I absolutely hate the word “potential”.
Here is the definition: “Latent qualities or abilities that may be developed and lead to future success or usefulness.”
It’s that “may be developed” part that bothers me. It means that there is the possibility of accomplishing something of significance, but that has yet to occur.
Has anyone ever said this about you: “He/She has a lot of potential.”?
It sort of feels like a back-handed compliment, doesn’t it? It’s a nice way of saying, “He could do so much, but he’s not doing it yet.”
Unfortunately, I’m afraid that Jesus has looked down on me for most of my Christian life and said, “He has a lot of potential.”
Jesus chose to minister on this earth as a rabbi. A rabbi always personally chose his disciples, based upon the belief that those disciples could be just like him. So when Jesus chose His disciples, it meant that He expected them to become just like Him. He believed in them.
And one day He was walking by the Sea of Galilee, and a crowd gathered along the shore asking Him to teach them (Matthew 4). There were some fishermen there finishing up their work after spending all night catching absolutely nothing. And Jesus asks one of them to let Him stand in their boat so that He can get a little distance from the crowd as He teaches.
It’s important to remember that this isn’t the first time these fishermen had met Jesus. They had seen Him do powerful miracles, and had heard Him teach with authority. They knew that Jesus was not only an amazing rabbi, but that there was something very unique about Him. They had already begun to suspect that He was the promised Messiah. So, of course they let Him use their boat.
And afterward, Jesus makes a peculiar request. He tells them to take the boats back out into the sea, and cast out their nets again. The oldest, Peter, speaks up and says what all of the others were thinking: “Rabbi, we’ve been fishing all night and we’ve caught nothing. But if you say so…”
You know the rest of the story. They catch hundreds of fish. And as they finish unloading them from the boats, Jesus looks into Peter’s eyes and says, “Follow me. I’ll make you a fisher of men.”
That phrase, “follow me”, is the phrase that a rabbi would use when he called a disciple. He’s telling Peter, “You’ve got a ton of potential. I think you can be like Me.”
I would have dropped my fishing nets too.
So Peter walks right behind Jesus every step of the way. He sees how Jesus teaches. He watches how Jesus heals. He understands the way Jesus interprets the Scriptures.
And Peter strives to meet his potential; he tries to be just like Jesus.
That’s what he was thinking that stormy night a few months later on the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 14). After a long day of teaching and miracles, Jesus had gone into the hills to pray, and told His disciples to row across the sea to the other side. And as the winds blew and the waves crashed against the boat, something terrifying appeared through the fog. At first, Peter and the others thought they were seeing a ghost, but after a few moments, they realized that Jesus was walking to them on the water.
What was going through Peter’s head right then?
There’s his rabbi, walking on water. And Peter’s a passionate disciple, which means that if his rabbi is doing something, he’s supposed to be doing it too. So Peter does the only thing he could do: he gets out of the boat.
I know I’m supposed to now criticize Peter’s faith. He doubted and this resulted in his sinking and needing Jesus to rescue him. But I can’t. Peter got out of the boat. I would have been like the other eleven who sat back and watched.
Jesus never scolds Peter for thinking he can walk on the water. He only questions why Peter doubted his own ability to do it. This isn’t a popular idea (Just ask Rob Bell). We’re supposed to think of ourselves as lowly worms that can never be like Jesus. But that’s not correct – either Biblically or historically.
The only way Peter could have interpreted what his personal reaction was to be after having seen Jesus walk on the water was for him to try to do it himself. And Jesus had already made it clear that His disciples were to emulate Him (Matthew 10).
That’s what makes Peter’s denial of Jesus so much more stunning. Peter had been a model disciple. He had been commended for his understanding and boldly proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus had even promised that the Church itself would be built on the foundation of the life of Peter (Matthew 16). But at the very moment that Jesus needed Peter to stand with him, he denied him.
To deny your rabbi was the ultimate shame in the religious system of Jesus day. There is no way a rabbi-denied would accept that disciple back. The shame of the moment when the rooster crowed was multiplied exponentially because not only was Jesus Peter’s rabbi, but He was the Messiah. Peter’s future was over.
So even after Jesus appears to Peter and the others in the upper room, Peter still doesn’t seem to think he’s going to be a part of the future as Jesus’ disciple. The disciples are told to go back to the Galilee and to wait for Jesus to appear. But Peter does more than wait. He gets in the boat and starts fishing again. He returns to his old life. It was good while it lasted, but it’s over now; at least for him (John 21).
And so he goes all night without a single fish caught; all the toil and labor and work, but not one. (I imagine Peter sitting in the boat, exhausted, shaking his head and thinking, “Really? Kick me while I’m down, why don’t you?”)
And then he hears some wise-guy from the shore asking, “Did you catch anything?” Peter probably thought, “When is this going to stop?”
And then the next words he hears wash over his soul like a cool spring rain: “Try the other side of your boat?”
He’d heard these words before; back at the beginning. It couldn’t be Jesus, could it?
Then the fish start jumping in the net, faster than they can react. And Peter jumps out of the boat and swims as fast as he can to the shore. This is Jesus!
And one of the most important scenes in the Gospels takes place, but most of us glaze over it because we don’t understand what Jesus is doing; we don’t understand that He’s a rabbi.
Jesus said over and over and over again that He’s the shepherd, and those who follow Him are His sheep. So the question he asks Peter three times has major significance:
Jesus: “Peter, do you love me?”
Peter: “Yes, Lord. You know that I love you.”
Jesus: “Feed my sheep.”
We understand the reason that Jesus asks this of Peter three times; it’s a way of restoring Peter after he denied Jesus three times. But why does Jesus tell Peter to feed His sheep?
Jesus is telling Peter that he has another chance to be like his rabbi! He’s saying, “Follow me, Peter. Be my disciple. I’m the Shepherd, and I’m asking you to be like me.” He’s telling Peter that he can still do it. He believes in Peter!
I’ve spent most of my Christian life stuck between seeing Jesus in the upper room, and fishing on the Sea of Galilee. He’s called me to be His disciple, but I’ve failed over and over and over again. But after returning from Israel, I’ve learned that no matter how many times I’ve failed my Rabbi, He’s still standing on the shore, waiting to give me another chance. He’s called me to be His disciple. He thinks I can be like Him.
No more potential. No more, “maybe he can do some great things.” Jesus is calling me, just like He did Peter, to be like Him. I can no longer settle for being less than that. I’ve got an important work to do.