18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him.
I have often referred to Peter as the smelly, uneducated, foul-mouthed, racists that Jesus called to be his disciple. Peter was the oldest disciple according to most scholars. We know from Scripture that he probably wasn’t the best educated guy (Acts 4:13), that he was prone to swear when he lied (Matthew 23:74), and he could get violent when he was angry about something (John 18:10). All those things are fairly easy for Christians to see God delivering from the heart of a man or woman; and Peter is our example of this.
But what about Peter the racist? Take all of those attributes above and add racist to his resume and you have the formula for Jewish supremacy. You read it right. See, before there was white supremacy issues there was a tendency among Jews toward racial supremacy. (And this is not in anyway anti-Semitic and anyone who reads it as such lacks both wisdom and clear judgement. My Savior is a Jew and so is one of my favorite theologians, Paul. So, don’t go there. It is ignorant.) Simon, his birth name, was raised in a Jewish culture that was living under the thumb of Roman rule. There was this deep longing in the Jewish community for someone to come on the scene who would free them from the bondage of the Roman Empire, would reset the clock of the nation of Israel (yeah, they were Nationalists too), and would re-establish the throne of David. After all, the promise of the Old Testament given in 2 Samuel 7:12-16 was that David’s throne would last forever. These ‘others’ were referred to as Gentiles (goy in Hebrew). Interestingly this word became synonymous with calling people heathens, people outside of faith in God. The very word was segregating and separating. If I may use some editorial liberty here, I think it wouldn’t be a stretch to view it as the “N” word of its day. At the very least if was not considered a complement when applied by Jews to those outside of Judaism.
And then there are the Samaritans. They may be even worse than Gentiles in the Jewish culture that Simon was growing up in. Samaritans were those half-breads. Those mestizos. You know, sort of Middle Eastern molatos. Even reading terms like that invokes feelings of anger in folks. As they should. But in the Jewish community of Simon the term Samaritan carried a similar disdain. And why were they hated so much? Well, for one they weren’t pure. I mean, they were at the most half-Jews who were mixed with people believed to have come from what is modern day Iraq. Plus, there Jewish ties were in question. I mean, you had to go way back to find their link to the Jews of Simon’s time. Oh, and don’t forget, they were also laying claim to their own form of Judaism (read the story of the Woman at the Well in John 4).
Prior to the Romans there were the Greeks. They had Hellenized many of the Jews; introducing strange philosophies that were swaying the thinking of the culture. They did much of this through the education system, even translating the Jewish Scriptures into Greek in what is called the Septuagint. This sect of Judaism became known as Hellenistic Jews (two cities well known for this sect of Judaism were Antioch and Alexandria.) So strongly influential was the Greek culture on the Jews that the Latin language of the very powerful Roman Empire never even took root in the Jewish culture. In fact, a new language was developed among many Jewish communities known as Jewish Koine Greek.
These were the circumstances into which our racist, poorly educated, foul-mouthed, common Jewish fisherman was born. Simon was a product of his culture. He was probably not even considered a diamond in the rough. He was just plain rough.
Jesus apparently was ignorant of these things, right? I mean, no real Messiah would pick this guy to be a disciple, much less a minister of the Gospel. Jesus had to have been really culturally insensitive to pick someone of this caliber to be one of his followers. It is no wonder that folks thought he and his disciples were losers. Look who he was choosing to hang out with!
Interestingly enough though, I think Jesus had a slight advantage. He, the Son of God, had the Holy Spirit on his side. He had this prophetic edge that was able to see past the surface and see something deeper and more beautiful than most would have seen in this smelly, old fisherman. So much so that he gives him a nickname. In John’s Gospel we get a little more detail about the calling of Simon.
40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus[k] was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). 42 He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter[l]).
How awesome is it that Jesus gave Simon a nickname? Cephas, the Aramaic word for rock. Peter was the the Greek word petrus or Latin word petros, which could be translated as the little rock or small stone. Immediately Jesus’ new name for Simon Peter gives a whole new prophetic insight into where Peter was headed. You see, calling him Rocky (my paraphrase of course) can have lots of prophetic insight. Using more editorial liberties here, I think Jesus knew he was dealing with a Rock. You know, that hard-hearted, hard-headed old guy that is set in his ways and it would take dynamite to move him? Yeah, that guy. The one you think has no chance of ever seeing any other point of view but his own.
