Can People Change?
Can people really change? Or are we hardwired by our genetics to act or think only in a certain way? Can we overcome the lack of lessons we learned as a child or overcome the lessons we should have never learned as a child? Can people really change?
Jesus Can Change People
One thing I have seen for sure while following Jesus, it’s that the answer to that question is, “Jesus can change us.” Yes, people can change through Jesus Christ. As you continue your journey with Jesus, who knows where He might take you or how you might be changed?
Today, we are going to take a look at two of the most recognizable people in the Bible who encountered Jesus and how their journey with Him changed everything for them. My hope is that the stories of these two men just might give you some great insights and hope for your own journey with Jesus.
Peter: Failing Forward
Let’s start by looking at Peter. The nice thing about Peter is that he gives us so much material to use – especially if we want talk about failure along the journey. What you ultimately find about Peter’s journey is that when he fails, he thankfully fails forward and not backwards. That may be one of the most important lessons we can learn from Peter.
Of course, Peter’s most famous failure happens just before Jesus’ crucifixion. It’s the big one where he gets intimidated by a school-aged servant girl and denies that he has ever met Jesus. He does it not just once, but three times.
Peter’s second most well-known failure is probably the one in Matthew 16 where Jesus predicts his death by crucifixion, and Peter pulls Him to the side and says, “Heaven forbid, Lord! This will never happen to you!” (verse 22). Jesus doesn’t say, “Well, Peter, we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on this one.” He says, “Get away from me, Satan! You are a dangerous trap to me.” (verse 23). Can you imagine God telling you, “Not only are you wrong, you are actually the Devil’s mouthpiece right now”?
Peter has so many more mistakes for us to learn from.
He is the one who cut off the high priest’s servant’s ear when Jesus was arrested. Jesus told Peter, “Put your sword away!” (John 18:11).
Peter is the one who, after the transfiguration when Moses and Elijah talked with Jesus on the mountain, said, “Let us make three shelters as memorials.” And I love what Mark says right after it: “He said this because he didn’t know what else to say, for they were all terrified” (Mark 9:5–6).
Peter is the one who, when Jesus began to wash the disciples’ feet, refused and said, “No, you will never wash my feet” (John 13:8).
Peter is the one who was confronted by Paul for backing down from fellowshipping with Gentiles when he was afraid of what the hard-line Jewish Christians would think (Galatians 2:11–21).
Failure is Never Final
If you listened to my sermon on the Church, you’ll remember that Peter is the same person about whom Jesus said, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18).
That’s big. We talk about the founding fathers of this country, and we give them honor – as we should. But the Church is much bigger. The Church is worldwide. The Church lasts forever. In some ways, Peter is as big as Abraham – the great father of the Jews! It’s comforting to me that Jesus entrusted the beginning of the Church to a man who made so many mistakes in his journey with Jesus. Peter teaches us that as long as we keep getting up and walking with Jesus, failure is never final.
In your journey with Jesus, you will encounter disappointments. You will slip. You’ll even fail. But Peter’s life shows us that one of the most important things you can do after a disappointment, a loss, or a failure is to start a path to reengage where God was taking you. It’s OK to catch your breath or grab your bearings after a failure. But if you want to keep going with Jesus, you’ve always got to get back in the game.
Peter’s Reaction to Failure
After his big failure of denial, Peter was having a tough time reengaging. Jesus rose from the dead, and Peter was in a strange, awkward place. Of course, he was thrilled Jesus was alive, but he also remembered that moment described in Luke 22:59-61 where someone in the courtyard had said, “‘This must be one of them, because he is a Galilean too,’ and Peter replied, ‘Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!’ And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. At that moment the Lord turned and looked at Peter. Suddenly, the Lord’s words flashed through Peter’s mind: ‘Before the rooster crows tomorrow morning, you will deny three times that you even know me.’”
Peter was glad Jesus was back, but he still had those eyes piercing his heart and a pretty serious failure hanging over his head. So we see what Peter does in John 21:3, and I think it’s exactly what I would do. Peter says, “I’m going out to fish.” Maybe he was just clearing his head. But if Peter is anything like me, I can imagine the inner dialogue he had:
“I was never very good at being a disciple anyways.”
“I was fishing when He first found me. I told him, ‘Go away from me; I’m a sinful man.’ He was warned, and He still kept calling me to Him.”
“I’m not a rock. I’m more like pebbles.”
“I’m going to stick with what I know and what I’m good at.”
“There are ten other guys who can be His fishers of men. I’d prefer to just be a fisher of fish.”
God’s Gifts and His Call are Irrevocable
On your journey with Jesus, when you fail or when it gets really hard, you’re going to be tempted to go back to the way it was. There will be something inside of you that calls you to go back to what was comfortable before you took a risk, to go back to what you knew before you tried something new.
