“Some time ago a newspaper in a distant town carried an Easter Sunday religion editorial by a minister who stated that the presiding authority of the early-day church fell because of self-confidence, indecision, evil companions, failure to pray, lack of humility, and fear of man. He than concluded:
Let us as people, especially those who are Christians and claim to abide by the Word of God, not make the same mistakes and fall as Peter fell. (Rev. Dorsey E. Dent, “A Message for This Week.”)
As I read this, I had some strange emotions. I was shocked, then I was chilled, then my blood changed its temperature and began to boil. I felt I was attacked viciously, for Peter was my brother, my colleague, my example, my prophet, and God’s anointed. I whispered to myself, 'That is not true. He is maligning my brother.'” —Elder Spencer W. Kimball
There is no problem with the story of Peter. The way we traditionally read the story of the Apostle Peter might be an incorrect narrative of his character and misrepresentation of the scriptural account. For all the great our beloved Peter did, we often focus on the story of his “fall” and how quickly he repented and became the “Rock” upon which the church was built. It is a miraculous story: the power of the Atonement, a story of how even the best of us can fall away — even deny the very Lord who has given us life. But yet, even with such denials and sins brought on in times of fear and loneliness, pain, or lapses in faith, the poignant power of the atonement reaches beyond our despair and can redeem. Not only does it restore us to what we once were, but it propels us to greatness and unshakable faith. President Gordon B. Hinckley's heartfelt description of the Apostle Peter is as follows:
“My heart goes out to Peter. So many of us are so much like him. We pledge our loyalty; we affirm our determination to be of good courage; we declare, sometimes even publicly, that come what may we will do the right thing, that we will stand for the right cause, that we will be true to ourselves and to others.
“Then the pressures begin to build. Sometimes these are social pressures. Sometimes they are personal appetites. Sometimes they are false ambitions. There is a weakening of the will. There is a softening of discipline. There is capitulation. And then there is remorse, followed by self-accusation and bitter tears of regret …
“If there be those throughout the Church who by word or act have denied the faith, I pray that you may draw comfort and resolution from the example of Peter, who, though he had walked daily with Jesus, in an hour of extremity momentarily denied the Lord and also the testimony which he carried in his own heart. But he rose above this and became a mighty defender and a powerful advocate. So, too, there is a way for any person to turn about and add his or her strength and faith to the strength and faith of others in building the kingdom of God.” (“And Peter Went Out and Wept Bitterly,” Ensign, Mar. 1995, 2–4, 6)
This is the narrative you hear in connection with the tragic and great events of Peter's life in occasional conference talks, sacrament meetings, Sunday School lessons and family home evenings throughout The Church. This version of the Apostle Peter's story is also taught in our current manuals (Lesson 26 of the New Testament Sunday School Manual).
The doctrine is true, but the story might not be. Although this doctrine is pure and correct — the atonement is miraculous, infinite and able to make you into something greater then you now are — it may NOT be the lesson learned from the life of Peter. In no way am I suggesting our leaders have led us astray; the principles of the atonement they teach are most certainly true. I do wonder, however, if the use of the Apostle Peter is an accurate example of this lesson. It doesn't make sense and isn't consistent with his character.
As an early-morning Seminary teacher and now as a Sunday School teacher, I saw how easy it was for the youth to default to the “primary answers” when studying the scriptures but failed to take Nephi’s admonition:
“And I did read many things unto them which were written in the books of Moses; but that I might more fully persuade them to believe in the Lord their Redeemer I did read unto them that which was written by the prophet Isaiah; for I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning.” (1 Nephi 19:23)
Therefore, to help them “liken all scriptures” to themselves, I challenged them to ask a simple question about everything they read: “What does that really mean?” It would go something like this.
Jennifer, will you read John 18:10-12?
Yes, of course Brother Burgess.
10 Then Simon Peter having a sword drew it, and smote the high priest’s servant, and cut off his right ear. The servant’s name was Malchus.
11 Then said Jesus unto Peter, Put up thy sword into the sheath: the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?
12 Then the band and the captain and officers of the Jews took Jesus, and bound him,
Class, what do we learn from Peter and Christ's response in this story? Yes, Cameron.
