In Peter’s spiritual life there are two distinct phases – i.e. the phase between his repentance and filling with the Holy Spirit, followed by the phase which started on the day of Pentecost. During the first phase he was a fleshly Christian who was still full of himself and his own ideas, despite the fact that he had already received important revelations on Jesus as Saviour and Messiah. Because of carnality his life was characterised by failure, defeat and spiritual deception. But at the onset of the second phase he had the experience of sanctification and thereafter went from strength to strength in his spiritual life. These two phases are typical of all Christians’ way of spiritual development after repentance.
Before Pentecost Peter was already a saved follower and disciple of Jesus. As far as his knowledge on the true identity of Jesus as the Son of God and promised Messiah of Israel is concerned he was far ahead of his fellow-countrymen. Matthew says the following in this regard:
“When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am? So they said, Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets. He said to them, But who do you say that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, You are the Christ [Messiah], the Son of the living God. Jesus answered and said to him, Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:13-19).
Peter is praised for his insight. The Lord Jesus said to Him: “You are Petros [a small rock] and on this Petra [a large rock] I will build My church.” On the rock of Peter’s testimony of Jesus as the Son of God the church of Christ would be built. By proclaiming the Word of God the church would open heaven to many people, while the unbelief of many others would cause the gates of heaven to be shut to them. It is clear that Peter was not the first pope who had control over the keys of the kingdom of heaven – the Lord Jesus is the Rock upon whom the church is built, and only He has the keys to open or close doors to people.
Shortly after Peter gave the great testimony on Jesus as Messiah, his fleshliness and lack of spiritual knowledge on the full counsel of God caused him to seriously deviate from the truth. The devil exploited his ignorance and made him say things that were contrary to the gospel of salvation:
“From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day. Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You! But He turned and said to Peter, Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offence to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men” (Matt. 16:21-23).
Within a few moments Peter proclaimed a great truth as well as a great lie. He could not understand the necessity of Jesus’ suffering and death, and expressed himself against this idea. He did this in spite of the many Old Testament prophecies on the suffering Messiah who had to pay the ransom for our sins. Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 clearly reflect this message, but Peter did not yet understand that Jesus had to follow the way of shedding His blood for the salvation of sinners. Did Peter only believe in the generic benevolence of God to forgive people without demanding a sacrifice for their sins? Or did he think that the sacrificial service of the Old Testament was sufficient?
The lack of spiritual discernment on the gospel is characteristic of carnal Christians who do not speak and act under the anointing and guidance of the Holy Spirit. They may correctly understand certain things, but in other respects they reveal great ignorance – to such an extent that they render themselves of no use in the service of the Lord. The Lord Jesus knows the origin of spiritual deception, and rebukes Satan who spoke through Peter. It is ironical that Peter sometimes was a mouthpiece for the Lord but at other times a mouthpiece for the devil.
This situation is typical of carnal Christians who do not have sufficient knowledge and discernment. They do not have enlightened eyes of the mind to correctly comprehend the mysteries of the gospel of justification and sanctification in every respect. Some of them do not properly understand Christ’s deity, attributes and work of grace. Carnal Christians also have a serious lack of knowledge on the necessity of sanctification as a second work of grace. They are not spiritual people in the true sense of the word, who can understand the deeper things of God’s Word. Paul addressed such carnal believers when he said to the Corinthians:
“And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?” (1 Cor. 3:1-3).
The problem of these Christians is very obvious – they do not realise that they are a temple of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 3:16) since they are still full of themselves. That is the reason why they could not be fed with solid food from the Word. They were simply not able to grasp these truths as the experience of sanctification was still lacking in their lives.
The Hebrew believers were lacking because of the same problem, and therefore did not experience any spiritual growth: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection” (Heb. 5:12–6:1).
How does one grow up to the mature man or woman in Christ, and develop spiritual gifts to correctly discern all the Biblical doctrines? The process of growth towards spiritual maturity after repentance does not automatically follow. Because of the time that had passed since their conversion the Hebrew believers should have already made the surrender which is needed to start growing but instead they stagnated spiritually. They could not be used in the service of the Lord and were often not even sure of their own salvation. The message of certainty of faith had to be proclaimed to them over and over again.
The progress to perfection which was lacking among them does not allude to a situation of sinless perfection but to a life of holiness, overcoming and being filled with the Holy Spirit. No person grows into a state of sanctification without fully committing him- or herself to it. A surrender of this nature demands a time of soul searching and crucifying of the flesh and its lusts, followed by the filling of the Holy Spirit.
In Peter’s life there was a second characteristic of his carnality namely arrogance and self-centredness. Even after he realised that Jesus was destined to suffer and die he said in his own power that he would stand by Jesus and even die with Him: “Lord, I am ready to go with You, both to prison and to death. Then He said, I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day before you will deny three times that you know Me” (Luke 22:33-34). Peter was of the opinion that he himself, without the power of the Holy Spirit, could walk on this way and follow Jesus to the end.
