Peter means “the Rock;” but Simon was anything but a rock before Jesus changed his life.
Peter was from Bethsaida (Jn 1:44), a small town on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. On the west side of this large lake was the region of Galilee, which was settled mostly by Jewish people, living under the rule of the Herods – the supposedly Jewish family who had sold out to the Romans, governing Judea as a puppet state of the Roman Empire. Visible on the opposite side of the lake were some of the cities of the Decapolis – these Greek cities also served as a base for Roman legions, and would have been a stark contrast to Peter’s simple Jewish life.
Bethsaida literally means “fish house,” which gives you a clue about what its main income was. Like many others in the area, Peter and his brother Andrew earned their living at the family business: fishing. Just like many fishermen today, they were uneducated (Acts 4:13), hard-working, blue-collar workers, who were often crude (Peter was a self-described “sinful man,” Lk 5:8), and prone to causing trouble (James and John, Peter’s business partners, were nicknamed the “Sons of Thunder,” Mk 3:17).
Even so, they weren’t uninterested in learning about and following God; in fact, Peter’s brother Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist (Jn 1:40), and the first thing he did when he met Jesus was to tell his brother they had found the Messiah – he must have known that Peter would want to know.
Imperfect as he was, Peter is also something of a leader. He is always listed first among the Apostles, and often speaks on behalf on their behalf when they want to ask Jesus something. When the disciples fall asleep at Jesus’ last night, only Peter is singled out for taking responsibility. Even after Jesus’ resurrection, Peter is the one who says “I’m going fishing,” and the other disciples follow his lead.
Early on, Peter becomes part Jesus’ inner circle, even within the Twelve. Only Peter, James, and John were present at several key moments of Jesus’ ministry:
- when Jairus’ daughter was raised (Mk 5:37; Lk 8:51)
- at the transfiguration (Mt 17:1; Mk 9:2; Lk 9:28)
- in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mt 26:37; Mk 14:33)
- He is brave enough to step out of the boat onto the water towards Jesus, but almost immediately loses his faith. (Mt 14:29-39)
- Peter proclaims Jesus to be the Son of God (Mt 16:15-16), and moments later proceeds to tell him what to do (Mt 16:22).
- In John 13, he first refuses to allow Jesus to wash his feet, and when Jesus insists, wants him to wash him all over!
But after Jesus is taken, Peter – typically – swings to the opposite extreme; afraid of being arrested himself, and follows at a distance to the house of the high priest Caiaphas, and his father-in-law Annas (a former high priest himself). And as Peter is outside, waiting to hear what will happen to his Lord, nervous about his own fate… you know what happens. Three times, someone recognizes him as disciple, and three times he denies it. Forget going in to the courtroom, never mind testifying before Annas, Caiaphas, and the Sanhedrin -- he is so afraid of being associated with Jesus, he doesn’t even want to admit that he’s a follower to a teenage servant girl.
But the story doesn’t end there; after Jesus restores his relationship with Peter (Jn 21:15-18), and charges him to “feed my sheep,” we see a very different Peter. In Acts 3-4, Peter and John find themselves in trouble with the Jewish authorities after publicly healing a paralytic and preaching Christ at the Temple. And look who comes to deal with them:
They seized Peter and John, and because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day. … The next day the rulers, elders and teachers of the law met in Jerusalem. Annas the high priest was there, and so were Caiaphas, John, Alexander and the other men of the high priest’s family. They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them: “By what power or what name did you do this?”
Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a cripple and are asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. He is
“ ‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone.’
Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”
The contrast is amazing – not only is Peter now willing to speak boldly, he does so to the very men who put Jesus on the cross! In the very next chapter, they are in trouble again, and challenge the priests – who could kill them just like they did Jesus – “We must obey God rather than men!” When Peter and John narrowly escaped with their lives, receiving a flogging instead,
The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.
- How do you think Peter (and the other people of Galilee) felt about where they grew up?
- Why do you think Jesus called a lowly, coarse fisherman as his chief disciple?
- What made Peter so different in Acts than he was in the Gospels?
- What would it take for God to change you so dramatically?