R. Browning, Pauline.
The Scene in the Upper Room.
As our Lord's earthly ministry draws to a close the spiritual history of the first Apostles reaches a crisis. The scene in the Upper Room has for us a special interest in this connection. It is recorded in all the four Gospels in such a manner as to establish its importance and historicity. As usual Peter's own account is the most vivid, but Luke supplies us with a sentence from which we learn more of the state of affairs than is given by the other three. This is exceptional, for Luke, as a rule, idealises the Apostles. He tells us that "there arose also a contention among them which of them is accounted to be greatest." We see then that even into the Upper Room and to the last Supper had penetrated the jealousies, rivalries and ambitions of these few men who were afterwards to become heroes of the Cross. We only associate the upper room with thoughts of peace and sacredness, but here is another side of the matter. It may well be that the little meeting ended in solemnity and quietness, but it can hardly have begun so. The stamp of truth seems to rest on John's account of what took place, simply because it expresses so naturally Jesus's method of dealing with the contention which Luke says was in existence. He rose from the table and performed for His followers the ceremony their jealousy of one another had made them omit. The foot-washing may have had a direct reference to the future practice of mutual service, but it had also an immediate significance. The disciples refused to wash one another's feet, and the Lord and Master of them all undertook the duty Himself. Perhaps the change of feeling induced by this simple and lowly act made possible the beautiful utterances which only John has preserved for us (John xiii.-xvii.).
In the forefront of this discourse, however, Jesus exchanged a few sentences of special emphasis with Peter. "Simon, Simon," He declared, "behold, Satan, asked to have you that he might sift you as wheat; but I made supplication for thee, that thy faith fail not; and do thou, when once thou hast turned again, stablish thy brethren." This statement of tender solicitude must have been called forth by His knowledge of the contention which had been taking place. Doubtless He was filled with sorrow that Peter had not yet learned the lesson of humility and self-forgetfulness. He foresaw the failure, the cowardice, the denial, but He foresaw, too, the repentance, the restoration, and the greater Peter whose strength should lie in his humility and willingness to be led by the Spirit of God. But at this moment the very last person to see any need of such a change was Peter himself. Jesus went on to describe what in the time immediately following would happen to the little band. "All ye," He said, "shall be offended in Me this night, for it is written, Ye shall smite the Shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad." Peter instantly declared, "Though all shall be offended in Thee I will never be offended." What feelings were contending in his mind at the moment we can only conjecture. Possibly he felt a little sore at the implied rebuke contained in the foot-washing and in the prophecy of the sifting which had followed it. More probably, however, the simple affection which he really had for his Master impelled him to declare his loyalty.
"Exceeding vehemently," according to his own account, he persisted, "If I must _die_ with Thee I will not deny Thee." He felt it was possible that Jesus might in the coming danger need to rely upon the services of an active and courageous friend like himself. Doubtless he felt every word he said, but he also felt the importance of the assistance he could render to Jesus. It never occurred to him that Jesus had no need of his assistance. Peter needed a sharp lesson, and ere long he had it. The secret of true service consists in self-emptying. He learned the true spirit of his Master's teaching only after the utter and painful failure of his own self-confident promises. For the present Jesus's only reply was, "Verily I say unto thee, that thou, to-day, even this night, before the cock crow twice shalt deny me thrice."
Gethsemane and After.
The testing time was not far distant. Peter, filled with determination to show his loyalty and courage, seems to have carried away from the upper room one of two swords that had lain therein. He believed himself ready for emergencies, but failed at the very outset to give what his Master really needed. Once again we find the story told best by Peter himself. He, James and John were stationed by their Master's desire a little nearer to His person than were the others. Most pathetically Jesus entreated their sympathy. "My soul is exceeding sorrowful even unto death. Abide ye here and watch." This, however, they proved themselves unable to do. Luke says they were "sleeping for sorrow," and most likely this is in a measure true. They could not have been indifferent to their Master's trouble. He had given them sufficient opportunity to observe His state of mind, and doubtless they had done so, and were stirred with affectionate sympathy. Nevertheless this sympathy did not go so far as to enable them to share in His vigil. Probably Peter considered himself as a guard to His person--the intensity of his Master's agony he could not understand. His emphatic promise in the upper room, however, was being badly fulfilled. Even if he were no more than a guard to Christ's person he should have kept awake. In his own account of the scene he places the emphasis on this point: "And He cometh and findeth them sleeping, and saith unto Peter, Simon, sleepest _thou_? Couldest thou not watch _one hour_? Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation." The implied reproach here has reference almost certainly to the vehemence of Peter's promise of superior loyalty. "Though all shall be offended yet will not I."
