Simon Peter. There are several individuals in scripture whose lives are described in colorful detail: including Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, and Simon Peter. With each we see a wonderful example of faith, coupled with the shepherding care, discipline, and restoring grace of a loving God. Simon Peter is unique for several reasons, first because his life is described in the New Testament, and because he was an earthly companion of the Lord Jesus. Of any of the disciples, we have the most detail about the life of Simon Peter, not only in the gospels but also in Acts. Finally, Peter penned two epistles under Divine inspiration that unfold wonderful truth for us as Christians, and show us something of the work God accomplished in Peter’s heart.
His Background. Simon the son of Jonas, or “Simon bar Jona”, was probably born around the time of Christ’s birth, perhaps around A.D. 1. He lived in Galilee, and the city of Bethsaida is said to be “the city of Andrew and Peter”, and also where Philip was from (John 1:44). Peter had a thick Galilean accent (Matt. 26:73). It is important to understand that Galilee was looked down upon by the religious and political elite in Judea. It is from that obscure background that Simon came. He learned the trade of a fisherman and operated a fishing boat with his brother Andrew. The two brothers also had a personal and commercial partnership with the sons of Zebedee, James and John. Simon’s personality is seen in many of his actions when traveling with Jesus and interacting with the other eleven disciples. He was an impetuous person, a man of action, quick to speak and act sometimes without thinking, energetic and passionate, and a natural leader. Frequently he is seen acting or speaking on behalf of a group. Simon was a family man, and the one disciple we know for sure was married and even cared for his mother-in-law. We know little about Simon before Jesus met him. While looking for the Messiah to appear, Simon was a man of the world, as far as Judaism would allow a man to be. For example, he was familiar with bad language which he reverted to in low state (Mark 14:71). The work of God in his brother Andrew was manifested before anything is seen in Simon. Nevertheless, God had His eye on Simon for a great purpose and for his own eternal blessing.
His Conversion and Call. The most important event in Peter’s life, or rather series of events, was his conversion.
His Introduction. Simon’s life took a great turn one day when Andrew found him, saying “We have found the Messiah”. Andrew had been following John the Baptist with another disciple when John stood, “looking upon Jesus as he walked, he saith, Behold the Lamb of God!”. The Baptist wasn’t preaching to his disciples. It was really his private musing spoken allowed, and it affected Andrew, who followed Jesus to His home. It was the Person of Christ that attracted him. Andrew then went to see Simon and “brought him to see Jesus”. When Jesus saw him, He immediately showed Simon that He knew his name and ancestry. This is a miracle! Then Jesus gave him a new name. By renaming him, Jesus asserted His claim over Simon. It was like saying, “You belong to me”. The meaning of Cephas is “a stone”. At this time, it was stated in a future tense (“thou shalt be called”) because it was still a prophecy. In Matt. 16:18 He gives Peter his new name officially because there we get the meaning and significance of his name. The name Jesus gave Simon marked him out as one who would later be “builded” into the assembly which the Lord had in view (Matt. 16:18, 1 Pet. 2:4-5). Christ is the rock (‘petra’) on which the church is built. Peter was a small piece of the stone (‘petras’). Of course, Peter was ignorant of this truth.
His Conversion. The next scene takes place along the sea of Galilee when Peter and Andrew were casting their trawl-nets, and where James and John were mending their nets nearby. Peter, though willing to lend Jesus his boat, had not yet really seen Jesus for who He was, and his conscience had not been reached. The account is given in Matt. 4:18-20, Mark 1:14-15, and with far more details – though the same event – in Luke 5:1-11. There at Jesus’ command, Peter led down the net and encloses a great multitude of fishes, their net broke, and James and John had to help them bring in the haul. He more than repaid the fisherman for the use of his boat! The display of Divine power in Jesus’ miracle had a profound effect on Peter. He fell before Jesus’ knees, thus owning His Lordship, and confessing his sinfulness; “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). The work was deep in Peter’s soul; the good seed of the Sower had found tilled ground. Repentance and self-judgment had taken place. The Lord graciously replied, “Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men” (Luke 5:10). Peter answered the call of conversion, “Come unto me” (Matt. 11:28), and now he was ready to answer the call of discipleship, “Come after me” (Matt. 16:24). Peter left everything, including the great hall of fishes, and followed Jesus.
