PETER’S ODD LIFE AND GOOD GOD
“…behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”
–Jesus and Peter’s conversation in Luke 22:31-32
Sometimes, it can be hard to identify with the characters in the Bible because they seem so flawless and perfect. That is not the case with Peter. The one believer in the Bible that is perhaps the most imperfect is Peter.
Peter lived an odd life, which makes him likely the easiest person to identify with in the Bible. Perhaps no one in all of Scripture is as unpredictable and volatile, impulsive and hyper-responsive as Peter the Odd (Matthew 14:28; Mark 14:29; Luke 5:8; John 21:7). His decision- making is, at times, reminiscent of a junior high kid who has not slept in a few days filled with espresso. If Peter were alive today, it would be guaranteed that cameras would follow him around filming his every word and deed as yet another hit reality television show.
If Peter were playing an instrument in a high school band, he would be the guy always hitting the wrong note at the worst time. If Peter were in the military, he’d be the one person guaranteed to end up marching out of formation. If Peter were on a sports team, he’d trip over his own feet at the most inopportune time.
Peter’s life is a roller coaster. On his worst days, he bossed Jesus around and denied even knowing Him. On his best days, he wrote two books of the Bible and, according to church history, was martyred by crucifixion for refusing to deny Christ. Peter asked his killers to turn his cross upside down because he did not believe he was worthy of dying as Jesus did. It’s an odd life when you go from denying Christ publicly to dying for Christ publicly.
Like most of us, Peter rarely got it right the first time, or even the second time. Once he does get it right, he’s prone to eventually get it wrong again. After failing miserably by denying Jesus Christ as a coward in the gospels, you’d think he’d have learned his lesson after seeing Jesus rise from death, appoint him as the head of a new global movement, and standing there likely with the same look as a basset hound that was just given the keys for a car to drive watching Jesus return to Heaven. Nope. By the book of Galatians, he’s a coward again, and to make matters worse, has also picked up racism additionally.
Despite the fact that Peter would not likely make it through Bible college today without getting kicked out, his shadow looms over much of the New Testament. In the four lists of the twelve apostles (Matthew 10:2–4; Mark 3:16–19; Luke 6:13–16; Acts 1:13), Peter is always mentioned first because he is their recognized leader after Jesus. As their leader, Peter also acts as spokesman for the Twelve when the need arises (Matthew 15:15; 18:21; Mark 1:36–37; 8:29; 9:5; 10:28; 11:21; 14:29; Luke 5:5; 12:41).
If there’s hope for Peter, there’s hope for anyone. If there’s hope for Peter, there’s hope for you. Peter was odd, but God was good. That’s the secret to Peter’s success. Like a loving wise dad with infinite patience, God’s grace grew and changed Peter, making him more like Jesus and less like the Hebrew version of Napoleon Dynamite, which is where he started. The secret to Peter’s greatness was God’s goodness.
WHAT WAS PETER’S FRIENDSHIP WITH JESUS LIKE?
Like most relationships, the way we make a new friend is often by an old friend introducing us to someone they know but we do not. The same is true of what Christians call evangelism. In its simplest form, evangelism is someone who is friends with Jesus introducing a friend to Jesus so that they can be a friend group together with Jesus.
Peter was first introduced to Jesus by his brother Andrew (John 1:41). Not long after, Jesus personally called Peter to trade fishing for fish for fishing for souls with the simple words in Mark 1:17, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” Later, Peter was again called by Jesus to join the special group of His twelve disciples (Mark 3:16). In that day, if you wanted to learn something, you would often have a teacher rather than a school. A teacher, or rabbi, would select only a few disciples to be their students. The disciple would often have a close personal relationship with their teacher, travelling with them, eating with them, and observing them. In this way, education was far more of an intimate mentoring relationship than taking classes and tests as is common today.