Fortunately, Romans 11:29 stands in the way for many of us who want to go back to the way it was. It says, “For God’s gifts and his call can never be withdrawn.” Peter wanted to be a fisherman again, but the problem was that he was called to be a church elder and leader. I believe Jesus had invested too much into Peter up to that point to just let him go back to fishing. In all those failures, Peter had way too much firsthand education to go back to the old ways.
Even if I wanted to stop, I’ve had way too many failures to stop being a pastor now. I find new jokes that don’t work almost every single week – you can’t buy that kind of experience. I have discovered so many ways to not counsel people through their problems and spiritual issues. I’ve asked the wrong way for volunteers to help. I’m finding new ways to not do ministry almost every day. God won’t let all those good failures go to waste.
His call and gifts can never be withdrawn. God can redefine the context, the location, and the expression. But no matter what happens on your journey, the call hasn’t left – it can’t be withdrawn or taken back. Think about that. The call on Peter to be the Rock of the Church couldn’t just go away. You are called to minister God’s truth, life, and grace wherever you go. You can try to go around and just go fishing, but God still has a call on your life.
The Future that God has for You
Some of you might have thought that when things didn’t work out as you hoped, it was all over. On your journey with Jesus, things didn’t work out as you planned in your family. Your ministry didn’t go where you hoped. Your job took a strange turn. But your setback was actually a step-up into the future that God has for you. The future context of the call may be different. The expression may not be what you expected. But if you keep walking with Jesus on this one, He will bring it out of you again.
Peter finds a rebirth, a second chance, and a path to reengage. And it shouldn’t surprise us at all that it starts by Peter taking a short journey with Jesus. It’s found in that wonderful passage of restoration in John 21:15-17 where Jesus and Peter are talking, and Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” With each “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” Jesus brings him back to the call that can’t be withdrawn: “Feed my lambs, take care of my sheep, feed my sheep.”
Do you see what Jesus is doing? Here’s one possible paraphrase:
“You still love me, right, Peter?”
“Then step back into what I’ve called you to do. Peter, you failed me, but you love Me, right?”
“I do, Jesus; You know I do. Even then I did.”
“Then embrace the purpose and plan I have for your life. You love Me, right, Peter?”
“Lord, stop saying that! You know I love You.”
“Peter, you can fish, but you can’t just be a fisherman. Be the pastor, the shepherd, and the Rock I’ve called you to be.”
The next time we see Peter after that little talk with Jesus, he’s in a room with the other followers of Jesus. He stands up and finds a replacement for Judas. Do you know what he’s doing? He’s leading the Church. The very next thing he does is stand up again and give the very first altar call where three thousand people come to Jesus.
I wonder. When Peter sat back down and watched the other disciples caring for all those people, do you think Peter thought back on the beginning where Jesus said: “Come, follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people” (Matthew 4:19)? Do you think his mind flashed back to Caesarea Philippi where Jesus said, “On this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it” (Matthew 16:18)? I wonder if he thought, “I’m actually living the promise.”
One of my favorite things about our journey with Jesus is that only He can make you what you aren’t. Only He can see what you truly are and bring you into what you can truly become.
Peter saw himself as a fisherman. Jesus saw Peter as the Rock for His Church. Despite all of Peter’s failures, Peter became what God had in mind. On your journey with Jesus, if you just keep walking with Him, you will become all that God has in mind for you.
Paul: Amazing Change
Let’s consider what happened to Paul on his journey. Jesus took the Church’s worst enemy and made him one of the Church’s greatest assets.
We read about the beginning of his journey in Acts 9:1-6.
“Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” (Acts 9:1-6)
It’s one thing that Paul went from persecuting, capturing, and killing Christians to becoming one. It’s another thing that he was transformed into the greatest missionary and proclaimer of the Gospel the world has ever known. I cannot overemphasize how big and important this change is. Without this transformation in Paul, Rome wouldn’t have known Jesus. Constantine wouldn’t have come to know him. Europe wouldn’t have known Him. And who knows if you and I would have ever even heard the name “Jesus.”
Paul talks about his journey in 1 Timothy 1:13–14. “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”
Do you see the difference walking with Jesus made for Paul? Before his journey began with Jesus, his life was full of ignorance, unbelief, blasphemy, and violence. Then his journey with Jesus caused him to become a man of faith, love, and grace.
While Peter sort of stumbled along before Jesus, Paul was quite focused and effective before and after walking with Jesus. Paul’s problem before was that he was focused on the wrong things. He was passionate. He was focused. He was so sincere. But he was wrong.
The Right Road: Sincerity Alone is Not Enough
There’s a powerful idea that I would say most Americans hold right now. It’s simply this: “As long as you’re sincere on your journey.” That’s it. It’s not even a complete sentence. But that’s the big idea: as long as you’re sincere it doesn’t really matter where you go. It doesn’t matter what you think or do as long as you’re sincere. It’s so close to being true, but it’s not quite true. The reason it’s close is because sincerity is always better than hypocrisy or half-heartedness. No one likes someone faking it. Most of us are moved by people who will give themselves completely to their dream, their faith, and their values.
