Sunday Morning Greek Blog

May 11, 2022

A Tale of Two Preachers: Life Lessons from Peter and Paul

Filed under: 1 Peter,Acts,Biblical Studies — Scott Stocking @ 9:21 pm
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Listen to “A Tale of Two Preachers”

Message preached at Mt. View Presbyterian Church, May 1, 2022. Lightly edited for publication.

I want to start off this morning with a personal note: I have thoroughly enjoyed filling the pulpit here at the church I grew up in, and hope to continue to do so as long as you’ll have me. My last main preaching assignment in Illinois before moving back to Nebraska was in a rural community of about 400 people that had seven churches, and the attendance at the church I served was a little less than it has been here. But in many respects, even as a small church in middle of a metro area of about half a million people, you’re not unlike those rural folks.

Most of my ministry career in Illinois from 1987 through 2007 was spent in towns of less than 5,000 people. But even though I now find myself preaching with some regularity in a city 100 or even 1,000 times larger than what I was used to, I’m really not feeling any different about the task here as I did in rural Illinois. I’m grateful for these opportunities, and they have helped me sharpen my preaching and academic skills.

Now this week, the lectionary readings presented me with a bit of a challenge with what to preach on. Two of the four passages in Lectionary calendar had to do with two different apostles being commissioned to preach God’s word to the early church. We’ve read from both of them this morning (John 21:15-19; Acts 9:1-6). It seemed odd to me that I might have to choose either Peter’s reinstatement after the resurrection or Paul’s conversion on the Damascus Road. But then I realized I could probably relate to both and glean some valuable principles from their respective stories to share with and encourage you this morning. With that said, let’s take a look at some of the highlights (and lowlights) of Peter first, followed by Paul, and see what we can learn for ourselves about being evangelists for the risen Lord.

Peter’s Life

Of all the apostles who traveled with Jesus during his earth-bound ministry, Peter is certainly the most famous. Throughout the Gospels, we see that Peter was often the first one to open his mouth, the first one to volunteer, or the first one to make a big promise. Of course, this also meant that he was usually the first to eat his words, the first one to be rebuked, or the first one to fail in some way, large or small.

Now Simon Peter, along with his brother Andrew, were the first two apostles to follow Jesus. In John 1:42, Jesus officially gives him the name “Cephas” (Aramaic), which is translated in Greek as “Peter,” both of which mean “rock.” In the lists of the apostles, Simon Peter is always found first, which is certainly a nod to his position in the early church at the time the Gospels were being written.

Now we know Peter was not from any elite class of his day. He and his brother were fishermen, and they probably socialized with other fishermen, namely the sons of Zebedee, James and John. These fishermen probably had a pretty good knowledge of the OT, especially the Psalms, from their time in the Synagogue on Sabbath and the basic education any Hebrew youth would have received. They just didn’t go on any farther in the education to be a pharisee or other religious leader.

In Matthew 14, we have the story of Jesus walking on the water to the boat the apostles were in, which was being buffeted by the waves. Of course, Peter is the first one to speak up about going out to see Jesus. Here’s a man who wants to take charge, take the lead, and show the others what it truly means to follow. Jesus invites Peter out of the boat to walk on the choppy waters, and for a time, Peter does walk on the water. But instead of keeping his eyes on and faith in Jesus, the wind and the waves around him cause him to fear and doubt, and he begins to sink. Jesus catches him, though, and they both get back on the boat.

What’s impressive here is that Peter was the only one who even thought of getting out of the boat, and then he followed through on his thought. None of the other apostles had the courage of Peter to follow their master in this radical way, by trying to muster up the faith to do what no other mortal had ever done.

It wasn’t long after that incident that Peter had the opportunity to say what none of the other apostles were willing to say. In Matthew 16, Jesus asks the apostles, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” The apostles hem and haw and beat around the bush, but Peter is the first to answer Jesus’s more direct question, “Who do YOU say I am?” Peter responds boldly, proclaiming that “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus praises Peter for his response. But in the very next paragraph, when Jesus predicts his death, Peter rebukes Jesus for talking like that. Jesus immediately rebukes Peter, saying “Get behind me, Satan.” Talk about going from emotional high to emotional low!

A few weeks ago, we saw one of the last major blunders of Peter before Christ’s crucifixion. He claimed he would never forsake Christ, yet on the night of the illegal trial to condemn Jesus, Peter denies knowing Christ three times. And Jesus had told him he would do that despite Peter’s repeated objections. Peter had to feel like the bottom of the barrel at that point.

