In the Scriptures, Simon Peter is always listed first in any list of the apostles that is given. He is certainly a striking figure, and no attempt to tell the story of the new covenant community would be complete without him. It is hard to imagine him as anything but a large man, but whether he was physically big or not, he is always big in the story.
We know that his father’s name was Jonah from the way Christ addressed him in Matt. 16:17. “And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 16:16-17). Of course Barjona simply means “son of Jonah.” The original Hebrew form of his name was apparently Symeon. This is how James refers to him at the Jerusalem council. “And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me: Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name” (Acts 15:13-14). And it appears that he adopted the Greek name Simon because it had a similar sound to his Hebrew name. We know his brother Andrew simply by his Greek name.
Now Peter was from the town of Bethsaida. “Now Philip was of Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter” (John 1:44), and this was an overwhelmingly Greek city. But he also had a home up in the north, in Capernaum on the sea of Galilee (Mk. 1:21ff). Like today, owning two homes indicates a certain measure of wealth.
“And they went into Capernaum; and straightway on the sabbath day he entered into the synagogue, and taught. And they were astonished at his doctrine: for he taught them as one that had authority, and not as the scribes . . .And immediately his fame spread abroad throughout all the region round about Galilee. And forthwith, when they were come out of the synagogue, they entered into the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. But Simon’s wife’s mother lay sick of a fever, and anon they tell him of her” (Mark 1:21-30).
Both Bethsaida and Capernaum were lakeside, where Peter could work as a fisherman. In both regions there would be abundant contact with Gentiles.
At the same time, Simon apparently grew up in the north because we he spoke with a thick Galilean accent, an accent which betrayed him during his betrayal of Christ. “And he denied it again. And a little after, they that stood by said again to Peter, Surely thou art one of them: for thou art a Galilaean, and thy speech agreeth thereto“ (Mk. 14:70).
We also know that Simon had been brought up in a faithful home. We can see this in his brief reference to his background when he saw the vision in Joppa “But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean” (Acts 10:14). His brother Andrew had been a disciple of John the Baptist. “One of the two which heard John speak, and followed him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother” (John 1:40). From the criteria given for selecting a replacement for Judas, it is very likely that Simon had been affected by the ministry of John the Baptist as well (Acts 1:22).
“Wherefore of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, Beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22).
What was his initial contact with Christ? The apostle John tells us that Simon was first introduced to Christ by the agency of his brother Andrew. “He first findeth his own brother Simon, and saith unto him, We have found the Messias, which is, being interpreted, the Christ” (John 1:41) This early contact with Christ makes his response when Christ later called him away from his vocation a bit more intelligible (Mark 1:16f).
“Now as he [Jesus] walked by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men. And straightway they forsook their nets, and followed him” (Mark 1:16-18).
After Peter was called out of Israel, he was then called out (again) from a larger number of disciples to be numbered among the Twelve (Mk. 3: 16ff).
“And he [Jesus] goeth up into a mountain, and calleth unto him whom he would: and they came unto him. And he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach, And to have power to heal sicknesses, and to cast out devils: And Simon he surnamed Peter” (Mark 3:13-16). He had called Peter by this name before this, but apparently he made it formal at Peter’s ordination.
It appears from the New Testament that this name of Peter’s was very important. We have seen it was after he became a disciple that he received (from Christ) the Aramaic name of Cephas (1 Cor. 1:12; 15:5; Gal. 2:9).
“Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ” (1 Cor. 1:12). “And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve” (1 Cor. 15:4-5). This name means ‘rock’ or ‘stone,’ and usually shows up in the New Testament in its Greek equivalent, which would be Peter. It appears from John 1:42 that Jesus started calling him this at their first encounter. “And he brought him to Jesus. And when Jesus beheld him, he said, Thou art Simon the son of Jona: thou shalt be called Cephas, which is by interpretation, A stone” (John 1:42).
John usually calls him Simon Peter. And Mark calls him Simon up to 3:16, and Peter almost entirely thereafter. This is important because the Gospel of Mark should probably be understood as Mark’s rendition of Peter’s account of the life of Christ. The fact that Peter is a rock or a stone is highly significant in the New Testament.
