X. PETER: HIS GENERAL CHARACTER
ITS STRENGTH AND WEAKNESS
"And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water. And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus. But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me. And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?" MATT. xix. 28-31.
THE incident here recorded illustrates in a very striking
manner the character of the Apostle Peter. His whole conduct, on this occasion,
is such as vividly to exhibit the peculiarity of his natural temperament; and
the rather, when we trace its remarkable though undesigned agreement with what
we read elsewhere concerning him.
The character, indeed, of this holy apostle is not in any part of the sacred writings directly drawn; for the historians of the Bible do not deal in professed delineations of individual character, it being their province to narrate, and not to comment. Hence they never undertake to describe at length what such a man was; they content themselves with telling us simply what he did. And this they do without reserve, and generally without remark, neither elaborately magnifying what is excellent, nor studiously palliating what is wrong, but permitting facts to speak for themselves, and leaving it to the reader to form his own judgment concerning the merits or defects of the various actors in the scenes which they honestly set before him.
Now, this artless, unaffected simplicity of narration well becomes the authority of sacred and inspired evangelists; it contributes much to gain credit to their testimony, while it approves itself to the taste of every competent and intelligent judge of such matters. For what person of good sense and good feeling can refuse to believe authors, every page of whose writings bears the stamp of honesty, and of that courage which is fearless and careless of everything but the truth? And, on the other hand, is it not a source of the most refined satisfaction and delight, a high intellectual entertainment as well as an interesting moral experiment, to exercise our own skill in discerning and discriminating character, to trace for ourselves its broad outline, its marked and distinctive features, its nicer and more minute and delicate shades of peculiarity; and to observe how, in different histories, and in all varieties of situation, the same individual is, without any appearance of artful contrivance or constraint, represented as uniformly and most harmoniously in keeping, if we may so speak, and in accordance both with nature and with himself?
Thus, to those who delight in inquiries and speculations respecting the individual diversities of mental and moral constitution among men, the character of the Apostle Peter must be an interesting study, as it is found to be undesignedly and incidentally delineated in the histories of the New Testament. There is nowhere in these histories any laboured description of his habits and manners, any formal enumeration or catalogue of his good and bad qualities respectively, such as other historians are so apt to deal in. But a few striking instances of his conduct set the man before us. On whatever occasions we meet with this apostle, we find him always natural, and always the same; distinguished by individual peculiarities from others, yet throughout, in all particulars, fairly and beautifully consistent with himself. And this perfect yet simple consistency we are irresistibly led to attribute, not to any concerted scheme of fiction, but to the native harmony of truth the unity and uniformity of a common living original. For we feel convinced, as we read and study it, that such a character, thus artlessly unfolded in such different circumstances and by different authors, must have been taken by each of them apart, directly from the life.
The most prominent and distinguishing peculiarities of the Apostle Peter's natural character seem to have been these two: a certain hasty and generous impetuosity of temper on the one hand, and a certain occasional imbecility or infirmity of purpose on the other; two qualities of mind which are found not infrequently combined. Easily and deeply impressed with new feelings, and prompt to decide at first with frank and fearless honesty, but without enough of calm consideration, he was apt to be afterwards daunted or disconcerted by difficulties unforeseen and unprovided for. When any new object of pursuit was presented to his view, or any new scene or topic crossed his imagination, his eager spirit seized immediately on some one of its grand, or imposing, or affecting features. This single idea roused his enthusiasm, and so occupied, overpowered, and engrossed all his soul, that doubt seemed impertinent and delay intolerable; and he had neither thought nor feeling for anything except that upon which for the time his ambition might be set, an ambition occasionally perhaps fanciful, yet always amiable, and excellent, and noble. In the ardour and impatience of his confident hope, to resolve was to accomplish. With his eye kindled and his heart burning within him, and both alike intently fixed on some one high and honourable aim, he could not bear to be distracted by the remonstrances of cold and timid caution. He could see nothing formidable in his enemy. He could feel no weakness in himself. But passing over in idea all intervening hazards, confident in the strength of his own determination, he grasped the victory ere yet his armour was put on ; and, when he had scarcely even conceived his plan, he seemed to himself to have already attained and secured his end.
