When Samuel anointed Saul, he anointed a man of kingly stature, handsome and tall, but who thought of himself as the least important man of Israel. Saul said, “Am not I a Benjamite, of the smallest of the tribes of Israel? and my family the least of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin?” (1 Sam. 9:21). He was simply an obedient son, asking the prophet for help in finding his father’s donkeys. Saul gained a new sense that day of what makes a godly leader, and was given a new heart (1 Sam 10:9). He led decisively to free Israel from the predatory Ammonites and Philistines, but continued to show his humiity.
Though he made early mistakes, even in victory he was gentle with those in Israel who had questioned his right to be king. With time, however, Saul became more concerned with honor. Perhaps he even projected his own imbalance onto God. When told to destroy every living thing among the Amalekites, he spared the king and the best livestock, if not for spoil then to make a show of sacrificing them (1 Sam 15). But God is less interested in symbolic displays of honor than in obedience. Saul meant to be faithful, but he had not properly learned. He had paid too much attention to the pleasures of his position and not quite enough to its duties. Saul knew how to be faithful as a son or an unexpected hero, but not as an established king.
The apostle Peter was perhaps even more impulsive than Saul, but quicker to respond to correction. On the mount of transfiguration, Peter, dazzled, proposed building shrines to Jesus and his visitors. Jesus seems to have simply ignored the suggestion and let it pass (Mark 9:5-6). At Jesus’ arrest, Peter with typical enthusiasm drew a sword and attacked. Yet Christ called him back and healed his target on the spot (John 18:10-11, Luke 22:51). Peter could hardly have felt more foolish. Still, he followed Christ at a distance, in peril of his life. Peter was vigorously faithful, and when he needed to relearn his faith, as he often did, he went right to work.
Peter was persistently humble, even as he was being prepared to lead the church. Perhaps his willingness to look foolish was what suited him for the job. Perhaps Christ even prepared him by setting him up for embarrassment. The simple instruction just hours before the arrest, to carry swords, seems cruel knowing what Christ had planned. Yet perhaps Peter needed this training to avoid Saul’s mistakes of the heart. For an earlier example, how many of us would not be discouraged by a literal dunking, in front of an attentive audience, incurred in the exercise of imperfect faith? Most of us, I think it’s fair to say, are much less willing to be a fool for the truth. For us, to be confronted by an authority as Peter was, when we fail, would crush our resolve. When Saul was told he would be replaced as king for his disobedience, he returned to worship the Lord but clung all the more tightly to his power. Saul had hid among the baggage when Israel was gathered and Samuel was coming to designate him as king, but now he was willing to murder David, his people’s greatest hero and his son’s best friend, to keep his place.
How well do we react when we are corrected by authority figures? Like Peter, or like Saul?