His Life. After Peter’s conversion and call to discipleship, the Lord then makes him one of twelve apostles (Mark 3:14-16). However, before the ordaining of the twelve, there is another incident involving Peter. Peter’s mother-in-law was sick of a fever, and it was mentioned to the Lord in Peter’s home. Jesus restored her to full strength. Peter was a married man when the Lord called him, showing that ministry is not only for single people. The Lord Jesus understood the claims of nature on Peter and set Peter and his young wife at ease before prayerfully choosing him as one of the twelve. Peter was chosen as one of twelve to be especially close to the Lord; “that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach” (Mark 3:14). The apostles were witnesses of the Lord Jesus, of His life and resurrection (Acts 1:22). This was an amazing privilege; to hear, see, look upon, and handle the Word of life (1 John 1:1). They would be sent to preach what they had witnessed. In every list of their names, Peter is the first, showing that he really had a prominent place among them. Throughout Peter’s three and a half years of companionship with the Lord Jesus he had many wonderful experiences.
- Walking on water. One of the highlights of Peter’s time following Christ was the occasion when he walked on water (Matt. 14). The disciples were rowing across the sea of Galilee when a storm blew up, and Jesus came to the terrified disciples walking on the water. Peter said, “Lord, if it be thou, command me to come to thee upon the waters”. Jesus said, “Come”. And Peter did come, walking as Jesus had, upon the waters. Peter left the stability of the ship and took the same position as Christ Himself, sustained only by faith. This typically represents what the faithful Jewish remnant would be called to do, and what Peter would encourage his brethren to do in his Pentecostal preaching and in his two epistles; to realize that they had something far greater by faith than they ever had in the fold of Judaism. But it is difficult to remain in that position. Then Peter failed in his faith; “But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me” (Matt .14:30). He had begun so well but got his eyes off Christ and onto the storm. He began to sink, but then cried out for deliverance, and the Lord rescued him.
- Peter’s Confession. In Caesarea-Philippi (Matt. 16), Jesus asked His disciples who they believed He, the Son of Man, was. Simon Peter answers, always forward in his disposition, but here by Divine revelation and gives the beautiful response; “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God”. This is the response Jesus was seeking! It was this Christian confession – Jesus is the Son of God – that would become the foundation for the Assembly, and so Jesus called him “blessed”, and stated that “on this rock I will build my assembly”. Following this wonderful moment was another of Peter’s failures: he began to rebuke the Lord Jesus when He spoke of suffering, being killed, and rising again. The Lord had just called Peter “blessed” in v.17, and now He has to administer to Peter the severest rebuke that He ever gave to anyone; “Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men” (Matt. 16:23). Peter let his own human love intrude into the things of God and acted on behalf of Satan. We cannot allow ourselves to be guided by human emotion alone. If we do, we can end up doing the work of the Devil.
- On the Holy Mountain. Even farther north, perhaps on Mt. Hermon (Matt. 17), Peter had the blessed privilege, along with James and John, to accompany the Lord Jesus on what he would later call, “the holy mount”. There the Lord was transfigured before them, and there appeared Moses and Elijah, speaking with Him. Peter then made another blunder. He wanted to honor the Lord, but he tried to do it in a human way, and instead insulted the Lord’s glory. By his suggestion “let us make three tabernacles” he brought the Lord down to the level of Moses and Elijah. This called forth a rebuke, not from the Lord this time, but from heaven itself; “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him” (Matt. 17:5). When Peter writes of the experience in his second epistle, he makes no mention of Moses and Elijah. “They saw no man, save Jesus only”.
These last two occasions, in Matthew 16 and 17, form the basis for Peter’s first and second epistles, respectively. In his first epistle, Peter brings out that we are living stones built upon Christ the cornerstone into a spiritual house, as we have been “begotten again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3). This directly correlates to the Lord’s words in response to Peter’s confession in Matt. 16. In his second epistle, Peter recounts the kingdom glory of Christ on the mount of transfiguration (Matt. 17) as a proof that the outcome of prophecy is sure. Peter was given the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and so he is occupied in both epistles with government. In his first epistle he presents the government of God in the lives of believers, in his second epistle God’s government in the world.
Other Lessons. Peter had a number of other lessons to learn in the pathway, including teaching about our relationship with earthly governments as children of the kingdom (Matt. 17), the character of forgiveness in the kingdom (Matt. 18), and rewards in the kingdom (Matt. 19-20). But really, the great lesson that still remained for Peter was that of the danger of self-confidence, and this he learned through his greatest failure of all: his denial.
