Peter: A Case Study in Character

This article is a continuation of the article “Growing in Character,” which we recommend reading first. 


Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Peter 1:5–8


It’s easy to read Peter’s inspirational words and wonder, “Who writes this stuff? Where do people with such ideals and insights come from?” Well, the man who wrote those inspiring words, the man who exhorted us on to such strength of character, didn’t always live up to those same ideals.

The man who called himself “a witness of the sufferings of Christ” (1 Peter 5:1) was not there when Jesus was hanging on the cross; he was hiding in fear. The man who calls us to be eager to serve (1 Peter 5:2) remained seated while Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. The man who tells us that we should be clear-minded and self-controlled so that we can pray (1 Peter 4:7) fell asleep while Jesus was sweating blood. The man who so boldly tells us, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority” (1 Peter 2:13 NIV) lopped off the soldier Malchus’s ear in the garden (John 18:10–11).

None of this is meant to demean Peter. The point is to give us hope. This man Peter, who was so impulsive and immature, grew into a great leader of the church. The Peter we read about in the four Gospels became the Peter we read about in the book of Acts and the Peter who wrote two epistles. It took time and effort, but God transformed him. And the same Holy Spirit who worked this transformation in Peter’s life is actively at work transforming those of us who have placed our faith in Christ.

The same Holy Spirit who worked transformation in Peter’s life is actively at work transforming those of us who have placed our faith in Christ. —Ken Boa

Peter’s Two Unmistakable Traits

The Gospels leave the reader with two impressions of Peter. The first is that he was at times a comically impulsive character. Twice he jumped out of perfectly seaworthy boats, fully clothed. He challenged Jesus; he spoke out of turn; and, at times, he seemed to demonstrate more energy and creativity than was appropriate for the moment. But it is that very energy and creativity that underlie the second impression of Peter.

Peter was the disciples’ unofficial leader. He often served as their spokesperson. He was one of the three disciples in Jesus’ “inner circle.” Certainly after Jesus’ departure, the disciples looked to Peter to give them direction. Luke’s record of the church’s early years (the book of Acts) leaves no doubt about Peter’s leadership.

This seemingly conflicting combination of qualities exists in many young leaders and may be identified by a term such as “high mental energy.” Peter was always thinking, and he always thought with a view toward action. When he heard “question,” he immediately thought “answer.” When he observed “problem,” he thought “solution.” When he encountered “options,” he thought “decision.” But he also demonstrated the unfortunate side of that same characteristic. When he heard “silence,” he thought “talk.” When he encountered “disagreement,” he thought “challenge.” And “error” (or at least Peter’s perception of error) sparked “correction.” But whatever the situation, at the very least he did think, and his thinking inevitably led to action.

Peter’s Growth

In his younger years Peter exercised little constraint, and his answers, solutions, decisions, and speech sometimes seemed buffoonish. At times, his behavior was perceived as insensitive, unconsidered, and immature. But like many great leaders, Peter survived himself. With Jesus’ guidance, Peter’s fertile and active mind matured. Through all of his experiences he developed a more godly, Christlike character. This maturity led his thinking process into more productive channels. He collected, sorted, and connected information. He honed his reasoning skills. Peter became a leader, in large part, because he was not afraid to make a decision. And his godly character informed the decisions he made.


Like many great leaders, Peter survived himself. With Jesus’ guidance, Peter’s fertile and active mind matured. —Ken Boa


Anyone serving under a leader who suffers “paralysis by analysis” will appreciate Peter’s quick response time. Anyone working in an organization in which “decision by indecision” is the rule understands why people were drawn to Peter. As we follow Peter’s life through the Gospels and then hear his mature voice resonate throughout his two epistles, we appreciate this optimistic, energetic, highly intelligent man of action and deep character. In fact, the Gospel of Mark, which many believe Peter dictated to Mark, is the Gospel that portrays Jesus as a man of action and urgency. The Greek word translated “immediately” is used 42 times in Mark’s 16 chapters.