Jesus doesn’t see us that way. He sees us through a Kingdom vision that goes far beyond our prejudices, our cultural biases, our historical experiences, and even our hardened hearts. Jesus is a man of vision and he knows that when he partners with the love of a Good and Benevolent Father and the power of the Holy Spirit he can separate the waters from the land, call light into darkness, create new and beautiful creatures, and cause things to multiply in new and marvelous ways. So, the hardness of Peter’s heart wasn’t a challenge to Jesus, it was something to work with.
This partnership of the Trinity is what I like to term as the wooing of the Spirit. Any good romantic knows that wooing is part of the process of falling in love. Sure, some have a lightening strike and instantly fall in love; but most have a process that eventually turns them into putty in the hands of one another. And it is the wooing that Jesus starts with Peter that slowly melts his hardness toward his fellow human beings and makes his faith a stone foundation that he bases his decisions upon. Let’s look at some of the wooing passages that help us see how Jesus and the Holy Spirit moved Peter from being a racist to a loving missionary to the Gentiles.
Jesus doesn’t see us that way. He sees us through a Kingdom vision that goes far beyond our prejudices, our cultural biases, our historical experiences, and even our hardened hearts.
Step 1: Be Willing To Associate With A Racist
I have actually already referred to these scriptures in both Matthew and John earlier in this article. Jesus had met Andrew through his cousin, John the Baptist. Andrew was one of cousin John’s disciples. Andrew likely was raised in the same household as Peter and wanted his big brother to meet this man he believed to be the Messiah.
We know from the next few verses in John 1 that Jesus was already operating in the gifts of the Spirit because he tells Nathaniel, another called disciple, that he saw him “under the fig tree.” So, if Jesus already had this kind of prophetic insight and foreknowledge, surely he knew as soon as he saw Simon Peter who he was dealing with. And he did! It is for this reason he renames him, no doubt.
Jesus wasn’t afraid to associate and even converse with this racist. He knew the hardness of Peter’s heart toward the Samaritans and the Gentiles, yet he not only talked with him, but he associated with him. He dined with him, he fished with him, he hung out with him, and he eventually went into ministry with him. Yep, he went into ministry with a racist. Let that sink in for just a moment
Step 2: Be Willing To Work With a Racist
Jesus not only brought Peter into his ministry, but he worked with Peter. He discipled Peter as any other of the disciples. In fact, I think it may be arguable that Peter was probably one of the more vocal, attentive, and inquisitive disciples.
Peter, like others of his caliber, suffered from what I like to call foot-in-mouth disease. He was always stating the obvious, asking the obvious, but ever willing to learn from both his mistakes and his accomplishments. And Jesus didn’t waist one solitary moment of his discipleship time with Peter.
For instance, it was Peter who in one chapter went from being the star pupil and getting the question right, to being slammed hard by Jesus for saying the wrong thing.
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock[b] I will build my church, and the gates of hell[c] shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed[d] in heaven.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.
But the story continues…
21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord![e] This shall never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance[f] to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
Wait, did he just call Peter blessed and Satan in what appears to be the exact same day? Yep. He did.
You see, working with someone’s imperfections, including their racism, means seeing what God sees in them and being willing to build enough relationship with them that you can challenge them when they are not setting their minds on the things of God. That is called the work of Grace. Grace demands we give people what they do not deserve. Grace demands that we see beyond the barriers of sin in their lives and call out the good that God has deposited in them. Grace demands that we observe our own hearts when we are offended by their ignorance or prejudice. Grace is scandalous and supernatural. We have to invite the Holy Spirit into us regularly in order to render such Grace to racists; for they either intentionally or unintentionally do the work of Satan.
Grace is scandalous and supernatural. We have to invite the Holy Spirit into us regularly in order to render such Grace to racists; for they either intentionally or unintentionally do the work of Satan.
Step 3: Be Willing to Confront a Racist
First and foremost, before I even dive into this third step, let me warn you that spiritual confrontation is based in love for the person you are confronting and not anger, rage, disgust, or hate. If those are the motivators, you have to deal with the spirit of Satan in your own heart, or, as Jesus said, the log in your own eye.