And so we come to the Gospel text we read this morning, John 21:15–19, the story of Jesus reinstating Peter to his leadership role. I don’t think there’s anything significant to be made of the two different Greek words used for “love” in this passage. But why did Jesus ask Peter three times if he loved him? Because Peter denied Jesus three times. Jesus gave Peter a three-fold mission here: “Feed my lambs”; “Take care of my sheep”; and “Feed my sheep.” Again, not much difference between the three, but a commission to care for the church, young and old, when it would begin on the Day of Pentecost. The result? We never hear about Peter’s shortcomings throughout the rest of the book of Acts. And he wrote two epistles to boot.

Lessons from Peter’s Life

So what can we learn from Peter here before moving on to talk about Paul’s ministry? First, don’t be afraid to do great things for God. “Great” may not necessarily be fabulous or seen by all. Sometimes the smallest gesture can have a huge impact. Theodore Roosevelt makes the point here: “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they lie in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

Second, God can work with whatever level of faith you’re willing to bring to the table. It took incredible faith just for Peter to get out of the boat in those choppy conditions, let walking on water. As Yoda says, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

Third, know that when we mess up, it’s not the end of the road with God. Peter probably thought he had lost his place among the apostles. But as 2 Timothy 2:13 says, “If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself,” that is, he can’t disown those who are members of his body, the church.

Paul’s Life

Now Paul had quite a different introduction to Jesus. While he was headed to Damascus “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples,” the resurrected Jesus appeared to him in a blinding light. He was blinded and led into Damascus where he was to await further instructions. A disciple in Damascus named Ananias also got a visit from Jesus, who told him to go find Paul, because he would be God’s “chosen instrument to proclaim [his] name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.” God even told Ananias to let Paul know how much he would suffer for Jesus. Ananias laid hands on Paul; Paul received the Holy Spirit; and he experienced a physical manifestation of scales falling from his eyes so he could see again, and then got baptized.

Paul does a little preaching defending Christ rather than persecuting his followers in Damascus, and then from Galatians 1, we know he went to Arabia at some point, then returned to Damascus for three years until he finally went before the early church leadership in Jerusalem. It’s hard to determine this exact timing, because Acts chapter 9 doesn’t say anything about when he went Arabia or when he came back to Damascus. It is during that time when Paul is getting grounded in the faith that Peter gets a calling from Christ to go eat with a Gentile named Cornelius. This must happen for Paul to minister to the Gentiles as Christ had commissioned him.

After Peter defends a ministry to the Gentiles, we see Barnabas goes to Tarsus to look for Paul to urge Paul to work with him in Antioch for about a year. It is from Antioch, somewhere around AD 46, that Paul and Barnabas initiate the first of several missionary journeys. Of course, Paul had several stops along the way to preach the Gospel, but I want to highlight three main events: Paul in Athens, Paul at Ephesus, and Paul’s trials.

Paul’s Ministry Highlights

On Paul’s second missionary journey, we find him in Athens waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him. Athens was one of the premier cities at the time, and Paul was quite active there. Not only was he “reasoning” in the synagogues with the Jews, but he was also out in the marketplace daily speaking with passers-by. At one point, a mixed group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers start debating him in the street, because he’s talking about something they’ve never heard, the resurrection of Christ. Because the Greeks loved to discuss new ideas, they invited Paul to the Aereopagus, where he made reference to an idol he’d seen with the inscription “To an Unknown God.” The Greeks had a whole pantheon of gods, but they wanted to make sure they didn’t miss anything. Paul used that idol as an object lesson to talk about the God (big G) they didn’t know yet, Yahweh, and his one and only son who rose from the dead. Some of those philosophers and several others became Christ followers because of his willingness to speak anywhere and at any time about the gospel.

A couple chapters later, at the beginning of Paul’s third missionary journey, we find him in Ephesus. He spent at least 2 ½ years preaching and teaching there, first in the synagogue for about 3 months before he got kicked out and took his followers to the lecture hall of Tyrannus. It seems like Ephesus was the shining jewel of Paul’s ministry. Paul did many miracles there, even to the point of Paul touching handkerchiefs and aprons that brought healing. He made quite a dent in the evil side of the spiritual world when several people burned their sorcery books. Even the people who made the Artemis idols were noting a decline in their business and rioted because of Paul’s preaching and teaching. The disciples feared that Paul might be killed if he tried to defend himself before the mob.

