12. Peter and the Cross
The rich young man would fain have followed Jesus. But he was told that he must sell all that he had, give to the poor, and take up the cross to follow Christ (Mk. 10:21). Notice how the ideas of following Christ and taking up the cross are linked. The man went away, unable to carry that cross, that sacrifice of those material things that were dearest to him. Peter responds with the strong implication that he had done all these things, he was following the Master, and by implication he felt he was carrying the cross. Notice the parallels between the Lord’s demand of the young man, and Peter’s comment (Lk. 18:22 cp. 28; Mk. 10:21 cp. 28):
“Sell all that thou hast and distribute to the poor
“We have left all
…and come, take up the cross
[no comment by Peter]
and follow me"
…and have followed thee"
Peter seems to have subconsciously bypassed the thing about taking up the cross. But he was sure that he was really following the Lord. He blinded himself to the inevitable link between following Christ and self-crucifixion; for the path of the man Jesus lead to Golgotha. We have this same tendency, in that we can break bread week after week, read the records of the crucifixion at least eight times / year, and yet not let ourselves grasp the most basic message: that we as followers of this man must likewise follow in our self-sacrifice to that same end. And was Peter really correct to say that he had really “left all"? He evidently had in mind how he had left his nets and walked away, following Jesus (Mk. 1:18). Then he thought he was following Jesus in the way the Lord demanded. For some time later, the Lord “entered into one of the ships, which was (i.e. still, at that time) Simon’s…" (Lk. 5:1). Peter had been fishing all night (11:5)- strange, for a man who had so dramatically left his nets to respond to the Lord’s call. But after the miraculous catch of fishes, Peter “forsook all, and followed him". Note that Mark’s [Peter’s] Gospel omits many incidents, but also uses the device of repetition to stress what the writer considers significant. Thus in Mk. 1:16 Peter tells us twice that he was a fisherman [cp. Mk. 14:68]. Now, by the time of Lk. 18 and the conversation with the rich young man, Peter was confident he had forsaken all. But “I go a fishing" (Jn. 21:3) would suggest that even this forsaking of all had not been so dramatic. The boats were still there. Peter still carried his fishing tackle round with him in his pack (Mt. 17:27). The Lord had taught that following Him meant not just leaving behind for a moment, but selling up and giving the money to the poor. This Peter had not done. But he assumed that because he was physically following Jesus, well therefore what the Lord demanded of the rich young man, he had as good as done; for that young man wouldn’t follow Jesus, but Peter would. It is easy to understand how Peter reasoned- for the fact we are Christians, apparent followers of the Lord in a world which choses to reject Him, can lead to an assumption that we must of course be following just as He asks of us.
The Lord went on to define what leaving all really was- and he includes leaving wife and brethren. Peter hadn’t left at least one of his brethren; for Andrew was with him. And 1 Cor. 9:5 implies Peter’s wife accompanied him in his travelling. Jesus went on to point out that the last shall be first and the first last, as if warning Peter not to over-rate his following and cross-carrying. And He then gave the parable of the 11th hour labourer being rewarded with the same salvation as he who thought he deserved so much more (Mt. 20:1-16). Surely the Lord is broaching Peter’s intolerance of the rich young man’s honest recognition that he couldn’t follow as required. For Peter was to learn the paucity of his following, and to see how in sacrifice of material as well as more abstract things, he had not really understood what following Christ was all about. And yet even at that time, he could display a fierce and commendable loyalty for the things of his Lord. He knew Him as Lord and Master, and he said well. But there was so much further yet to go.
