Who Was Simon Peter?
There are few individuals in the scriptures that are as closely associated with Jesus as his foremost apostle, Simon Peter. A fisherman by trade, Simon Peter took the Jesus' admonition to heart to become a “fisher of men,” eagerly leaving behind the life he had known to follow the man that he came to recognize as the Son of God. Simon Peter entered the Savior’s service near the beginning of Jesus’ mortal ministry, and remained a devout, loyal, and zealous disciple all his days. Simon Peter would continue to follow Jesus long after the Resurrection and Ascension, taking the reins of leadership of the Apostolic period of the early Christian church.
But Simon Peter’s path was not without stumbling blocks; for the greatness he would eventually achieve and the faith he demonstrated, he suffered notable setbacks. Understanding the man who would become the rock of the Jesus' church means recognizing his failings as well as his triumphs. Here, we take a scriptural look at Simon Peter, and what how he built his personal life with Jesus.
Who Is Peter?
Simon Peter (also known as St. Peter in the Catholic Church, Simon, Simeon, Peter the Disciple, Cephas, and Peter the Apostle) was one of the leading 12 disciples of Jesus. But long before receiving his Apostolic calling to spread the Gospel, he worked with his brother Andrew casting nets and catching fish on the sea of Galilee. The scriptures mention that Peter and Andrew were from Bethsaida (John 1:44), but that he may also have held residence in the city of Capernaum (Luke 4: 31, 38). The Gospel of Luke also indicates that Peter had a mother-in-law, implying that Simon Peter was either married or widowed (Luke 4:38).
But where the details of his life before he met Jesus are sparse, his actions after becoming a disciple are much more well documented. Peter’s name is mentioned more times in the Bible than the names of any of the other original 12 Apostles.
Interestingly enough, Simon Peter’s name carries special significance in and of itself. Although there is some debate over when Simon Peter first encountered Jesus, at some point early in their relationship, Jesus gave Simon the name “Cephas,” meaning “stone” (John 1:42) which is translated as “Petros” in Greek, and “Peter” in English. After this event, the disciple was most often referred to by the name he’d received from Jesus. One might imagine that Simon Peter likely wore his new name with pride, eager to live up to the favorable comparison of his stalwart convictions to the unyielding firmness of a stone foundation. This name would also play a role in a later pronunciation by Jesus that would help solidify Peter’s position as the first caretaker of the Christian church.
With the Apostles James and John, Peter would grow in wisdom and understanding, and eventually become counted among Jesus’ most-trusted friends. This ‘inner circle’ of Apostles eventually assumed leadership of the Christian church following the Savior’s Ascension into heaven.
Simon Peter During Jesus’ Ministry
As one of the most prominent figures in the New Testament, Peter provides a unique and valuable perspective. There are many accounts of Peter’s actions and reactions during Jesus’ ministry. And although he is not believed to be the author of any of the Four Gospels, some scholars believe that his account of the events of Jesus' life and teachings can be found in the Gospel of Mark (with the author suggested as having been Peter’s companion John Mark mentioned in the Book of Acts).
Peter was present for nearly every major miracle and event in Jesus' ministry. And, as part of the inner circle of Apostles, he had the honor of witnessing events that were forbidden even to the other faithful. This includes the first time that Jesus raised someone from death and returned them to life (Mark 5: 35-42), Jesus’ Transfiguration on the mountain where he was joined by the spirits of Moses and Elijah (Matthew 17: 1-9), and even into the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed with God before taking his final steps towards Crucifixion (Matthew 26:36-45).
One key personality trait of Peter’s was his impulsiveness. Always willing to speak his mind, Peter also seemed to leap eagerly into the tests of faith placed before him. When Jesus told him to cast his net into deep water after an entire night of unfruitful fishing, Peter did so without hesitation, catching more fish than the nets could contain (Luke 5:1-7). This enthusiastic approach to life served him well. He was well known for speaking his mind without fear of consequences, and on multiple occasions acted as spokesman for the other disciples.
Of course, there is often a fine line between impulsiveness and recklessness; Peter, alone among the other apostles, followed Jesus out onto the Sea of Galilee when he saw the Him walking on water. And although he took courage in Jesus' affirmation that Peter could indeed walk on the water as well, Peter soon found himself giving into doubts he may not have known he was capable of, and began to sink below the waves. Thankfully, Jesus showed mercy on his friend, saving him from drowning and reminding him of the importance of maintaining faith (Matthew 14: 24-32).