Jesus gently reminded him of the promise, and signified that he had begun badly in the way of keeping it. The Master recognised, however, the sincerity and simple affection of the Apostle in His concluding words, "The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak."
Even while Jesus was speaking the surprise came. Judas and the rabble with swords, staves and lanterns burst into the garden. Instantly all was confusion and alarm; only Jesus remained calm and self-possessed.
Judas stepped forward and kissed Him; the disciples hurried to His side, Peter drew his sword, and without waiting for explanations struck at the foremost of the advancing band. The act was one of sheer folly; it might have involved himself and his companions in one common ruin.
So far from saving Jesus it was Jesus who now saved him. The Master turned hastily round and with quick gesture bade Peter restore the sword to its place, saying, "They that take the sword shall perish with the sword." The statement no doubt had immediate reference to Peter's rashness. Jesus saw that any of His disciples taken with arms in their hands would forfeit their lives. The warning did not need to be repeated; Peter's new-found courage had already deserted him. The assailants seem to have been in similar case. To save His disciples Jesus confronted them, and as He advanced they retreated, stumbling over one another, till, as John relates, they fell to the ground.
"Whom seek ye?" asked the victim of Pharisaic hate. "Jesus of Nazareth," they replied. "I am He," was the rejoinder, and then, with a thoughtfulness and love of which in this dreadful hour Jesus only seems to have been capable, He continued, "If therefore ye seek Me let these go their way." For some moments the officers hesitated; the majesty and dignity of Him whom they had come to seize cast a spell upon them; no one liked to be the first to arrest Him, and Jesus had to declare Himself a second time ere the leaders ventured to execute their commission. The moment this was done, however, "all the disciples left Him. and fled."
So far Peter's self-assertion had ended in failure, but further humiliation was yet to come. He could not bear to remain in ignorance of the fate of a Master whom he really and truly loved; so, checking his flight, when he saw the procession move off he followed it at a safe distance. His friend and partner, John, who appears to have had friends in the house of Caiaphas, obtained admission for him and he waited therein, as Matthew says, "to see the end." All his bravery had now deserted him; he was in a strange city where men of his province were despised and ridiculed. He was only a humble fisherman, and stricken with fear by finding himself in the power of authorities ecclesiastical and secular. Humanly speaking, his next mistake was one that might have been prophesied. He was discovered and questioned; in his bewilderment and terror all the coarseness of his old Galilean life returned upon him, and, forgetful of everything but the desire of saving himself, he denied his Master, with cursing and swearing. Jesus directed upon him a second reproach, this time a mute one. He "turned and looked upon Peter," but that look was enough. It brought him to his senses, laid bare his miserable failure, ingratitude, cowardice and broken promises. He saw how completely he had fallen beneath himself by over-confidence in himself. The Peter of that moment was not the real Peter, after all. He did love his Master, and had run the risk of arrest and death to get near Him again, but his humiliation was complete and his self-abasement intense. "He went out and wept bitterly." Shall we say that the experience of the next few days was the greatest crisis in his career? From this depth of humiliation he rose qualified to become an ambassador and a saviour.
The Power of the Resurrection.
We know nothing of Peter's history during the anguished hours that intervened between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, but we may believe that his shame and contrition continued until Jesus Himself breathed in his ear words of forgiveness and hope. We may infer indirectly that Peter must have been humbled by the recollection of his own self-confident boasting in the presence of the other apostles, for we find him still in association with them. The little company seems to have held together to mourn their lost Master and to assist each other with a common sympathy. That Peter must have been with them is clear from the fact that he was mentioned by name to the women who visited the tomb on the first day of the week. "Go, tell His disciples _and Peter_, He goeth before you into Galilee." When we consider that Peter still associated with those who had listened to his self-confident assumption of superiority to themselves we can discern something more than remorse in his demeanour. There is evidence of a new humility, and yet at the same time a continuance of tender affection for the Lord whom he fully believed he should never see again.
There is one incident in which Jesus was concerned after the Resurrection of which there is no record--there could be none. It is the first interview between Jesus and Peter after the Resurrection.
The disciples in the upper room were informed that the Lord had appeared unto Simon. What took place at that first meeting we can never imagine; it must have been a season of such sacredness and solemnity that Peter would not be likely to say much about it to his brethren. The loving thoughtfulness of Jesus bade Him seek out His humiliated and sorrow-stricken follower that He might assure him of forgiveness and restoration. Very intense and holy must their intercourse have been. From this moment Peter became a great and noble character; his discipline has not been for nothing, his self-seeking is at an end; ambition has no place in his mind for the future; arrogance and self-confidence thenceforth must have given place to a lowliness born of the remembrance of his cowardice and wretched failure. When in after days he wrote for the guidance of the saints he was writing from the depths of his own experience: "Yea, all of you gird yourselves with humility to serve one another, for God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble" (1 Peter v. 5).
