The apostle Peter is a virtual case study in both what to do and what not to do in both ministry and life. He is emblematic of how we all fall down; the difference between him and many of us is that Peter always got back up, and it is in that area that we may be able to learn the most from his life.
There are numerous examples of Peter's strengths and weaknesses, and it is the recording of these failings that makes me even more certain that the Biblical record is accurate; propaganda never shows its leaders' flaws, only a true recounting does. And it is easy to see how Peter succeeds and then fails (or fails and then succeeds) because in most cases they happen almost in tandem. Here are some key instances:
1. One of the best-known of Peter's failings (and little-acknowledged successes) occurred during a storm on a lake:
"Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.
During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. 'It's a ghost,' they said, and cried out in fear.
But Jesus immediately said to them: 'Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid.'
'Lord, if it's you,' Peter replied, 'tell me to come to you on the water.'
'Come,' he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus.
But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, 'Lord, save me!'
Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. 'You of little faith,' he said, 'why did you doubt?'" (Matthew 14:22-31 NIV)
For 2000 years people have focused on the fact that Peter took his eyes off Jesus, looked at the storm around him and started to sink. This is obviously true, and even Jesus asks why he doubted. But we tend to overlook what led up to this: Peter got out of the boat. Of all the disciples, only he had the audacity to even ask to be able to do it, and as a result he is the only one besides Jesus in the entire Bible to have walked on water. We should learn a lesson from his taking his focus off Jesus, but we should also learn a positive lesson from his boldness and willingness to take a risky step of faith.
2. Later we see Peter go from great heights to the depths in almost an instant. The height came in what is known as his Confession of Christ:
"Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, 'Who do people say I am?'
They replied, 'Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.'
'But what about you?' he asked. 'Who do you say I am?'
Peter answered, 'You are the Christ.'
Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him." (Mark 8:27-30 NIV)
Peter is the first of Jesus' disciples to both recognize and acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah. In Matthew's Gospel it is during this exchange that Jesus says that Peter is the "rock" on which Christ will build His church. Yet Peter stumbles almost immediately:
"[Jesus] then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. 'Get behind me, Satan!' he said. 'You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.'" (Mark 8:31-33 NIV)
This is one of the strongest rebukes we see during Jesus' ministry, perhaps because Peter should have known better given the previous exchange. Peter has shown flashes of the ability to lead; here he loses sight of Jesus and His mission, mainly because he neither likes nor understands what Jesus is saying about his upcoming death. We need to be prepared to accept whatever leading we receive from the Lord, whether we like it or even understand it.
3. Peter is also well-known for his denial of Jesus after Jesus is taken away to be tried before the crucifixion. There can be no doubt that this is his greatest failure, made even worse by the fact that Jesus had earlier predicted it would happen:
"Simon Peter and another disciple were following Jesus. Because this disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the high priest's courtyard, but Peter had to wait outside at the door. The other disciple, who was known to the high priest, came back, spoke to the girl on duty there and brought Peter in.
'You are not one of his disciples, are you?' the girl at the door asked Peter.
He replied, 'I am not.'
He replied, 'I am not.'
It was cold, and the servants and officials stood around a fire they had made to keep warm. Peter also was standing with them, warming himself.
As Simon Peter stood warming himself, he was asked, 'You are not one of his disciples, are you?'
He denied it, saying, 'I am not.'
One of the high priest's servants, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, challenged him, 'Didn't I see you with him in the olive grove?' Again Peter denied it, and at that moment a rooster began to crow." (John 18:15-18, 25-27 NIV)
Many consider Peter's return to Jesus to have occurred when he went out and wept bitterly after his denial (see Luke 22:62). This was certainly a sign of his repentance, as was the fact that Peter ran to the empty tomb as soon as the women reported that Jesus was not there (see Luke 24:8-12). But even more encouraging to believers today is the way Jesus dealt with Peter following the Resurrection.
The first sign came on the day of the Resurrection, when the women were confronted by an angel at the empty tomb:
"'Don't be alarmed,' he said. ’You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.' " (Mark 16:6-7 NIV)
Peter is the only one of the eleven remaining apostles who is mentioned by name here; he alone is singled out by the angel. Even after his three denials, Jesus wanted Peter to know that he mattered, that he was important, and that he was forgiven. When we feel at our lowest point, when we feel like there is no way God could ever forgive us, we need only look at what happened here with Peter.
But Peter's restoration went beyond forgiveness to reinstatement. Shortly before he returned to Heaven, Jesus appeared to the disciples at the Sea of Galilee, and he had this conversation with Peter:
"When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, 'Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?'
'Yes, Lord,' he said, 'you know that I love you.'
Jesus said, 'Feed my lambs.'
Again Jesus said, 'Simon son of John, do you truly love me?'
He answered, 'Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.'
Jesus said, 'Take care of my sheep.'
The third time he said to him, 'Simon son of John, do you love me?'
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, 'Do you love me?' He said, 'Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.'
Jesus said, 'Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.' Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, 'Follow me!'" (John 21:15-19 NIV)
So not only did Jesus forgive Peter, he restored him to his former position as the head of the apostles, something that Peter could certainly never have dreamed was possible. If after his repentance even Peter could still be used by God in service to the Kingdom, then any of us can. I believe this is precisely the reason that the Bible records both Peter's failures and successes: they show us in no uncertain terms that although we will all fall down, the important thing is that we keep getting up.