Peter—Colorful Apostle Who Took the Initiative
OF THE twelve apostles that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, chose to accompany him, Peter was by far the most colorful. Warmhearted and impulsive, frank and outspoken—we cannot help liking him. It is easy for us to put ourselves in his place; to feel for him.
Peter was a man of action, quick to speak his thoughts, quick to act out his feelings. Because of his emotional nature he readily went from one extreme to another. As a result it was his lot to know the extremes both of sorrow and of joy. His was the joy to hear his Master highly commend him for having said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and to receive the keys of the kingdom of the heavens. But his was also the keen grief of seeing his Master give him a look of reproach and sorrow for having denied him three times.—Matt. 16:16-19; Luke 22:61, 62.
Above all else, Peter had a good, honest heart. He was as far removed from the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees of his day as one could possibly be. To steal secretly from the common treasury of Jesus’ intimate group, as did Judas, would have been unthinkable for Peter. And because of Peter’s good heart God granted him repentance and recovery, things denied the dishonest traitor, Judas. God not only restored Peter to his favor, after his denial of Jesus, but greatly used him thereafter.—John 12:4-6.
Peter was the son of John. He is first shown as residing at Bethsaida, on the Sea of Galilee near the Jordan River. Later we read of his being in Capernaum, where he and his brother Andrew were in the fishing business, he having his own boat. Though the religious leaders referred to Peter and the apostle John as “unlearned and ordinary,” they, as businessmen who had dealings with both Jews and Greek-speaking Gentiles, doubtless could read and write both Hebrew and Greek. Peter was married, and at least in his later years his wife accompanied him on his missionary travels.—Matt. 8:14; 16:17; Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:3; Acts 4:13; 1 Cor. 9:5.
Peter appears early in Jesus’ ministry when he first became a disciple or “learner,” and when Jesus changed his name from Simon, meaning “hearing,” to Peter, “a piece of rock.” About six months later he became a full-time disciple and follower of Jesus, when he and his brother Andrew, together with their cousins James and John, left their fishing business to become “fishers of men.” Well over a year later Peter was chosen, along with eleven others, to be an apostle, a “sent forth one.”—John 1:35-44; Matt. 4:18-22; 10:1-4.
IMPULSIVE—QUICK TO ACT
Repeatedly in the Gospels we find examples of Peter’s impulsive nature. When Jesus caused Peter and those with him to have a miraculous catch of fish, just before his calling them to be full-time disciples, it was just too much for Peter. He “fell down at the knees of Jesus, saying: ‘Depart from me, because I am a sinful man, Lord.’” When Peter saw his Master walking on the water, he was eager to do the same, and actually did until his faith weakened. When a mob, armed with clubs and swords and led by religious leaders, came to take Jesus, Peter again was quick to act, seeking to protect his Master by means of the literal sword, but succeeding only in slicing off the ear of one of the mob. And later, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, when Jesus again caused Peter and his companions to have a miraculous catch of fish, and Peter learned that it was Jesus who stood on the shore, Peter at once plunged into the sea and swam to shore, not wanting to wait with the rest until they had slowly pulled the net full of fish to land.—Luke 5:6-9; Matt. 14:26-31; John 18:10, 11; 21:1-8.
Peter’s ardor and impulsiveness were such as to cause him at times to contradict his Master, thus evincing a lack of due modesty, humble though he was. Thus he felt free to raise strong objections to Jesus’ remarks about his destined suffering and death, making it necessary for Jesus to reprove him severely with the words: “Get behind me, Satan!” Further, when Jesus, because strength had gone out of him to cure a certain woman, asked, “Who was it that touched me?” it was Peter who felt free to correct Jesus by saying: “Instructor, the crowds are hemming you in and closely pressing you.” In other words, ‘Why, Jesus, of course people are touching you!’ And was it not Peter who first objected to his dear Master’s washing his feet, only to want Jesus to wash his head and hands also after hearing Jesus’ reply?—Matt. 16:21-23; Luke 8:43-45; John 13:1-10.
TAKING THE INITIATIVE
Peter, by his various names, Simon, Symeon, Simon Peter, Peter and Cephas, is mentioned in the inspired record more frequently than are his eleven apostolic companions combined, or about as often as is the apostle Paul. He is the first one mentioned of those whom Jesus called to the full-time discipleship and whenever Peter is named with these other apostles he invariably comes first, and this is so whether all twelve are named (the rest are not always named in the same order), or only four, three or two of the apostles.—Matt. 10:2; Mark 13:3; Luke 9:28; 22:8.
