It’s a detail that is easy to overlook, a detail whose importance may be lost in our many readings and re-readings of the story. But it’s a detail that is full of significance and flush with encouragement if only we will notice it and if only we will meditate upon it.
In the first chapter of John’s gospel, he tells of two men, two brothers, who became followers of Jesus. Andrew was the first to encounter him, to hear his words, and to believe that he was the One who had long been promised. In his excitement he tracked down his brother and told him, “We’ve found the Messiah!” Andrew led Simon to Jesus so he, too, could meet this man and hear his words. And it was at this point that an unexpected event transpired: “Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas’ (which means Peter).”
Jesus looked at this man and immediately gave him a new name. He was no longer to go by the one his parents had given him, but by the one this Teacher had assigned. He was no longer Simon, but Cephas (in Aramaic) or Peter (in Greek).
The significance of this change can be lost in the modern Western world, for we attach little importance to the meaning of names, but only to whether we like the way they sound or if we have known someone by the same name. And it can be lost in the English language, for neither “Peter” nor “Cephas” mean anything else in our language. But when Jesus looked at Peter and said, “You shall be called Cephas” everyone knew what he was saying: “Your name will be Rock.”
Jesus looked at this young man, this tradesman, this fisherman, and said “You shall be called Rock.” Then as now rocks symbolized strength and stability. Rocks made up foundations that could withstand the fiercest of storms and walls that could endure the most withering of bombardments. There’s no reason to believe Peter had a history that made Jesus say, “You have been a rock.” There’s no reason to believe Peter was currently living a life that made Jesus understand, “You are a rock.” No, Jesus gazed down the corridors of time and, with his mind on the future, said, “Rock.”
Jesus saw something in Peter that no one else saw. He saw something that had gone unnoticed by even his dearest friends and closest family members. Jesus saw what lay latent in this man, he saw what was beyond his impulsiveness, what existed past his weakness, what was possible on the far side of his wavering. He set aside all that was bad to focus instead on what was absolutely best, all that was unworthy to focus instead on what was noble and lovely and good.
Jesus saw who Peter would be. Or perhaps better, Jesus saw who he would make Peter to be. He saw that as Peter spent time with him, his strengths would grow stronger and his weaknesses grow weaker. He saw that as Peter walked with him, his vices would be diminished and his gifts amplified. He knew that as Peter followed him, his desires would be transformed and his character refined. He knew who and what Peter would become. He knew this was the man to whom he would soon say, “upon this rock I will build my church.”
And so it is with you and me. Jesus looks at us in our weakness, he looks at us in our fallenness, he looks at us in the middle of all the messes we’ve made and he says, “follow me.” He looks beyond our habits and patterns of sin, he looks beyond our immaturity of character and lack of accomplishment, he looks beyond our self-importance and self-aggrandizement. He sees in us what nobody else sees and nobody else can see because he looks beyond who we are to what we will be. He sees who he will make us to be as we spend time with him, as we walk with him, as we follow in his footsteps.
Inspired by J.R. Miller