One of the saddest incidents in the gospels is Simon Peter’s denial of Jesus. What does one do when he or she knows they have denied their Lord? Is there a way back? How does our Lord Jesus Christ deal with those who have denied Him?
We find the answer in Christ’s dealings with Peter, before and after his denials, prior to and following the resurrection. No person in the New Testament, or in the entire canon of scripture for that matter, is more fascinating than the so-called “Big Fisherman,” Simon, who was given the new name Peter, after he had confessed Jesus as “…the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16) That name is derived from a Greek word meaning “rock,” so we might say Simon’s nickname was “Rocky.” However, he was not that strong or steady in his hour of testing, but rather a rock that moved, a rock that cracked under pressure. (Mark 14:29-31, 66-72; John 18:25-27)
Peter was destined to become the recognized leader among the apostles after the resurrection. He is also the one to whom Jesus said, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (see Matthew 16:13-19). So we can understand why the symbol for Peter became crossed keys, but it has been suggested that a better symbol for this over-confident and wavering disciple would be a big mouth! For Peter was noisy and boisterous, quick to speak and slow to listen, telling Jesus he would never deny Him, never falter or fail Him. The other disciples might disappoint Him, but Peter confidently asserted he would never stumble or fall away—but he did!
Peter was such a strange paradoxical figure, at times showing great courage and at other times like “a reed shaken in the wind.” There were days when he seemed to have the boldness of the Master, whose superlative boldness enabled Him to face the worst unafraid, but other occasions when he simply lacked the courage of his convictions and did not even want to be recognized as a friend and follower of Jesus. It was during that last week that Jesus told him how earnestly He had prayed for him, saying “Simon, Simon, behold Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed that your faith might not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.” He knew Peter was going to deny Him during the last days, and he told him on that fateful Friday, “The cock will not crow this day until you have denied me three times.”
When Peter was warming his hands at the enemies’ fire, and denied three times that he was one of the disciples of Jesus, he heard the trumpet of the dawn, just as Jesus had foretold, and the crowing of the cock brought him to tears. It is obvious that Peter needed something, something that would strengthen him, something that would steady him, something that would give him the spiritual stamina to stand up for Jesus. It happened on the Day of Resurrection, when the women returned from the garden to share the good news with the disciples in the upper room, and they delivered the message the angel had delivered to them at the empty tomb, just as the risen Christ had told them: “Go, tell my disciples, AND PETER, that I am going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see me, just as I told you.” (Mark 16;7).
Did you notice that special invitation to Peter? That is exactly what he needed, for he was so distraught following his denial of Jesus that he no longer considered himself a disciple. Furthermore, I am sure the other disciples had been very critical of him, especially when they remembered how he had told the Master, “Lord, even though all these others become deserters, I will not.” (Mark 14:29) I can picture sitting in a darkened corner of the upper room all by himself, still going through grief because of his denial, when the women suddenly burst into the room delivering this message. It was when he heard those two words, “…AND PETER,” that he knew his Lord had not forsaken him, but rather had already forgiven him—had not rejected him, but had actually restored him!
It was almost too good to be true, and yet too good not to be true! The joy in Peter’s heart must have been beyond control. His cup of joy overflowed! He jumped to his feet, bolted through the door, ran down the streets as fast as his feet would take him to the garden of the resurrection. He had to see for himself that the tomb was empty! Then later that same day, the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples in the upper room, showing them his hands and feet, and telling them He would see them again by the sea in Tiberias. That is where Peter fell at the feet of Jesus weeping uncontrollably, and the Lord asked him, “Peter, do you love me?” Just as Peter had denied Jesus three times, so now he is is asked to confess his love for him three times by answering this probing question: “Peter, do you love me?” Then this command was given, “Feed my sheep. Tend my lambs.” (John 21:15-17)
Jesus had often used the metaphor of sheep and shepherd in His teaching ministry; now this was a new call to leadership in Christ’s Church, a new kind of leadership, servant leadership, caring leadership. It was in that moment that all of Peter’s foolish pride was broken, that any desire for “doxa” (i.e.”glory”) in the kingdom of God was shattered, that any hunger or thirst for recognition or reputation was quenched in his Lord’s call to be a shepherd, caring for the sheep of God’s pasture. It is in his first letter to the early Church that Peter wrote these words of exhortation to the elders: “Tend the flock of God that is your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it — not reluctantly, but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away.” (I Peter 5:1-4)
Do you ever wonder where all the shepherds have gone? We have a lot of administrators in the contemporary church. We have many managers and heads of staff, but there is a serious shortage of shepherds. Even in our Lord’s day there were not enough shepherds, too few caregivers, for when He looked out upon the crowds he said, “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest.'” (Luke 10:2) What kind of laborers? It is obvious from the context that Jesus was speaking of SHEPHERD LABORERS! The need for loving and caring shepherds is still so great in the fellowship of God’s own people, the household of faith, the Body of Christ.
I have completed nine interims since my first retirement and I can bear witness to the fact that the harvest is still plentiful, but the laborers are still few—there is a great need for more pastors with a shepherd’s heart.
If any of you who are reading this blog are pastors, especially young pastors with years of ministry still ahead of you, believe me when I tell you there are far more people who want to know how much you care, than there are people who really care how much you know!
So, just as Peter was restored and called by Christ to a shepherding ministry in His Church, let us fervently pray for more “shepherd laborers” to be restored to Christ’s Church in our own time. Could it be that one reason for the decline of so many churches, not only a decline in membership but a decline in true discipleship, is due to a lack of pastors with a passion for pastoral care? I believe so, and will continue to pray for the Lord of the harvest to send out more shepherd-laborers into His harvest.