Peter’s Failure and Restoration. Other than his conversion, perhaps the most significant event in Peter’s life was his failure in denying the Lord Jesus. It was a great failure, but it provided the backdrop for a tremendous restoration, and the triumph of grace in his life!
His Denial. At the end of the Lord’s earthly pathway, Peter experienced his greatest failure when he denied the Lord three times. Peter had boasted that he would “never” deny the Lord. When the soldier’s came to arrest Jesus in the garden, Peter drew a sword to defend his Lord, and had to be rebuked for it. Then Peter, along with the other disciples, forsook the Lord Jesus and fled. But after a while, Peter’s self-confidence returned and carried him into the palace court where the Jews had taken Him. But now Peter was in a place where his own strength could not sustain him. He was previously unwilling to heed the Lord’s warnings, and so he must learn the hard way. So with us, if we are unwilling to believe God’s Word, we may have to learn by hard experience. A maid came to Peter and recognized him as having walked with Jesus. Peter denied this before the maid and “before all”. Then another person (John 18 suggests it was a male servant) accused Peter of being with Jesus. The accusations became more and more pointed. Every time Peter squirmed to avoid association with Jesus, the enemies got a little closer to the truth! First, “Jesus the Galilean”, then “Jesus the Nazaraean”, finally “thy speech makes thee manifest”. His first denial was ambiguous, “I do not know what thou sayest”, but his second denial was specific, “I do not know the man”. He also became more forceful; first he denied, then he denied with an oath, then he denied with cursing and swearing. The final denial was prompted by those who were standing by who pointed out to Peter that his own accent proved he was a Galilean. Peter’s denial was vehement. The Lord brought the shameful course to a close after three denials. He ordered the circumstances so there was no question in Peter’s mind; “and immediately the cock crew”. The Lord’s prophecy was accurate! Peter remembered the Lord’s words, and suddenly was filled with deep sorrow, marked by bitter weeping. These tears mark the beginning of the work of repentance in Peter’s heart. “Godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of” (2 Corinthians 7:10).
Peter’s Restoration. The work of restoration was continued by the Lord in resurrection, who “appeared unto Peter” in a private meeting (Luke 24:34; 1 Cor. 15:5a). Finally, the Lord addressed Peter before the other apostles in John 21:15-23 in a very painful way in order to restore him to a place of public service. The matter of Peter’s denial was a serious issue that needed to be dealt with, for Peter’s good and the blessing of the other disciples. The failure of Peter was public, and so there needed to be a public restoration as well. So, the Lord asked Peter in the presence of the others, “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?” This is because Peter had said “Although all shall be offended, yet will not I” (Mark 14:29). He had as much as claimed to love the Lord more than the others. The Lord did not address the fruit of Peter’s failure (which Peter had already wept over), but the root of the failure; self-confidence. Notice the use of the words ‘agápe’ and ‘phileo’. The Lord would ask Peter this painful question three times, once for every time Peter had denied Him. Each time the Lord asked a question, Peter was reduced lower and lower. But after each question, the Lord then encouraged Peter in a pastoral ministry; “Feed my lambs” and “feed my sheep”. The Lord can still use His servants after they have failed. Peter was so thoroughly restored that he was used by God to preach to the nation of Israel after the Day of Pentecost; “ye denied the Holy One and the Just” (Acts 3:14).
Peter’s Ministry. The first half of the book of Acts follows the work of Peter primarily. At first, it was largely confined to the city of Jerusalem and then Judea, although in later years we know Peter began to travel.
In Acts. Peter was present when Jesus departed from their company, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. He led the others to choose a replacement for Judas who had apostatized and committed suicide. He was there on that momentous Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was sent down as the gift of the Father, and they received power from on high. At his first sermon, three-thousand souls were saved! He and the others suffered persecution from the Jews, handled difficulties in the early church, and continued preaching and teaching. Peter really led the testimony of the new testimony that God had raised up, and equipped with signs and wonders, as a witness to the nation of Israel. The guilty nation was given another opportunity to repent; but they rejected it, markedly so in the stoning of Stephen. Then came the time that the gospel must go to the Gentiles. Though it would be Paul, not Peter, who would receive the “gospel of the uncircumcision” as a personal stewardship, Peter – the “apostle to the circumcision” – was shown that this shift about to take place was God’s will. The experiences connected with Cornelius, and the thrice-repeated vision of the sheet let down with clean and unclean animals, followed by the Holy Spirit coming upon the Gentiles, showed that clearly. When Herod began his persecution of the believers, killing James with the sword, Peter was not exempt. The Lord marvelously delivered Peter from his prison and restored him to the brethren. Peter was numbered with James and John as three pillars of the church in Jerusalem.
