Simon Peter, how can we help but love him? Delightful in his spontaneity. Likeable in his gregariousness. Transparent and enthusiastic. Quick to act, and react. So sure of himself, yet at times timid and even cowardly. There is something genuine and endearing about Peter and his ways.
Of all Christ’s disciples, Peter is the one with whom many of us most identify. Full of contradictions, he was ready to serve, yet often presumptuous. So quick to defend and jump to the rescue. And to get himself into fixes.
We know little apart from the Gospel accounts, but he has generally been presented as a tallish, thick-set man with weatherd complexion and thick dark curly hair and beard. As the typical fisherman of humble origins that he was. Born in Bethsaida (the house of fish), his father Jonah fished for a living, as did his brother Andrew. And together with their partners, Zebedee and his sons James and John, they fished the sea of Galilee.
Simon answers the call.
Simon’s leaving all in response to Christ’s call appears at first impulsive and reckless. In Matthew 4 it seems that Peter, Andrew, James, and John, follow Christ nearly sight unseen, as it were. But a more careful perusal reveals that not only did they know him, but were already his disciples.
It was Andrew who first took him to Christ. As a disciple of John the Baptist, he heard John’s declaration, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” (John 1:36), and immediately left to follow the Lord. After first running to get Peter saying, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ),” John 1:41.
So when the four fishermen left their boats to follow Christ, they had already spent time with him, walking and learning, and even attended the wedding of Cana together (John 2). The cost of following, though high, was a calculated one. They knew what they were doing, and even more importantly, who they were following.
Christ was already their rabbi and teacher, and as such held great influence over their lives, which we see through Peter’s name change. In biblical culture, changing someone’s name meant that person held a position of influence in the other’s life. Think of God changing Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, and Daniel becoming Belteshazzar.
From Simon the reed to Peter the rock.
When Andrew first led Peter to Jesus, he looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas (which means Peter),” (John 1:42). Names which in and of themselves reveal a lot about him and the plan Christ envisioned for his life. A plan to take him from being a wavy, vacillating reed (Simon) to a man of strong, rock-like faith (Peter).
You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter), John 1:42.
But Peter, at first, seemed anything but rock-like.
He had great faith, but often acted on it impulsively, almost rashly. Starting by taking the Lord to his home, even though his mother-in-law lay in bed with a fever (Matthew 14:25-33). And impulsively walking on the water toward Christ, then quickly doubting and crying “Lord save me!” (Matthew 14:28).
He still needed to grow beyond the underlying character which matched his birth name. To change from the reed, or straight stalk of tall grass, he resembled. For in many ways Simon personified his name. Like a reed, he stood straight and tall, ready to fight for what he believed or defend those he loved. And like a reed, he was also vacillating, unsteady, and quick to change.
With his great confession of faith in Matthew 16:16, “You are the Christ, son of the living God,” he earned Christ’s praise. Only to afterward receive censure for attempting to rebuke the Lord. “Far be it from you, Lord. This shall never happen to you!” (Matthew 16:22).
He bravely declared, “Even if I must die with you, I will never deny you,” and he rashly cut off a servant’s ear in the Lord’s defense. (John 18:10, Matthew 26:35). But then cowardly turned tail and ran during his arrest, and denied him during his trial.
Yet Peter was also tenderhearted and affectionate.
As quick to repent as he was to impulsively jump in or presume. “You shall never wash my feet,” he informed the Lord. Only to repent immediately and beg the Lord to wash his hands and head too. And after his betrayal, he went out and wept bitterly (John 13:8, Luke 22:62).
All in all, he was a man full of strange contradictions. Self-sacrificing he left all to follow Christ (Mark 1:18), yet inclined to be self-seeking. “See,” he told the Lord, “we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” (Matthew 19:27.)
Gifted with spiritual insight, he made his greatest faith declaration of all, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God,” (John 6:68-69). But he was also at times, slow to grasp the deeper truths.
But it wasn’t until his baptism at Pentecost that he became the rock Christ saw in him.
With newfound wisdom and maturity, he wisely took the lead in finding a replacement for Judas. And by Acts 2 he had become a strong and mighty preacher, preaching a powerful message. From a vacillating reed, the lowly fisherman had become an influential capable fisher of men. A solid pillar of the church and leader of the apostles, strong and immovably declaring, “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard,” and “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 4:19-20, 5:28-29).
Historians tell us that by the time of Peter’s death almost all the apostles had been martyred. And historians Tertullian and Eusebius and the early church theologian Origen all state that in fulfillment of Christ’s prophecy, Peter was stretched out by his hands, dressed in prison garb, and taken where no one wanted to go, (John 21:18-19). It is said that he was crucified upside down because he felt unworthy to be crucified in the way that the Lord Jesus Christ had been.
The vacillating reed had become a rock strong apostle, who rejoiced at being counted worthy to suffer for Christ’s name. And who never ceased teaching and preaching until the day of his death. (Acts 5:40-42).
The lowly fisherman who became a great fisher of men.
And if Christ could change Peter that much, then he can also help us become strong in him too.