Jesus was. Church tradition tells us that Peter was crucified upside-down. The old Peter wouldn’t have gone that way. The old Peter was the sword-swinging, “I’m going to control, I’m going to fix the world,” Peter. This Peter understands that the way you glorify God is not through conquest but through faithfulness even to the point of the cross.
And we see this new Peter’s beautiful Christ-like character coming out in his writings in the New Testament. A small sample…
For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. 20 …if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:19-21)
This is the same guy who just a few years earlier, when it looked like they were going to suffer unjustly, he pulled out a sword and started swinging it.
But this is the new Peter talking. This is Peter who has been transformed by Calvary and is walking the Calvary way. And so this Peter says, “No, when you’re suffering unjustly, this is what you’re called to do. This is what the kingdom is all about. This is what it means to follow Jesus. It may mean that you die,” and in fact the new Peter did die.
There is no way of following Jesus that does not involve “crucifixion” of some sort.
It may not be the case today, next week, or next year,…but if we are on the journey of allowing Christ to form us in his image, eventually we will be able to say:
“I am willing to endure insults without retaliating…”
“I am willing to be misunderstood and misrepresented without reacting…”
“I am willing to be ostracized without seeking revenge…”
“I am willing to experience pain of any kind without retaliating…”
Again, this does not happen overnight. But over time, as we are truly immersing ourselves in the Jesus way, this will be the kind of people we become.
(The photo is of the ancient Church of the Primacy of Peter on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, the traditional location of Peter’s conversation with Jesus recorded in John 21.)