More than not fully forsaking his fishing gear by selling it, it would seem that Peter as a working man had a love of his job. He left his fishing in Mark 1 to follow the Lord, but returned to it by Luke 5. Then he left it, and returned to it in the post-resurrection crisis. The Lord’s provision of fish on the shore was simply saying: ‘You don’t need to fish any more’. He asked them to drag the nets to land, which would usually have broken them, but they didn’t break. Likewise He had earlier told fisherman Peter to cast the net on the other side, when Peter knew full well which side of the boat there were likely to be fish. And a whirlwind storm had come upon Galilee which would have drowned fisherman and sailor Peter were it not for the Lord’s presence. In all these things, Peter was being taught to quit the life that he loved. “Lovest thou me more than these?" was asked with the huge catch of fish lying there on the shore- a fisherman’s dream. It could be that the question referred to them. ‘Go and feed my sheep rather than worry about your fish’. When earlier the boats had begun to sink with too many fish, the word used for ‘sinking’ occurs in 1 Tim. 6:9, about believers being drowned in materialism and thereby condemning themselves (Lk. 5:7). Whether it’s a career that we love, a livelihood that we simply trust as a sure means of human survival, or the spiritual pride that we love the Lord more than our brethren, all these things are demanded of us by the demanding Lord, as we seek to follow Him to the cross.
There is a clear link between following Christ and carrying His cross. Mt. 10:38; Mk. 8:34; 10:21 make it apparent: “Whoseoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me". But there are other less evident connections. The man following his father’s coffin was told to break off and come follow Christ instead (Mt. 8:22)- as if following Him involved following Him unto the place of death. The faithful women who literally followed Him to the cross are described as also having followed Him in Galilee (Mk. 15:41), as if their following then and their literal following of Him to Golgotha were all part of the same walk. The blood-soaked warrior Saviour is followed by His people (Rev. 19:13,14). “He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it…if any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am (in the agony of decision in Gethsemane), there shall my servant be" (Jn. 12:25,26). The Gospel records, Luke especially, often record how the Lord turned and spoke to His followers- as if He was in the habit of walking ahead of them, with them following (Lk. 7:9,44,55; 10:23; 14:25; 23:28; Mt. 9:22; Jn. 1:38). As we saw above, Peter thought that following the Lord was not so hard, because he was literally following Jesus around first century Israel, and identifying himself with His cause. But he simply failed to make the connection between following and cross carrying. And we too can agree to follow the Lord without realizing that it means laying down our lives. The Lord brought Peter to face this with a jolt in Mt. 16:22-25. Peter was following Jesus, after He had predicted His crucifixion (for Jesus “turned, and said unto Peter"). He thought he was following Jesus. But he was told: “Get thee behind me…if any man will come after me (s.w. ‘behind me’), let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me (s.w.)". The italicized words are all the same in the original. Peter didn’t want the Lord to die by crucifixion at Jerusalem, because he saw that as a follower of Jesus this required that he too must die a like death. Peter needed to get behind Jesus in reality and really follow, in the sense of following to the cross, although he was there physically behind Jesus, physically following at that time. The Lord was saying: ‘Don’t think of trying to stop me dying. I will, of course. But concentrate instead on really getting behind me in the sense of carrying my cross’. John’s record stresses that the key to following Jesus to the cross is to hear His word, which beckons us onwards (Jn. 10:4,27). All our Bible study must lead us onwards in the life of self-sacrifice. But Peter loved the Lord’s words (see Peter: Bible Student); but, as pointed out to him at the transfiguration, he didn’t hear those words of Christ deeply. And so he missed the call to the cross. He had just stated that Jesus was Messiah; but soon afterwards he is recorded as saying that it was intrinsic within Jesus’ Messiahship that He mustn’t die or suffer. The confession of Messiahship and this incident of trying to stop the Lord dying are juxtaposed in Mark’s Gospel, which seems to be Mark’s transcript of the Gospel account Peter usually preached [note, e.g., how Peter defines the termini if the Lord’s life in Acts 1:21,22; 10:36-42- just as Mark does in his gospel]. Surely Peter is saying that yes, he had grasped the theory that Jesus of Nazareth was Messiah; but the import of Messiahship was totally lost upon him. For he had utterly failed to see the connection between Messianic kingship and suffering the death of the cross. The Lord’s comment ‘Get behind me’ was exactly the same phrase He had earlier used to the ‘satan’ in the wilderness when the same temptation to take the Kingdom without the cross had been suggested. It could even be that Peter was the ‘satan’ of the wilderness conversations; or at least, in essence he was united with that satan. Hence the Lord told him that he was a satan. And interestingly, only Mark [aka Peter] describes the Lord as being tempted in the wilderness of satan [rather than the devil]. And he records how he was a satan to the Lord later on.
