Simon Peter

Who was Simon Peter?

Simon Peter is one of the most important figures in the New Testament. Not only did he walk with Jesus Christ, but he was a central leader in the early church and also contributed to letters to the New Testament. Simon (or Simeon) was the original name of Peter, the son of Jonas (or John), and brother of Andrew, a disciple of John the Baptist, as Peter also may have been.

A fisherman by occupation, he was an inhabitant of Bethsaida on the Sea of Galilee, though subsequently he dwelt with his family at Capernaum (Matthew 4:18; 8:14; 10:2; 16:16,17; 17:25; Mark 1:16,29,30,36; Luke 5:3,4,5,8,10; 22:31; 24:34; John 1:40-44).

His first appearance in Gospel history is in John 1:35-42, when Andrew, having discovered Jesus to be the Messiah, "first findeth his own brother Simon," and "brought him unto Jesus"; on which occasion it was that the latter, beholding him, said, "Thou shalt be called Cephas," an Aramaic surname whose Greek synonym is Petros, or Peter, meaning "a rock" or "stone" At this time also he received his first call to the discipleship of Jesus, although, in common with that of others of the Twelve, this call was twice repeated. See Matthew 4:19; Mark 1:17; Luke 5:3 for the second call, and Matthew 10:2; Mark 3:14,16; Luke 6:13,14 for the third. Some interpret the second as that when he was chosen to be a constant companion of Jesus, and the third when he was at length selected as an apostle.

Follower of Christ

The first period again may be conveniently divided into the events prior to the Passion of Christ and those following. There are about ten of the former: the healing of his wife's mother at Capernaum (Matthew 8:14); the great draught of fishes, and its effect in his self-abasement and surrender of his all to Jesus (Luke 5:1-11); his call to the apostolic office and his spiritual equipment therefor (Matthew 10:2); his attachment to his Master, as shown in his attempt to walk upon the waves (Matthew 14:28); the same attachment as shown at a certain crisis, in his inquiry "Lord, to whom shall we go?" (John 6:68); his noble confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, and, alas, the rebuke that followed it (Matthew 16:13-23); the exalted privileges he enjoyed with James and John as witness of the raising of Jairus' daughter (Mark 5:37) and the transfiguration of his Lord (Matthew 17:1-5); and finally, the incident of the tribute money, found only in Matthew 17:24.

The events beginning at the Passion are more easily recalled, because to so large an extent are they found in all the Gospels and about in the same order. They commence with the washing of his feet by the Master at the time of the last Passover, and the two mistakes he made as to the spiritual import of that act (John 13:1-10); the first of his presumptuous boastings as to the strength of his devotion to his Master, and the warning of the latter as to Satan's prospective assault upon him (Luke 22:31-34), twice repeated before the betrayal in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:31-35); the admission to the garden to behold the Saviour's deepest distress, the charge to watch and pray, and the failure to do so through sleepiness (Matthew 26:36-46); the mistaken courage in severing the ear of Malchus (John 18:10-12); the forsaking of his Lord while the latter was being led away as a prisoner, his following Him afar off, his admission into the high priest's palace, his denial "before them all," his confirmation of it by an oath, his remembrance of the warning when "the Lord turned and looked upon Peter," and his tears of bitterness as he went out (Matthew 26:56-58; Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:54-62; John 18:15-27).

It will be seen that the story of Peter's fall is thus related by all the evangelists, but, to quote another, "None have described it in a more heinous light, than Mark; and if, as is generally supposed, that Gospel was reviewed by Peter himself and even written under his direction this circumstance may be considered as an evidence of his integrity and sincere contrition." Nothing more is heard of Peter until the morning of the resurrection, when, on the first tidings of the event, he runs with John to see the tomb (John 20:1-10); his name is especially mentioned to the women by the angel (Mark 16:7); and on the same day he sees Jesus alive before any of the rest of the Twelve (Luke 24:34; 1 Corinthians 15:5). Subsequently, at the Sea of Tiberias, Peter is given an opportunity for a threefold confession of Jesus whom he had thrice denied, and is once more assigned to the apostolic office; a prediction follows as to the kind of death he should die, and also a command to follow his Lord (John 21).