Now this honest and dauntless spirit did indeed give boldness, energy, and warm cordiality, to his professions and his resolutions, in every enterprise which he undertook; but then, as it was too hasty for deliberation, and would not suffer him to pause before setting out, that he might look around him or look before him, it exposed him to the risk of being taken at unawares and when off his guard, by dangers, against which a little more of timely foresight might have effectually defended him.
Hence that mixture, which we observe in Peter's character of zeal and weakness, of zeal in purpose and in promise, of weakness, sometimes, in performance. He was always sincere and earnest in his intentions, although, being often rash and inconsiderate, he heedlessly presumed upon his own strength, and unwarily exposed himself to trial. Thus, on all occasions, we find him the first and most forward of our Lord's followers, both to avow his attachment and to put it to the proof.
On his very first introduction, indeed, to the Lord when his brother Andrew and he, along with several others, were attending on the ministry of the Baptist, and Andrew brought him to Jesus, of whom the Baptist spoke, with the glad announcement,"We have found the Messias," Peter was specially noticed in language having reference, as we can scarcely doubt, in part at least, to his personal character, as well as to his destined position in the church: "Thou art Simon the son of Jona: thou shalt be called Cephas, which is by interpretation, A stone" (John i. 42). And we begin to see something of his peculiar temper, his extreme susceptibility of impression, and his quickness of feeling, in his next interview with the Lord on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, after the miraculous draught of fishes (Luke v. 8, 9). He is far more deeply moved by the miracle than his companions; he is affected with a more vivid sense of the holiness of a present God, and his own guilt in his sight: "Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord." But soon he is reassured by the gracious promise, "Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men" and is ready to forsake all and to follow Jesus.
All throughout his waiting upon the personal ministry of Jesus, we trace the same fervency of spirit. For instance, when our Lord questioned his disciples as to their opinion of his authority, "Whom say ye that I am?" it was Peter who promptly, in their name, made confession of their faith "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God;" and when their Master, seeing many draw back offended, put it to the twelve, "Will ye also go away?" it was Simon Peter who instantly and eagerly replied, "Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life" (Matt. xvi. 1 6 ; John vi. 68).
Again: when Jesus filled the minds of his disciples with grief, by announcing his intention of going up, in the face of all his enemies, to Jerusalem, there to suffer and to die, it was Peter who, on the first impulse of his enthusiastic affection without thinking what a liberty he was taking, in thus objecting and contradicting instead of humbly acquiescing presumed to remonstrate, "Be this far from thee, Lord" which inconsiderate and unwarrantable boldness exposed the ardent apostle to that severe reproof, "Get thee behind me, Satan." It was Peter, moreover, who on the Mount of Transfiguration, when James and John were overpowered by the glory of the scene, was ready to make the eager proposal, "Lord, it is good for us to be here: let us build tabernacles." And it was Peter who, in the garden, stung with a holy rage, drew his sword for his Master's defence, in that hasty act which his Master so solemnly rebuked, "All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword" (Matt. xvi. 22, 23; xvii. 4; xxvi. 52).
Again: when the Saviour exhibited that memorable example of kindly condescension in washing the feet of his own servants, still it was Peter who ventured to argue with him; first bluntly refusing to receive so humble a service from a Master so divine, "Thou shalt never wash my feet." And then, when he hears the significant words, "If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me," see how, with his wonted warmth and impetuosity, he earnestly exclaims, "Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head" (John xiii. 6-9).
And once more: when our Lord, having risen, appears on the shore, and makes himself known to his disciples as they are fishing in a boat at a little distance, and when Peter, instead of waiting with his companions, and coming in the boat to land, casts himself in his haste into the sea, who fails to recognise, in this simple but very characteristic incident, the same ardent and eager temperament which uniformly distinguished the zealous apostle? The whole interview, also, which follows, teems with little traits and incidents, all beautifully illustrating the character of Peter. We see him the very same man in his penitence that he was before in his pride. How glad is he to meet his Master again! How anxious to win his kind eye once more the eye which, when last he met it, was so full of wounded love! How eager also to testify his returning affection, and how prompt and bold to profess and promise anew, though in humbler faith and a more chastened spirit, yet with all his wonted warmth, "Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee!" Nay, even the slight question which he then asked concerning the fate of his brother apostle John, "Lord, and what shall this man do?" This question, which every reader at once feels that Peter, rather than any other, was likely to put, suits his somewhat forward, yet affectionate turn of mind - just as perfectly as does our Lord's reply,"What is that to thee? Follow thou me" (John xxi).