His Failure in Antioch. Galatians 2 reveals another failure in Peter’s life. It seems that the bold Peter had an Achilles’ heel, the fear of man. It led him to deny the Lord Jesus years earlier, and it caused him to misstep again some twenty years later in Antioch. What makes this failure of Peter so sad is how strongly he came out on the side of grace in Acts 15. He had publicly declared that “we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they” (Acts 15:11). A short time later Peter fell into the snare of legalism. It was a public failure, and it required a public rebuke (1 Tim. 5:20). And yet, Peter received this correction. Before the legalists came from James, Peter ate freely with the believing Gentiles in the Antioch assembly. Eating a common meal together is a universal symbol of fellowship. It was Peter’s normal routine to eat with Jews and Gentiles, according to the vision he had received at the house of Cornelius; “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common” (Acts 10:15). But when certain Judaizers came from James, Peter separated from the Gentiles and refused to eat with them. Peter’s failure was “fearing the circumcision”. He was influenced by peer pressure. Proverbs tells us that “the fear of man bringeth a snare” (Prov. 29:25). James the Lord’s brother was the most prominent and the most legal of the leaders in Jerusalem, and he carried significant clout. Peter buckled under the pressure. Peter’s change in behavior would have been obvious and therefore been disheartening to the Gentiles. The root of this failure is the same as the root of his failure in the hall of the high priest. After this incident, Peter disappears from the pages of inspired history, although we do have two of his epistles, and they show that Peter took the correction and was restored.
The Character of His Ministry. It is remarkable that Peter was a married man, even from the earliest days of the Lord’s ministry (Matt. 8:14). He was known to lead about his wife with him on journeys in the Lord’s service (1 Cor. 9:5), and it is possible that “she that is elected with you in Babylon” was his wife (1 Pet. 5:13), adding her greeting to his first epistle. Peter therefore gives us a different aspect of how Christianity intersects with domestic life, and spoke of believing husband and wife “as being heirs together of the grace of life” (1 Pet. 3:7). In general, we see Peter taking up with a pastoral ministry in his two epistles, writing to the sheep that the Good Shepherd had called out from the fold of Judaism. The Lord’s words to Peter, “establish thy brethren” (Luke 22:32), and finally “Feed my sheep”, were taken seriously by Peter, who ministered to the Jewish believers scattered throughout the Roman empire, including two inspired epistles (1 Pet. 1:1; 2 Pet. 3:1).
Peter’s Final Years and Death. At the time that Peter was publicly restored, the Lord told him that he would die when he was old. Peter had boasted in self-confidence that he would follow the Lord unto death (Luke 22:33), but he had failed miserably in denying the Lord. The grace of Christ was such to Peter that He would grant Peter the privilege of doing what he had wished; following the Lord to prison and death! But it would not be through Peter’s own natural strength that he would accomplish this, but it would be as an old man, when his youthful energy was diminished; “When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst where thou desiredst; but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and bring thee where thou dost not desire”. There would be nothing of self in this action. Peter’s martyrdom by crucifixion (hands stretched forth) was thus predicted by our Lord. Peter knew he would die as an old man, and this knowledge gave him peace later (Acts 12:6). Peter wrote his first epistle (approx. 63 A.D.) to affirm those he had just visited in various Roman provinces (1 Pet. 1:1). The first epistle of Peter was written from Babylon while Peter was with the “elect sister” (perhaps his wife) and Marcus (John Mark), Peter’s son in the faith. Peter arrived in Rome shortly before Nero began his persecution of Christians. He speaks of his approaching martyrdom in his second epistle, in approximately 67 A.D.; “Knowing that shortly I must put off this my tabernacle, even as our Lord Jesus Christ hath showed me” (2 Pet. 1:14). How precious, that Peter would be given the privilege of following in those very footsteps of the Savior! Notice that Peter’s death would bring glory to God; “he said this signifying by what death he should glorify God”. A believer can glorify God in their life and also in their death, but it is all of grace! Peter was executed by crucifixion at approximately 67 A.D. under Nero after the burning of Rome.
