The apostle Peter was not an obvious candidate for leading the early church. He was impulsive, reckless, and vacillated between chest-beating bravado and cowardly retreat—not exactly the kind of guy you’d want to have responsible for your own well-being.
When the Lord warned Peter about his impending denial, He said, “Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat” (Luke 22:31). Wheat was typically separated from the chaff by being shaken and tossed up into the air in a stiff wind. The chaff was blown away and the wheat would fall into a pile, thus purified.
We might have expected Jesus to reassure Peter by saying, “I’m not going to allow Satan to sift you.” But He didn’t. He essentially let Peter know that He had given Satan the permission he sought. He would allow the devil to put Peter to the test (as God did in the case of Job). He said, in essence, “I’m going to let him do it. I’m going to let Satan shake the very foundations of your life. Then I’m going to let him toss you to the wind—until there’s nothing left but the reality of your faith.” Jesus did reassure Peter that the apostle’s faith would survive the ordeal. “I have prayed for you,” Jesus told him, “that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32).
It was then that Peter arrogantly insisted that he would never stumble. Yet despite his protestations, before the night was over, he did deny Jesus, and his whole world was severely shaken. His ego was deflated. His self-confidence was annihilated. His pride suffered greatly. But his faith never failed.
What was this all about? Jesus was equipping Peter to strengthen the brethren. People with natural leadership abilities often tend to be short on compassion, lousy comforters, and impatient with others. They don’t stop very long to care for the wounded as they pursue their goals. Peter needed to learn compassion through his own ordeal, so that when it was over, he could strengthen others in theirs.
For the rest of his life, Peter would need to show compassion to people who were struggling. After being sifted by Satan, Peter was well equipped to empathize with others’ weaknesses. He could hardly help having great compassion for those who succumbed to temptation or fell into sin. He had been there. And by that experience he learned to be compassionate, tender-hearted, gracious, kind, and comforting to others who were lacerated by sin and personal failure.
In 1 Peter 5:8–10, he wrote,
Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world. After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.
Peter understood human weakness, and he understood it well. He had been to the bottom. His own weaknesses had been thrown in his face. But he had been established, strengthened, and settled by the Lord. As usual, he was writing out of his own experience. These were not theoretical precepts he taught.
Finally, Peter had to learn courage. Not the impetuous, headlong, false kind of “courage” that caused him to swing his sword so wildly at Malchus, but a mature, settled, intrepid willingness to suffer for Christ’s sake.
The kingdom of darkness is set against the kingdom of light. Lies are set against the truth. Satan is set against God. And demons are set against the holy purposes of Christ. Therefore Peter would face difficulty wherever he went. Christ told him,
Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go. (John 21:18)
What did that mean? The apostle John gives a clear answer: “Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death [Peter] would glorify God” (John 21:19).
The price of preaching would be death for Peter. Persecution. Oppression. Trouble. Torture. Ultimately, martyrdom. Peter would need rock-solid courage to persevere.
You can practically see the birth of real courage in Peter’s heart at Pentecost, when he was filled and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Prior to that, he had shown flashes of a fickle kind of courage. That is why he impetuously drew his sword in front of a multitude of armed soldiers one minute but denied Jesus when challenged by a servant girl a few hours later. His courage, like everything in his life, was marred by instability.
After Pentecost, however, we see a different Peter. Acts 4 describes how Peter and John were brought before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling counsel. They were solemnly instructed “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18).
Peter and John boldly replied, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19–20). Soon they were brought back before the Sanhedrin for continuing to preach. Again they told them the same thing: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit and driven by the knowledge that Christ had risen from the dead, had acquired an unshakable, rock-solid courage.
In Peter’s first epistle we get a hint of why he was filled with such courage. Writing to Christians dispersed all over the Roman Empire because of persecution, he tells them:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:3–7)
Peter was secure in Christ, and he knew it. He had seen the risen Christ, so he knew Christ had conquered death. He knew that whatever earthly trials came his way, they were merely temporary. The trials, though often painful and always distasteful, were nothing compared to the hope of eternal glory (cf. Romans 8:18). The genuineness of true faith, he knew, was infinitely more precious than any perishing earthly riches, because his faith would redound to the praise and glory of Christ at His appearing. That hope is what gave Peter such courage.
The Transformed Leader
As Peter learned all these lessons and his character was transformed—as he became the man Christ wanted him to be—he gradually changed from Simon into Rock. He learned submission, restraint, humility, love, compassion, and courage from the Lord’s example. And because of the Holy Spirit’s work in his heart, he did become a great leader.
He preached at Pentecost and three thousand people were saved (Acts 2:14–41). He and John healed a lame man (Acts 3:1–10). He was so powerful that people were healed in his shadow (Acts 5:15–16). He raised Dorcas from the dead (Acts 9:36–42). He introduced the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 10). And he wrote two epistles, 1 and 2 Peter, in which he featured the very same lessons he had learned from the Lord about true character.
What a man Peter was! Was he perfect? No. In Galatians 2 the apostle Paul relates an incident in which Peter compromised the gospel of grace due to intimidation by influential heretics. We see a brief flash of the old Simon. Paul rebuked Peter in the presence of everyone (Galatians 2:14).
To Peter’s credit, he responded to Paul’s correction. And when the error of the heretics was finally confronted at a full council of church leaders and apostles in Jerusalem, it was Peter who spoke up first in defense of the gospel of divine grace. He introduced the argument that won the day (Acts 15:7–14). He was in effect defending the apostle Paul’s ministry. The whole episode shows how Simon Peter remained teachable, humble, and sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s conviction and correction.
How did Peter’s life end? We know that Jesus told Peter he would die as a martyr (John 21:18–19). But Scripture doesn’t record the death of Peter. All the records of early church history indicate that Peter was crucified. Eusebius cites the testimony of Clement, who says that before Peter was crucified he was forced to watch the crucifixion of his own wife. As he watched her being led to her death, Clement says, Peter called to her by name, saying, “Remember the Lord.” When it was Peter’s turn to die, he pleaded to be crucified upside down because he wasn’t worthy to die as his Lord had died. And thus he was nailed to a cross head-downward.
Peter’s life could be summed up in the final words of his second epistle: “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). That is exactly what Simon Peter did, and that is why he became Rock—the great leader of the early church.