He seriously misjudged himself. He could not follow Christ all the way – neither can any Christian in the world do so. Despite this fact, many carnal Christians try in their own strength to keep their way pure and remain true to Jesus at all times. That is the reason why they continue to stumble and lead inconsistent lives. They are unsuccessful Christians who compromise, fail to fulfil their objectives, do not prevail when they are tested, and generally move from one defeat to another and from one failure to another.
Such people are full of themselves and their own abilities. Like Peter they say, “Leave this matter in my capable hands and I will bring it to pass – I will not fail you.” But such people cannot even testify of the Lord Jesus before a lowly servant when conditions are difficult and persecution is threatening. The reason for this problem is that such Christians have not been empowered and motivated by the Holy Spirit.
Abandoning of your calling
A carnal life so often leads to failed efforts that such a person easily backslides, even to the point of abandoning the struggle and deciding not to follow Jesus any longer. At a certain stage this was also Peter’s reaction since he gave up to be a follower of Jesus and decided to return to his former occupation as a fisherman. After the crucifixion and burial of Jesus he thought it was the end of the road for the followers of Jesus, and said to some of his fellow disciples: “I am going fishing. They said to him, We are going with you also. They went out and immediately got into the boat, and that night they caught nothing” (John 21:3).
When, in the morning, they saw the risen Jesus on the shore, they didn’t recognise Him. They nevertheless obeyed His command to cast the net on the right side of the boat, “and now they were not able to draw it in because of the multitude of fish” (John 21:6). At this point Jesus was recognised by John who shared the knowledge with Peter.
The Lord Jesus understood their lack of knowledge and spiritual motivation, and clearly showed them that they would not be happy if they returned to the world. He gave them a big catch, thereby demonstrating to them that He could make them fishers of men. Jesus afforded Peter the opportunity to confirm three times that he truly loved Him. In this way Peter made good for the three times that he denied Jesus. He was then commissioned to tend His sheep.
There are many carnal believers who, after a time, decide not to follow and serve Jesus any longer. They return to the world and fully immerse themselves in its evil practices. One of Paul’s companions did the same: “For Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world” (2 Tim. 4:10). The lost son was in a similar situation. Such people will never find happiness. To them, there is only one way and that is back to the Lord Jesus, to renewed cleansing by His blood and the filling of His Holy Spirit. Backsliders should read Psalm 51 and again surrender themselves to the Lord.
The experience of Pentecost
Consider the big difference which the experience of Pentecost brought about in the lives of Peter and the other disciples. They were transformed from powerless, prayerless, doubting and faltering witnesses of Christ into bold and effective servants in His kingdom. What was responsible for this change? The enduement with power from on high:
“Then He said to them, Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And you are witnesses of these things. Behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high” (Luke 24:46-49).
In Acts 1:8 He said, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Peter, who at an earlier stage was not even able to admit to a lowly servant that he was a follower of Jesus, humbled himself with the other disciples for ten days to confess his sinfulness and fleshliness, to put his trust completely in Jesus Christ and to wait for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. On the day of Pentecost they were filled with the Holy Spirit and Peter proclaimed the gospel with great boldness to an agnostic Jewish nation. He brought a powerful message and in one day moved 3000 people to accept Christ as their Saviour. That was the early beginnings of the Christian church on earth.
Subsequently, the early church often suffered from worldliness and a lack of knowledge, which underscores the fact that all of us need the filling of the Holy Spirit as a second work of grace. Without this experience we will not achieve anything in the service of the Lord.
Peter was so completely filled with the Holy Spirit and divine wisdom that the Spirit led him to write two epistles which later became part of the Bible. He exhorted Messianic congregations to fully set their hope upon the grace that will be bestowed on them when Jesus Christ returns, since they were redeemed by the precious blood of Christ, who is the Lamb without blemish and without spot (1 Pet. 1:13-19). Peter insisted that they should proclaim the praises of Him who called them out of darkness into His marvellous light (1 Pet. 2:9).
The young congregations were also reminded that they were sojourners and pilgrims in an evil and perishing world in which they would experience much tribulation (1 Pet. 2:11; 4:1-19). He devoted an entire chapter to the tragic phenomenon of backsliders who deviated from the way of the Lord and returned to a sinful life in the world (2 Pet. 2). But he encouraged Christians to remain spiritually standing in this godless and transient world: “Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (2 Pet. 3:11-12).
This is the language of a man who walked in the fullness of the Holy Spirit and looked far beyond earthly riches to our eternal home in heaven. He knew what it was to be a carnal Christian who disappointed Jesus in many ways and even denied Him, but he graciously reacted to the command to wait on the Lord until he was endued with power from on high. After that, he never again looked back or hesitated, not even at the end of his life when he was confronted with a martyr’s death by crucifixion.
Do you also walk in fullness of the Holy Spirit? You will then receive the power to be a witness for Christ and to remain standing in the midst of the most testing circumstances, without becoming despondent and turning back to the world. You will also become strong in the Lord to successfully resist the attacks of the devil. Furthermore, your knowledge of the Lord and His Word will increase until you will be able to comprehend with all the saints what the width and length and depth of the love of Christ is, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.