T. Nathan Trice
Perhaps we have all put ourselves in the place of Jesus’s disciples on Easter morning and imagined their fear, wonder, and joy at seeing the Lord, back from the dead. We have tried to imagine what that reunion must have been like, after witnessing the brutal death and hasty burial of Jesus three days before. It heightens our own joy to imagine theirs on that day.
There is one disciple whose first encounter with the risen Lord is particularly edifying to consider: Simon Peter. Just as the biblical record underscores the prominent place Peter had among the disciples in general, so it emphasizes the special attention Jesus gave to Peter in his resurrection appearances. Why is this so?
The death of our Lord left all of his disciples, including Peter, in a state of grief and despair. The gospels record this in various ways: women were mourning and lamenting for him on his way to the cross (Luke 23:27), many left the crucifixion beating their breasts (Luke 23:48), and the two Marys were still seated by the sealed tomb, seemingly paralyzed by sorrow, after all others had left (Matt. 27:61). Indeed, the messengers that came from the empty tomb on the first day of the week found the disciples gathered in an upper room “as they mourned and wept” (Mark 16:10). That this sorrow represented not only personal bereavement, but also a shattered hope in Jesus as the Messiah, is indicated by the words of the disciples to their mysterious companion on the road to Emmaus: “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21).
But surely of all the disciples, Peter suffered uniquely, for he would have carried with him the personal agony of what he had done in the hours before his Master’s death. Though all the disciples had abandoned Christ at his arrest, it was Peter who had emphatically denied that he would ever do so (Mark 14:29). And it was Peter whose cowardice and disloyalty had been so relentlessly exposed, as Jesus had predicted, by the servants in the courtyard during the trial. Luke’s account is unbearably poignant when it captures the convergence of three events: Peter’s third and most profane denial of Christ, the crowing of the rooster in fulfillment of Jesus’s word, and Jesus’s turning to look at Peter from where he stood on trial (Luke 22:60–61). That moment when their eyes met in the midst of Peter’s treachery is the last recorded exchange between Peter and Jesus before his death. At that point, we are told that Peter “went out and wept bitterly” (Luke 22:62).
So, in addition to the loss of the one he loved and the sense of misplaced faith that he shared with all the disciples, Peter would have suffered a deep sense of personal alienation, made unalterable by death, from the one he once swore loyalty to as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16).
It is partly by entering into this pathos unique to Peter that we are enabled to appreciate a certain feature about our Lord’s resurrection appearances on Easter Sunday. The precise chronology of all the events of that day is difficult to reconstruct. But it is clear that Jesus made multiple appearances to various disciples that day. And it is also clear that our Lord had certain priorities concerning whom he wanted to see. For example, the women most devoted to him, who came to the tomb early on that first day of the week, were visited by Christ first.
Then, among the rest of the disciples, our Lord’s highest priority was apparently to see Peter—and to see him alone. This is pointed out in several biblical notations, easily overlooked, about that day. Mark tells us that the angel at the empty tomb bids the women to “go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee” (Mark 16:7, emphasis added). Luke tells us that the two disciples who return from the encounter with Jesus on the road to Emmaus say to the rest, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” (Luke 24:34, emphasis added). And the Apostle Paul relates what was apparently, by the time of his writing to the Corinthians, common knowledge among the saints (Peter was also known as “Cephas”):
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (1 Cor. 15:3–5)
Why was this personal appearance to Peter such a priority for our Lord on Easter Sunday? We could surmise that it had something to do with the leadership that Peter had, and would continue to provide, among the disciples. But I think Jesus was also doing something more personally redemptive for Peter. Surely our Lord was ministering comfort to a disciple suffering a unique burden of guilt. There would come a later exchange between Jesus and Peter where Peter would be invited to answer the question put to him publicly, “Do you love me?” and be formally restored to Christ’s service (John 21:15–19). But well before that famous exchange came this private moment, where Jesus was personally reconciled with the disciple who had so recently professed not even to know him.
What a moment that must have been for Peter! We might wish that we had some record of what was said and done there, as we do for Jesus’s touching encounter with Mary in the garden in John 20 (an account I can scarcely read to this day without emotion). But we can be sure of at least these two things: Peter would have, in the midst of joyful awe at the sight of Christ, expressed deep remorse; and Jesus would have extended mercy and grace once again to his disloyal disciple. Indeed, I am suggesting that this was a primary reason Jesus showed such special attention to Peter in those first moments of his resurrection life.
The encounters on Easter Sunday with the risen Christ would eventually transform all his disciples from those beset by bitter despair to those who walked with joyful hope. In time each of them would, with Thomas, have all their doubts dispelled, and would embrace Christ with his testimony: “My Lord, and my God!” (John 20:28). Indeed, this transformation of the disciples’ disillusionment with a dead Messiah to devotion to a resurrected and vindicated Messiah is one of the great evidences for the resurrection. Only by being confronted with the undeniable evidence of his flesh-and-blood presence were they able to grasp that “he has risen, as he said” (Matt. 28:6).
The truth of who he was, in light of his resurrection, and the truth of what his death meant, also in light of his resurrection, transformed the confused and heartless disciples into the fearless and eloquent apostles of the book of Acts—this, in connection with the outpouring of the Spirit of Christ at Pentecost, in fulfillment of Christ’s promise.
And here again, it is edifying to reflect upon that element of Peter’s own joyful transformation that was due to his encounter with the resurrected Christ. Christ’s appearance to Peter did more than just establish for him the truth about the person and work of Christ. For Peter in particular, Christ’s resurrection brought a personal restoration to Christ. This is what makes Peter’s experience so poignant for each of us. All of us, like him, have made our own contribution to the shame and pain of Christ’s death, for God “has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). Despite our most fervent and frequent resolutions to the contrary, we have all betrayed our Master grievously, as Peter did.
Yet, with good reason has Simon Peter come to be a kind of “patron saint” for Christians with a sense of colossal failure in their service to Christ. Peter came to realize that his sinful failure did not thwart Christ’s purposes, and neither do ours. Peter found out that his infidelity did not end Christ’s love for him, and neither does it for us. And Peter was even assured that his unfaithfulness would not change his Savior’s intention to use him in the building of his church, and neither will it for us. Perhaps Jesus even told him all this in that first encounter on Easter morning.
Surely Peter’s experience of the resurrection of Christ is a wonderful encouragement for all of us delinquent disciples with our own sources of guilt this Easter season. Christ has been raised—for our justification! (Rom. 4:25). The special attention of our Lord toward his guiltiest disciple is a true index of his heart toward us as well. Reconciliation is his Easter agenda with us, and it has been his heart toward us ever since that heart began to beat again on the third day. Easter should be a celebration of the “living hope,” as Peter would later describe it, of those who have been reconciled to Christ by his resurrection (1 Peter 1:3).
If you have been estranged from Christ, be encouraged by that mysterious encounter between Christ and Peter to go to him with your guilt and grief, and seek and find in him full acceptance and love. For such a reunion is precisely his purpose in rising from the dead.
The author is pastor of Matthews OPC in Matthews, North Carolina. New Horizons, April 2019.