What do the Gospels tell us about Simon Peter? Who was Simon Peter in the Bible? What can we learn from the life of Simon Peter?
As one of the most important figures in the New Testament canon, the events around the life of Peter can serve simultaneously as an example of both the ways in which we should, and should not, live our lives. Through the events in the life of Peter, one can gain practical understanding of conduct that should be avoided, while at the same time, finding valuable references that can guide one to live a life worthy of the call of Christ.
Peter was originally called Simon (which is a derivative of Simeon, which means “hearing”). Simon was a very common name among the Jewish New Testament world. His father’s name was Jonah; Jona is the King James translation, as recorded in Matthew 16:17. We do not know the name of his mother, as it is not listed in the Scriptures. John 1:44 tells us that Peter, as well as his brother Andrew, and another disciple, Philip, were all from Bethsaida. “Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the hometown of Andrew and Peter.” (John 1:44, HCSB). Bethsaida was on the western side of the Sea of Galilee. We know from the scriptures that Peter and Andrew were both fishermen, a likely occupation given their geographical location. “As He (Jesus) was walking along the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon, who was called Peter, and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the sea, since they were fishermen.” (Matthew 4:18, HCSB). Their occupations would be a great foundation for the understanding of the role Christ would charge them to later, for He said to them, “Follow Me…and I will make you fishers of men!” (Matthew 4:19, NASB) “The Gospels preserve a surprising amount of information about Peter and his family. Simon is the son of Jona. He and his brother, Andrew, came from Bethsaida and were Galilean fishermen in partnership with the sons of Zebedee, James and John (Luke 5:10). Peter was married (Mark 1:29-31; 1 Cor. 9:5) and maintained a residence in Capernaum (Mark 1:21, 29).”
Peter, along with his brother, and Andrew and James, more than likely grew up together and spent a lot of time together. They most surely enjoyed all the advantages of a strong religious upbringing and were taught all of the Jewish customs and beliefs. This being the case, they must have all been well educated on the prophecies that spoke of the coming Messiah. This does not mean, however, that Peter was a very well educated man in other areas, such as the law. (“When they observed the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed and knew that they had been with Jesus.” Acts 4:13, HCSB). This lack of education seemed to work for him, and not against him, though, as evidenced by the reaction from the Sanhedrin to their preaching while on trial:
“[The Sanhedrin] could not help being impressed with the confidence of Peter and John. They were amazed that uneducated (in the rabbinical schools) and untrained men (not professional theologians; laymen) could argue so effectively from the Scriptures. That two Galilean fishermen powerfully and successfully argued their case before the elite Jewish supreme court was shocking, so that they were marveling. .. No doubt it came back to their memories that the two apostles had been with Jesus in the temple and at His trial (John 18:15–18). What triggered the Sanhedrin’s recognition was the realization that the apostles were doing what Jesus did. Like the apostles, Jesus had boldly and fearlessly confronted the Jewish leaders with His authority and truth (cf. Matt. 7:28–29). He, too, had no formal rabbinic training (cf. John 7:15–16). Yet in His sure handling of the Old Testament Scriptures He had no equal (cf. John 7:46). Jesus had performed many miracles during His earthly ministry. Peter and John were on trial largely because of a miracle they had performed.”
As a Galilean, one could argue that Peter had a reputation to live up to. Their speech was slightly different from that of a Judean, and they were considered sinners by the Judeans. Some even considered the term ‘Galilean’ to be an insult. It was the accent of a Galilean that allowed people to identify Peter in the courtyard during the trial of Jesus. Galileans had a reputation as being not only sinners, but more specifically rebellious. They were thought to have no regard for the law. Whether true or not, the accusations themselves probably made them more frank with their speech, and harder in their mannerism, more independent, and head strong in their decisions. The persecution they encountered as a result of their inability to pronounce certain Hebrew words probably made them resent the Judeans.