But Peter, to his credit, did learn something from the Lord’s rebuke and directive to follow Him in the sense of laying down his life. For when it became apparent that the Lord was going to actually die, he asked: “Lord, why cannot I follow thee now? I will lay down my life for thy sake". He saw the connection between following and laying down life in death. He had heard the Lord saying that He would lay down His life for them (Jn. 10:15,17). And Peter thought he could do just the same for his Lord- but not, it didn’t occur to him, for his brethren. He didn’t then appreciate the weight or extent of the cross of Christ. The Lord replied that he was not yet able to do that, he would deny Him rather than follow Him, but one day he would be strong enough, and then he would follow Him to the end (Jn. 13:36,37) (1). Peter thought he was strong enough then; for he followed (s.w.) Christ afar off, to the High Priest’s house (Mt. 26:58). But in ineffable self-hatred he came to see that the Lord’s prediction was right. After Peter’s ‘conversion’, the Lord told Peter in more detail how he would die: “when thou shalt be old (i.e. more spiritually mature?), thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee (as Christ was carried to the cross) whither thou wouldest not (even at that last moment, Peter would flinch from the cross). This spake he, signifying by what death he should glorify God" (as Christ’s death also did: Jn. 7:39; 12:28; 13:32; 17:1). Having said this, the Lord invited Peter: “Follow me" (Jn. 21:19). Live the life of cross carrying now, Peter (2). And they went on walking, with Peter walking behind Jesus. But he couldn’t concentrate on the crucifixion life. Like Lot’s wife, he turned around, away from the Lord, and saw John also following, the one who had leaned on Jesus’ breast at the last supper (is this detail included here to suggest that this was a cause of jealousy for Peter?). And he quizzed the Lord as to His opinion of John. Peter got distracted from his own following, his own commitment to self-crucifixion, by the powerful fascination human beings have in the status of others and the quality of their following. The Lord replied that even if John lived until His return, without ever having to die and follow Him to the literal death which Peter would have to go through, well, so what: “What is that to thee? Follow thou me". This was the same message the Lord had taught Peter through the parable of the 1st hour labourer getting distracted by the reward of the 11th hour one.He had that tendency to look on the faults of others (Mt. 18:21), to compare himself with others (Mt. 19:21 cp. 27; 26:33). And so, so many tragic times we do the same. We are distracted from the quintessence of our lives, the following, to death, of the Lord, by our jealousy of others and our desire to enter into their spirituality rather than personally following. Remember that it is so often recorded that multitudes followed the Lord wherever He went. But they missed the whole point of following Him- to die the death of the cross, and share His resurrection life.
John’s Gospel has a somewhat strange ending, on first sight. The synoptics end as we would almost expect- the Lord ascends, having given His last commission to preach, and the disciples joyfully go forth in the work. But John’s Gospel appears to have been almost truncated. Christ walks away on His own, with Peter following Him, and John walking some way behind Peter. Peter asks what the Lord’s opinion is of John, and is told to ignore that and keeping on following Him. John inserts a warning against possible misunderstanding of this reply- and the Gospel finishes. But when we appreciate that the language of ‘follow me’ is the call to live the life of the cross, to follow the Man from Nazareth to His ultimate end day by day, then this becomes a most impressive closing scene: the Lord Jesus walking away, with His followers following Him, in all their weakness. John’s Gospel was originally the good news preached personally by John, and there is an impressive humility in the way in which he concludes with a scene in which he follows the Lord He has preached, but some way behind Peter. An awareness of our frailty and the regrettable distance with which we personally follow the Lord we preach is something which ought to be stamped on every witness to the Lord. To follow the Lord in cross bearing is indeed the end of the Gospel. And Peter understood this when he wrote that “hereunto were ye called [i.e. this is the bottom line of life in Christ]: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow in his steps" (1 Pet. 2:21). Fellowshipping His sufferings and final death is following Him. Little would Peter have realized that when he first heard the call “Follow me", and responded. And so with us. The meaning of following, the real implication of the cross, is something which can never be apparent at conversion. It is perhaps significant, given the theme of ‘following’ in the records of Peter, that he became well known for ‘leading about’ his wife (1 Cor. 9:5), as if she followed him everywhere. Peter translated the principles of following Christ into domestic life. There was a time when he may well have ‘forsaken’ his wife in order to follow Christ (Mt. 19:27-29). But further down that path of following he came to see that as he was to follow his Lord to the end, so he was to be as the self-crucifying Christ to her, and lead her in her following of him that she might follow Christ.
