Matt. xvi. 18. Thou art Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church.
This is St. Peter's day. It will be well worth our while to think a little over St. Peter, and what kind of man he was. For St. Peter was certainly one of the most important and most famous men who ever lived in the whole world. You just heard what our Lord said to him in the text. And certainly, from those words, and from many other things which are told of St. Peter, he was the chief of the apostles--at least till St. Paul arose.
St. Paul says himself, that he had as much authority as St. Peter, and that he was not a whit behind the very chiefest of the apostles: but St. Peter, for some time after our Lord's death, seems to have been looked up to, by the rest of the apostles and the disciples, as their leader, the man of most weight and authority among them. It was to St. Peter especially that our Lord looked to strengthen the other apostles, after he had been converted himself. It was to St. Peter that our Lord first revealed that great gospel, that the Gentiles were fellow-heirs with the Jews in all God's promises. The same thing was afterwards revealed to St. Paul too, and far more fully: but it was St. Peter who had the great honour of baptizing the first heathen; and of using, as our Lord had bid him do, the keys of the kingdom of heaven, to open its doors to all the nations upon earth.
Now, what sort of a man was this on whom the Lord Jesus Christ put so great an honour? If we say that St. Peter was nothing in himself; that all the goodness and worth in him was given him by Jesus Christ, then we must ask, what sort of goodness, what sort of worth, did the Lord give St. Peter to make him fit for so great an office? And how did he use Christ's gifts? For, mind, he might have used them wrongly, as well as rightly; and the greater gifts he had, the more harm he would have done if he had used them ill. We shall see, presently, how he did use them ill, more than once; and how our Lord had to reprove him, and say very stern and terrible words to him, to bring him to his senses.
But this we may see, that St. Peter was always a frank, brave, honest, high-spirited man; who, if he thought that a thing ought to be done, would do it at once.
The first thing we hear of him is, how Jesus, walking by the Lake of Galilee, saw Peter with his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishers. And he said unto them, 'Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. And they straightway left their nets, and followed him.' This was most likely not the first time that St. Peter had seen our Lord, or heard him speak. Living in the same part of the country, he must have known all his miracles: but still it was a great struggle, no doubt, for him (and doubly so because he was a married man), to throw up his employment, and go wandering after one who had not where to lay his head: yet he did it, and did it at once. And you may see that he did it for a much higher and nobler reason than if he had only gone to wonder at our Lord's miracles, as the multitude did, or even to be able to work miracles himself. Jesus did not say to him, Follow me, and I will give you the power of working miracles, and being admired, and wondered at; all he says is, I will make you fishers of men; I will make you able to get a hold on men's hearts, and teach them, and make them happier and better. And for that St. Peter followed him. It seems as if from the first his wish was to do good to his fellow-creatures.
And, gradually, he seems to have become the spokesman for the other apostles. When they wished to ask our Lord anything, we generally find St. Peter asking; and when (as in the gospel for to-day), our Lord asks them a question, St. Peter answers for them all. Whom say ye that I am? And Peter answered and said, 'Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God.'
This is what St. Peter had learnt; because he had kept his eyes and his ears open, and his heart ready and teachable, that he might see God's truth when it should please God to show it him; and God did show it him: and taught him something which his own eyes and ears could not teach him; which all his thinking could not have taught him; which no man could have taught him; flesh and blood could not reveal to him that Jesus was the Son of God; flesh and blood could not draw aside the veil of flesh and blood, and make him see in that poor man of Nazareth, who was called the carpenter's son, the only- begotten of the Father, God made man. No. God the Father only could teach him that, by the inspiration of his Holy Spirit: but do you think that God would have taught St. Peter that, or that St. Peter could have learnt it, if his mind had been merely full of thoughts about himself, and what honour he was to get for himself, or what profit he was to get for himself, out of the Lord Jesus Christ?
No: St. Peter loved the Lord Jesus; loved him with his whole heart. When afterwards our Lord asked him, 'Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?' He answered, 'Lord, thou knowest that I love thee.' And because he loved him, he saw how beautiful and glorious the Lord's character was; and his eyes were opened to see that the Lord was too beautiful, too glorious, to be merely a mortal man; and, at last, to see that he was the brightness of God's glory, and the express image of his Father's person.
But, as I said just now, St. Peter's great and excellent gifts might have made him only the more dangerous man, if he used them ill. And this seems to have been his danger. He was plainly a very bold and determined man, who knew his own power, and was ready to use it fearlessly: and what would he be tempted to do! To fancy that his power belonged to him, and not to Christ; that his wisdom belonged to himself; that his faith belonged to himself; his authority belonged to himself; and that, therefore, he could use his excellent gifts as he liked, and not merely as Christ liked. He was liable, as we say in homely English, to 'have his head turned' by his honour and his power.
For instance, immediately after our Lord had put this great honour on him, 'I will give thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven,' we find Peter mistaking his power, and, therefore, misusing it. 'From that time forth began Jesus to show unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day. Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from Thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee. But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.' St. Peter's words, in the Greek tongue, really seem to mean that St. Peter fancied that he could protect our Lord; that he had the power of delivering him, by binding his enemies the Jews, and loosing the Lord himself. That seems to have been the way in which he took our Lord's words: but what does our Lord answer? As stern words as man could hear. 'Get thee behind me, Satan; for thou art an offence unto me.' Or, rather, thou art my stumbling-block. So that St. Peter, while he fancied himself near to the angels, found out, to his shame, that he was behaving like a devil, and had to be called Satan to his face; and that while he thought he could save the Lord Jesus, he found that he was doing all he could to harm and ruin his master; trying to do the very work which the Devil tried to do, when he tempted the Lord Jesus in the wilderness. So near beside each other do heaven and hell lie. So easy is it to give place to the Devil, and fall into the worst of sin, just when we are puffed up with spiritual pride.