The appearance of genuineness rests upon this New Testament story. In its idyllic simplicity and faithfulness to the facts of human nature it stands in marked contrast to the spurious and unauthorised legends about Jesus and His Apostles with which the sub-apostolic age abounded.
The Church has not lost much, in all probability, by the oblivion in which these lesser gospels have been buried. To unearth them now would, no doubt, be of service in throwing light upon critical problems in regard to the existing New Testament texts, but they could add nothing to the sweet and natural accounts of the spiritual history of the men who guided the early Church. We know Peter better from the pages of the four Gospels than we do from legendary accounts.
Indirectly this faithfulness of the evangelic records is of great assistance in establishing their historicity. Nothing is concealed, or toned down, that we ought to know, nothing that would tend to represent the Apostles as superhuman or exceptional in their lofty character is thrust upon our notice; we are permitted to see Peter as he really was, a man made noble by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
What he was, we are. Ambition, self-seeking, self-confidence, have throughout the history of Christendom been the most serious defects of the strongest characters. Sometimes these vices have been displayed upon a grand scale, oftener their scope has been petty and mean. The sins of the Catholic Church, as painted by a Bernard or a Catherine of Siena, are to be found in many a little Bethel in the Protestant England of our day. Simony is not unknown amongst the ministers of Christ, even in the ranks of Non-conformity. Not unfrequently these sinful tendencies are to be found allied with a true and earnest desire to serve the Master. All the same, they are a serious hindrance, not only to Christian character, but to the effect of Christian service; the spirit in which a man does his work has the profoundest influence upon the good result of that work. Where a man is sincere in his wish to do good, and yet at the same time in any degree the victim of his own self-confidence or self-seeking, he is sooner or later brought to the point where he must choose between his wish and his practice. In nearly every case the necessity for this choice is revealed to him by a sharp discipline. Peter's case is repeated again and again in the lives of the servants of God. It is hard to dislodge self from its vantage-ground in the region of human motives. It would be hard to find a church in which selfishness or jealousy had neither place nor influence, and it is uncommonly difficult, even for a good and true man, not to feel elated by admiration or depressed by being surpassed.
But surely the cure for this kind of feeling is included in the very nature of Christian service. There is absolutely no relation between moral excellence and worldly recognition of it. We have conceded something to the world when we stop to think of its applause as an object of desire. It is easier to go without such applause and to labour in obscurity than it is to remain unaffected by it once it has been bestowed. Still harder is it for a man to retire from a position and a duty in which he has done nobly and well, and then to see his bishopric taken by another. Sooner or later this experience falls to the lot of most of God's heroes; it were well, therefore, that they should recognise it in advance, count the cost, know their own minds, and render unnecessary the sharp discipline which accompanies self-discovery. When God means to use us, as He meant to use Peter, He never spares us. Jesus could not afford to allow Peter to go his own way, and therefore it was that the prince of the Apostles became an instrument for good, yet so as by fire.
A New Commission.
Although, however, our Lord had in such a beautiful and thoughtful way restored His poor, self-abased disciple in private, Peter had still a necessary discipline to undergo. He had sinned in the presence of others, it was necessary that others should know of the new understanding between his Master and himself. Only John has preserved the record of the conversation in which this new understanding was declared. But Peter himself distinctly refers to it in his Second Epistle (i., 14). John tells us in the last chapter of his Gospel that Peter and a few of the accustomed circle went fishing on the Lake of Tiberias. Peter's announcement, "I go a fishing," has sometimes been taken to imply that he had determined to renounce apostleship and return to his old life, that, in short, he was disappointed with the reward of following Jesus and disenchanted with the vision of a Kingdom of God. "I go a fishing," therefore, has been construed to mean "I abandon these dreams; they have brought me no advantage; I will go back to my fisherman's boat and my fisherman's home." It is difficult to see what justification there is for this theory. Peter was simply continuing habits he had never entirely renounced. Neither he nor John had any intention of dismissing all thought of Jesus or of abandoning His service when they entered upon this particular fishing expedition.
On the contrary, it is probable that their minds, hearts and conversation were full of the marvels which had occurred since first the vision of angels had informed them that Jesus was alive. No doubt they were full of expectancy in regard to the place and time of His next appearance. About daybreak, as they drew near to the shore, they perceived some one standing on the beach whom presently they made out to be the Lord. John was the first to recognise Him, and told Peter, who instantly leaped into the sea and went to Him. Jesus had prepared a meal for the hungry disciples, and waited till they had broken their fast before entering upon the serious subject which occupied His mind and, perhaps, Peter's.