With that said, as you develop a relationship with a racist (and this may be impossible in some cases, but not as much as some may think) don’t be afraid to move toward and actually step into confronting their racism. As a warning, don’t try to just argue them into submission. I once read an amazing book in seminary called Dialogical Apologetics. This book changed the way I approach the ‘others’ in my life. The gist of the book is that when we are talking with others about our faith it is important for there to be a dialogue and not a monologue. Taking time to understand where they are coming from, even if it is based in ignorance, will greatly improve your relationship with them and your approach to be a part of the wooing process of God in their lives. Too often this is the relational divide that becomes the very barrier which never allows us to confront them. In fact, it is actually easier to just walk away. And for many this is the easy road.
Christians, generally speaking, do not get that luxury. We are called to be relational; it is a part of the Great Commission. You know, that whole “go and make disciples of every nation (which means race, by the way). But if you are going to accept this challenge, you have to do it with the right heart (refer to paragraph one of Step 3 again.)
I love the passage where Jesus directly confronts the racism and prejudice of the Jews. It is recorded in both Matthew 15 and Mark 7, but here we will only look at Mark’s account. Brace yourself!
24 And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon.[g] And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden. 25 But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” 30 And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.
Wait, did Jesus just call that Gentile woman a dog! Yeah. he did. But why? Because he knew Simon Peter’s heart. He knew the experiences and culture of all the disciples sitting at the table. It was his culture as well. He knew there was this national pride and racial supremacy that had become the idols of the hearts of the Jews. And he was willing to use reverse psychology and the great faith of this broken and hurting Gentile woman to lay an ax to the root of racism and prejudice in his disciples hearts. He loved them enough. He didn’t just get up and walk away from these bigots to help this broken woman. He used a teaching moment and some rather harsh words to confront them where they were. He confronted their sexism, their racism, and their religious separatism all in one fail swoop. Oh, how it must have cut.
Matthew caught another part of the story that Mark had left out. Jesus expresses with excitement apparently, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” There it is. Right there. He acknowledges her womanhood, her faith in God, and grants a Gentile what they wanted from the Messiah! That is my Jesus! And he did it all while discipling a racist named Simon Peter. And that is my Jesus, too! He isn’t the either/or Jesus; he is the both/and Jesus.
He isn’t the either/or Jesus; he is the both/and Jesus.
Step 4: Be Willing to Be Betrayed by a Racist
Racist will often have too faces. The face they show others and the face they show their racists friends. And this one cuts across the board. I mean, sometimes people are just consistently racists and don’t care who knows. But I would dare to say that most of us are passive-aggressive racists. And I say us because I think this kind of racism is the most subtle and widespread.
These particular people get in what they consider to be a comfortable environment and they let their hair down a bit. The subtle racial and prejudice slurs come out in their private conversations. And when you find out about it you feel betrayed. Just like Jesus probably felt about Simon Peter’s betrayal of him during his trial.
Jesus wasn’t caught off guard though. No way. His prayer life and his desire to see Simon truly become Peter prepared both him and Peter for what was coming.
31 “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you,[d] that he might sift you like wheat, 32 but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” 33 Peter[e] said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” 34 Jesus[f] said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.”
What amazes me about this story is that Jesus calls him by his birth name two times in a row. i don’t know about you, but when I hear my name called like that I usually know there is trouble and I am in it. My guess is Peter felt the same. Jesus keeps whacking at the roots of Peter’s heart though. He tells him outright that Satan is at work, he wants to sift Peter like wheat. Sifting in the Bible always refers to separating. Jesus lets Peter in on Satan’s plot to separate them. Jesus has an ace up Peter’s own sleeve though and he reveals it to him.
Basically, Jesus tells Peter two important things in this short passage: your going to betray me and I have been praying for your faith to not fail. Did you catch that? That is the ace! You are going to mess up Peter. You are going to betray me, but I am asking and believing that your faith will not fail. Jesus then refers to him in his prophetically given name again; giving him exact instructions on how this is going to go down. No doubt this intimate moment came back to Peter many times throughout his life and he remembered his vulnerability to revert back to his old self, the Simon in him, but that Jesus never stopped believing for him and never stopped believing in him. Nothing was going to separate Jesus from Peter, no matter what. Not even the work of Satan himself.