And more than once afterwards, St. Peter had to learn that same lesson; when, for instance, he leaped boldly overboard from the boat, and came walking towards Jesus on the sea. That was noble: worthy of St. Peter: but he fancied himself a braver man than he was. He became afraid; and the moment that he became afraid, he began to sink. Jesus saved him, and then told him why he had become afraid: because his faith had failed him. He had ceased trusting in Christ's power to keep him up; and became helpless at once.
That should have been a lesson to St. Peter, that he was not to be so very sure of his own faith and his own courage; that without his Lord he might become cowardly and helpless any moment: but he did not take that gentle lesson; so he had to learn it once and for all by a very terrible trial. We all know how he fell;--one day protesting vehemently to his Lord, 'Though I die with thee, I will not deny thee;' the next, declaring, with oaths and curses, 'I know not the man.' No wonder that when Jesus turned and looked on him, Peter went out and wept bitterly, as bitter tears of shame as ever were shed on earth. For he knew, he was sure, that he loved his Lord all along: and now he had denied him. He who was so bold and confident, to fall thus! and into the very sins most contrary to his nature! the very sins in which he would have expected least of all to fall! He, so frank and honest and brave--He to turn coward. He to tell a base lie! I dare say, that for the moment he could hardly believe himself to be himself.
But so it is, my friends. If we forget that all which is good and strong in us comes from God, and not from ourselves; if we are conceited, and confident in ourselves; then we cut ourselves off from God's grace, and give place to Satan the Devil, that he may sift us like wheat, as he did St. Peter; and then in some shameful hour, we may find ourselves saying and doing things which we would never have believed we could have done. God grant, that if ever we fall into such unexpected sin, it may happen to us as it did to St. Peter. For Satan gained little by sifting St. Peter. He sifted out the chaff: but the wheat was left behind safe for God's garner. The chaff was St. Peter's rashness and self-conceit, which came from his own sinful nature; and that went, and St. Peter was rid of it for ever. The wheat was St. Peter's courage, and faith, and honour, which came from God; and that remained, and St. Peter kept them for ever. That, we read, was St. Peter's conversion; that worked the thorough and complete change in his character, and made him a new man from that day forth. And then, after that terrible and fiery trial, St. Peter was ready to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, which gave him courage with fervent zeal to preach the gospel of his Crucified Lord, and at last to be crucified himself for that Lord's sake; and so fulfil the Lord's words to him. 'When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.' By that our Lord seems to have meant, 'You were strong and proud and self- willed enough in your youth. The day will come when you will be tamed down, ready and willing to suffer patiently, even agony from which your flesh and blood may shrink;' and the Lord's words came true. For, say the old stories, when St. Peter was led to be crucified, he refused to be crucified upright, as the Lord Jesus had been, saying, 'That it was too great an honour for him, who had once denied his Lord, to die the same death as his Lord died.' So he was crucified, they say, with his head downward; and ended a glorious life in a humble martyrdom.
And what may we learn from St. Peter's character? I think we may learn this. Frankness, boldness, a high spirit, a stout will, and an affectionate heart; these are all God's gifts, and they are pleasant in his eyes, and ought to be a blessing to the man who has them. Ought to be a blessing to him, because they are the stuff out of which a good, and noble, and useful Christian man may be made. But they need not be a blessing to a man; they are excellent gifts: but they will not of themselves make a man an excellent man, who excels; that is, surpasses others in goodness. We may see that ourselves, from experience. We see too many brave men, free-spoken men, affectionate men, who come to shame and ruin.
How then can we become excellent men, like St. Peter? By being baptised, as St. Peter was, with the Holy Ghost and with fire.
Baptized with the Holy Ghost, to put into our hearts good desires; to make us see what is good, and love what is good, long to do good: but baptized with fire also. 'He shall baptize you,' John the Baptist said, 'with the Holy Ghost and with fire.'
Does that seem a hard saying? Do not some at least of you know what that means? Some know, I believe. All will know one day; for it is true for all. To all, sooner or later, Christ comes to baptise them with fire; with the bitter searching affliction which opens the very secrets of their hearts, and shows them what their souls are really like, and parts the good from the evil in them, the gold from the rubbish, the wheat from the chaff. 'And he shall gather the wheat into his garner, but the chaff he shall burn up with unquenchable fire.' God grant to each of you, that when that day comes to you, there may be something in you which will stand the fire; something worthy to be treasured up in God's garner, unto everlasting life.
But do not think that the baptism of fire comes only once for all to a man, in some terrible affliction, some one awful conviction of his own sinfulness and nothingness. No; with many--and those, perhaps, the best people--it goes on month after month, year after year: by secret trials, chastenings which none but they and God can understand, the Lord is cleansing them from their secret faults, and making them to understand wisdom secretly; burning out of them the chaff of self-will and self-conceit and vanity, and leaving only the pure gold of his righteousness. How many sweet and holy souls look cheerful enough before the eyes of man, because they are too humble and too considerate to intrude their secret sorrows upon the world. And yet they have their secret sorrows. They carry their cross unseen all day long, and lie down to sleep on it at night: and they will carry it for years and years, and to their graves, and to the Throne of Christ, before they lay it down: and none but they and Christ will ever know what it was; what was the secret chastisement which he sent to make that soul better, which seemed to us to be already too good for earth. So does the Lord watch his people, and tries them with fire, as the refiner of silver sits by his furnace, watching the melted metal, till he knows that it is purged from all its dross, by seeing the image of his own face reflected in it. God grant that our afflictions may so cleanse our hearts, that at the last Christ may behold himself in us, and us in himself; that so we may be fit to be with him where he is, and behold the glory which his Father gave him before the foundation of the world.