Possibly Peter had some knowledge of what Jesus intended to say, though not of the form in which it was to be said. In the previous and more private interview the Master had most likely signified to the disciple that the protestations he had made in the presence of others in the upper room would have to be referred to again in the presence of some at least of those who had first heard them. He could not, therefore, have been surprised at the three questions now addressed to him.
"Simon, son of John," said the Master, "lovest thou Me more than these ([Greek: _agapao_])?" The now humbled Simon replied in lowly terms by appealing to Jesus's personal knowledge of him, and in particular, perhaps, to their previous private conversation. "Yea, Lord," said he, "Thou knowest that I love Thee" ([Greek: _philo_]). The reference to the upper room is distinctly seen both in question and answer. In the former case Simon had claimed for himself a superiority in devotion.
He had offered to his Master the loyalty of a soldier to his captain or of a friend to his friend. He had assumed that his assistance was of importance to Jesus; he had offered to devote himself as a patriot might to his country, or a hero to a cause. Of this Jesus now reminded him by the use of a single word ([Greek: _agapas_]). The English New Testament rendering of this passage fails to convey its full significance. Peter surrendered his whole position; he had no intention of doing more than affirming what Christ already knew, that even in the midst of his boasting, desertion and denial, he had very really and truly loved his Master with a deep and tender affection.
This he expressed in his careful answer by the use of the word [Greek: _philo_]. In effect, he now offers the love that a child might give to a parent. He is conscious he can confer no benefit upon Christ, nor be of any service to Him beyond the powers of other people. Very humbly, therefore, he asserts that his heart is true. He loves his Master, and his Master knows it.
Three times does Jesus put the same question, on each occasion following up the answer by giving to Peter a new and glorious commission. He was to feed the lambs and tend the sheep. As Peter had denied Him three times so now he is interrogated three times concerning his loyalty. The third test was the closest. Jesus takes up Peter's own word, and asks him "[Greek: _phileis me_]." The narrative goes on to say that Peter was grieved because he was asked the third time "Lovest thou Me?" Here we see, however, that the source of his sorrow was that Jesus should appear to doubt his humble use of the humblest word he could find to express his unchanging affection for the Master who had restored him to his better self. Jesus had pressed the question home by adopting Peter's word, and the earnest reply which followed satisfied Him. "Yea, Lord," said poor Simon, "Thou knowest all things; Thou knowest that I love Thee." Then said Jesus, "Feed my sheep." Peter, though he hardly knew it, was now more ready for service than he had ever been before. Christ had accepted the service of one who now rated his own value so low. From henceforth, indeed, he was to be a fisher of men. It had taken a long time to lead Peter to this point, yet Jesus had foreseen it at their first meeting in Bethabara beyond Jordan. Very patiently had He trained him from the hour in which, with prophetic insight, He had said, "I will make you _to become_ a fisher of men." Now indeed He could set him to work.
Now He could trust him with the sublime duty of being the rock on which the new-born Church should rest.
 In whatever language they were originally spoken there is a presumption amounting to certainty that the careful use of these words in the Greek of John's Gospel corresponded to the shade of meaning employed both by Jesus and Peter.
The Prince of the Apostles.
Jesus's closing words to Peter as we have them in the 21st of St. John could only have been spoken to one who had advanced far beyond the point at which ease, honour or riches were regarded as motives for service in the Kingdom of God. What a contrast between the Peter who inquired, "What shall we have therefore?" and the Peter to whom the solemn assertion was made, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, 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. Now this He spake, signifying by what manner of death he should glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He saith unto him, Follow Me." Here again is a distinct reference to the "Lo, we have left all and followed Thee" of an earlier day. Peter is now informed that he is to expect stripes, imprisonment, martyrdom. He is to glorify God in sufferings and death. He can be under no further misapprehension as to the meaning of Christ's mission and work for and amongst men. "Follow Me!"
meant more now than it had done the first time he heard it by the Lake of Galilee. Calvary had supplied the interpretation. Peter's new commission began at the Cross. Prominence in the Kingdom had been given to him, but that prominence was a prominence of suffering. He was to be first of all, not in ease, reputation or power, but first in the difficulties, the dangers and trials of the little community he had now to shepherd. In the Second Epistle of Peter i. 14, there is a pathetic confirmation in Peter's own words of the solemn charge addressed to him by the Lake of Tiberias: "I think it right, as long as I am in this tabernacle, to stir you up by putting you in remembrance; knowing that the putting off of my tabernacle cometh swiftly, even as our Lord Jesus Christ signified unto me. Yea, I will give diligence that at every time ye may be able after my decease to call these things to remembrance."