Paul moves on from there for a short time to minister elsewhere, but returns to Ephesus for a very teary farewell as he’s preparing to return to Jerusalem one last time. Paul gives a passionate address to the Ephesians, where he says “I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24). He goes on to encourage the leadership there to be shepherds and overseers of God’s flock, which is where we get the clearest teaching and example of what church leadership is all about.

Once Paul arrives in Jerusalem, it doesn’t take long for the final “race” of his ministry to begin. He suspects he’ll probably be arrested when he gets there. He knows the road he’s on is filled with prison and hardship, but he presses on faithfully. He even receives a prophecy on his way back to Jerusalem to confirm that he would be arrested, and indeed he is. He appears before the Jewish leaders in the Sanhedrin, who no doubt are questioning his status as a pharisee, among other things. They can’t do anything with him, since the power to impose the death penalty rested with Rome, so Paul begins a series of appeals to the upper echelons of Roman leadership, because he was a Roman citizen and had that right. No regular Jew from Judea would have had that right. He was first brought before Felix, the governor of the region, who kept Paul in prison to the end of his term. When Felix was replaced with Festus, Paul appealed to him and recounted his ministry activities, but again, no one could prove the Sanhedrin’s charge against him. Festus wasn’t quite sure what to do with Paul at that point, but Paul made his decision easy: Paul appealed to Caesar himself for a hearing.

After that, Paul had to wait for King Agrippa to come to Caesarea to hear Paul’s second appeal. Paul gave a full account of his conversion and ministry, so much so that Agrippa was almost converted himself: “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” (Acts 26:28). Agrippa agrees that Paul had done nothing wrong and that Paul should have been set free, but when you appeal to Caesar, that trumps everything, and there’s no turning back at that point.

The book of Acts ends before we find out what happens to Paul’s appeal. It seems from the last couple verses of Acts that Paul was under house arrest in his own rented home, and “He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!”

Lessons from Paul’s Life

So, what are the lessons we can take from Paul’s ministry? First, as he did in Athens, look around and see what’s available to help you share the good news of Jesus. It may be objects, it may be events, or it could be something simple, like a beautiful landscape or something in nature. You don’t have to know all the answers to all the questions people may ask you, but you can speak passionately about what you believe and defend it from the heart.

Second, church leaders have an immense responsibility for caring for the spiritual lives of their congregations. Shepherding refers primarily to taking care of the physical and emotional needs of the congregation, while the overseer (in Greek, ἐπίσκοπος, from which we get the terms “episcopal” and later in Latin “bishop”) function has more to do with spiritual teaching and managing the affairs of the congregation. These are not necessarily functions performed by two different people. Every overseer should be a good shepherd, but not every shepherd would make a good overseer. The term “elder,” from Acts 20:17, 1 Peter 5, and Titus, is derived from a Greek word you all should be familiar with, πρεσβύτερος, from which we get the word Presbytery. It simply means “older,” but given its connection with leadership in the NT, it probably also implies “wiser” as well and a degree of responsibility for the well-being of the congregation.

Finally, most of us will probably never be in a position to defend our faith before kings or other political rulers, but Paul was always ready to give a defense of what we believe, just as Peter encouraged his readers to do (1 Peter 3:15). That defense may be as simple as “Jesus loves me, this I know,” or it may involve a more detailed argument from Scripture. You may not know the answer to every question that comes at you, but I’ll bet you know someone who does, and you can always say you’ll get back to them.


Peter and Paul are the two most prominent examples of church leadership we have in the NT, especially in the Gospels and Acts, and their surviving letters that make up most of the rest of the NT. Jesus wouldn’t let Peter’s repeated failures stop him from being a powerful force for the gospel, preaching the Pentecost sermon that initiated and ignited the church in Acts 2. Paul was quite the opposite of Peter, always seeming to choose his words carefully and being careful not let his tongue get ahead of his brain. Together, their writings represent 15 of the 27 books of the NT, and they are the two main leadership figures in the book of Acts, which recounts their stories.

God doesn’t really care whether we’re fishermen or a scholars. What he cares about is that we’re faithful with the gifts and abilities he’s given us, for his gifts and calling are without repentance: God doesn’t reconsider those gifts, but at times he may redirect you, as I’ve learned in my life. My prayer is that go from here this morning encouraged by the examples and the teaching that Peter and Paul have left for us, and that you will allow God to use you according to your own gifts and abilities. Amen.

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