So hearty and affectionate a disposition altogether disinterested, generous, and honourable admirably fitted this apostle for the endearments of friendship. And accordingly Peter evidently enjoyed, in a high degree, the private and personal attachment of the Master whom he so warmly loved. Jesus, indeed, seems to have all along taken a lively interest in the discipline and improvement of this apostle's amiable yet imperfect character. Thus, even in the most trying scene of his life, Jesus failed not to remember his erring disciple; at the very time, too, when that disciple had meanly disowned and denied him. "The Lord turned and looked upon Peter;" and by that look of more than human power and more than human tenderness melted his heart to penitence: "Peter went out and wept bitterly." At resurrection, also, in the message which he sent by women how kindly and considerately does he special mention of his fallen follower and friend: "tell the disciples, and Peter!" What a token is this the mourning apostle, after his grievous sin and his bitter weeping! And when they meet, still remembering the disciple who had fallen how graciously does Jesus take an opportunity of accepting his penitence, and sealing and ratifying the penitent's pardon! By the thrice- repeated question, "Lovest thou me," he invites him to renew his profession of attachment just as often and as devotedly as he had formerly renounced it; while, by the thrice-repeated command, "Feed my lambs" "Feed my sheep" he comforts his wounded spirit by thus most solemnly and emphatically restoring him to the apostolic office which he might be held to have forfeited (Luke xxii. 61; Mark xvi. 7; John xxi. 15-17).
Still, however, the same cordial warmth of temper, which raised him so far above all timid and selfish meanness, and endeared him so much to his beloved Master, occasionally hurried Peter heedlessly into situations of danger, where his courage, surprised and alarmed, was apt to fail. Thus it was in the instance of his lamentable fall, when, but a few hours after his bold and manly declaration, "Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee" and after he had been ready to shed blood in his Master's cause, he was betrayed by temptation to which his own rash self-confidence exposed him, and against which he had been expressly warned into a base and perjured disavowal of the very name he had so sacredly pledged himself to honour (John xiii. 38; xviii. 15-27). And thus it was, also, in the instance of his walking with Jesus on the water (Matt. xiv. 28-31). We see how ready he was at first to expose himself, and how soon and how easily he was terrified in the moment of danger. While the other apostles were scarcely yet recovered from the consternation into which they were thrown, first by their helpless exposure to the midnight storm, and then by the sudden appearance of Jesus, whom, in their alarm, they mistook for a spirit, Peter, as usual, distinguished himself by the prompt alacrity of his devotion. No sooner did he recognise his Master, than forgetting all the fears which he had cherished in that Master's absence, while tossed on the waves of the tempestuous sea he thought only of his presence now, eagerly and hastily seeking permission on these very waves to meet with him. Yet no sooner did he actually encounter their fury than his high-wrought resolution gave way: "When he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid." Now he might have observed, before he left the ship, that the wind was boisterous. But so much was he struck by the amazing miracle which he beheld, and so exclusively engrossed with the idea of meeting his Master on so new and singular a path, that he took no time to consider or reflect; and therefore he was not proof against the terrors of the storm, which really came upon him suddenly and altogether unexpectedly. How perfectly, how beautifully consistent, is this occurrence with the apostle's general character! How much in harmony with the spirit of his ordinary conduct! How natural in him, the first hasty excitement of his zeal, as well as the subsequent failure of his confidence and courage!
Such seems to have been the original character of the Apostle Peter, always impetuous, sometimes weak. Such he appeared before the memorable day of Pentecost and the descent of the Holy Ghost. After that time, though we must observe a decided and remarkable change in Peter, as in all the apostles, his enthusiasm being tempered, and his courage sustained, by the calm resolution of a more spiritual faith, still we may perceive in his conduct abundant traces of his natural, his wonted warmth, and some little of his wonted weakness too. For the inspiration of the Spirit did not then any more than his ordinary gracious influences do now level all the distinctive prominences and peculiarities of natural constitution into one dead, flat, and insipid uniformity.