One or two instances might here be cited as evidence of the new spirit which animated him who was now prince of the Apostles. In John xxi.
20-23 we have given to us in a few words the earliest instance of Peter's new-found desire of self-abnegation. "Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following.... Peter therefore seeing him saith to Jesus, Lord, and what shall this man do? Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? Follow thou Me." Curiously enough, this incident has been variously misinterpreted. Peter has been accused of idle curiosity or of semi-discontent at the comparison of his own hard lot with the probable happier fortune of the Apostle John. The reply of Jesus to the inquiry has therefore been represented as a sharp and well-deserved rebuke. It can hardly be that any of these explanations represent the true state of the case. The truth would rather seem to be that Peter shrank from the new responsibility and prominence which had been assigned to him, and would willingly have become a follower of his old rival, now his companion and friend. John was the disciple who understood his Master most nearly--the one "whom Jesus loved." He had been present with Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration, in Gethsemane and in the house of Caiaphas. Peter in old days had been jealous of him, and this jealousy had led to strife among the disciples. He was in no mood to strive for preference now. The disciple whom Jesus loved had, he thought, a better right to tend the sheep and feed the lambs than he had. John was the only one who had not entirely abandoned his Master; he had followed Him to the midnight trial, he had been present at the Crucifixion, and been the recipient of a pathetic commission thereat--namely, to take care of Jesus's mother. Peter now felt that John was a worthier leader of the Apostolic Church than he himself could hope to be. No doubt the arrest of Jesus had drawn them more closely together. John had done him the service of obtaining his admission to the house of Caiaphas. He had remained with him most likely in the dark hours before the resurrection morning; he accompanied him to the tomb; he was with him now. How could Peter better exemplify his humility than by his unwillingness to take precedence of a man whose true nobility and generosity he had now proved to the full? Jesus's answer gave in very brief terms a forecast of John's function in the Kingdom, and re-emphasized for Peter the importance of unquestioning obedience. He said, in effect: John's commission will not affect yours. I have chosen. Suppose that yours is to strive and lead, and his to stand and wait? How will his commission affect the faithful discharge of yours?
How thoroughly both Peter and John accepted the positions allocated to them their immediate after history shows. Peter led the van, John served in silence. Their friendship continued and expanded. For the future we hear much of "Peter and John." These two began a new friendship. John shared in Peter's punishment; if Peter did the speaking alone, John took the imprisonments with him. As they had been together on the Mount of Transfiguration, together in Gethsemane, together in the hall of Caiaphas, so now they remained together in spirit until the day of Peter's martyrdom came. (Acts iii. 1-iv.)
In a certain sense we have now reached the beginning rather than the end of the life and work of the Apostle Peter. From the point at which most of the particulars regarding his personality cease to be afforded in the New Testament commences the astonishing work of which he was in a sense the leader and inspiration. A few Galilean fishermen set to work to turn the world upside down. The vast and venerable fabric of the Christian Church reposes upon such foundations as we have considered. This revolution wrought in the history of the world is a moral miracle. The task essayed was stupendous. Neither Peter nor his companions could have estimated its magnitude or foreseen its triumph.
That he himself should come to be regarded as the first and greatest of the long line of sovereign pontiffs of the Roman Church we may be sure never occurred to him. He entered upon his task in faith, leaving results to the great Master whom He served. Compared with the great Apostle of the Gentiles he was neither wise nor learned; he was but one of the weak things of earth chosen to confound the mighty. The Holy Spirit rested upon him for service. He was a willing instrument whom God could use because self-seeking was entirely banished from his motives and desires. How this came to be so we have just seen. It was Jesus who made Peter what he was. Jesus believed in him from the first, knew him better than he knew himself, and looked to the Peter that was to be rather than the Simon that was. Jesus dealt with him in patience and love such as fills us with wonderment. Who but Jesus would have thought it worth while to do it? What He did for Simon the fisherman He is still able to do for all who yield themselves to Him.
There is nothing impossible with Christ. The weakest and most sinful amongst us is of infinite value to Him. How many of us are saints in the making! May the story of His dealings with one life lead us all to the same experience of faithful and loving obedience. May it be ours to respond even through stumblings and failures to His gracious invitation, "Follow Me!" He will lead us from strength to strength, we shall learn of Him and find rest unto our souls.
 Bruce, "Training of the Twelve," p. 511.