4-9 Bible Students
4.9.1 Peter: As A Bible Student
Peter was likely illiterate, and yet Peter was a Bible student. We can almost sense a rather rare exaltation of spirit in the mind of our Lord Jesus when Peter said those words: " Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Mt. 16:16). In His humanity, the Lord Jesus must have suffered so much from feeling totally misunderstood, unrecognized, not appreciated for who He really was. The fact that Peter so artlessly expressed his true grasp of who Jesus was led Him to respond: " Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven" (:17). And then Jesus goes on to say that the nature of Peter's belief will be exactly copied by all members of His church; it was to be on the rock of a similar faith that Christ would build His church (v.18). So Peter's faith in Christ is being held up to us as an example which we should all follow. Closer analysis makes it evident that his attitude to God's word was the secret of Peter's faith. Unless he had made some kind of personal effort to achieve the faith which he did, the Lord would not have commended him for it. God did not just chose to reveal the true nature of Jesus to Peter as opposed to other people for no good reason. Faith is related to our own effort in responding to God's word (Rom. 10:17); Peter's faith in the Messiahship of Jesus must have therefore been related to his attention to the word. For this Christ praised him, mentally He enthused over that fisherman as they stood (or walked) on the road to Caesarea.
Later on, we see another cameo of the Lord's love for Peter. There was a crisis in the Lord's ministry, when " many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with Him. Then said Jesus (surely with a lump in His throat, a slight quiver in the voice) unto the twelve, Will ye also go away? Then Simon Peter answered Him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God" (Jn. 6:66-69). Notice how again Peter's faith in Jesus' Messiahship is related to his attitude to Christ's words. His faith came by hearing the word. How Jesus must have loved him in that moment. Peter loved Christ because of His words; that was why he stuck to him, through the thick and thin of his own spiritual collapses, through persecution, desertion and humiliation at the hands of his own brethren. In other words, Peter realized that Christ was His words, He was the word made flesh (Jn. 1:14). Unless we too realize this in a practical rather than purely academic sense, we just will not have the motivation to hold on like Peter did. We can love the Bible, but not love the Christ it breathes. The Jews searched the scriptures, thinking that by their Bible study alone they would receive eternal life. But they never came to Christ that they might know the eternal life that is in Him (Jn. 5:39,40). They thought “eternal life” was in a book, a reward for correct intellectual discernment and exposition, rather than in the man Christ Jesus. And for all our Biblicism, Bible Christians need to examine themselves in this regard. For like Peter as a Bible student, we must be Christ-centred more than purely Bible-centred; we must see Him “in all the Scriptures”, knowing that the whole word of God’s revelation was made flesh in Him.
‘Simon' means 'hearing', one who listens. This was one of his distinct characteristics. I'd like us to consider a number of points which reveal Peter's attitude to the word.
- Firstly, something which indicates the depth of Peter's familiarity with the Old Testament. Look at Mt. 16:22: " Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee" . Peter is quoting verbatim here from Is. 54:10, which speaks (in the Septuagint) of showing mercy to oneself. As an illiterate fisherman, he must have meditated and meditated upon the words he heard spoken to him in the synagogue readings. Let's be aware that in the preceding verse 21, Jesus had been explaining that passages like Is. 53 pointed forward to Christ's suffering and resurrection. Peter is responding by quoting a verse a little further on, in the same context. If Peter as a Bible student understood that Jesus was the Old Testament Messiah, he surely understood, in theory at least, that the Old Testament required a suffering Messiah. For him, of all men, to discourage Jesus from fulfilling this was serious indeed; hence Christ's stiff rebuke, likening him to the satan of His wilderness temptations, in that Peter too misquoted Scripture to provide an easy way out.
- Another example of relevant Old Testament quotation is shown when Christ asked Peter to kill and eat unclean animals. He replied by quoting from Ez. 4:14, where Ezekiel refuses to eat similar food when asked to by the Angel. Perhaps Peter saw himself as Ezekiel's antitype in his witnessing against Israel's rejection of the word of God in Christ (note how Ez. 4:16 is a prophecy of Jerusalem's destruction in AD70). 'In the same way as God made a concession to Ezekiel about this command to eat unclean food', Peter reasoned, 'so perhaps my Lord will do for me'. But the Lord was to teach him even greater things than Ezekiel.
- Peter's unswerving respect for his Lord's word is seen as he looked out of that sinking ship on Galilee, battling with his own humanity as he weighed up in his own mind whether to be spiritually ambitious enough to get down into that raging water. He only felt able to take such a leap of faith if he had Christ's word behind him. So he yelled out above the noise of the wind: " If it be thou, bid me come unto thee" (Mt. 14:28). In other words: 'With your word behind me, I'll have a go; without it, I won't'. How much spiritual ambition is there within us? Or do we huddle in the sides of the ship, or desperately expend our own strength to bring about our salvation, without even seeking the word of Christ?