As if being chosen by Jesus was not enough, in addition to being added to the twelve, Peter was also picked by Jesus to be among His nearest and dearest friends. If you had to pick a few friends to spend the most time with, who would it be? Peter was one of the three disciples, along with James and John, who formed an inner circle or friend group around Jesus (Mark 5:37; 9:2; 14:33; cf. 13:3). As Jesus’ closest relationships, this privileged access allowed Peter to be present with Jesus as much as anyone during His earthly ministry, including being an eyewitness to milestone events in world history. One example is the day that Peter saw the transfiguration of Jesus, something only a few people got to experience (Mark 9:2-13). Peter’s firsthand life experience, in the closest community of any human beings with Jesus, was so significant that Peter refers back to it as proof of the validity and authority of his teaching about Jesus (1 Peter 5:1; 2 Peter 1:16). In short, the experiences of Peter’s life are some of the most amazing in world history.
WHAT DID JESUS MEAN CALLING PETER A ROCK? Part 2
One of the great points of division between Catholic and Protestant Christians is interpreting something Jesus said to Peter. In Matthew 16:16-19, Jesus spoke of a “rock” that He would build His church upon. Catholic theologians argue that Peter is the rock. Protestant theologians argue that Jesus is the rock and Peter’s confession of that fact is the foundation of true Christianity.
The conclusion that Jesus Christ is the Rock upon which the church is founded is common in Scripture. In the book of Psalms alone, God is referred to as our rock at least 16 times, including Psalm 18:2, “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock…” Psalm 18:31 adds, “who is God, but the Lord? And who is a rock, except our God?” Isaiah also repeatedly refers to God as our rock, including Isaiah 30:29 which speaks of, “the Lord” as “the Rock of Israel.” The theme of God as our rock continues in the New Testament as 1 Corinthians 10:4 speaks of the rock that provided for God’s people in the Old Testament saying “the Rock was Christ.” Peter himself says that Jesus Christ is the rock in 1 Peter 2:8 calling Him “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.”
Jesus also told a parable that to build anything you want to last (like a global movement called Christianity), it is best to found it on the strong foundation of a “rock” (Luke 6:48). Ephesians 2:20 says the first rock, or cornerstone of Christianity, is Jesus Christ, “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone…”
The conclusion that the rock of the church is the confession that Jesus Christ is the rock also finds support in the early church. The New Bible Dictionary says, “either Peter’s faith or the confession of Peter’s faith that Jesus is the Christ is in fact the ‘rock’ is a very early Christian interpretation. For example, the early church father Origen says, “Rock means every disciple of Christ.”
It deserves noting that even if someone believes that the rock on which the church is founded is somehow Peter instead of Jesus, that view does not endorse or even infer the subsequent teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. To move on from Jesus’ statement to an entire hierarchy and tradition that the Roman bishops are the successors of Peter, and that in every generation the Catholic Church through the succession of popes who have Peter’s same basic spiritual authority, essentially hold the keys to the kingdom of God with uniquely divine authority on earth, is a bit like trying to jump a skateboard over the Grand Canyon. It’s an incredible leap.
WHAT DID JESUS MEAN CALLING PETER A ROCK?
For high-profile leaders, there is likely at least one public controversy that follows them for their entire life. For Peter, his high- profile controversy regarding his commission from Jesus has followed him to this very day and has resulted in the family feud between Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians.
Matthew 16:16–19 records Jesus’ commission of Peter:
Simon Peter replied [to Jesus], “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar- Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
This section is one of the most debated passages of the entire New Testament, and in many ways a dividing line between Protestant and Catholic Christians. This old family feud has two main interpretations, with many variations. Raised Catholic, attending a Catholic school for a few years, and serving as an altar boy assisting the priest with mass, I was taught that this verse was the establishing of Peter as the first bishop of the church, leading to apostolic succession and the papacy where men, starting with Peter, had the power to forgive sins, and exercise the authority of heaven on earth. Once I started attending a Protestant church in college, I was told that the church was not founded on any man but Jesus Christ, including Peter, and the rock of our salvation is faith that confesses Jesus as the Christ and Son of God, as Peter did.
