I would liked to have been Peter’s biographer. But since that’s not possible, I’ll use what I know about him from scripture to imagine a dialogue with him. Let’s say I’ve been permitted to interview Peter in his prison cell in Rome. We pick up at the tail end of a long afternoon of discussion.
Interviewer: Peter, you have told me many stories about the Lord, but we have not yet talked about the day He took you and the sons of thunder up the mountain. Would you be comfortable telling me that story?
Peter: You know… Jesus wouldn’t allow the three of us to breathe a word about that until he rose from the dead. By the way, we had no idea what he was talking about when he said “the Son of Man will rise on the third day.” But, yes, I would like to try to tell you this story.
Interviewer: Let’s set this up. Where had you just come from?
Peter: Hmm, you’re testing me now… give me a minute… well… there was the feeding of the multitude out in the country…. then, in Bethsaida he healed a man blind from birth. Yes, I recall now. We had just come from the Caesarea Philippi district where He had been pressing us about who He really was. He first wanted to know who the multitude said He was. We told him that they thought he was a great prophet like John the Baptist or Elijah. He then asked us, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ I couldn’t believe what came out of my mouth (as is often the case with me). I said what had been stirring in my heart, ‘You are the Christ.’
Yes, I remember this as if it were yesterday. It was one of the best and the worst days of my life. I knew He was pleased with my confession, but not an hour later He had to say to me, ‘Get behind Me, Satan; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.’ It’s almost humorous looking back. I was making suggestions to the Lord on how to be the Lord, and of all things I chose to counsel Him on ‘His suffering’. How brilliant! Oh the patience of God!
You really have to understand something. We really were clueless as to where things were headed. Practically every time Jesus opened his mouth He said something we did not grasp. It was always like that. I well recall what He had just told us before this mountain top experience. Let me see if I can’t quote him. He said:
‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? For what will a man give in exchange for his soul?’
Interviewer: That’s pretty good. How did you remember that so well?
Peter: We had all been listening very carefully and playing back all his teachings over and over as we travelled, correcting each other until we all pretty well could recite anything he had ever taught us. After all, He had told us that He had words of life. No one had ever spoken like this. We believed Him.
Interviewer: Ok, if I understand you, Jesus had essentially said if you were going to follow Him it would be costly, even fatal? Did you think about turning back when you heard Him say things like this?
Peter: I suppose the thought had crossed our minds, but then again…not really. You would have just had to seen His eyes when he spoke. You couldn’t really doubt Him. Anyway… compared to what we had with Him, nothing was ever going to satisfy us but being with him. In a very real way He had ruined us for this world. Like sheep with their shepherd, we came to require his presence.
Interviewer: Ok, here is a question that has troubled me and I know it troubles others as well. Why did He choose just you three to go up the mountain with him? Why not all twelve of you?
Peter (laughing): Excellent question! I honestly have no clue. None of us ever knew why He did the things He did. As I said, we were the company of the clueless. We really had to get used to following Him in the presence of much we would have liked to know but never did. As we have reflected on His teachings, we now have come to think of our vast unknowing as “mystery,” the essential context where we each must work out our salvation, and might I add, with a fair portion of that fear and trembling my brother Paul is so fond of referring to.
Here is an embarrassing confession, though. We did speculate as to our status. Even though I was quiet in the debate, I was the chief of speculators. While the others would argue as to who would be the greatest in the Kingdom, I was aloof because I knew that as ‘The Rock” I was the superior disciple. Oh dear. Am I blushing? It really is humbling to recall how I had thought about myself before I was broken and then restored to Him. Mind you, it did not hurt either that I was filled with the Holy Spirit and power.
As to our hike into the mountains with Jesus… James, John and myself were elated to be invited. Every moment with him was like living in another dimension. We were also feeling special. It did not bother us, as we ascended, watching the other nine getting smaller and smaller in our vision. But then…
Interviewer: Yes, but then…what? Are you all right Peter?
Peter: Just give me a minute.
Interviewer: Certainly. Take your time.
Peter: Oh dear… I forget how hard it is to tell this story. I really don’t think my words ever do it justice. He told me it was OK, but although I have had permission to speak of it, I never feel I have the adequate words.
Interviewer: Peter, your disclaimer is duly noted. We will be grateful for your best stab at this.
Peter: OK. Here is how I remember it… I don’t know how else to say it. He was transfigured before us. His garments became radiant and exceedingly white, as no launderer on earth can whiten them. And I kid you not, Elijah appeared to us along with Moses; and they were talking with Jesus. I said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three tabernacles, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
Interviewer: Are you all right? You are white as a ghost.
Peter: I’ll be OK in a minute. Just retelling this takes it out of me. Think about it. It was as if we’d seen three ghosts! We saw Moses! Elijah! We were seeing into another world! (Or, perhaps it was seeing into us. I really don’t know.) And as I am jabbering away about building some tabernacles for them (as if this service were required?), an ominous cloud (I suspect from that other world) descended upon us and my little speech was interrupted (thank God) by a voice that thundered in our ears… “This is My beloved Son, listen to Him!”
Interviewer (holding back tears and some laughter): Yes, I think I see what you mean. Words don’t quite get us there do they?”
Peter: Not at all.
Interviewer: What happened next?
Peter: Bear with me, but your word “next” seems out of place because, whatever had just happened took no time and yet it took all time. We didn’t know if a second or millennium had passed. In one sense, it was all over as soon as it began, and yet, in that second (if you can call it that) an eternity of impressions and details were imprinted upon our spirits. It seems anticlimactic but…all at once we looked around and saw no one with us anymore, except Jesus alone.
Interviewer: I’ve never heard anything like this. Looking back on this experience what are your reflections today some thirty odd years later?
Peter: Well…we both know what awaits me. I’m soon going to be absent from this body and once again immediately present to Him. Yes, what stands out to me is how His words have played out in my life. He made it perfectly clear to me and all who wanted to follow him: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? For what will a man give in exchange for his soul?
There have been many false gospels preached these past three decades (and I suppose in light of our enemy’s strategies, there will be many more). One thing they all share in common is the exclusion of the cross. I know this is difficult to understand, but when He calls us to Life, he bids us, ‘Come and die.’ My vision of the cross was initially fuzzy. It has grown in clarity over the years, but today, in these chains, it is abundantly clear.
Because He did leave us the Holy Spirit, he has been teaching us from within (where He dwells) what the cross means. As painful as it has been to have my will crossed so regularly by Him, I am so, so grateful. Because he has been discipling us, raising us like children — birthing his kingdom in us and through us—I can say today, I am not ashamed of Him and His words even in this adulterous and sinful generation. And I know He will not be ashamed of me when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels, one day very soon, to take me to Him.
Father, may you confront every false gospel of our age that has cheapened grace by excluding your cross. Teach us what our cross looks like and help us to embrace it as Peter and the disciples did. May Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.