In Bethany (called Bethabara in the KJV, and distinct from the town of Bethany, the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary), John the Baptist preached about a Lamb of God that had the power to take away the sins of the entire world (“The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” John 1:29, HCSB). Andrew and John were the first to hear John the Baptist preach. Responding to the power, authority, and grace by which John the Baptist spoke, they quickly found Peter and brought Him to Jesus so that the three could follow Him. “These disciples followed Jesus in two ways. They literally turned and walked after him, and they also became two of Jesus’ close followers, or disciples. This was a great tribute to John the Baptist’s preaching—they heard John and followed Jesus.”
Immediately upon encountering Peter for the first time, Jesus recognized him. It is at Peter and Jesus’ first encounter with each other that Peter gets his name – for, as noted above, he had previously been called Simon. Jesus actually first uses Cephas, the Aramaic name that corresponds to the Greek name Peter, both meaning ‘rock’ or ‘a mass of rock’. Throughout his time with Jesus, Jesus most often calls him by his former name, Simon, or by a combination of both, Simon Peter. Could it be that Jesus is speaking theologically by using Peter’s given name – Simon? Many think that Jesus was reminding Peter of both who he was before his encounter with Christ, and who he was after the encounter.
After their initial encounter, Jesus gave a call to the Apostles that would change their life and the life of all who would read it! After an unsuccessful night of fishing, and probably the onset of discouragement for Peter, Andrew, James, and John, Jesus appeared to them. He told the disciples to let their nets back down. Once they did, they had more fish than they knew what to do with. This humbled Simon and forced him to his knees to worship Jesus. He said, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). He said this because he was in amazement at the miracle that had just happened before his eyes. Jesus comforts him and the others and tells them that from this time on they will catch men, not fish – a profound theological statement, and one that rings true to this very day for the followers of Christ. We see from the account of this same event in Matthew (chapter 4) that it is here where Jesus refers to the apostles as “fishers of men”. They immediately dropped their nets and followed Jesus.
Later in the ministry of Jesus, as they were walking to the villages of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked His disciples an important question: “Who do people say that I am?” Of course Jesus, being omniscient, would have already known the answer to this question. Jesus was trying to teach Peter and the other disciples that professing Him as Lord was not always going to be easy. There in Caesarea Philippi one was expected to say, “Caesar is Lord”. Jesus most likely wanted them to see that it was the profession that Peter made – “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”, that would save them. Professing Caesar as Lord would not save their souls. “The citizens of Caesarea Philippi would say, ‘Caesar is lord!’ That confession might identify them as loyal Roman citizens, but it could never save them from their sins and from eternal hell. The only confession that saves us is ‘Jesus is Lord!’(1 Cor. 12:1-3) – when that confession comes from a heart that truly believes in Him (Rom. 10:9-10).” Peter’s confession was unarguably from the heart, for Jesus honors Peter’s heartfelt confession with words that anyone would be proud to hear Jesus say: “Simon son of Jonah, you are blessed because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the forces of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17 – 19 HCSB)
In contrast to Peter’s attitude of faith in the Lord and recognition that He is the Almighty was the attitude of that of a Galilean – those who were “more frank in their speech”. A prime example can be seen in Mark Chapter 8. In verse 31 Jesus tells the disciples that He must suffer many things and be rejected and killed by the elders, chief priests, scribes, and others, but that He would rise again on the third day. Peter must have thought that this was absurd, fore he told the Master it was not so, in the form of a rebuke. Jesus replied, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me because you’re not thinking about God’s concerns, but man’s.” (Matthew 16:23, HCSB). It seems as though Peter is like many people in that he is willing to proclaim Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, as long as Jesus is doing what they wants or as long as Jesus is fitting their mold. However, as soon as Jesus does something (or does not do something) that is out of line with their way of thinking, they tend to rebuke Jesus in their own way. “Not even Christians can know and understand God’s ways except through a proper understanding of and submission to His Word and the illumination of His Spirit. When believers insist on their own way above God’s, then, like Peter, they become an offense and a stumbling block.”