Are we willing to enter into relationship with racists like this? Are we willing to set ourselves up to be betrayed by them and still keep them as friends and people we are willing to pray for? This isn’t easy. It is the battle against our instincts. You know, those God-given instincts of fight or flight. This is where the natural ends and the supernatural begins. This is a God-given strength that gets us through to the other side.
Step 5: Be Willing to Correct Their Anger and Violence
Racists have these tendencies. Anger and violence lurk right below the surface. To be clear, this isn’t just a racist issue. This is a human issue. In my career as a counselor I have seen some pretty angry and violent people. But there is something about those who are racists that ticks people off. What is that something? The fact that they base their anger and violence off of people’s ethnicity, religion, and culture is what makes it so very difficult to look past.
Somehow, Jesus was able to take a violent moment by Peter and turn it into a teaching moment that allowed him to move forward into a greater destiny than his present. Jesus, being betrayed by Judas in the garden is approached by these religious leaders, their servants, and a band of soldiers (maybe Roman Gentiles?). Here they are taking away Peter’s new best friend. And for what? No justified reasons.
So, Peter took out the sword that Jesus had told him to buy and attacks one of the servants named Malchus, cutting off his ear. My guess is Peter wasn’t aiming for his ear, but was intent on killing this man. And remember what you read above, he had sworn to Jesus that he was willing to go to jail or even die for him. This was his chance to prove it and he could do it by killing one of his enemies
How does Jesus respond to Peter’s anger and violence? Luke 22 records that Jesus simply said, “Enough of this!” John gives us a little more insight in his Gospel. In John 18:11, Jesus says to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” In that quick moment he reminds Peter of when he had rebuked him before and called him Satan for trying to hinder him from his destiny to die for mankind.
Before you get to cozy with Peter’s responses to Jesus’ wooing, remember that Peter was a racist. He only wanted to protect what was rightfully his to protect. This isn’t uncommon to the racists you will meet today. They sincerely believe that they are doing what is “right.” There is no justification for their train of thought, but neither was there for Peter’s. In fact the writer took time to name Peter’s victim. Why? Because Jesus cared enough for Malchus that he reached out and immediately healed and restored his ear.
Simultaneously, he cared enough about Peter to teach him about another area of his heart. He immediately destroyed any will power that Peter had to invoke violence against his perceived enemies. I mean, why didn’t he hit Judas? It was Peter’s issues with the ‘others’ that manifested itself here. Jesus saw it for what it was and he reset everything for Peter in that moment…again. Grace. Grace. Grace. It never gets old with God.
Grace. Grace. Grace. It never gets old with God.
As we are approaching racists and those with deep seeded prejudices, we have to remind ourselves that their tendencies toward anger and violence are often looming right below the surface. At the same time we also have to remind ourselves that God still sees value in them, just as Jesus did in Peter
Oh, and I know what you are thinking. Jesus healed the guy. Well, I do believe we have the same abilities, but that is for a different article altogether. What we do have is the ability to heal the hearts of friends, victims, and communities shaken by violence of any kind. We, the body of Christ, have a supernatural God on our sides that we can offer to those who are victims of violence and anger. We are a reconciling community!
That same healing also has to be extended to those who cause violence. They, like Peter, have hope. They, like Peter, have Jesus on their side. Not on the side of their twisted prejudices, but on the side of their eternal souls. We are the catalysts to extend such kindness, conviction, forgiveness, and, yes, love to these broken and twisted individuals. That is the “why”, but the “how” is something we have to work through with the guidance of the Word, the Spirit, and the counsel of community.
As a side note for complete clarity, do not just fluff of criminal activity. Any form of violence or physical threat is criminal in nature and should not be overlooked. Incorporate any legal means necessary to keep yourself and others safe. But, when the dust settles, be willing to always have forgiveness in your heart. Justice and mercy need not always be separated. After all, they are both a part of the character of God.
Step 6: Be Willing to Offer Forgiveness
As I briefly mentioned above, we can offer loving forgiveness. Even though Peter denied Jesus three times just as the Messiah had predicted, forgiveness was always on the table; and it should always be on our table as well. Racists do hideous things. You name it and it is there. Sometimes these things are criminal and violent in nature and require legal actions, much like the cutting off of Malchus’ ear.
Jesus is our model in all things. Especially in the area of forgiveness. We have to ask ourselves up front, is there anything that Jesus didn’t die for? Anything? Is there anyone that he cannot forgive? Anyone? If the answer is yes, then this conversation is over and we just have to move on. But if the answer is no, then there is hope, even for the racists.