- Peter's preaching in Acts is largely comprised of quotations from Old Testament passages- probably ones he had eagerly meditated upon during his fisherman days, and then throughout the three and a half years of foot slogging round Galilee that followed.
- He was one of the few who really grasped the meaning of the Lord's miraculous provision of bread, and the discourse which followed. The Lord had said that He was the living bread, of which a man could eat and live for ever. Peter's comment that only the Lord had the words of eternal life showed that he quite appreciated that it was the words of the Lord Jesus which were the essential thing, not the physicality of the miracle (fascinating as it must have been to a fisherman; Jn. 6:51 cp. 68).
- Despite having toiled all night and caught nothing, Peter as a Bible student was able to subdue his natural wisdom, his sense of futility, and the sense of irritation and superiority which exists in the experienced working man: " Nevertheless (how much that hides!) at thy word I will let down the net" (Lk. 5:5). It would seem that the parallel record of this is found in Mt. 4:18, which describes the call of the disciples soon after Christ's triumphant emergence from the wilderness temptations. We learn from Jn. 1:41,42 that it was Peter's brother, Andrew, who first told Peter about Jesus, and who brought him to meet Jesus first of all. The point is that at the time of Peter's call as he was fishing, he had probably heard very few of Christ's words personally. He had heard about Him, and listened to His words for perhaps a few hours at different times in the past. So where did he get this tremendous respect for the word of Christ from, which he demonstrated when Christ called him? The answer must be that he meditated deeply on those words that he had heard and understood, and came to appreciate that the man saying them was worth giving all for. Our far easier access to God's word does not seem to make us more meditative as individuals. We have access to hearing God's word which previous generations never had. We can listen to it on a Walkman, have tapes of well read Scripture playing at home, analyze it by computer, hear it sung to us according to our taste in music, read it from pocket Bibles as we work and travel... we can and could do all these things. My sense is that we just don't make use of our opportunities as we should. Why has God given our generation these special opportunities to be ultra-familiar with His word? Surely it is because our age contains temptations which are simply more powerful than those of former years. So it is vital, vital for our eternal destiny, that we do make as much use as possible of all these opportunities. We should be cramming, yes cramming, our hearts and brains with the words of God. I certainly get the feeling that Peter as a Bible student would have listened to a tape of Isaiah on his Walkman if he had one, as he went out fishing; that he'd have had tapes of the Psalms going all evening long in his little fisherman's cottage, wife and kids caught up in his enthusiasm too (Mk. 10:10,15 suggests that the incident with the little children occurred in Peter's house). There are a handful of Christian homes where this spirit is truly seen.
- With this background, it is not surprising to read that when a nervous Peter heard Moses and Elijah speaking God's word to Jesus, " he wist not what to say" (Mk. 9:5,6), and earnestly desired to make the three tents so that the wondrous experience would last the longer. There was Peter, hearing words intended to encourage the Son of God, fearful of his own humanity, evidently not understanding the depth of the glory which God's word was revealing, yet ever eager for more, to just bask in the experience of it. Would our sense of our own sinfulness, and our thirst for the word of God, was like that man's.
- Years later Peter as a Bible student was to comment on this: " There came such a voice to (Christ) from the excellent glory...and this voice which came from heaven we heard...we have also a more sure word of prophecy, whereunto ye do well that ye take heed" (2 Pet. 1:18,19). Notice the progression in his reasoning here. Peter considered it such an honour that he could hear the words which God primarily intended for Christ. And even more wondrous, the word of prophecy which we have all heard is an even more wondrous revelation of God's glory than the word of God which came at the transfiguration. Yet do we even begin to reach that sense of wonder which Peter had on the mount? That sense of rapture, of real spiritual transport, of reaching out of earthly things into Heavenly, that desire for the experience never to end, even though we realize that we only understand a fraction of the infinity which is revealed by God's word?
- Paul was Peter's hero, partly because of the spiritual depth of his writings " according to the wisdom given unto him" (2 Pet. 3:15,16). And Paul made precisely the same point as Peter; that the Scriptures which were relevant to Christ are actually directly applicable to us too, who are in Christ. Thus Paul reasons: " Christ pleased not himself, but as it is written (he quotes Ps. 69:9), The reproaches of them that reproached thee fell on me. For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning...." (Rom. 15:3,4). So here Paul points out a well known Messianic prophesy, applies it to Christ, and then says that it was written for us. This is exactly Peter's point, when he says that the words which were spoken to Christ at the transfiguration were also for our benefit, and that the word of prophecy which we have is to be treated in the same manner as if we had been cowering with Peter on the mount, hearing the words which Moses and Elijah spoke to Jesus.
