Who was Peter in the Bible? The way you understand the Apostle Peter may have been shaped by the church you attended.
- If you didn’t attend church at all, you probably laugh at the jokes suggesting “St. Peter” leads the pearly gate police, letting the dead know if they are in or out.
- In one church tradition, Peter was the church father of whom all the top leaders of the Church throughout history are successors.
- In other traditions, Peter is minimized as a theological lightweight who failed in leadership more than he succeeded and should be avoided as a model.
Most biblical Christians deeply identify with Peter’s humanity and believe that they can learn from his strengths and weaknesses. Whether right or wrong, they see themselves in those stories and hope that they would have done at least as well, if not better, at following Jesus and relating to others.
In light of the ways Peter has been portrayed in sermons, movies, and now as one of the lead characters in The Chosen television series, it is crucial to understand what the Bible says about this man who was a fisherman, disciple, apostle, and pillar during the approximately 70 years of his life on earth (5 BC–AD 65). Keep reading for more answers to the question, “Who Was Peter in the Bible?”
“Most biblical Christians deeply identify with Peter’s humanity and believe that they can learn from his strengths and weaknesses.”
In the first five books of the New Testament, the authors list Jesus’ twelve followers in four clear lists: Matthew 10:2-4; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:13-16; and Acts 1:13. (John’s Gospel reveals six followers in 1:35-49 as they meet Jesus, then introduces Judas Iscariot, Thomas the “Twin,” and Judas “not Iscariot” as they speak in key episodes.) Reviewing these lists reveals that there is sometimes a slight variety in the names and adjustments in the order. They are grouped similarly in ways that reveal family relationships and later outcomes (for example, Judas Iscariot is always mentioned last, due to his betrayal.)
Most importantly for the purpose of this article, Simon Peter is always mentioned first. God wants to make sure you don’t miss the importance of this key leader.
“Simeon the Son of John the Fisherman”
Simon “Bar-Jona” (as translated in the KJV) was actually the son of a man named “John” (John 1:42; Matthew 16:17). The name Simon was common for Jewish men in in the first century for two reasons. Simeon was one of the original tribes of Israel, and it could easily be spelled in both Hebrew and Greek (The transliteration of Simeon is used of Simon Peter by Jesus’ brother James in Acts 15:14 and by Peter himself in 2 Peter 1:1.)
Only a few centuries prior to the time of the New Testament, Jewish history included a high priest named Simon, a national hero who helped lead the Maccabean Revolt. Likewise, at least nine different people in the New Testament were named Simon:
- Simon Peter, who is called by that name 50 times in the New Testament
- Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:15), who was one of Jesus’ followers
- Simon the brother of Jesus (Mark 6:3), who initially rejected Jesus as Messiah
- Simon the Cyrene (Mark 15:21), who carried Jesus’ cross
- Simon the father of Judas Iscariot (John 6:71), who was likely from Kerioth
- Simon the leper (Matthew 26:6), who lived in Bethany
- Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:40-44), who criticized Jesus
- Simon the tanner (Acts 9:43), who hosted Simon Peter in Joppa for a few days
- Simon the sorcerer (Acts 8:9-24), who after being baptized was confronted by Simon Peter
It’s no wonder that Jesus decided to nickname (John 1:42) this particular Simon! Jesus called him “Cephas” in Aramaic (which Jesus and the disciples most commonly spoke), which is translated as “Peter” in Greek (which the New Testament was written in). (Since the New Testament most commonly uses Peter or Simon Peter, that is his name in this article, other than in a few places that note deviations from that name.)
From Fisherman to Disciple
Simon Peter’s hometown was Bethsaida, near the Sea of Galilee, which was a great place for his family’s fishing business to succeed. A few of Peter’s fellow followers were friends from the same place (John 1:44).
