First Among the Twelve
Some have called Peter, "the apostle with a foot-shaped mouth." Others have called him, "the first rock star." We know that Peter certainly had some interesting characteristics that could be viewed negatively, but there is also a more positive view of Peter. He could be called, "Peter, the apostle who became all he could become."
Many of us associate ourselves closely with Peter because we see in him many of the character traits we possess or wish to possess (or perhaps wish we did not possess). I think this is a positive view since we certainly can follow Peter's example in allowing Jesus to shape him into the man who indeed would become "first" in many ways. It was a journey for Peter that was sometimes filled with exciting moments, sometimes deeply sorrowful moments, even times where he seemed to be coming apart. Yet, although his faith was weakened, Peter never lost faith as he lived his life dedicated to the Master.
What we know of Peter for certain and what is important to our walk of faith is contained in Scripture. There are secular, or non-scriptural writings, that give traditional accounts of Peter's life. Our focus will be on what Scripture records of some of his actions and interactions and what we can learn from this remarkable man.
A Bit About Peter
Peter's original name was Simon Bar-Jonah, or Son of Jonah (or John). In John 1:42, Jesus changes his name to Peter which means "rock." Sometimes we see Peter referred to as, Simon Peter, Simon, or Cephas.
Sometimes Jesus referred to him as Peter, other times Simon, and sometimes by both names. Jesus refers to Peter as Simon as He tells of his upcoming denial of Him (Luke 22:31-34). As Jesus is praying in the garden, He mildly rebukes Peter for sleeping during the time and calls him Simon (Mark 14:32-42). Then, when Peter makes his great confession of faith about Jesus in Matthew 16:16-18, Jesus refers to him as, "Simon-Bar-Jonah" and "Peter". We also see Jesus referring to Peter as, "Simon" as He reinstates him in John 21:15-19. Whatever the name Jesus used, Peter clearly understood he was being personally addressed by our Lord, sometimes in praise, sometimes in rebuke, but always from the frame of reference of truly knowing Peter.
Peter is commonly associated with the villages of Bethsaida and Capernaum. Along with Chorazin (Korazim), these villages were within an area of approximately five miles on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. Peter worked in this area as a fisherman with his brother Andrew and two others who also became apostles, James and John. Capernaum was also Peter's home and became a hub from where Jesus would travel through the region. Even with the influence of Jesus and Peter, these villages were generally unreceptive towards Jesus and His message (Matthew 11:20-24).
We know little about his family except he had a wife and mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14-15). Jesus heals Peter's mother-in-law, then she got up and served them. The healing was immediate and complete thus demonstrating the power of Jesus.
Many events in the gospels and the book of Acts involve Peter specifically and generally. We will now look at a few events that shaped Peter in became first among the apostles.
Key Events of Peter from Scripture
Peter's calling involved a two-step process. First, in John 1 we read where John the Baptist pointed out Jesus to two of his disciples, Andrew and John. They spent the rest of the day with Jesus. Following this, Andrew goes to Peter and exclaims "We have found the Messiah" (John 1:41). Later, in Matthew 4:18-19, we read where Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee and called Peter and his brother Andrew to follow him. This marked the beginning of their full-time following of Jesus. Of special note in Matthew's account is that they immediately left their work and followed Him. After the resurrection of Jesus, Peter and some of the others went back to fishing as they continued to deal with the realization that Jesus had risen (John 21:1-3).
Peter Provides the Correct Answer
In Matthew 16 Jesus is with his disciples in the region of Caesarea Philippi. This area was dedicated to idol worship, including a cave turned into a shrine to the Greek god, Pan. This cave was called, "The Gates of Hell". Jesus asked the apostles who people were saying He was. They replied; John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. Jesus then asked a more direct question, who did they think He was. Peter quickly spoke up and stated, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." (Matthew 6:15-16)
His reply pleased Christ, who informed him that those words were not his own, but that it was God Himself who had revealed Christ's true identity to him. This response clearly indicates that Peter was developing a deeper awareness and faith into who Jesus was.
At that time Jesus revealed to the apostles a significant insight into His ministry and their role and authority in supporting it. Jesus continued with the statement:
"…on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven…"
- Matthew 6:18-19
We know keys lock and unlock. Jesus explains this as He states that what the apostles bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever they loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven. If we put it all together, Jesus is stating that He will soon establish His Kingdom on earth and the false gods and mistaken beliefs of mankind will not withstand the truth of His word. Further, the apostles, and Peter specifically, would be the instrument through which this would occur.
Although Peter provides the answer and facilitates the discussion, these words of binding and loosening were addressed to the apostles as a group. We see evidence of this later as all the apostles would have leading roles in carrying the gospel to the world. But in the role as a leader among the apostles, we see Peter taking the first important steps in carrying out the Lord's directive to take the gospel to all the world. Through his life, Peter was the first to reveal God's plan for our salvation:
- Acts 2 – Pentecost
- Acts 8 – To the Samaritans
- Acts 10 – Converting the first non-Jews
Peter's Denial of Christ and Reinstatement
In Luke 22:31-34, Jesus tells Peter that he will deny him, even as Peter declares he is ready to go to prison or even death with him. Then in Luke 22:54-60 we read how Peter denied he knew Jesus three times, just as Jesus had said he would. In John 21:15-17 we read where Peter is sitting with Jesus after his resurrection. Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him. Peter strongly states he does. The process of asking three times is a reflection of the three times Peter denied our Lord. The event was not lost on Peter as he would spend the rest of his life completely dedicated to Jesus. We will look at these events in detail in a later lesson.