We have seen that although the Lord frequently spoke of His impending crucifixion, and taught plainly that His followers must go through a like process if they are to share His resurrection, Peter simply didn’t want to accept it. He strictly forbad the Lord to die the death of the cross, knowing that this would become an imperative for him to follow this example, in principle if not actually. Yet Peter knew as head knowledge the Lord’s doctrine of the cross. But there was something in it which he found almost offensive, it was a teaching upon which he couldn’t comfortably focus. And the disciples likewise always changed the subject, whenever the Lord started on again about His ‘last walk’ to a place of crucifixion. And when we find, as we surely all do, that we cannot attain that sustained concentration on the cross which we fain would, or we own up to our hopeless mind wandering at the breaking of bread, we have just the same motive as they had: it becomes unbearably uncomfortable to realize that we are really called to this same inevitable and painful self-sacrifice. Yet Peter’s objection to the Lord’s going to die at Jerusalem surfaced several times. He wanted to build tents so that Jesus wouldn’t go down from the mountain to the strange exodos which the prophets declared. When he wanted to “smite with the sword" in the Garden, it was to get the Lord out of the cross. Peter was willing to suffer, to fight, to even die in what would have been a hopeless combat, outnumbered dozens to one. But he just didn’t want the cross to be the way. It is recorded that when Peter saw “what would follow" in the Garden, he wanted to start a fight in order to at least have some slim chance of avoiding that inevitable crucifixion which now looked so certain (Lk. 22:49). He didn’t want the path of events to “follow" to that end. He again denied the connection between following and cross carrying. Later, the Lord told Peter in categoric terms that he personally was to follow Him to the death of the cross. And Peter turns round, sees John following, and gets sidetracked by the question of what the Lord thinks about John. As with us, quasi spiritual reasoning and issues were allowed to cloud and dilute the essential and terrifying truth- that we are called to bear Christ’s cross to the end. Years later, Peter had another blip on the screen. He turned back to circumcision, which was a denial of the imperatives of the cross (3). Paul had to remind him that sustained meditation on the implications of the cross simply destroyed Peter’s position, to the extent that yet once again, Peter was denying his Lord’s cross.
But finally, Peter learnt his lesson. His letters are full of reference to the cross and various physical aspects of the trial and mocking of the Lord which he witnessed first hand:
- Girding ourselves with humility 1 Pet. 1:13), as the Lord did at the last supper (s.w. Jn. 13:5), although then, Peter had so misunderstood what He had done.
- Christ as the sacrificed lamb (1 Pet. 1:19)
- “Buffeted" (2:20) s.w. Mt. 26:67 re. Christ being struck with a fist- something Peter would have probably watched out of the corner of his eye from where he was.
- “No guile found in his mouth" (2:22)- the trial trying to find evidence that the Lord had spoken bad words during His ministry, but no conclusive evidence being found.
- “Found" (2:22)- a legal word, s.w. Mt. 26:60; Jn. 18:38; 19:4,6 concerning Christ’s trial, parts of which Peter would have seen or heard first hand
- “Committed himself to him that judgeth righteously" (2:23)- a reference to the Lord’s final words on the cross: “Into thy hand I commit my spirit"? We likewise should follow that example in our dying with Him, in that we too “commit the keeping of [our] souls to him in welldoing" (4:19).
- “stripes" (2:24)- Gk. ‘weals’, the swollen up bruises, which Peter would have seen when Christ turned and looked at him through blackened eyes (after the beating of Mt. 26:67).
- “the tree" (2:24). An unusual term for the cross (he also uses it in Acts 5:30; 10:39). Perhaps because he saw the crucifixion (5:1) and was struck by the way the Lord carried a piece of a tree and was impaled upon it.