Peter’s lack of wisdom in his words did not stop there. Six days after Peter rebuked the Lord, he again spoke foolishly to the Lord, but this time out of fear. Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James, and John, and the Scriptures says that “His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light” (Matthew 17:2, NKJV). After hearing from both Moses and Elijah, Peter told the Lord that he would make three tabernacles, one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. By saying this, Peter was placing the Lord Jesus on the same level with Moses and Elijah. Peter was sadly mistaken. Mark and Luke tell us that this was because he was so afraid. God soon overshadowed Peter’s foolish statement by sending a bright cloud to overshadow them, and said unto them, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him (Matthew 17:5, NKJV). Indeed Peter and all of the disciples would have plenty of opportunities to do just that as they walked and talked with Jesus, and experienced the powerful impact His ministry would have on the Jewish nation and all the world!
At the end of Jesus’ ministry, during the Day of Unleavened Bread, Peter and John were sent to prepare a guest room and a Passover meal for Jesus and the disciples. After the meal, Peter was forewarned of the sin he would commit against His savior – the very same Savior that he had previously proclaimed as ‘The Christ, the Son of the Living God’. Jesus accurately predicted that Peter would deny Him. It is often overlooked that Jesus, in His prediction, exhibits faith in Peter. He told Peter that when he had turned back (from his denial) that he was to strengthen his brothers. Jesus was looking past the sin that He knew Peter would commit and looking to the edification of Peter and the other disciples. This shows the great love in which the Son has upon His children!
It is worth mentioning that Peter cut of the ear of the high priest’s servant, Malchus. This was done as the high priest’s servants came for Jesus after Judas had betrayed Him. Peter was again quick to react and slow to listen. Jesus emphatically commanded Peter and the other disciples to stop. Peter acts like many people in the church today – they are too ready to cut each other’s ear off (i.e.: hurt others), and too slow to love others.
After this the prophecy of Jesus regarding Peter’s denial of Him comes true. To Peter’s credit, he at least responsed to his sin correctly. After having denied Jesus three times, just as Jesus had predicted, Peter recalls the exact words that Jesus spoke to him. This causes Peter great remorse. The King James Version says he ‘wept bitterly’ The word for bitterly in the Greek is ‘pikros’, meaning violently. How much better today’s church would be if we paralleled Peter’s reaction to his sin by showing bitter weeping in the light of our failures before Jesus.
We next find Peter at the tomb with John on resurrection morning. He boldly entered into the empty grave (John 20:1-10), and saw the “linen clothes laid by themselves” (Luke 24:9-12). “But Peter arose and ran to the tomb; and stooping down, he saw the linen cloths lying by themselves; and he departed, marveling to himself at what had happened.” (Luke 24:12, NKJV). The fact that Peter ‘marveled’ to himself shows that he again responded correctly – for the word translated ‘marveled’ in the New King James version is ‘thaumazo’, which means ‘to by implication admire or to have in admiration, marvel, wonder’, according to Strong’s Concordance. Shouldn’t we all wonder at the splendor and work of our Savior!
Peter was the leading disciple of Jesus and indeed the “rock” who provided the foundation for the church. As the representative disciple, his enthusiasm and even his weaknesses have made him the supreme example of the developing disciple, one who, through the power of the risen Lord, rose above his faults to become a towering figure on the church scene. From the first time we see him in the Gospels as a fisherman, to the sermon he preached on the day of Pentecost, to the Epistles he wrote that bears his name, Peter is representative of what a sinner can do when they repent, turn to Christ, and profess Him as Christ, the Son of the Living God!
Holman Bible Dictionary, Third Edition: Copyright 1991 Holman Bible Publishers. Electronic STEP Files
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MacArthur, John. MacArthur’s New Testament Commentary: Acts 1-12, First Edition, Copyright 1994 by The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, Electronic Edition STEP Files
MacArthur, John. MacArthur’s New Testament Commentary: Matthew 16-23, First Edition: Copyright 1988 by The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, Electronic Edition STEP Files.
Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries, Third Edition, Electronic Edition STEP Files Copyright 2003, QuickVerse, a division of Findex.com, Inc.
Who’s Who in Christian History, First Edition, Copyright 1992 by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
Wiersbe, Warren W. Warren Wiersbe’s “Be” Series: Old & New Testaments, First Edition, Be Diliegentt: Copyright 1991 by SP Publications, Inc., Edition STEP Files