When the church was on the move, when both the Roman and Jewish leaders were opposing it, when Christians were being martyred for their faith, someone needed to make quick, Spirit-led decisions. And we can only imagine the kinds of issues that could have splintered this frail organization when the church leaped over its cultural boundaries to include Greek-speaking Jews, then Samaritans, then local Gentiles, then Asians and Greeks and Romans. Because Peter was a leader whose ego could endure the threat of disagreement, challenge, or even a bad decision, he was not afraid to act. He was not careless, nor did he deal frivolously with critical matters. His godly character wouldn’t allow that. But he was not afraid to move, and under his leadership the church got things done. Peter was a leader who made decisions that mattered.

Loving Your Way to Good Character

It’s amazing what God can do with a person who wants to grow personally and develop character. The great news is that God wants you to grow as much as you can. He redeemed you for that purpose. To discover the lengths to which God will go to forge steel into our character, let’s walk through the smelting furnace along with Peter.

This man had denied Jesus at a critical time; yet, later in his life, he suffered beatings, imprisonment, and eventually death rather than deny Jesus again. We all know that such character is not developed in a single event. We know that Jesus’ resurrection had a profound influence on Peter’s character transformation. But the manner in which Jesus helped Peter to recover from the worst failure of his life should afford us great encouragement about asking the same Lord Jesus to help us to develop strength of character as well.

Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. “You also were with Jesus of Galilee,” she said.
But he denied it before them all. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
Then he went out to the gateway, where another girl saw him and said to the people there, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.”
He denied it again, with an oath: “I don’t know the man!”
After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them, for your accent gives you away.”
Then he began to call down curses on himself and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!”
Immediately a rooster crowed. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly. (Matthew 26:69–75)

To discover just what this event represented to Peter, perhaps we should return to a passage from earlier in the same chapter:

Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me. …
Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.”
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.”
But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same. (Matthew 26:31a, 33–35)

At this earlier point, Peter’s strength of character could hardly be questioned. He said he was willing to die with Jesus if he had to. But the Son of God was right. That same night, Peter denied even knowing Jesus.

Following all of these events, Jesus was crucified and buried. Three days later he was raised from the dead and was seen briefly by Peter and the other disciples (John 20). But the first conversation between Jesus and Peter, recorded in John 21, shows how Jesus dealt with Peter’s failure:

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
Again Jesus said, “Simon, son of John, do you truly love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:15–17)

Notice Peter’s sound theological affirmation in verse 17: “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Peter was correct. Jesus wasn’t asking Peter the question because he needed to know that answer but because Peter needed to know that answer. Why was it so important for Peter to come to grips with his own answer to that question? It is important for you as well to determine whether your love for Jesus Christ is strong enough to enable you to develop the character qualities his Word encourages and demands. These are the qualities Peter listed in 2 Peter 1:5–8 (see the top of this post).

In the first 12 chapters of the book of Acts, we see Peter as the prominent leader in the fledgling church. His strength of character and conviction are a source of inspiration, challenge, and encouragement to many. Our Lord is still seeking men and women who will answer, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you,” and who will then develop the character qualities needed to be godly leaders.

Such character is forged in the small things of life. The big events of life can be viewed as final examinations that reveal the true nature of our inward selves. It is in the seemingly unimportant decisions that our character is strengthened bit by bit.Twitter

Character is forged in the small things of life. The big events of life can be viewed as final examinations that reveal the true nature of our inward selves. —Ken Boa

C. S. Lewis used the image of the “central core” within each of us that is formed and molded by our choices:1

People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, “If you keep a lot of rules I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.” I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other. (C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity)

The choices we make today determine our character. And we’ll take our character with us into eternity. Choose wisely!


Both this article and “Growing in Character” are excerpted from Dr. Boa’s book The Perfect Leader. Purchase in the store (print and ebook versions). 

Footnotes

  1. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1943), 86–87.