Lessons from the Life of Simon Peter. There are many wonderful practical lessons we can learn from the life of Peter.
- The Lord uses busy people. Peter was an active, busy man, and that character did not change after conversion (Matt. 4:18). The difference was, he went from a fisher of fish to a fisher of men!
- Listen to those who care about you. When Andrew went to see Simon, his brother listened to him. Andrew “brought him to see Jesus”. It is important to really consider what our brethren say to us, especially when we know they love us.
- You are not your own. Jesus gave Simon a new name, asserting His claim over Simon. At first in a future tense, and later officially. It can take time for us to realize that we are not our own, and therefore that we need to live in a way that glorifies God (1 Cor. 6:19).
- In the measure we see who Jesus is, we realize our own sinfulness. In Luke 5:1-11, the display of Divine power in Jesus’ miracle had a profound effect on Peter. The work went deep in Peter’s soul when he saw for the first time who Jesus really was.
- The Lord understands the claims of nature. Peter’s mother-in-law was sick with a fever, but Jesus healed her (Matt. 8:14). The Lord understands how the burdens of natural relationships affect us, and delights to help us in those relationships in order that we might better serve Him.
- God wants us to act in faith without human support. We see this in Peter’s wonderful experience of walking on water. He got out of the boat, leaving the stability it afforded him to take the same path as Jesus, walking on the waves (Matt. 14:28-29). It is difficult to remain in that position (Matt. 14:30).
- Human love can cause us to misstep. Peter rebuked Jesus for saying that He must suffer and be killed, and had to be rebuked severely himself (Matt. 16:23). Peter let his own human wisdom and love intrude into the things of God, and in doing so, acted on behalf of Satan.
- Infatuation with men can lead us to dishonor Christ. Peter wanted to honor the Lord, but he tried to do it in a human way, and instead insulted the Lord’s glory (Matt. 17). In his excitement, He brought the Lord Jesus down to the level of Moses and Elijah.
- The danger of self-confidence. Peter learned the danger of self-confidence through his greatest failure of all: his denial of Jesus. He thought he was strong enough to lay down his life rather than deny Jesus. He went forward in his own strength and failed miserably.
- Restoration means getting to the root. Peter had claimed to love the Lord more than the others (Mark 14:29). The Lord addressed the root of the failure; self-confidence. Jesus asked a painful question three times, reducing Peter lower and lower.
- Our failure and restoration can be used by the Lord in pastoral ministry. After each question in Peter’s restoration, the Lord then encouraged Peter in a pastoral ministry; “Feed my lambs” and “feed my sheep”. Peter seems to have been used to help Marcus (John Mark, who failed in service) when Paul had given up on him (Acts 15:38; 1 Pet. 5:13; Col. 4:10; 2 Tim. 4:11).
- Be willing to drop old prejudices. The thrice-repeated vision of the sheet let down with clean and unclean animals showed Peter that God was opening the door of blessing to the Gentiles. It would have been hard for Peter to accept this, but he did. When the Lord makes it clear that an old idea or viewpoint that we have held is wrong, we need to be willing to let it go. Not that we are to be easily swayed. The vision was repeated three times.
- Learn the power of intercessory prayer. Peter was imprisoned when Herod began his persecution of the believers. The Lord marvelously delivered Peter from his prison and restored him to the brethren who were praying for him (Acts 12:1-19).
- Beware the fear of man. Galatians 2:11-18 shows that the fear of man was something Peter continued to struggle with (Proverbs 29:25). However, his two epistles show that Peter took the correction and was restored.
- It is possible to serve the Lord as a married couple. Peter was a married man (Matt. 8:14), and was known to lead about his wife with him (1 Cor. 9:5; 1 Pet. 5:13). Peter and his wife, along with Aquila and Priscilla, are good examples that show we can serve the Lord as singles or as married couples.
- Stop looking to others, follow the Lord yourself. When the Lord was restoring Peter, and the Lord told Peter of his future, Peter asked of John; “Lord, and what shall this man do?” The Lord had to redirect Peter to focus on his own life and mission; “what is that to thee? follow thou me” (John 21:20-22).
- We can follow only by grace. The Lord would grant Peter the privilege of doing what he had wished; but it would not be through Peter’s own strength. Peter’s death would bring glory to God, not himself. God graciously allows us to have the privilege of being faithful to Him, but we cannot take credit for anything!