It is in keeping with the foregoing, therefore, that we find Peter speaking up of his own initiative more frequently than the other eleven put together, whether on his own behalf or on behalf of the rest. Thus it is Peter who asks: “Lord, how many times is my brother to sin against me and am I to forgive him?” It is Peter who suggests erecting three tents while he and James and John are in the Mount of Transfiguration. And it is Peter who observes the effect of Jesus’ curse upon a certain fig tree: “Rabbi, see! the fig tree that you cursed has withered up.”—Matt. 18:21; 17:4; Mark 11:21.
As for Peter speaking out in behalf of the twelve: When Jesus asked them all, “You [plural], though, who do you say I am?” it is Peter who responds with confidence: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And when many of Jesus’ disciples took offense at what Jesus had said and had left him, and Jesus asked the twelve if they also were going to leave him, it is Peter who replies: “Lord, whom shall we go away to? You have sayings of everlasting life.” Again, after Jesus gave an illustration, it is Peter who requests: “Make the illustration plain to us.” And likewise it is Peter who speaks on behalf of the twelve, asking: “What actually will there be for us,” who have left all to follow you?—Matt. 16:15-17; John 6:67, 68; Matt. 15:15; 19:27.
Forward as Peter was, because of his impulsive nature, his ardor and zeal, he was not designingly ambitious. It was not he but James and John, his two closest companions, who, together with their mother, asked Jesus for the chief seats in his kingdom. (Matt. 20:20-24; Mark 10:35-41) Jesus, therefore, did not consider Peter’s forwardness a serious flaw that he would correct by studiously ignoring Peter, setting him in his place, as it were. But, recognizing Peter’s good qualities, Jesus granted him special privileges. He was among the three apostles who were with Jesus at the time of the transfiguration vision and at the time of his raising of Jairus’ daughter and in the garden of Gethsemane.—Matt. 17:1; 26:36, 37; Mark 5:35-42.
Then, again, it was with Peter that Jesus on one occasion discussed the question of paying taxes and whom he caused to catch a fish in whose mouth Peter found the necessary coin to pay the temple tax. (Matt. 17:24-27) Jesus especially prayed for Peter and commissioned him to strengthen his brothers. Peter most likely was also the first of the apostles to whom Jesus showed himself after his resurrection and later it was to Peter that Jesus gave the repeated admonition to feed his lambs and his little sheep. And, as already noted, it was to Peter that Jesus gave the keys of the kingdom.—Mark 16:7; Luke 22:32; 24:34; John 21:15-17; 1 Cor. 15:5.
AFTER JESUS’ DEATH AND RESURRECTION
It was, therefore, but to be expected that after Jesus’ resurrection, when he was no longer continuously with his disciples, Peter would take the initiative, and this he did, both in personal matters and in executing the divine commission. Thus it was Peter who took the initiative in choosing a successor for Judas after Jesus had ascended into heaven and while they were waiting for the holy spirit. And so when the holy spirit was poured out upon the 120 disciples gathered in the upper room in Jerusalem we see Peter, true to the commission given him, taking the lead in preaching to the Jews about Jesus, his resurrection and the meaning of what had taken place that day. He thereby used the first of the keys of the kingdom that Jesus had entrusted to him, to unlock to the Jews knowledge of the opportunity to become members of the heavenly kingdom.—Acts 1:15-26; 2:1-41.
When the religious rulers haled the apostles before them because of their preaching about Jesus Christ, it was Peter who took the initiative in speaking. When Ananias and Sapphira brought their contribution, we read that they presented it to the apostles. But it was Peter whom Jehovah God used to expose their dishonesty in representing it as being the total value of the property they had sold when it was not and to pronounce upon them God’s judgment, as a result of which both fell dead. And it appears that Peter also had greater power for healing than others, for we read that even his shadow effected cures; his power being similar to that possessed by the apostle Paul in this regard.—Acts 5:1-29; 19:11, 12.
When the older men at Jerusalem sent Peter and John to Samaria so that the converts there might receive the holy spirit, Peter again is shown as taking the initiative. This is indicated by the fact that, although Simon offered “them” money for the power to impart the holy spirit to others, it was Peter who sternly rebuked him. From this incident originated the name “simony,” meaning the buying of church offices for money; a practice very widespread in the Roman Catholic Church during the Middle Ages.—Acts 8:14-24.
Incidentally, the fact that others “sent” or dispatched Peter and John to Samaria clearly indicates that Peter’s taking the initiative did not give him authority over others. Nowhere is he shown as exercising authority over the other apostles nor are the others shown as giving him deference as the prince or chief of the apostles.
