By Dr. Bill Patterson
“Go tell his disciples and Peter,” the angel said to the women at the tomb (Mark 16:7). Why mention Peter? Peter had denied Christ just three days before (14:66-72). Even so, Jesus wanted Peter to know he lived. Jesus still had work for Peter to do.
Have you ever denied Christ by your words or your actions? Take courage. The life of Peter shows that Christ still calls for you, too.
Peter’s Name and Background
The name Peter is derived from the Greek word petros, meaning “rock.” Other than our Lord, Peter’s name appears in the Gospels more than any other. Although Peter is his dominant name (occurring 159 times in the New Testament), he also had four other names: Simon, his personal name; Barjona, meaning “son of Jona” in Aramaic or “son of John” in Greek (John 1:42); Simeon (Acts 15:14), his Hebrew name; and Cephas (Aramaic for rock), a name often used by Paul in 1 Corinthians and in Galatians. Jesus gave his disciple the name Peter (Matthew 16:18).
The Gospels give some information about Peter’s family. He and his brother Andrew came from Bethsaida, a town on the northern coast of the Sea of Galilee (John 1:44). Herod Philip, son of the notorious Herod the Great, ruled the area and helped build the town into a wealthy, mixed population of Jews and Greeks. Bethsaida means “house of fish.”
True to his town’s name, Peter and his brother were fishermen (Luke 5:2, 3). Fishing in the Sea of Galilee (actually a large, freshwater lake) was lucrative. Much of their catch would be dried and exported to Rome. Peter and Andrew partnered with James and John in the business (Luke 5:10). It is likely that Peter and Andrew (who had been given a Greek name) could speak both Aramaic and Greek, although they were not trained in the rabbinical schools (Acts 4:13).
After Peter married he moved a few miles west of Bethsaida to Capernaum (Mark 1:21-31), a town where Jesus frequently stayed during his Galilean ministry. Peter and Andrew made their home there (Mark 1:29). They associated with John the Baptist before accepting Jesus’ call and would have shared John’s messianic expectation (John 1:40-42).
Matthew and Mark tell us that while Peter and Andrew were casting a net into the Sea of Galilee, Jesus met them. “‘Follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will make you fishers of men’” (Matthew 4:19, New King James Version). The two immediately left their nets and followed him (Mark 1:18). Luke recorded a separate account of Jesus’ meeting the brothers.
Luke mentions that Peter and his coworkers were cleaning their nets after a night of unsuccessful fishing. Jesus stepped into Peter’s boat and asked him to put out from the shore a little. From that uncrowded vantage point, Jesus taught the people on the shore. After finishing, he asked Peter and his coworkers to go out into deeper water and cast their nets again. They did, and pulled in such a huge catch that the experienced fisherman, Peter, recognized it as a miracle. He fell at Jesus’ feet and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8, NIV). Jesus knew that Peter realized not only his own sinfulness but also God’s power. He told Peter, “Do not be afraid, from now on you will fish for people” (v. 10). They left their nets—fish still flapping—and followed Jesus.
Peter’s Role and Characteristics
Peter seemed to be the leader among the disciples during Jesus’ ministry. His name is given first in every listing of the names of the Twelve (Matthew 10:2; Mark 3:16; Luke 6:14). Also, his name is first in the listing of the three in Jesus’ inner circle of Peter, James, and John (Mark 5:37; 9:2; 14:33). As spokesman for the other disciples, Peter often posed questions to Jesus on their behalf (Matthew 15:15; 18:21; Mark 11:21; Luke 12:41).
Peter was the first of the apostles to speak his mind—and usually the first to put his foot in his mouth! His life is a study in contrasts. He was the only disciple to get out of the boat and walk on the water with Jesus, yet he took his eyes off Christ and began to sink (Matthew 14:28-31). Sometimes he presumed things (Matthew 16:22; John 13:8; 18:10). At times he was timid (Matthew 14:30; 26:69-72). He could be self-seeking (Matthew 19:27), while at other times he was self-sacrificing (Mark 1:18).
He was the first to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God (Matthew 16:16). Yet at other times he was slow to grasp spiritual matters (Matthew 15:15, 16). He spoke out when he should have listened at the Mount of Transfiguration. In addition he tried to get Jesus not to go to the cross. He was the only disciple to deny Christ and he did so three times, despite saying he never would. Peter was forgiven by our Lord and met Jesus’ challenge to “feed my sheep.”