Peter also acted rashly when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus following the final Passover meal and His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. Peter struck out with a sword, wounding the servant of the high priest before being told by Jesus to sheath his weapon (John 18: 10; the Gospel of Luke also includes an account not found in the other three Gospels, of Jesus healing the injured servant before leaving with the men to face his trial and execution).
Perhaps the most controversial event of Peter’s life was during the night and early morning of Jesus’ arrest. In the hours preceding the event, the Savior prophesied that all of his Apostles would, in some way, shape, or form, abandon him during his most difficult trials. Peter, who had time and again demonstrated his great faith, balked at this suggestion, saying “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will” (Matthew 26:33). But Jesus had a clear understanding of not only what was to come, but also of ancient scripture that had foretold that at the culmination of the Messiah’s sacrifice, he would have to face the pain and degradation alone. He countered Peter’s response with a very detailed prediction, that “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times” (Matthew 26:34).
It is likely that Peter may have forgotten about this exchange in the chaos that was soon to follow: Judas arriving with the armed mob to arrest Jesus. The altercation with the servant where Peter attempted to defend his master. The subsequent farce of Jesus’ trial. The fear of being similarly sentenced that no-doubt scattered the other disciples.
Three times that night, when recognized by different members of the crowd as a follower of Jesus, Peter swore that they had mistaken him for someone else. He even went so far as to swear to them that he did not know the man who was being tried. And as the cock crowed, heralding the arrival of the morning, Peter shamefully remembered what Jesus had said, and he knew that he, like all the others, had deserted his friend when He needed Him most (Matthew 26: 69-70).
At first glance, it may seem like the account of Peter’s denial may have been included in the scriptures to further demonstrate the Jesus' foreordination by fulfilling the ancient prophecy mentioned in Zechariah 13:7, predicting that the Shepherd (Jesus) would be struck and the sheep (his disciples) would be scattered. In fact, Jesus himself quoted this scripture when he told Peter and the others of their impending desertion.
But there is another possibility to consider. Before that night, Peter had always been a firm believer in his own faith. And even though there were occasions when his faith faltered (such as when he began to sink while walking on the water), it was still among the strongest of all Jesus' disciples — after all, none of the other Apostles even made the attempt to step out onto the waves. Peter was always first to take the plunge. But when he failed this test, when he left Jesus to face the mob alone, it forced him to recognize his own weaknesses. And somewhere inside of him, perhaps the spark of resolution took hold. This would be the last time he would allow the world to shake his faith. He would never deny Jesus again.
Peter the Leader
After Jesus’ resurrection, Peter rose with renewed dedication to meet his responsibilities. The Savior came to the Apostles several times to bear testimony that he was a renewed, living being (and not just a spirit), and to further teach them in preparation for his departure (Matthew 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20). And during that time, he paid special attention to Peter.
In a conversation occurring on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, after another miraculous catch of fish, Peter and Jesus spoke together. Jesus asked some very direct questions regarding Peter’s commitment, and reaffirmed that the Apostle should take a leading role in continuing to spread the Gospel (John 21). To hear Jesus extend this calling and to offer His forgiveness for Peter’s earlier denial must have been a powerful and touching experience. At this time, Jesus also predicted that Peter would eventually follow in the Savior’s footsteps and be martyred for a testimony of God’s glory (John 21:18-19).
And Peter lived to fulfill his commission. He taught the crowd at Pentecost and helped bring 3000 people to believe in Jesus (Acts 2:14-41). He received the vision of the unclean animals, ushering in the era in which the gospel would be shared with Jews and Gentiles alike (Acts 10: 9-48). He performed miracles in Jesus’ name, including healing those who could not walk (Acts 3: 1-7; Act 9: 32-34) and even raised a woman from the dead (Acts 9: 40-41). But perhaps even more than that, he worked tirelessly with the other Apostles to protect and guide the fledgling church during its most vulnerable early years.
How Did Peter Die?
Although the scriptures hold no specific account of Peter’s eventual death, Jesus’ prophecy in John 21 confirms that he was eventually killed for his faith. Tradition holds that he met his end when he was crucified, facing and triumphing over the same fears that had caused him to deny Jesus only years before. Tradition also suggests that he may have requested and been allowed to be crucified upside down, because he was not worthy to die in the same way as Jesus did.
After his death, Peter’s legacy lived on. He is recognized by Christians as a remarkable leader who helped guide early Christianity out of the Holy Land and into the rest of the word. Those of Catholic faith also recognize Peter as the first Pope, establishing the line from which they believe the authority of leadership derives. And although many other Christians refute this particular claim, Peter’s legacy is one that can still be felt to this day.
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