Peter was faithful to Christ and Christ forgives everyone. (the Primary answer, not wrong, just not likening the scriptures to ourselves.)
Great answer Cameron, BUT, what does that really mean to you, to us? Kevin, yes, what do you think it really means?
Well, I know if I was Peter I would be excited to protect a man I admired and loved, especially if it was the Savior. I would want to show him how much I trust him and would be willing to defend him. I can’t imagine what Peter felt about the Savior. But last week I found out that someone at school was bullying my little sister, and I wanted to find that person and beat them up. My sister gets on my nerves at times, but I would do anything to protect her.
Wonderful answer Kevin, I believe that helps us understand a little better what Peter's love and respect for the Savior was like. Additionally, even with that great love Peter had for the Savior, what lesson does the Lord teach Peter that will help us with how we show love to those like your sister and her bully?
As for the “denial” story of Peter, I can’t help but ask, “What does that really mean?” What if I were Peter, sworn absolute loyalty to Christ, loved him, admired him, cared profoundly for him, would willing give my life for him? Peter wasn't empty in his words. His actions were evidence of his desires, faith and love. Why would he rebel from his established character and do exactly the opposite of what he did just moments previous. Fear? A moment of weakness? There is no evidence of such, no indication, no patterns to suggest the slightest fear or wavering faith.
In 1971, then Elder Spencer W. Kimball examined his fellow apostle's traditional story and felt it didn't make any sense. Therefore, he likened it to himself and provided a much different perspective and this interesting observation:
"Much of the criticism of Simon Peter is centered in his denial of his acquaintance with the Master. This has been labeled “cowardice.” Are we sure of his motive in that recorded denial? He had already given up his occupation and placed all worldly goods on the altar for the cause. If we admit that he was cowardly and denied the Lord through timidity, we can still find a great lesson. Has anyone more completely overcome mortal selfishness and weakness? Has anyone repented more sincerely? Peter has been accused of being harsh, indiscreet, impetuous, and fearful. If all these were true, then we still ask, Has any man ever more completely triumphed over his weaknesses?...
If Peter was frightened in the court when he denied his association with the Lord, how brave he was hours earlier when he drew his sword against an overpowering enemy, the night mob. Later defying the people and state and church officials, he boldly charged, “Him [the Christ] … ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain.” (Acts 2:23.) To the astounded populace at the healing of the cripple at the Gate Beautiful, he exclaimed, “Ye men of Israel … the God of our fathers, hath glorified his Son Jesus; whom ye delivered up, and denied him in the presence of Pilate … ye denied the Holy One … And killed the Prince of life, whom God hath raised from the dead; whereof we are witnesses.” (Acts 3:12–15.) (Speeches of the Year [Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1971], pp. 1–8.)
Elder Kimball considers the possibility that stress, confusion or even lack of understanding were factors:
Could it have been confusion and frustration that caused Peter’s denial? Could there still have been some lack of understanding concerning the total unfolding of the plan? Being a leader, Peter was a special target of the adversary. As the Lord said:
Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat:
But I have prayed for thee that thy faith fail not. (Luke 22:31–32.)
Peter was under fire; all the hosts of hell were against him. The die had been cast for the Savior’s crucifixion. If Satan could destroy Simon now, what a victory he would score. Here was the greatest of all living men. Lucifer wanted to confuse him, frustrate him, limit his prestige, and totally destroy him. However, this was not to be, for he was chosen for and ordained to a high purpose in heaven, as was Abraham.
Peter followed the Savior to his trial and sat in the outer court. What else could he do? He knew that many times the Savior himself had escaped from the crowd by slipping out of their clutches. Would he again do so? (Speeches of the Year [Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1971], pp. 1–8.)