After the crucifixion

The second period, from the ascension of Christ to the conversion of Paul, is more briefly sketched. After the ascension, of which Peter was doubtless a witness, he "stood up in the midst of the brethren" in the upper room in Jerusalem to counsel the choice of a successor to Judas (Acts 1:15-26). On the day of Pentecost he preaches the first gospel sermon (Acts 2), and later, in company with John, instrumentally heals the lame man, addresses the people in the Temple, is arrested, defends himself before the Sanhedrin and returns to his "own company" (Acts 3; 4). He is again arrested and beaten (Acts 5); after a time he is sent by the church at Jerusalem to communicate the Holy Spirit to the disciples at Samaria (Acts 8).

Returning to Jerusalem (where presumably Paul visits him, Galatians 1:18), he afterward journeys "throughout all parts," heals Aeneas at Lydda, raises Dorcas from the dead at Joppa, sees a vision upon the housetop which influences him to preach the gospel to the Gentile centurion at Caesarea, and explains this action before "the apostles and the brethren that were in Judea" (Acts 9:32-41; Acts 12). Retiring for a while from public attention, he once more comes before us in the church council at Jerusalem, when the question is to be settled as to whether works are needful to salvation, adding his testimony to that of Paul and Barnabas in favor of justification by faith only (Acts 15). Subsequently, he is found at Antioch, and having fellowship with GentileChristians until "that certain came from James," when "he drew back and separated himself, fearing them that were of the circumcision," for which dissembling Paul "resisted him to the face, because he stood condemned" (Galatians 2:11-14).

Little more is authentically known of Peter, except that he traveled more or less extensively, being accompanied by his wife (1 Corinthians 9:5), and that he wrote two epistles, the second of which was penned as he approached the end of his life (2 Peter 1:12-15). The tradition is that he died a martyr at Rome about 67 AD, when about 75 years old. His Lord and Master had predicted a violent death for him (John 21:18,19), which it is thought came to pass by crucifixion under Nero. It is said that at his own desire he was crucified head downward, feeling himself unworthy to resemble his Master in his death. It should be observed, however, that the tradition that he visited Rome is only tradition and nothing more, resting as it does partly upon a miscalculation of some of the early Fathers, "who assume that he went to Rome in 42 AD, immediately after his deliverance from prison" (compare Acts 11:17). Schaff says this "is irreconcilable with the silence of Scripture, and even with the mere fact of Paul's Epistle to the Romans, written in 58, since the latter says not a word of Peter's previous labors in that city, and he himself never built on other men's foundations" (Romans 15:20; 2 Corinthians 10:15,16).


The character of Peter is transparent and easily analyzed, and it is doubtless true that no other "in Scriptural history is drawn for us more clearly or strongly." He has been styled the prince of the apostles, and, indeed, seems to have been their leader on every occasion. He is always named first in every list of them, and was their common spokesman. He was hopeful, bold, confident, courageous, frank, impulsive, energetic, vigorous, strong, and loving, and faithful to his Master notwithstanding his defection prior to the crucifixion. It is true that he was liable to change and inconsistency, and because of his peculiar temperament he sometimes appeared forward and rash. Yet, as another says, "His virtues and faults had their common root in his enthusiastic disposition," and the latter were at length overruled by divine grace into the most beautiful humility and meekness, as evinced in his two Epistles.

The leadership above referred to, however, should not lead to the supposition that he possessed any supremacy over the other apostles, of which there is no proof. Such supremacy was never conferred upon him by his Master, it was never claimed by himself, and was never conceded by his associates. See in this Connection Matthew 23:8-12; Acts 15:13,14; 2 Corinthians 12:11; Galatians 2:11. It is true that when Christ referred to the meaning of his name (Matthew 16:18), He said, "Upon this rock I will build my church," but He did not intend to teach that His church would be built upon Peter, but upon Himself as confessed by Peter in Matthew 16:16. Peter is careful to affirm this in the first of his two Epistles (1 Peter 2:4-9).

Moreover, when Christ said, "I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven," etc. (Matthew 16:19), He invested him with no power not possessed in common with his brethren, since they also afterward received the same commission (Matthew 18:18; John 20:23). A key is a badge of power or authority, and, as many Protestant commentators have pointed out, to quote the language of one of them, "the apostolic history explains and limits this trust, for it was Peter who opened the door of the gospel to Israel on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38-42) and to the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius (Acts 10:34-46)." Some, however, regard this authority as identical with the great commission (Matthew 28:19).


The following article is excerpted from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain.James M. Gray International Standard Bible Encyclopedia