- “Who his own self bare our sins in his body up on to the tree" (2:24 RVmg.) suggests the watching Peter reflecting, as the Lord’s body was lifted up vertical, that his sins of denial and pride were somehow with his Lord, being lifted up by Him.
- “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God" (1 Pet. 3:18) could well have been written by Peter with a glance back at the way that after his denials, he the unjust went to the crucifixion scene and reflected just this. When in 5:1 he comments that he witnessed the sufferings of Christ, he could be saying that therefore these thoughts were his thoughts as he witnessed it: the just suffering for him the unjust, to bring him back to God.
- “Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh" (4:1). That He suffered “in the flesh" could be seen as stating the obvious until it is realized that Peter is referring to the way in which he actually saw the flesh of Christ really suffering.
- Elders are to be “ensamples" (5:3)- s.w. Jn. 20:25 about the “print" of the nails.
- It is interesting to note the changes of pronouns in 1 Pet. 2:20 ff: “Hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that ye should follow his steps...who his own self bare our sins...that we having died to sin, might live unto righteousness; by whose stripes ye were healed". In the context, Peter is speaking about the need for slaves to live out the death and life of Christ; but when he comes to speak of the Lord’s death for sin, he cannot but include himself as a sinner and a benficiary in the cross.
In Peter’s final maturity, his mind was full of the cross. This was the pattern of spiritual growth followed by Moses, Samson, Jacob, David, Paul…He saw the centrality of the cross, and its insistent, continual imperative. As he faced up to his own imminent time of dying, he saw that his death would be a death with the Lord (Paul also spoke of his death in this way). He spoke of his death as “my exodos" (2 Pet. 1:15), using the very same and specific word which he had heard at the transfiguration, when Moses and Elijah comforted the Lord regarding His exodos (Lk. 9:31). He saw his death as a taking down of a tent (2 Pet. 1:13), using the same word for the tabernacle he had wanted to build for his Lord at the transfiguration (Mt. 17:4). Then, he had wanted the tent to be set up so that the time of the Lord’s departure wouldn’t come; so that the Lord would stay with them there, with Moses and Elijah, in what must have seemed like the Kingdom of God. Again, Peter didn’t want the cross, either for his Lord or for himself. But now he had learnt his lesson; he saw that his tent must be taken down, the vision of the glory of the Lord Jesus, the words of His coming death and future Kingdom, these were quite enough. There had been no need of the tent on the mountain, and now he saw there was no need for the tent of his body either. We are all the same. Our death will literally be a death with the Lord, in that our resurrection will be after the pattern of His (Rom. 6:5). And in this life, “the death that he died…the life that he liveth" are the life and death and the living again that we live and die, day by day (Rom. 6:10 RV). The believer’s death is a pouring out of blood on the altar (Phil. 2:17 Gk; Rev. 6:9), which is language highly appropriate to the Lord’s death. It follows from this that the death of one in Christ is the pinnacle of their spiritual maturity, as the Lord’s death was the pinnacle of His. It is a spiritual victory, more than the temporal domnination of the flesh which it can appear. John repeatedly records Christ’s description of the cross as Him being “lifted up" (Jn. 3:14; 8:18; 12:32,34). But Peter uses the very same word to describe Christ’s exaltation in resurrection and ascension (Acts 2:33; 5:31). Looking back, Peter saw the cross as a lifting up in glory, as the basis for the Lord’s exaltation afterwards. At the time, it seemed the most humiliating thing to behold. It was anything but exaltation, and Peter would have given his life in the garden to get the Lord out of it. But now he saw its glory.