Apparently this is the posture that Jesus took as well. A posture of hope. The disciples had been devastated at the horrific death of Jesus. But no one could have been as devastated as Simon Peter. He had done exactly what Jesus had told him he would do, even after he swore his life and freedom to Jesus. But Jesus was precise in how he dealt with Peter. Three times Peter had denied him, and three times Jesus asks Peter the ultimate question: “Do you love me?” Look at this exchange.
15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” 19 (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”
Interestingly, Jesus uses his old name in this exchange, the name his parents gave him. It is as if he is giving Peter a chance to identify himself anew with Jesus and his Kingdom. He is extending to Simon Peter forgiveness, but at the same time is calling him into a deeper allegiance. Notice that not once does Jesus bring up his sin, he betrayal, his shame. It wasn’t about returning evil with evil. It was about exchanging darkness for light, guilt for acceptance, shame for relationship. When he says, “Do you love me?” that third time and we see a hint in the writing of John that Peter felt it to his core. “Peter was grieved…” He felt it deep inside of him, in his spirit-man where it all really matters anyway. He felt the wooing of Jesus to a life of deep commitment. And he responds as someone who knows that all of his fears, prejudices, character flaws, and all of his internal ugliness is completely exposed, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
What an important revelation for us all. None of us knows the deep recesses of the hearts of racists. We only know the outward, fear and anger-filled shell. But the wooing of God can bring anyone, and I mean anyone, to a place of giving up on self and acknowledging, “Jesus, you know everything about me and yet you love me. Now I am willing to truly and deeply love you.”
The wooing of God can bring anyone, and I mean anyone, to a place of giving up on self and acknowledging, ‘Jesus, you know everything about me and yet you love me. Now I am willing to truly and deeply love you.”
Step 7: Be Willing to See What Jesus Sees
Lest we miss something really important in this exchange in John 21, we must realize that Jesus was not just forgiving Peter, he was calling this man to do ministry; a man who still had a root of racism and prejudice in his heart, . I always find it amazing that Jesus called Peter, of all people, to be a disciple. Peter was just a common, poorly educated, smelly, bigoted, foul-mouthed fisherman and Jesus called him into ministry. “Tend my sheep, Peter.” “Feed my sheep, Peter.”
You see, Jesus sees something in Peter that know one else would have ever recognized. He sees the Imagio Dei, the image of God. Beyond the flaws and ignorance, he sees a miracle waiting to happen. Jesus has on his Kingdom glasses; that supernatural ability to look at the brokenness of someone and see what their true identity was intended to be.
Jesus has on his Kingdom glasses; that supernatural ability to look at the brokenness of someone and see what their true identity was intended to be.
Some Final Thoughts
As I leave you with all of this to contemplate I want to challenge you for just a moment with one last picture of Peter. Before Jesus had the conversation with Peter where he calls him to a lifelong commitment that would end in Peter’s death as a Gentile missionary, we see a beautiful picture of Peter’s changing heart.
Peter told a few of the disciples that he was going fishing and several of them volunteered to go with him. They caught no fish and were ready to head in when the resurrected Jesus, whom they did not recognize at the time, called to them to cast their nets one more time. Suddenly a miracle took place and their nets were loaded down with fish. John writes this in verse seven:
“That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea.”
For one moment imagine the harshest racist person you know as Peter in that boat. Imagine that the Holy Spirit has so wooed his heart through constant love, constant compassion and kindness, constant rejection of his hate with a smile, a friendly greeting, and the other cheek just one more time. You see, it was Peter who had asked Jesus how many times we should forgive. And it was Jesus who answered the racist with “Seventy times seven.” It was Jesus who set the standard for loving those who are our enemies. It was, simply put, Jesus
As we continue to navigate our way through dealing with racism, let’s determine in our hearts that somehow, through supernatural presence of the Holy Spirit, we will be able to see what Jesus saw in Simon Peter. And that, somehow, we can reach the unreachables with the same freeing Gospel that we were reached with. We have been given the Spirit of Reconciliation and through him we can forgive anyone for anything, even a hardened racists. For this reason, in all situations that require a supernatural God, we continue to pray…
Come, Holy Spirit!