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John 21:17

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."

December 2, 2006

God forbid it!

The disciple Peter was a whole lot smarter than we church people have given him credit for.

I mean, let's face it. The way we portray him, Peter is the loser disciple, isn't he? He's the guy who bites off more than he can chew, trying to walk on the water. Where's his faith? He's the dummy who can't keep his mouth shut during the Transfiguration. “Hey, let's build three shelters!” he blurts out. We roll our eyes in embarrassment. When the going's about to get tough, he publicly boasts that he'll never forsake Jesus, only to do that very thing a few hours later. What a loser.

Peter's our whipping boy, all right. Just like it seems we can never talk about David in the church without bringing up the whole Bathsheba thing, we usually couple Peter's name with his acts of failure.

But we are completely missing the point about Peter and why the Bible portrays him the way it does.

Take a look at the scripture passage. It occurs right after the light goes on in Peter's head, and he acknowledges Jesus is the Messiah. Out of all the disciples, Peter's the one to whom God revealed this.

Now that the cat's out of the bag, Jesus explains—very plainly and openly, Scripture tells us—what God has in mind for the Messiah. It's not a pretty picture. Jesus is deliberately going to Jerusalem where he knows he will suffer at the hands of the religious leaders. Then they're going to kill him. And after three days he will be raised.

Now, the Jewish Scriptures—the books of our Old Testament—are full of examples of what the lives of God's servants tend to be like. And you know what? They tend to be like what Jesus is predicting for himself here. God's servants preach about what God really wants, and about the need for repentance and conversion. For the most part they aren't heeded. Often they're persecuted. And sometimes they're killed. It's not a pretty picture.

You'd think, then, that Peter and the others wouldn't have been surprised to hear Jesus say this kind of stuff. I mean, it sure fit the pattern. But along with the historical record of how God's servants had been treated was this expectation among the Jews in those days that the Messiah would come with unstoppable political power that would free their nation and make them great again.

You can practically see the gears turning in Peter's brain. He's just realized that Jesus is the Messiah. But then Jesus tells him that what's going to happen isn't the glorious national restoration they're all expecting. No, what's going to happen looks a lot like what's been happening to God's servants throughout the centuries.

Peter's not the dumb loser guy we always imagine. He does the math in his head and he realizes another truth, one that directly affects him. He's part of Jesus' inner circle, one of his right-hand men. I imagine things Jesus has said all coming back to Peter in an instant—You must be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. The servant is not above the master. You will be handed over to the religious leaders and stand trial and be persecuted. When you are rejected in one city, flee to the next. Things had been going so well, what with all the healings and miracles… but what if what Jesus is saying here fits with all those other things he's told us? What if he's not just blowing smoke?

That's when a second revelation hits Peter. They're all going to share in the suffering at some point. Master and disciples—all of them. And so he panics, and says, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

You know what I think? I have a hunch that Peter caught himself in mid-sentence—that he almost said, “This must never happen to us.

Jesus' response is shockingly stern. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Now that's a rebuke.

When we run across these words of Jesus for the first time, we don't know what to make of them. Peter was saying something out of place (again), but to call him “Satan”? Isn't that a little harsh?

Here is where I think we've always missed the boat with Peter. The gospel writers don't give us all the Peter anecdotes so we can shake our heads at how stupid Peter is. No, quite the opposite. Peter is our representative in these stories. He stands in for us, our actions and our reactions. And the bottom line is, had we been in Peter's place, we would have been thinking the same thing he did.

“This must never happen to us!”


Have you ever noticed that in our culture, Christianity is often sold as a cure-all for what's ailing you in your life? Want a perfect marriage, good kids, trouble-free life? Just add a little Jesus. Need to beat that addiction? Want to get control of your emotions, your actions? That's what Jesus is there for.

The way we peddle Jesus these days, you'd think he was some kind of pharmaceutical, here to improve our lives and nothing more. But when you read the gospels, you realize Jesus never promised people an easy, comfortable life if they believed in him, or that they would become wealthy or successful.

True, Jesus did say to the woman caught in adultery, “Go and sin no more.” But sinning no more is just the prelude to and the upkeep of discipleship, which is the path Jesus really had in mind for those who placed their faith in him. He never said that stemming the sin in our lives would be the sum of what we were put here for, that it would be our never-ending full-time job. Getting our act together is necessary. But it's not the goal. We are called to something greater.

As wonderful a benefit as it is, Jesus came for a purpose greater than being the way for me to get into heaven. And he wants us to participate in that purpose. As people who have been reborn, we are supposed to be doing the kind of ministry to the world in which Jesus himself was engaged.

“Greater things than these,” Jesus said we are supposed to do. We are to go out into the world as he did, and affect the world the way he did.

And then.

And then, most likely, Jess warns us, the world will treat us the way it treated him. And that is the part that Peter picks up on in this passage. He understands it quite well. He just doesn't like it.

He realizes there's no gravy train fueled by divine power that leads to popularity, success and safety. There's no endless movement upwards to glory.

No, there's suffering and misunderstanding and hatred and death in store—especially from people who appear to share your faith in God but don't see what you see. This is what Jesus calls his disciples to, and Peter saw it very clearly.

“This must never happen to us!”


How, Peter reasoned, could it possibly be God's will that things like this happened to those who loved him most? That couldn't be right.

“God forbid it, Lord!”

“Get behind me, Satan.”

Peter was seeing with frightened human eyes. He was a stumbling block because his fear blocked him from seeing things the way God did. His vision was limited, his focus narrow and earth-bound. He wanted the benefits of Jesus without the sacrifices of Jesus. But the two go hand in hand.


I think a lot about why so many Christians today are just barely hanging in there in their personal lives, why we aren't making more of a difference in the world, why we don't look that different from the rest of the culture, and why we believe our favorite political causes are a form of standing up for Jesus.

I wonder whether we aren't really living as Jesus intended because when we look at that unknown of self denial, sacrifice and suffering that Jesus calls us to, like Peter in this passage, we pull back. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to us!”

God forbid that we can't live like everyone else. God forbid that we can't just take care of our own lives and our own families but are called to something greater. God forbid that we can't look out for number one, accumulating as much as we can. God forbid that we should have to confront issues that might put us at odds with our friends or our political ideologies. God forbid that we might have to love our neighbors as ourselves in active ways, sacrificing in our own lives to help other people.

But that's exactly the kind of self denial, sacrifice and suffering to which Jesus calls those who follow him. If you are sincerely seeking to live like Christ, imitating and obeying him, you will find yourself denying your self and making sacrifices on a regular basis. You will find you cannot just look the other way when you see something unpleasant. You will find yourself making tough choices and taking unpopular actions. Sometimes you'll see things differently than your family, your friends, your co-workers, your elected officials—even your religious leaders. And you'll pay a price for all of that.

Jesus said that's what would happen to those who chose to seriously follow him. He called it “losing your life to save it.” He called it “taking up your cross.” He said, “the servant is not above the master.”

Is Jesus really our master? If so, like him, we must be about our Father's business.

Following Christ is the hard part about following Christ. Too many of us are looking for the benefits of Jesus without the sacrifices. If that is how we are living, are we really his disciples? If we are in positions of Christian leadership and allow our congregations to think like Peter did here—or worse, if we actually promote a view like this from the pulpit, or in our teaching, or by our example, then we're preaching something less than the full gospel—Jesus-lite. And that's a stumbling block.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?”



… he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.”

—Matthew 16:20–27