One Bible commentator summarizes the debate surrounding who or what the rock is, saying, “Maybe excessive heat has dimmed light on this matter. Peter is the spokesman of the Twelve, for good or ill. Nowhere is it clearer than here. At one moment he is commended as the recipient of divine revelation (17): the next sees him rebuked as the dupe of Satan (23). The Catholics have the more natural interpretation of the passage, up to a point. It is more probable that Peter (Petros in Greek) is the rock (petra in Greek) on which the church is to be built than that anything else, such as his faith, is given that role. The word-play is irresistible. The rock is not just Peter, however, but Peter in his confessional capacity. Peter, full of trust in the Son of God, is the one who will become the rock-man for the early church. He did become just that, as the early chapters of Acts reveal. It is Peter who preaches the first evangelistic sermon, but Peter as representative of the Twelve. And if the Catholics are right in thinking it is primarily Peter, albeit the believing Peter, who becomes the church’s rock-man, the Protestants are surely right in pointing out that the passage contains no hint that this role should devolve on any successors in Rome or anywhere else. It affords no grounds for the claims preferred by the papacy; in fact, this verse was not attached to those claims until long after they were first put forward. The point is this: Jesus had found in Peter a real believer, and on that foundation he could build his church.” (1)
Delving into the Greek language in which the New Testament was first written, a scholarly New Testament reference library resource adds further insight saying, “the name Peter means ‘rock.’ In the Greek text this word is masculine (spelled petros), and describes a small piece of rock (something like a pebble). The word used in the phrase on this rock is feminine (spelled petra) and describes a large boulder or a mass of rock such as that found at the cliffs along the seacoast. Although some have proposed that Peter was to become the rock on which the church would be built, it appears that Jesus was using a play on words that, in effect, made the very opposite point. We might paraphrase Jesus’ words as follows: “You’re a small rock, Peter, but upon the greater rock that you have confessed, the truth of who I am, I will build my church.”
WHAT AUTHORITY DID JESUS GIVE PETER?
My wife and I have the great blessing of godly older spiritual authority that knows us, loves us, and oversees us like mature spiritual fathers and mothers. One of these men had been faithfully serving his church for decades when the time of transition came. Wanting to learn as much as I could from the succession, I jumped on a plane to spend a few days with our pastor and his successor. The handoff was as smooth as an Olympic track relay team, and I am happy to report that the church is flourishing with a new senior leader.
Passing the baton from one leader to the next is hard enough, but handing it from Jesus Christ to anyone else has to stand as the most precarious leadership handoff in history. After His resurrection and before His ascension, the Lord Jesus needed to decide who He would hand the baton to. After defeating death, Jesus appeared in person to meet with Peter (Luke 24:34; 1 Corinthians 15:5). Following Peter’s denial of Jesus, the gospel of John also closes with the epic face-to- face, reconciliation, “do you love me?” conversation between Jesus and Peter where he is commissioned to lead and feed the people of God. Peter had dropped the baton before Jesus died and needed to pick it up again. In this we see that ministry leaders are not perfect, but that God in His grace uses their imperfections to help them qualify for even greater ministry by learning through erring.
Church history picks up the story of the disciples after Jesus returned to Heaven in the book of Acts, which might be better titled the Acts of the Holy Spirit as He is the moving force pushing the message and ministry of Jesus to the nations. Acts opens with Peter clearly stepping forward as the leader of early Christianity to preach the legend-making and legacy-changing sermon on Pentecost (Acts 1:15). Seemingly no one questioned or opposed his leadership because He was appointed by Jesus and anointed by the Spirit.
God the Holy Spirit then fell from Heaven on the people in conjunction with Peter’s preaching, as Jesus’ prayer that the Kingdom would come was being fulfilled (Acts 2). Once the Spirit of God baptized the early church, just like Jesus after His baptism, the people of God were empowered to continue Jesus’ ministry under the leadership of His hand-selected successor, Peter. From that moment onward, Peter is the preacher, leader, and public figure of the Church without question or opposition (2:14; 3:12). Peter is the one who represents Christ and Christianity to the Jewish leaders (4:8) and serves as the public authority for things such as the discipline of a married couple that died for lying to the Holy Spirit (5:3). God the Holy Spirit worked mightily through the early church, but the person who is most noted for having the hand of God rest upon them in power is none other than Peter (5:15).