As mentioned earlier, Peter is always named first in any list of disciples. He was not only chosen to be numbered among the Twelve, but he was also chosen to be one of the three members of an inner circle around the Master. “And he suffered no man to follow him, save Peter, and James, and John the brother of James” (Mark 5:37). “And after six days Jesus taketh with him Peter, and James, and John, and leadeth them up into an high mountain apart by themselves: and he was transfigured before them” (Mark 9:2). “And he taketh with him Peter and James and John, and began to be sore amazed, and to be very heavy” (Mark 14:33).
Peter followed Christ faithfully throughout His three-year ministry in Palestine. One event during that time which had an enormous impact on Peter was the Transfiguration, an event which happened when Peter was in the company of only James and John—and of course, Christ. Many years later, Peter refers to this event in both of his epistles.
“The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind” (1 Pet. 5:1-2).
“For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received from God the Father honour and glory, when there came such a voice to him from the excellent glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. And this voice which came from heaven we heard, when we were with him in the holy mount” (2 Pet. 1:16-18). It is significant that Peter goes on to say that Scripture is far more certain than this glorious experience, an experience which he clearly treasured.
In another famous incident, Peter made a great confession which was marked out by the Lord as the “rock” upon which the church would be built (Matt. 16:18ff).
“When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am? And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Then charged he his disciples that they should tell no man that he was Jesus the Christ” (Matt. 16:13-20).
Near the end of the Lord’s ministry, when Christ prophesied that His disciples would all be scattered, Peter rashly promised that he would do no such thing. “But Peter said unto him, Although all shall be offended, yet will not I. And Jesus saith unto him, Verily I say unto thee, That this day, even in this night, before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice. But he spake the more vehemently, If I should die with thee, I will not deny thee in any wise. Likewise also said they all” (Mark 14:29-31). But of course, when it came down to the point, Peter collapsed and denied the Lord. When the rooster crowed, Peter immediately recognized his sin and went out and wept bitterly. After the resurrection, the Lord graciously restored Peter to his position among the disciples—which of course had been forfeited by him. The Lord not only restored Peter to ministry in front of the others, but had also visited him personally. “And they rose up the same hour, and returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven gathered together, and them that were with them, Saying, The Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon” (Luke 24:33-34; cf. 1 Cor. 15:5).
After the resurrection and ascension, Peter took the lead in the early days of the church (Acts 1:15ff). Greatly humbled by his sin and restoration, Peter became the kind of apostolic leader that the church needed in her first days. “And in those days Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples, and said, (the number of names together were about an hundred and twenty,) Men and brethren . . .” (Acts 1:15-16a). He was the principal preacher in those first days. “But Peter, standing up with the eleven, lifted up his voice, and said unto them, Ye men of Judaea, and all ye that dwell at Jerusalem, be this known unto you, and hearken to my words” (2:14). “And when Peter saw it, he answered unto the people, Ye men of Israel, why marvel ye at this? or why look ye so earnestly on us, as though by our own power or holiness we had made this man to walk” (Acts 3:12)? He was also the spokesman who answered the Jewish authorities (4:8ff). As we consider his words, consider also that this is the same man who just a few weeks before this had been cursing and swearing at a servant girl, saying that he did not know Christ. But now he is facing the same men that his Lord had faced at the time of his denial. The Lord was silent in His own defense, as Isaiah prophesied He would be. Peter was not constrained by prophesy, and was no longer constrained by fleshly pride. Listen to him and marvel at the power of God.
“And when they had set them in the midst, they asked, By what power, or by what name, have ye done this? Then Peter, filled with the Holy Ghost, said unto them, Ye rulers of the people, and elders of Israel, If we this day be examined of the good deed done to the impotent man, by what means he is made whole; Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand here before you whole. This is the stone which was set at nought of you builders, which is become the head of the corner “(Acts 4:7-11).
Peter also presided over the administration of discipline (5:3ff).
“But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land?” (Acts 5:3)
He also showed great leadership in the first mission work at Samaria.
“Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John” (Acts 8:14).
All this is said, and cheerfully acknowledged by Protestants. However, he was also present at the Jerusalem council, but was not the president of that council (Acts 15)—James was. Peter was a natural leader, and he was given a place of honor among the apostles by the Lord himself. But Peter, for all the grace that was with him, was no pope.
“And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter. And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe” (Acts 15:6-7). In other words, Peter testifies at this council. He is one of the witnesses. But the president of that council was James.
“And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me: Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, After
this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things. Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world. Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day” (Acts 15:13-21).