The persons inspired still retained their natural temperament of mind and body. They were changed as to the direction of their powers; but still, in respect of the powers themselves, they were the same as before. So Peter, even after he came under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, showed his former high determination and hearty impetuosity. For do we not still find him foremost among the apostles in their holy work and warfare, the most ardent, the most forward and earnest, in the labours of his missionary office, the boldest in facing danger, the most dauntless in encountering death? The early chapters of the Book of Acts sufficiently attest the prominent part which Peter took in all the proceedings and in all the sufferings of the early Church; and show how heartily he threw his whole soul and spirit into the glorious cause which he was called and commissioned to promote. And as even their inspiration did not render the apostles perfect or faultless, so after his great spiritual change we may still detect in Peter some remains of his original defect. In one instance at least, as we know from the testimony of his "beloved brother Paul" he betrayed a culpable weakness, when, out of deference to the prejudices of the Jews at Antioch, whom he desired to conciliate, or feared to offend, he in some way disguised or dissembled his own views relative to the liberty of the Gentile converts, and their right of exemption from the yoke of Jewish ceremonies; compromising thereby the essential and fundamental doctrine of the gospel - justification by faith alone, without ceremonies or observances of any kind, or any works at all of any law. In that instance Paul tells the Galatians concerning Peter: "I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed." It was the very fault which had previously characterized him that in this instance he was to be blamed f6r, a want of sufficient firmness and decision in following out his own purposes, and adhering, amid all difficulties and trials from without, to his own higher principle and better judgment (Gal. ii. 11-21).
Such then was Peter - such a man naturally - such a disciple and, through grace, such an apostle. Now his character is exhibited for our instruction. From his imperfection we may learn a lesson of humility from his infirmity a lesson of self-distrust. For if he was misled thoughtlessly and incautiously, through ignorance of his weakness, surely it little becomes us to presume upon our own strength, or to trust in our own hearts. We are to shun his errors; but then let us not forget his admirable, his noble excellences. His one great fault of rash and inconsiderate self-confidence should teach us prudence; but let us beware of that prudence which is indolence, or reluctance, or selfishness in disguise. We do well, no doubt, to reprove his impetuous and impatient hastiness of temperament. But his affectionate, disinterested, and unreserved attachment to the Saviour his generous and devoted earnestness in the cause of God and Truth may reprove and put to shame those doubtful and dilatory scruples, by which we would fain excuse ourselves from the "work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope." Truly it well becomes your dull and drowsy formalists in religion, to criticise and coolly to condemn this prince of all the apostles, and to plead to themselves his occasional error in one extreme, as a justification of their continual crime in the other!
For surely, after all, there may be as much of weak timidity in a cold heart, as there can be of rashness in a keen temper and an ardent spirit. There are men who are ever ready, with the chilling air of insinuated doubt, to blast and wither the energy of religious hope; prophets of evil, who would suppress every lofty aspiration of faith, and discourage every wish and every plan of good, by the poor suspicions of their shrewd policy and their worldly wisdom; anticipating always the hazard of failure, just hinting the chances of coming danger and defeat. But let such men know, that if to make rash vows and inconsiderate attempts in a holy cause, is folly, to make no vows and no attempts at all, is sin. Let them look let us all look to the generosity of Peter's self-denial and self-devotion. And while we resolve more circumspectly and act more deliberately than he sometimes did, let us learn to resolve and to act as nobly for God, and in the strength of God We may seek to avoid his impetuosity; but let us not forget, that, without something of his enthusiasm, nothing great, nothing good, can ever be achieved. There may be danger when there is zeal without knowledge. Is the danger less when there is no zeal at all?
Go to Scripture Characters No.11
SCRIPTURE CHARACTERS BY ROBERT S. CANDLISH, D.D., FREE
ST. GEORGE'S, EDINBURGH.
LONDON: T. NELSON AND SONS, PATERNOSTER ROW EDINBURGH; AND NEW YORK.
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