At some point, Peter moved to nearby Capernaum, located on the Sea of Galilee. He lived within walking distance of the synagogue, in a home that included at least his brother Andrew, his mother-in-law, and presumably his wife, though she is not explicitly named in Mark 1:21-30. (1 Corinthians 9:5 indicates that many years later, Peter traveled with a “believing wife.” However, it is not indicated whether that was his original wife or if he may have remarried after his first wife passed away.) Early Christian literature mentions “Perpetua” as a wife of Peter and “Petronilla” as a daughter of their marriage, though this cannot be confirmed. The Chosen uses the name “Eden” for the wife who watched Peter change as he followed Jesus. Whatever the name of his wife (and child/ren), it is easy to imagine the family dynamics of a man who went from being a fisherman by training to an early follower of Christ.
Peter and Andrew left their nets and boat to follow Jesus, along with their partners James and John. Although Matthew 4:20-22 says that Zebedee (the father of James and John) continued the fishing business, Peter’s father isn’t mentioned. The safest assumption is that they had inherited a share of the business after his death and eventually gave it up.
Who was Peter in the Bible? “Peter and Andrew left their nets and boat to follow Jesus, along with their partners James and John.”
Although Acts 4:13 says that Peter was “ordinary and untrained,” his comment in Acts 10:14 that he had “never eaten anything unclean” shows that he had some level of education and convictions that made him aware of the religious traditions of the Jewish leaders.
Simon Peter the Lead Disciple
His background as a fisherman of faith explains Peter’s willingness to accept Jesus’ call to discipleship in Luke 5:1-11. During the three-year ministry of Jesus, Peter was part of the inner circle of three (along with his former fishing partners James and John) and the most common spokesman and representative of the group.
In fact, more than 20 stories in the Gospels explicitly mention Simon Peter as directly speaking with Jesus. In Dr. Jeff Iorg’s book Seasons of a Leader’s Life (Broadman & Holman, 2013), each story receives detailed analysis and applications for today’s followers of Christ. Peter’s recorded interactions during Jesus’ ministry outnumber the other named disciples combined, and they include the following:
- Being invited by his brother Andrew to meet Jesus for the first time (John 1:40-42)
- Leaving his nets and boat after the miraculous catch of fish (Luke 5:8-11)
- Watching Jesus heal his mother-in-law and other neighbors (Mark 1:29-31)
- Finding Jesus in the middle of a solitary prayer (Mark 1:35-39)
- Witnessing the bleeding woman healed and the dead girl raised (Mark 1:45-56)
- Stepping out of the boat to walk on the water (Matt. 14:28-32)
- Requesting explanation for the parable of personal defilement (Matt. 15:10-20)
- Answering Jesus’ question while making the great confession (Matt. 16:16-20)
- Rebuking Jesus for teaching about the crucifixion and resurrection (Mark 8:31-33)
- Drawing attention to the withered fig tree (Mark 11:20-25)
- Catching a fish that contained a coin to pay his tax liability (Matt. 17:24-27)
- Asking how often forgiveness should be given (Matt. 18:21-22)
- Learning urgency in preparation for future expectations (Luke 12:41-53)
- Balancing extreme personal sacrifice and eternally multiplied rewards (Matt. 19:27-30)
- Understanding the future difficulties and final judgment (Mark 13:3-37)
- Humbling himself to allow Jesus to wash his feet (John 13:6-9)
- Insisting to Jesus and the others that he would never deny Christ (Matt. 26:33-35)
- Sleeping in the Garden of Gethsemane while Jesus was praying (Mark 14:33-41)
- Cutting off the ear of Malchus, the high priest’s servant (John 18:10-12)
- Denying Jesus three times after Jesus was arrested (Luke 22:55-62)
- Experiencing restoration and forgiveness after Jesus was resurrected (John 21:2-19)
Who was Peter in the Bible? “Peter’s recorded interactions during Jesus’ ministry outnumber the other named disciples combined.”
These stories provide eyewitness testimony and perspective on the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. They also illustrate the range of successes, failures, and growth that was possible for a flawed person who remains faithful to the Lord’s call.
Peter the Apostle to the Circumcised
The first half of Acts reports many of the ways Simon Peter led the church as its primary apostle through his work in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. From his first recorded words in Acts 1:16 (“Brethren, the Scripture had to be fulfilled”) through his parting message in Acts 15:11 (“We believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way that they also are”), Peter led the church as its primary apostle. Ten phases of the church can be described in those chapters, with Peter remaining the mouthpiece of the Lord’s message and spokesman for the group.