It took a lifetime of growth for Peter to reach his full potential in his service to the Lord. From him, we learn how to reach our potential in the Lord's service.
What We Learn from Peter
We learn to be a seeker.
We see more recorded questions by Peter than from all the other apostles combined. He usually was the one who asked the Lord to explain His difficult parables (Matthew 15:15; Luke 12:41). He not only asked many questions but was also the first who answered questions posed by Christ. Peter would usually speak up while the others were processing the question. He speaks more than the rest, is spoken to by the Lord most often, is the most rebuked by the Lord, and most boldly confesses the Lord. All these behaviors show Peter engaged fully to discover more about our Lord and to grow from that knowledge.
We must seek first to become a follower of Jesus and then continue to seek how we can grow in service to the Lord and how we can better carry out our mission as servants to the Master.
We learn about the courage necessary to fulfill our role.
Being a fisherman carried a high level of danger and required courage. Later Peter changed his natural courage into a mature, settled, and quietly confident and unshakable type of courage where he truly was willing to suffer anything for Christ. One key piece of evidence is that he had the courage to return to our Lord when he realized his failures. That courage and humility was rewarded by reinstatement by our Lord.
After he delivered the keys to enter into God's Kingdom through the powerful address at Pentecost (Acts 2) we see Peter's re-directed courage as he began to carry the gospel of Christ to the world. There he stands before crowds boldly proclaiming for the first time Jesus, the Savior, and how to gain salvation. Later we see:
- Peter and John speaking courageously before the Sanhedrin – Acts 4
- Peter arrested but continuing to preach Jesus even after being threatened – Acts 5
- Peter taking the Gospel to the Samaritans and Gentiles (non-Jews) and later defending them before the brethren in Jerusalem – Acts 8, 10, 11, 15
- Peter, while imprisoned, singing and praising God – Acts 16
The lesson here is, do not hesitate to return to our Lord in repentance and continue courageously to fulfill our mission to bring Jesus to others.
We learn to develop humility.
Peter is clearly shown as confident, self-assured, and aggressive. The events experienced from his calling by Christ, the lessons learned as he traveled and served with our Lord, the failure to keep a watch in the garden, his denial of Christ and his reinstatement all worked to transform Peter's overconfident and aggressive nature resulting in a humble servant giving him the insights to write the following:
"Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you…"
- I Peter 5:6
Jesus stated that humility was a blessing as He began the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3-5). Humility is at the heart of being poor in spirit and meek. Humility is a key characteristic of Christ and those who choose to follow Him. Like Peter, we learn that life is not about us, but about the Master, whom we serve humbly and faithfully.
We learn to be compassionate.
Compassion means to show care for others. Compassion is a characteristic of Jesus, and something Peter would learn as he received compassion when Jesus forgave and reinstated him (John 21:15-19). It was not just theoretical concepts but rather experiential learning that Peter was relying on.
Because of the knowledge of his personal weaknesses and our Lord's forgiveness, Peter was able to teach us that no matter the sin in our lives, we can turn to our Lord and receive that same forgiveness. Once forgiven, we now are armed with the knowledge and strength of our Lord to grow in all ways as a faithful servant. Therefore, we too must develop and grow in compassion if we are to be like Christ. We demonstrate our compassion for others as we, like Peter, show Jesus to all.
Within the book of Acts, we see a clear division between the actions primarily of Peter and those of Paul. This change in the narrative occurs following Peter's rescue from Herod in Acts 12:6-17. Luke ends this narrative stating, "Then he departed and went to another place." We are not certain where that was, but it serves as a change in focus. It is not that Peter did not remain active, but rather Luke changes the narrative to focus on Paul. It is a fair question to wonder what happened to Peter after the church began to spread and he was no longer the focus of Acts.
There is no mention in Scripture of where Peter continued to teach, his death, or his burial. There is strong evidence from the secular writings of historians and early church leaders that Peter was eventually killed by crucifixion in Rome during the reign of Nero around 64 to 66 AD. Tradition holds that he was crucified upside down because he did not want to be crucified in the same manner as Jesus.
Aside from the example of being faithful unto death, Peter's life is of primary importance. He became all that our Lord expected of him because he regained and sustained his focus on obeying and serving Jesus.
Peter is credited with writing two books of the New Testament, I & II Peter. Scholars also believe he influenced Mark's gospel. In II Peter 3:18, we see his life summed up in his final recorded words:
"But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen."
That is exactly what Peter did, and why he grew to match the essential meaning of his name, "Rock" a foundational figure in the building of our Lord's church (Matthew 16:18).
At the same time, we see a real person who serves as an example of God's power to change ordinary people into useful and productive servants. Just like Peter, all of us desperately need the salvation only Jesus offers.
Peter changed from the one seeking his way to one seeking our Lord's way. He would have loved to sing the old gospel hymn, "Have Thine Own Way Lord." He would especially be fond of the second verse:
"Have thine own way Lord, have Thine own way.
Hold o'er my being absolute sway!
Whiter than snow Lord, wash me just now,
As in Thy presence Humbly I bow."
- What was significant about Peter's response to Jesus in Matthew 16:13-20?
- Why was Peter reinstated by Jesus after he had denied Him and how does this apply to us? (John 21:15)
- In what ways was Peter a seeker and what is the example for us?
- What is your favorite or most impactful event from Peter's life and how does it help you grow spiritually?
- How can you use this lesson to grow spiritually and help others come into a relationship with Jesus?