A denial would be uncharacteristic of Peter and incongruent with the record we have of him. He was faithful in all he did and desired to never leave his Savior's side. An examination of his interactions with the Lord shows nothing amiss:
Peter meets Jesus through his brother Andrew who was a follower of John the Baptist. (John 1:40-41)
Peter willingly leaves his career and livelihood as a fisherman to follow Jesus (Matthew 4:18, Mark 1:16-18)
Peter has Jesus heal his sick mother-in-law. (Matthew 8:14-15, Mark 1:29-31, Luke 4:38-39)
Peter demonstrates great faith in Jesus when casting his net to the other side of his boat after an unfruitful night of fishing. (Luke 5:4-7)
Jesus knows the heart and character of Simon and changes his name to Peter (from the Greek word petros, meaning rock or stone). (Mark 3:16, Luke 6:14, John 1:42)
Peter becomes one of the witnesses to a miracle Jesus performed, raising a little girl back from the dead. (Matthew 9:23-26, Mark 5:37-43, Luke 8:51-55)
Peter's desire and faith to become like Jesus is demonstrated when he sees Jesus walking on water. He is the only Apostle who asks Jesus to command him to walk to Him. Peter's inability to completely do so should not be viewed as a failure, but rather how great our Lord is and how Peter's faith was greater than any other's in that boat to even try to do as Jesus was doing. (Matthew 14:28-29, John 6:19-20)
Peter makes a pronouncement about the deity of Jesus. (Matthew 16:16, John 6:68-69)
Jesus tell Peter why he is the rock and that the Church would be built on him. (This couldn't possibly be a man who would deny Christ.) (Matthew 16:18)
After Jesus proclaims that He will be killed and then rise on the third day, out of love and concern, Peter "rebukes him" and forbids it. But Jesus sternly informs Peter it must happen, and it is the adversary's desire He not complete his mission. (Matthew 16:21-23, Mark 8:31-33)
Peter, along with James and John, witnesses the transfiguration of Jesus and the appearance of Moses and Elijah on a mountain. (Matthew 17:1-3, Mark 9:2-3, Luke 9:29-32)
When Jesus is arrested by the betrayal of Judas Iscariot, Peter takes his sword out and cuts off the ear of a servant. (Matthew 26:51, Mark 14:47, Luke 22:50, John 18:10)
But what about Jesus's prediction that Peter would deny Him three times before a rooster crowed? (Matthew 26:34, Mark 14:30, Luke 22:34, John 13:38) And what about Peter telling Jesus that he would never deny Him? (Matthew 26:35, Mark 14:31)
In reference to Peter's interchange with Christ and his denial, John F. Hall (FairMormon Bio), Professor of Classics, Comparative Studies at BYU, says the following in his book "New Testament Witnesses of Christ: Peter, John, James and Paul":
"Close examination of the original Greek of John's account (John 13:38) reveals that the phrase "till thou hast denied me thrice" is structured around the verb αρνηση, a second person singular future verb form. Virtually the same verb άπαρνηση, in the same second person singular future indicative form, appears in Matthew (26:34) Mark (14:30), and Luke (22:34). Although the tense is future, and may accurately be construed as indicating a prediction or prophecy of Peter's future behavior, it is possible that such a rendering is not at all the meaning of Christ's statement. In Greek, a future tense verb in the second person can also be construed to express a command, just as if it were an imperative form of the verb. The usage is given the grammatical term of the "jussive future." It occurs not infrequently in both classical and koine Greek.
Accordingly, if the future in these passages is interpreted as a jussive future, then Christ would seem actually to be giving Peter a command to deny knowing Him, and Peter's protestation would seem to reflect his dissatisfaction about such an instruction. This rendering appears very much in keeping with Peter's natural courage ..." (Pg. 65-66)
John F. Hall then make this insight in the context of this information:
"Restraint would test Peter's faith so much more, for he was being refused permission to expose himself to the tribulations that Christ must undertake alone." (Pg. 66)
What a wonderful and harmonious interpretation of the Apostle Peter's story, equally powerful and profound as the traditional version but probably a more accurate view of Peter's character. Once again, in the words of President Kimball,
"What was he to do? Could he do more? What would have been the result had he admitted his connection? Would he have lived to preside over the church? Peter had seen the Savior escape from crowds many times and hide from assassins. Is it conceivable that Peter also saw advisable advantage to the cause in his denial? Had Peter come to fully realize the hidden meaning in the oft-repeated phrase “Mine hour is not yet come” (John 2:4), and did he now understand that “now is the Son of man glorified” (John 13:31)?" (Speeches of the Year [Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1971], pp. 1–8.)
So, what should you do the next time you hear the traditional version of the story of the Apostle Peter? Just listen and ask in quiet reflection: "But what does that really mean?" And allow the Spirit to guide your understanding as you liken the lesson to your own life.