Earlier in the book of Acts, after Peter broke out of prison with angelic help, he disappeared (Acts 12:17). But first he went to John Mark’s house, where he ran into a little trouble with a servant named Rhoda. “But he, beckoning unto them with the hand to hold their peace, declared unto them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, Go shew these things unto James, and to the brethren. And he departed, and went into another place” (Acts 12:17).
Among those other places, we know that he made it to Antioch. “But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed” (Gal. 2:11). And he may have made it to Corinth. It is unlikely that there would have been a Peter “faction” there had he not previously had some ministry among them. And Paul says this: “Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Cor. 1:12-13). We also know that Peter had a tight connection with the Christians in northern Asia Minor (1 Pet. 1:1), which makes it highly likely that he had had some ministry there. He greets them this way. “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace unto you, and peace, be multiplied” (1 Pet. 1:1)
And of course we know that he was back in Jerusalem for the council, at which he did not preside.
This man who was nicknamed Rock by Christ Himself was noteworthy for his impulsive devotion to Christ. We see this in multiple examples.
“But straightway Jesus [while walking on the water] spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid. And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water. And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus. But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me” (Matt. 14:27-30).
Many believers have a tendency to look down on Peter in various patronizing ways. He is made the butt of many negative examples, as in this one. He took his eyes off Jesus, and started to sink. But supposing he only walked ten feet on the water before he began to sink, that is about nine feet farther than any of us would have gotten.
We have already noted his impulsive declaration that he would never deny Christ. “But Peter said unto him, Although all shall be offended, yet will not I” (Mark 14:29). But we also see this impulsiveness in the incident over the miraculous catch of fish. “When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord. For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the draught of the fishes which they had taken” (Luke 5:8-9). And whatever else the resurrection changed, it did not change this aspect of Peter’s character. “Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved saith unto Peter, It is the Lord. Now when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he girt his fisher’s coat unto him, (for he was naked,) and did cast himself into the sea” (John 21:7).
He was the kind of man who naturally speaks up whenever a group is addressed. He acted as a spokesman for the Twelve on numerous occasions. “Then answered Peter and said unto him, Declare unto
us this parable” (Matt. 15:15; cf. 18:21; Mk.1:36f; 8:29; 9:5; 10:28; 11:21; 14:29ff; Luke 5:5; 12:41). His impulsive nature was seen in his failings as well. As noted before, he was a natural leader, both in faith and in sin. But the Lord Jesus had greater intentions for him, and intended to mold him into the kind of leader that God uses mightily in the kingdom of heaven—the kind of man who has died to himself, and knows that he can no longer trust that old carcass, but must live in the resurrection. Peter did not just become a leader; he became the kind of leader that God uses.
Apart from the narratives in the gospels, we know the apostle Peter directly from three main sources. The first would be the content of his preaching in the book of Acts. In those messages, we see how he preached the kingdom of God, the sovereign predestination of Christ’s murder, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Reading through Peter’s sermons, it is easy to listen for echoes of Christ’s teaching given to Peter over the previous three years—doctrine that now made complete, living sense.
The other two sources would be the two epistles he wrote, and come decades later. Like wine on the lees, Peter’s wisdom and grace and humility have aged into something glorious—in both letters.
The stylistic differences between the two letters have been noted from the time of the early church, but there is no real trouble here, regardless of how much trouble modern critics like to make for themselves. Silvanus (better known as Silas) helped Peter in some fashion with 1 Peter. Silas was a long-time co-laborer with the apostle Paul.
Both letters were written in the 60s, right at the end of Peter’s life. The first of these letters is encouraging the Christians in a time of persecution. The second letter addresses the perennial problem of false teaching. In these two letters we have the divine answer to both kinds of satanic attacks on the church; one from outside, the other from inside.
Although an account of it is not included in the New Testament, we may reliably say that Peter died at Rome in the first Roman persecution of the church under Nero. The tradition that he was crucified upside down may be reliable, but we cannot be dogmatic about such things. What we can say is that the Peter who fled from death in his betrayal, encountered it wonderfully when the Lord Jesus restored him to ministry. It is significant that at the point of restoration, at the end of John’s gospel, the Lord told him that he would in fact be executed (John 21:18-19). From that point on, until the time he was to die, he was told to feed the sheep of God. And this, by the grace of God, is exactly what he did.