After Peter performed several more miracles, we next learn of his using the second key of the kingdom to bring the good news to the first uncircumcised Gentile to be converted to Christianity, the Roman army officer Cornelius of Caesarea. By means of a vision in which Peter was repeatedly commanded to eat animals that were unclean according to the Law of Moses, God gently prepared the mind of Peter for this radical change in God’s dealing with peoples—no longer were the uncircumcised people unclean in God’s sight. Returning to Jerusalem, Peter had to face strong opposition by the Jewish Christians there, but he stood his ground, explained how God had prepared him for this change and what had taken place. As a result, the Jewish Christians rejoiced that God was now granting repentance and the Kingdom hope also to the Gentiles.—Acts 10:1–11:18.
Apparently not long after this, King Herod Agrippa had Peter arrested to please the Jews, but God sent his angel to free Peter, for God had more work for Peter to do. Upon being released from prison Peter reported to the local congregation, which had met in the home of John Mark to pray for Peter, and then he went “to another place.” (Acts 12:1-17) From then on the colorful and impulsive apostle Peter is eclipsed in the inspired record of the book of Acts by the apostle Paul, and we no more read of Peter therein except at the meeting of the governing body of Christians in Jerusalem to consider the question as to whether Gentile converts to Christianity needed to be circumcised. On that occasion Peter related how Jehovah had used him to bring the good news to the Gentiles as proof that God no longer was making any distinction between Jew and Gentile and urged that they should not fasten a yoke upon these Gentile Christians that they themselves had been unable to bear.—Acts 15:7-11.
For further information about Peter we need to turn to his letters and particularly those of the apostle Paul. From Paul’s letters we learn that Peter resided for some years in Jerusalem, also in Antioch, and that Peter had not changed much but was still given to being swayed by emotion. How so? In that he was ashamed to be seen associating with Gentile Christians when certain Jewish Christians came down from Jerusalem; evidently such as did not fully appreciate that God no longer required circumcision. On that occasion Peter withdrew from his association with Gentile Christians—how hurt those Gentile Christians must have felt about that! Fittingly, for this Paul publicly rebuked him. Peter was chosen as head of a sect in Corinth and likely preached in the cities of northern Asia Minor that he mentions in his first letter.*—Gal. 1:17, 18; 2:1, 7-14; 1 Cor. 1:12; 1 Pet. 1:1.
LESSONS FOR CHRISTIANS TODAY
Truly the Scriptural record of the apostle Peter is a most interesting one. Colorful and impulsive, he was certain to have his “ups” and “downs.” His big, warm and honest heart made him quick to say and to act out what his fellow apostles most likely thought themselves. No doubt when they saw Jesus walking on the water they too thought, ‘What a wonderful thing to be able to do that!’ but it was only Peter who spoke and acted upon that sentiment by asking Jesus to enable him to do the same and then proceeding to do it! And most likely the others also were embarrassed when Jesus began to wash their feet, but only Peter spoke out, for it just did not seem right for his Master to be washing his feet! And in the garden of Gethsemane no doubt the others also felt righteous indignation, and at least one other had a sword, but it was Peter who impulsively acted in defense of his Master.
A review of Peter’s colorful life is most upbuilding spiritually. Above all, it is faith-strengthening. For example, there is the candor displayed by all the Bible writers that tell us about Peter, the four writers of the Gospels and the apostle Paul, that stamps their accounts as truth. Here is a person specially chosen by the Son of God to enjoy outstanding privileges among the apostles and he is not spared in the least! Only in the Bible could we find such a convincingly true-to-life portrait of a person of such colorful contrasts, so strong and yet weak in some respects, yes, so much like so many of us! Here was an outspoken man, of strong faith and yet encumbered with the weaknesses of a strong emotional nature, impulsive, going from one extreme to the other. The Bible record does not glorify him nor does it make excuses for him. His own honesty shines through in the fact that the record that deals most severely with his shortcomings, that of Mark, is the one that is based on what he himself said! Truly it is an honest record.
There is also a lesson of faith and encouragement for all Christians in that Peter remained faithful to the end. In spite of his repeated mistakes, he did not get discouraged or get bitter and quit, and neither, for that matter, did Jehovah or his Master, Jesus Christ, get impatient with him and cast him off. What a lesson for Christians when induced to get discouraged because of having been overcome by a fault! But our repentance must be genuine as was Peter’s, for we read that he “wept bitterly.”—Matt. 26:75.
And in the account of Peter we also see the big-heartedness of his Master, Jesus Christ. Jesus did not reject Peter because of his impulsiveness. Jesus was at all times governed by principled love, agape, not by sentiment or personal feelings. Thus while he preferred the apostle John, having special affection for him, he gave Peter many wonderful privileges. Truly, there is much of profit to be found in considering the Bible record of such a person as the colorful apostle Peter!
As for the claim that Peter went to Rome, see The Watchtower, March 1, 1966, pp. 150-55.