- Appreciating the extent of Peter's devotion to Christ's words enables us to more fully enter into the man's spiritual and emotional tragedy when he denied Christ. He paid no attention to Christ's words of warning concerning Peter's own spiritual weakness. After that third cock crow, " Peter remembered the word of the Lord , how he had said unto him..." (Lk. 22:61; " how" may refer to the physical manner in which Christ spoke to Peter, as well as to the content of his words).
- When he received a vision he didn't understand, Peter " doubted in himself what this vision... should mean...while Peter thought on the vision..." (Acts 10:17,19). His seal for understanding was rewarded. Perhaps the revelation was made to him first because the others were not sufficiently sensitive to the word to accept it?
- When the Angel told Peter as a Bible student " Gird thyself, and bind on thy sandals...and follow me" (Acts 12:8), he was alluding back to the Lord's words to Peter, that when he would be old, others would gird him and carry him to his death (Jn. 21:18). The Angel was therefore saying that the time of Peter's death had not yet come. The lesson is, that the amount of comfort and reassurance Peter took from the Angels' words would have been proportionate to the degree to which he had meditated on his Lord's prophecy. And so with us.
Now this Peter, our example of faith, was a working man. He freely recognized this, yet (in later life) he was unafraid to rebuke the high flying intellectuals who were wrecking the first century ecclesia. He likens his rebuke of them to the " dumb ass speaking with man's voice" which rebuked Balaam (2 Pet. 2:16). This was what he chose to identify himself with; that inspired donkey. There was no great trained intellect in Peter; yet his zeal for God's word puts us to shame. As the time of the end progresses, it seems that more and more of Christ's church (in the Western world) are educated people. In this I see a tremendous danger. A man who could probably not read, who probably wrote his inspired letters by dictation because he couldn't write himself, had a zeal for understanding which puts us to shame. Paul correctly made the point (and who more aware that his intellectuality could run away with him than Paul) that God has chosen the weak things to confound the mighty; He has chosen the simple of this world to confound the wise (1 Cor. 1 and 2). I get some kind of intuitive feeling that Paul had Peter at the back of his mind as he wrote this letter to working class Corinth (1 Cor. 1:26). The deep mutual respect between theologian Paul and fisherman Peter is a real working model for our ecclesias. And we could go on to show how although John used a very limited vocabulary, he rose to depths of insight that are well beyond his most intellectual critics. Martin Hengel asserts of John’s Gospel: “This Gospel cannot come from a Galilean fisherman”(1). But why not, given the example of Peter?
So Peter as a Bible student is a sure encouragement to all those who feel that Bible study is beyond them. If we have a true love of Christ, we will have a love of His words, because He is to be identified with His words. Likewise God is His word (Jn. 1:1); to love God is to love His word. If we love Christ, we will keep His words (Jn. 14:15,21; 15:10). This is evidently alluding to the many Old Testament passages which say that Israel's love for God would be shown through their keeping of His commands (Ex. 20:6; Dt. 5:10; 7:9; 11:1,13,22; 30:16; Josh. 22:5). Israel were also told that God's commands were all related to showing love (Dt. 11:13; 19:9). So there is a logical circuit here: We love God by keeping His commands, therefore His commands are fundamentally about love. Thus love is the fulfilling of the law of God; both under the Old and New covenants (Rom. 13:10). It is all to easy to see our relationship with God and Christ as a question of obedience to their words, as if this is somehow a test of our spirituality. This is to humanize God too far, to see God as if He were a fallible man; for if we were God, we would institute some kind of written test for our creatures: 'Do this, and if you don't, then I know you don't love me'. The God of glory is beyond this kind of thing. He is His word. If we love Him, we will be eager to know His words, we will dwell upon them, we will live them out in our daily experience as far as we can. In our seeking to know an infinite God, we will of course fail to see or appreciate the spirit of all His words. But He appreciates this. Yet in a sense our attitude to His word is an indication of our state of 'in-loveness' with God. Reading His word will not be a chore, a mountain to be grimly climbed and achieved each day; it will be a vital and natural part of our daily life, as natural and spontaneous as our desire to eat; and even more so (cp. Job 23:12). Now there's a challenge; not to relate to God's word as we do to daily physical food, but even more so .
(1) Martin Hengel, The Johannine Question (London: SCM, 1996 ed.) p. 130.