History and tradition combine to give us four distinct periods of Peter’s life and ministry following Christ’s ascension.
From AD 29-35 he served in Jerusalem. These were formative days for the early church. James, the brother of our Lord, became the leader of the church (Acts 15), but Peter continued to have much influence. Peter preached during Pentecost when 3,000 people were saved (Acts 2). Several miracles came from the Lord through Peter (Acts 3, 5).
From AD 35-44 he ministered in Palestine. He lived part of this time in Lydda and part of it in Joppa in the house of Simon the tanner. More miracles followed (Acts 9). Here he received his famous vision in which God showed Peter that all foods (people) were clean if received with thanks to him (Acts 10). This vision and the resulting trip to the home of Cornelius, where God poured out his Spirit, opened Peter’s mind to realize God wanted the Gentiles to be saved.
Because of his experiences with God’s work among the Gentiles, Peter spoke up at the Jerusalem conference (Acts 15) and therefore the church decided God had chosen Gentiles to be saved without their becoming Jews.
From AD 44-61 Peter ministered in Syria with Antioch being the hub of his work. His wife accompanied him.
The End of Peter’s Life and His Writings
The fourth period of the big fisherman’s life began in AD 61 when he reached Rome, probably before Paul’s release from his first Roman imprisonment. The church was already well established in Rome before either arrived there, as Paul’s letters show. A few years after coming to Rome, possibly in AD 64 or 65 during the persecution under Emperor Nero, Peter was executed, as Jesus had predicted (John 21). Strong tradition holds that Peter considered himself unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as his Lord; so his executioners crucified him upside down.
Peter wrote First and Second Peter. Eusebius, an early church father, held that John Mark wrote the Gospel of Mark in order to preserve the preaching of Peter. First Peter was written from Rome to the churches in Asia Minor to encourage them in their time of persecution. The letter has a strong emphasis on holy living, on love, and on our heavenly hope. Second Peter was written shortly after Peter’s first letter to counter a libertine lifestyle and to affirm the second coming of our Lord.
Dr. Bill Patterson is a minister and freelance writer in Henderson, Kentucky.
Lessons from the Apostle Peter
• Recognize the holy. When Peter saw the number of fish in his net, he realized God was near. Peter was also first to declare that Jesus was the Christ (Matthew 16:17).
• Act. When you see God at work and get his permission, get out of the boat! Peter was the only disciple to ask Jesus’ permission and to walk on water with him (Matthew 14:28).
• Listen. Peter failed to do so on the Mount of Transfiguration and at other times (Matthew 17:1-9).
• Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Peter promised never to deny Christ, but did that very night (Matthew 26).
• Quickly repent over sin. Peter quickly repented over his denial of the Lord (Matthew 26:75).
• Don’t let yesterday’s failures keep you from following Jesus today. Peter’s greatest years of ministry came after his repentance.
• Live for Christ faithfully until the end. Peter did, and he left us a wonderful example to follow.
The Apostle Paul, a Serpent, and a Miracle
An excerpt from Where God Finds You by Anita Higman
The rain had eased, but the wind left us as cold as the grave. To warm myself and my companions, I gathered a pile of brushwood to put on the fire. As I released the branches into the blaze, a viper, escaping the heat of the flames, coiled itself around my hand. It bored its teeth into me! The vile beast dangled in the air, clinging to me with its savage fangs, but I shook it off into the crackling fire.
A few of our island hosts shrunk back in horror, murmuring that the adder was the king of snakes and most deadly. One of them, a pale-eyed young man, assured me I would be dead soon enough. And to each other they whispered, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.”
I did not laugh, nor did I answer them. I had endured a shipwreck and prison, hunger and trials, all for the sake of my blessed Savior, and I would survive this too—this ploy of Satan.
While the men around the fire watched me with vigilant eyes, waiting for me to swell up and perish from the bite, I feared not for my well-being. The cold rain had made the fire that much more welcoming, so I sat down close to the fire and rubbed my hands in front of the flames, trying to make myself dry and warm.
When the islanders had studied me for some time and were convinced I had suffered no ill effects from the viper, they once again murmured among themselves. Then one of them pronounced, “He is a god.”
I would not let them linger in their falsehood. “I am no god,” I said. “But I have been saved tonight and on the sea by the one true God.”
One of the men brought up his heavy frame and stood before me, challenging me. “What is the name of your god?”
I stood and answered him. “His name is Jesus of Nazareth.”
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