As the gospel of Jesus Christ moved out of the Jewish nation to the nations of the earth, just as God had promised to Abraham, it is Peter who is prominent in leading mission work to new regions like Samaria and beyond (8:14). Over and over, the Spirit of God anoints Peter with power and appoints Peter for leadership. The moral of the story is more than your personality, past, or problems; it’s the presence and power of God that makes a great leader. The lack of jockeying for position and power after Jesus ascended is rather shocking. There has never been a bigger leadership vacuum in human history, yet there was a supernatural degree of unity and submission to authority that the church has, sadly, struggled to maintain ever since. Peter was not perfect, but he filled the leadership vacuum left by Jesus’ ascension and every Christian in world history has benefitted from him.
WHY DOES PETER HAVE SO MANY NAMES?
One of the things we do for people we love is give them a nickname. In our family, the person with the most nicknames is our beloved youngest son. On one funny occasion, someone who was with us for the first time stopped and asked, “What is the youngest son’s actual name?” They had heard so many fond names and nicknames for the boy, but they had no idea what his actual name was.
Some people have had the same experience studying the life of Peter. Widely loved like an entertaining brother, he has a lot of names and nicknames.
A guide to Christian history provides helpful technical information about the story behind Peter’s name: “There are actually four forms of Peter’s name in the New Testament: the Hebrew translated into Greek, ‘Simeon’ to ‘Simon’, and the Aramaic translated into Greek, ‘Cephas’ to ‘Petros’ (meaning “rock”). His given name was Simeon bar-Jonah (Matthew 16:17; cf. John 1:42), ‘Simon the son of John,’…It is most likely that ‘Simon’ was not merely the Greek equivalent of ‘Simeon’ but that, having his home in bilingual Galilee, ‘Simon’ was the alternate form he used in dealings with Gentiles. In fact, it was quite common for a cosmopolitan Jew to employ three forms of his name depending on the occasion: Aramaic, Latin, and Greek. The double name ‘Simon Peter’ (or ‘Simon called Peter’) demonstrates that the second name was a later addition, similar to ‘Jesus, the Christ.’ The number of times that the Aramaic equivalent ‘Cephas’ is used (once in John, four times each in Galatians and 1 Corinthians), as well as its translation into the Greek (not common with proper names), indicates the importance of the secondary name. Both Aramaic and Greek forms mean ‘the rock,’ an obvious indication of Peter’s stature in the early church (see below on Matt. 16:18). It is obvious that he was called ‘Simon’ throughout Jesus’ ministry but came to be known as ‘Peter’ more and more in the apostolic age.” (1)
As you learn more about the life of Peter from the Bible, this insight will be helpful. In other Bible books, such as the early church history book of Acts, Peter is reported using multiple names, so paying attention is helpful to your learning about this towering figure in Christian history.
In Peter, we see a run-of-the-mill, shockingly normal Christian disciple. Someone who really loves Jesus. Someone who really sins. Someone with whom God is really patient as they grow and mature, taking two steps forward then one step back, never near perfect but heading North as a general rule. Religious folks are a bit shocked that Jesus picked Peter as the leader of early Christianity. But, for the rest of us who know we are a mess for our Messiah, Peter is the kind of leader we can relate to. Peter is a Christian like the rest of us. Peter’s imperfections are endearing, and his progress is encouraging. In the life of Peter, we learn that even though life is odd, God is good. God does perfect work through imperfect people.
One of the best ways to get to know someone is to find out about their family and hometown. This same principle is true of getting to know people in the Bible.
Peter is a real person who really lived roughly 2,000 years ago. Archaeologists are confident that they have excavated his home, and I travelled there some years ago with my wife Grace and our five children, who were young at the time. There, we learned a bit about his family and hometown.
Harper’s Bible Dictionary says, “Originally named Simon, Peter was a Galilean fisherman (Mark 1:16; Luke 5:2; John 21:3), the son of John (Matthew 16:17; John 1:42; 21:15–17) and brother of Andrew. According to a tradition detailed in John 1:35–43, the brothers came from the village of Bethsaida (John 1:43; 12:21) and had been disciples of John the Baptist before they became disciples of Jesus. Peter was married (Mark 1:29–31; 1 Cor. 9:5). He is said to have owned a house in Capernaum (Mark 1:29).” (1)
Like ordinary folks, Peter had a hometown, worked a job, grew up in a family with parents and siblings, got married, and spent his life living and working not far from where he was born. Everything in his life was normal, until He met Jesus, and then everything changed. The same is true of each of us.
