I sometimes think that Peter gets a bad rep because, unlike some of the others, in this situation and others recorded in the Gospels, he tended to speak first and ask questions later. (Witness his reaction during the Transfiguration—in a moment that transcends spoken words, Peter just couldn’t keep his mouth shut!) But I tend to imagine that Jesus liked that quality in Peter. Yes, he could be impulsive and rash, yes, it might get him into trouble at times, but Peter was also bold and courageous—willing to step out when others held back. (Witness Peter’s walking on water while the others stayed in the boat as well as the way in which Peter does not hesitate to enter the empty tomb on Easter Morning.) Jesus needed a person with exactly the qualities that Peter possessed to accomplish what needed to be done.
Jesus once called Peter, the Rock, on which he would build the church. It’s been suggested that in our modern parlance Jesus might have referred to Peter as Rocky. This of course brings to mind the series of Rocky movies featuring fighter Rocky Balboa. Rocky was famous for being able to take a beating and keep getting back up, for being the undersized fighter who, against all odds—and with lots of training and dedication—triumphs over the toughest foes.
The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It's a very mean and nasty place and I don't care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard ya hit. It's about how hard you can get it and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done! —Rocky Balboa
Somehow, I picture Peter as being similar to Rocky. (I don’t know if he’s quite the same physical specimen as Sylvester Stallone was back in the day, but I do picture him as a rugged fisherman who was probably in good shape.) Peter would take a lot of “hits” along the way as he followed Jesus; he would make his share of mistakes—which the Gospels document. Regardless, from the moment Jesus saw him casting his nets along the Sea of Galilee, Jesus knew he wanted Cephas, whose name he changed to Peter—which means “rock”. Why?
I suspect it’s because Jesus knew Peter was tough—and I’m not just talking physical toughness, though he certainly might have been. No, just like Rocky, Peter’s toughness goes deeper. He’s tough emotionally and, even more, he’s tough spiritually. Jesus says that even the gates of Hell won’t triumph over him.
Nevertheless, in the next 48 hours, Jesus knew that life was going to hit Peter harder than ever. Given time, Peter would recover and keep moving forward. In the end Peter would be a winner. But on Holy Thursday night, Peter fails Jesus in every way a person can fail. As he cowers in the darkness denying he knows Jesus, Peter seems anything but tough, anything but strong. He’s protecting his own hide; he doesn’t want to be recognized as one of the twelve. The man who hours ago arrogantly claimed he would never abandon Jesus, now denies that he knows him and flees the scene, leaving Jesus alone to face his fate.
Any rock can be changed (when they do we call them metamorphic rocks); but it usually requires being buried underground and subjected to pressure and heat. In the case of Peter—the Rock—Holy Week is the impetus for change. Living through the betrayal, the arrest, the trial, the denial, the abandonment, the crucifixion, the burial—and most importantly—the resurrection, is the crucible that supplies the “pressure” and “heat” that are needed to strengthen the Rock for the next chapter of his own ministry.
By the time we meet Peter on the day of Pentecost, he has begun to “get it”; he has had some time to reflect and starts to understand how all he has lived through was exactly what Jesus predicted. The arrogance and impulsiveness that so defined him in the Gospels begin to fade and the boldness and courageousness that characterize him in Acts start to move to the forefront. Peter does not change overnight; transformation takes time. I suspect he probably never fully loses the rash, impulsive tendencies. The less desirable qualities are part of what makes Peter the unique person God created him to be. But God redeems those qualities and uses them for his glory.
I wonder if this insight can help us when we face crucibles in our own life? Do we face difficult circumstances that there’s no way around? Are we buried under challenging life circumstances? Are we under pressure? Are we taking heat? When we face challenges we have a choice: We can lament about them or we can learn from them. Speaking from experience, I’d say I usually do a little of both; I think the key is being open to learning even as we lament. That seems to be what happened with Peter. He was devastated by his failure in the moment, but he eventually learned a great deal from his experience.
Peter’s example reminds us that—if we let them—the difficulties and hardships we live through can actually change us, strengthen us, and equip us for the unique role that God needs us to fulfill.