Paul was completely sincere. In fact, he was sincere about the most important thing we can care about – the will of God. But he was wrong. Years after his journey with Jesus began, Paul tells his story to an angry crowd in Jerusalem. He says in Acts 22:3-5, “I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.”
Do you know what Paul calls his work and his passion before His walk with Jesus? In Philippians 3:8, he calls it all “garbage.” It’s not that learning, hard work, or success is bad. It’s just that anything of real value and worth is done by God’s Spirit in accordance with God’s will and God’s Word. Once it was given over to Jesus, Paul’s passion was a tool that God used to talk to kings and philosophers and was a powerful force in bringing the Gospel to the world.
Being sincere is an important part of the journey, but sincerity alone is not enough. If you are sincerely wrong, you’re still wrong. You’re just less likely to admit that you’re wrong because you’re so sincere. But the journey with Jesus was more powerful than Paul’s sincerity. Paul walked hand in hand with Jesus, and everything changed. In his journey with Jesus, Paul moved from a life that was dependent on striving in his own strength to a life that was centered entirely on responding to God’s Spirit.
Two Possible Approaches for Your Journey with Jesus
While Peter’s journey shows us that failure is never final, the big idea I want to bring to you today from Paul’s transformation is that you have two possible approaches for your journey.
Our Way or His Way
You can strive on your own strength, or you can respond to God’s Spirit. If we’re honest, wouldn’t we say the majority of what we actually do in life is more like making our own to-do list? And our prayers are just an effort to have God put His initials next to each item we’ve written down. But if being led by His Spirit is allowing Him to set the agenda, wouldn’t it look more like giving Him the blank sheet of paper, waiting for Him to fill it, and then signing our name at the bottom to say we agree to everything He wrote?
Who Sets The Agenda?
Before his journey with Jesus began, Paul set the agenda for his life. Not only was it not God’s best, it was the very opposite of what God wanted. This is so important because your life is precious, your time is short, and you are so skilled and so gifted. How tragic it would be to invest so much time, learn so much, and accomplish so much only to find in the end it was all the wrong things.
Paul was doing all sorts of things for God that God never wanted. And we do it too. How many of us feel the message of heaven is “do better, walk faster, try harder”? We’re walking down a road God never called us to walk, carrying a burden He never intended for us to carry. There is not a single time in the Bible where God says, “Try harder.” For all the horrible things the Israelites did, God never said, “Guys, would you just try to be good?” But over and over again He said, “Turn your heart to Me. Come to Me. Draw near to Me. Repent. Turn away from that stuff and look at Me!”
Joy in Less
We feel so much pressure to be everything, to do everything, to have everything. But I don’t think that joy is found in more. I actually think it may be found in less. When Jesus was ministering in Israel, there was so much hurt, need, and work to do. But you never see in Jesus a man who is stressed out and overwhelmed. He lived by the Spirit. He did what the Father wanted Him to do. No more. No less. And that’s enough.
We “gotta do this” and we “gotta get that” and we “gotta be this” in life. I guess I just want to ask, “Do we really?” Paul had a new path and agenda that were set by the Spirit of God. To be sure, he worked hard. But he wasn’t bothered. And it seems like neither he nor Jesus were ever running behind, trying to catch up. They just walked every day by God’s Spirit.
Your Amazing Journey with Jesus
When we walk hand in hand with Jesus, we can walk with the intensity of Paul or the stumbling of Peter. Either way, we will go forward. Our journey will produce amazing transformation in us and amazing kingdom results for others. If we walk that way, everything that happens on our journey will be used for God’s glory – and I mean everything.
During the Watergate scandal, Chuck Colson was President Nixon’s hatchet man. In 1974, he pled guilty to obstruction of justice and went to prison. In his book ‘Born Again’ Colson wrote, “I found myself increasingly drawn to the idea that God had put me in prison for a purpose and that I should do something for those I had left behind.” When he got out, he launched Prison Fellowship, which is now the nation’s largest nonprofit organization serving prisoners. From prison to Prison Fellowship! I’d call that failing forward.
I don’t know exactly where your journey with Jesus will take you, but I do know if you walk with Him every day, it will go forward to places you could never imagine.
I want to end by challenging you to walk with Jesus every day. Starting today, let’s not have Jesus as part of our lives – let’s make Him the center of our lives every day and follow Him anywhere and everywhere He leads us. Let’s move forward in an authentic relationship with Jesus.
Will you pray with me? Father, thank You for how You took two very different people, Peter and Paul, to very amazing places by Your Spirit. I thank You that You have an amazing journey in store for each one of us. Please help us to walk it hand in hand with You. In Jesus’ name, amen.