- Acts 1: Peter provides clarification about the death of Judas and the choice of a twelfth apostle.
- Acts 2: Peter preaches for the conversion of those who will repent from rejecting Jesus fifty days earlier.
- Acts 3-4: Peter performs a miracle that leads to interrogation by the religious leaders about preaching the gospel.
- Acts 5: Peter conducts a confrontation with Ananias and Sapphira that leads to their deaths for lying to the Holy Spirit.
- Acts 6: Peter sees the need for delegation of key ministry work to other leaders so the apostles can focus on the ministry of the word and prayer.
- Acts 8-9: Peter travels outside of Jerusalem for verification of the work that God has been doing in Samaria and beyond.
- Acts 10: Peter is convinced of the expansion of the gospel to Gentiles by spending time at Cornelius the centurion’s home and seeing the fruit of his faith.
- Acts 11: Peter offers an explanation for his behavior to the church at Jerusalem so that they can accept God’s work among the Gentiles.
- Acts 12: Peter experiences persecution at the hands of Herod before being released from prison by an angel.
- Acts 15: Peter explains the unification of Jew and Gentile on the basis of faith and grace instead of by the Law and its traditions.
Paul would later call Peter the “apostle to the circumcised” (Gal 2:8), but his work also opened the door for Gentiles to join the church in other locations. New leaders and locations would result from his important role, not only during the rest of the book of Acts, but for the rest of the church age. Even though Simon Peter isn’t mentioned again in the book of Acts, he doesn’t disappear from the New Testament.
Who was Peter in the Bible? “Paul would later call Peter the ‘apostle to the circumcised,’ but his work also opened the door for Gentiles to join the church in other locations.”
“Cephas” a Pillar of the Church
Apparently the Aramaic version of Peter’s name (“Cephas”) became a well-known title for him, perhaps because that is what Jesus would have called him in person. Paul acknowledged that Cephas had the reputation of being a key leader in the Jerusalem church (Galatians 2:9). He included Cephas with James and John as “pillars” (literally columns or pedestals on which something could be supported). While that was a meaningful honor for him to be recognized with, Paul presents Cephas with a couple flaws that need to be acknowledged.
- Peter’s experience in Antioch is characterized by Paul in Galatians 2:11-14 as hypocritical. Paul condemned Peter’s behavior of refusing table fellowship to Gentiles when Jewish believers were in town, even though he was willing to be with Gentiles when no Jews were around. And Peter’s influence was great enough that other leaders around Paul (including their mutual friend Barnabas) were “led astray” by the hypocrisy. The letter doesn’t describe how the conflict was resolved, though it seems to be answered by the unity demanded by Peter in Acts 15.
- Peter’s experience in Corinth is characterized by Paul as rivalrous (1 Corinthians 1:12). It is likely that much of the blame for this goes to the immature church that placed more value on the person they associated with than on unity with the entire church. Peter’s emphasis on his miracles and his longstanding commitment to Christ may have led them to undervalue the role that other servants played in building up the church.
Who was Peter in the Bible? “Paul included Cephas with James and John as ‘pillars.'”
Antioch and Corinth were not the only two destinations where Peter apparently served. He later wrote a letter known as First Peter to believers dispersed in five regions, who shared common knowledge of several people and situations. In Second Peter, the audience becomes wider as he approaches the end of his life and wants to share a final inspired message regarding judgment and eternal life (2 Pet 1:14-15). He also points out the importance of remembering his stories, leading to the assumption that some of his audience may have been forgetful.
According to church tradition, he was crucified upside down in Rome, shortly after completing the letter of Second Peter. Many early church members (from Jerusalem to Rome) met Peter personally, as did believers in several other locations. The combination of his stories about Jesus, experiences with church leaders, and willingness to take responsibility for his failures made him a “Rock(y) Pillar.” Without being perfect or arrogant, Peter was an authentic leader who learned from his mistakes. In the next article in this series on New Testament leaders, you will get to consider lessons for today from Peter the leader.