PETER WROTE TO AN ANCIENT MULTI-SITE CHURCH
Peter’s two letters are a mere 166 verses. Although rather brief, they are power packed. The people he wrote to were living in a pagan city which meant that to live as a Christian made them the oddballs. Making matters worse, they were facing a host of troubles, trials, and temptations among uncertain days filled with distressing difficulty. Peter had experienced all of these things himself and watched first-hand how to respond by being at the side of Jesus for three years.
So, he writes from his own experience and points people to Jesus for hope, help, and healing. We tend to think of one church meeting in many locations as something new, but it is not. In our day, just as in the early days of the church, God gives some people apostolic gifting that allows them to lead multiple churches and pastor many pastors. As the opening lines of 1 Peter indicate, he is writing to a multi-campus church scattered over a wide geographic region. The ancient cities of “Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” were located in modern-day Turkey which, sadly, is now the least churched nation in the world, a fact I can verify after preaching in that nation on a few trips. Commenting on the size of the region to which Peter writes, Bible commentator Karen Jobes says, “This is a vast area of approximately 129,000 square miles…(As a comparison, the state of California covers about 159,000 square miles.)” (1)
She goes on to say, “The residents practiced many religions, spoke several languages, and were never really assimilated into the Greco- Roman culture…And yet this untamed region became the cradle of Christianity…We may surmise that, in no small part because of this letter [1 Peter] and the faithfulness of those who received it, well- established churches flourished in all five of these regions by AD 180. Their bishops attended the great councils of the second through the fourth centuries, where the doctrines were forged that Christians hold dear yet today.”
PETER WROTE TO CHRISTIANS WHO WERE DESPISED LIKE TODAY
Imagine you lived a few thousand years ago, hundreds of miles away from someone, and the only way to communicate with them was to sit down and write a letter, and then find someone to hand deliver it to them by walking or riding on the back of a beast for many days through rough terrain.
How many letters would you send? The odds are, few, if any.
For someone as busy as Peter, to sit down and write a letter to then have it delivered would indicate that the people he was writing to had a deep need that only his wise counsel could most help. The fact that such letters were written by the apostles, and delivered by trusted members of their ministry teams, reveals the great love they had for people with great need.
The churches and Christians who received Peter’s letter would have been tremendously honored and encouraged at the willingness of such a noteworthy Christian leader to take the time, although he had never even met them, to speak into their life with practical pastoral affection. Imagine, for example, finding an old letter to your local church hand-written by Billy Graham revealing in great detail his knowledge and love for the people. Also, the fact that Peter took the time to pen not one, but two letters, indicates that there were serious concerns that had escalated to the point of urgency.
The original audience of 1 Peter was a suffering audience. Before the widespread governmental persecution of Christians arose, there was a growing undercurrent of disdain for Christians that paved the way for persecution. Those are the underlying reasons that 1-2 Peter were written.
Like all of us, they had trials, troubles, and temptations that threatened to exhaust them until they defeated them. What was the nature of this suffering? Jobes writes, “Virtually all commentators understand the persecutions referred to in 1 Peter to be sporadic, personal, and unorganized social ostracism of Christians with varying intensity, probably reinforced at the local level by the increasing suspicions of Roman officials at all levels.” (1) This explains Peter’s references to such things as “trials”, “tested by fire”, “sojourners and exiles”, “sorrow”, “suffering”, “beaten”, “harm”, “slander”, “revile”, “fiery trial”, “insulted”, “anxieties”, etc.
Bible commentator Paul Achtemeier agrees that the persecution in 1 Peter is, “due more to unofficial harassment than to official policy, more local than regional, and more at the initiation of the general populace as the result of a reaction against the lifestyle of the Christians than at the initiation of Roman officials because of some general policy of seeking out and punishing Christians. That does not rule out the possibility that persecutions occurred over large areas of the empire; they surely did, but they were spasmodic and broke out at different times in different places, the result of the flare up of local hatreds rather than because Roman officials were engaged in the regular discharge of official policy.”