Yet it is an observable feature in the lives of many giants of faith that they die with elements of weakness still (Samson with his unChristian desire for personal vengeance would be the clearest example, or Jacob speaking of how he took land from the Amorite with his strength and his bow, when the Lord gave it to him by grace, cp. Ps. 44:3). And in this matter of following the Lord to the cross, it could be that even Peter faltered (4). Jn. 21:18,19 could be taken as meaning that Peter was to die the death of crucifixion, which would be the final fulfilment of the charge to “follow me". Jn. 21:19 contains the observation that as he would be led to that place of execution, it would be a death that “thou wouldest not". The Lord foresaw that Peter’s unwillingness to accept the cross would surface even then. One of the most well attested extra Biblical traditions about Peter is found in the apocryphal ‘Acts of Peter’. It is that as he was being led to crucifixion, the Lord Jesus appeared to Peter, and Peter asked: ‘Domine, quo vadis?’- ‘Lord / Master, to where are we going?’ (repeating his words of Jn. 13:36), as if somehow even then, he found the final acceptance of the cross hard. As indeed, it would be. In Jn. 13:36, the Lord had answered the question by telling Peter that then, he wasn’t able to follow Him to death. But he would do so at a later date. And that time had come, although it took a lifetime to reach. This tradition has, to me, the ring of truth about it, from all that we know of Peter’s problem with the cross. And it exactly mirrors our own difficulty in facing up to the stark realities of the life of self-sacrifice and ultimate self-crucifixion to which we are called. Only then, at the very very end, did he realize that following Christ was a call to follow Him to His cross. And another extra Biblical tradition has a similar likelihood of truth: it is said that when finally Peter was brought to the place of crucifixion, he insisted on being crucified upside down, as he was unworthy to die the same death as his Lord. Another tradition says that because of this unusual angle of crucifxion, the nails fell out and Peter was offered the chance of release, which he refused, and asked to be crucified with his Lord, still upside down. If all this is so, he finally learnt the lesson which we likewise struggle for a lifetime to learn: that following Christ means going to His cross with Him, and in the process learning and feeling through and through our unworthiness. And he learnt too that to die with Christ is never forced upon us by the Lord who bought us: in Peter’s final, willing choice of death, as with our day by day denials of the flesh for Christ’s sake, we make the choices purely from our own volition. We alone decide, in the terror, pain and difficulty of a genuine freewill, that thus it must be for us.
(1) Jesus had already told the twelve that “ye which have followed me…ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones" (Mt. 19:28). They hadn’t then grasped the idea of what really following involved; they hadn’t in one way or another laid down their lives with Christ. And then there is the problem of “twelve". Judas didn’t follow to the end, and will not sit upon a throne in the Kingdom. The Lord surely means, therefore: “You who will have followed me…". Or is that He spoke of “the twelve" as a title for the group of disciples, and what He meant was that even at that early stage He counted their desire to follow Him to the cross as if they had done it? We must see our failing, following brethren likewise. He counted His sheep as following Him (Jn. 10:27) even then, although he knew they were not then strong enough to follow Him to the end (Jn. 13:36). The risen Lord especially wanted the women to tell Peter that He was ‘going before him’ to Galilee (Mk. 16:7)- with the implication that even in his weakness and dejection, He wanted Peter to still try to follow Him and re-live the cross in his life.
(2) Earlier, Peter had thought that following Christ to the end could be achieved in a quick, dramatic burst of zeal- for surely his desire to “smite with the sword" in Gethsemane was almost suicidal, and yet by doing so he thought that he would fulfil his promise to lay down his life for Christ’s sake. He learnt the lesson, that crucifixion is a way of life rather than just dramatic death; for he said that the Jews had slain Christ and hung Him on a tree (Acts 5:30; 10:39). This seems strange- that they should have killed Him and then hung Him on the tree. Peter has in mind the practice of hanging an already dead criminal on a tree as a warning (Dt. 21:23). Paul appears to make the same mistake in Gal. 3:13, where he too says that the lifting up of Christ on the cross was typified by the lifting up of the already dead body of a criminal. Christ was not dead when He was lifted up- physically. But first Peter and then Paul came to understand that His death was actually in His way of life- so that He was as good as dead when lifted up. He was the dead bronze snake of the wilderness; the flesh had been put to death by a daily life of crucifixion.
(3) See Peter The Shepherd for more explanation of this conclusion.
(4) As an aside, there is an OT background to the Lord’s invitation to follow Him in the taking up of the cross and following to the place of crucifixion. It is in the frequent references to the faithful following after Yahweh Himself (e.g. Dt. 7:4; 2 Chron. 34:33). It’s as if the Lord was saying that the essence of Yahweh was in the cross He carried. To follow Him to the end, to live the life of cross carrying, leads us to Yahweh Himself. The connection between the cross and God Himself is expanded upon in God Manifestation In The Cross.