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The Rock. The Big Fisherman. The Betrayer. Each of these sobriquets has been applied to Simon Peter. Will the real Simon Peter please stand up?

The names given to Peter all fit him in one way or another. Like all of us, Peter was a complex person; no one is truly one-dimensional. At different times and under different circumstances Peter behaved in different manners. At times he was timid and weak, cowering before accusers. At other times he was bold and heroic, standing up against those in positions of power.

Peter earned a reputation for being somewhat impetuous. John names the disciple (who is unnamed in the Synoptic Gospels) who cut off the right ear of the high priest’s servant, Malchus, during Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane. It was Peter who took that precipitous and reckless action.

That same impetuosity appeared again when Jesus warned Peter that Satan would sift him as wheat. Peter answered proudly, “ ‘Lord, I am ready to go with You, both to prison and to death’ ” (Luke 22:33). In reality, Peter was not ready to join Jesus either in prison or in death. Instead, he fulfilled Jesus’ prediction that he would betray Him:

“Having arrested Jesus, they led Him and brought Him into the high priest’s house. But Peter followed at a distance. Now when they had kindled a fire in the midst of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. And a certain servant girl, seeing him as he sat by the fire, looked intently at him and said, ‘This man was also with Him.’ But he denied Him, saying, ‘Woman, I do not know Him.’ And after a little while another saw him and said, ‘You also are of them.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I am not!’ Then after about an hour had passed, another confidently affirmed, saying, ‘Surely this fellow also was with Him, for he is a Galilean.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I do not know what you are saying!’ ” (Luke 22:54–60a).

At this point, Matthew notes that Peter prefaced his third denial with curses and swearing. Luke then adds a poignant detail:

“Immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord … and went out and wept bitterly” (Luke 22:60b–62).

There is irony here. In the space of a little more than an hour, Peter fell under the careful scrutiny of two people. The first was a servant girl, who fixed her gaze intently upon him before accusing him of being one connected to Jesus. This provoked Peter’s first denial. Then, immediately following his third denial, Peter was the object of the gaze of Christ. It was a knowing stare. No words were exchanged; none needed to be. I doubt that any human being in all history was subjected to a more devastating look than the one Peter received from the soon-to-be-executed Jesus. It is no wonder that Peter went out and wept bitterly.

After the Resurrection, after Pentecost, and with the memory of the transfigured Jesus still vivid in his mind, Peter became the pillar of the apostolic church in Jerusalem.

The inconsistency of Peter’s behavior may be seen not only in the contrast between this shameful denial and his subsequent fearless behavior before the authorities of this world, but also in his capacity for change in short intervals of time.

It was at Caesarea Philippi that Simon was given the name “Peter.” The change was made in direct response to his confession regarding the identity of Jesus. When Jesus asked His disciples, “ ‘Who do you say that I am?’ ” Simon replied, “ ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ ” Jesus then declared: “ ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church’ ” (Matt. 16:15–18a).

Simon was now called “Petros,” or “Rock.” Yet, presumably only moments later, Jesus gave him still another name. Jesus had just explained to Peter and the others that He had to go to Jerusalem to suffer and die. To this announcement Peter said, “ ‘Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!’ ” (v. 22).

Then came the new name: “ ‘Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men’ ” (v. 23).

From “Rock” to “Satan.” From benediction to rebuke. From praise to offense. All in a short space of time.

Peter’s volatility gradually gave way to rock-hard steadfast faith. After the Resurrection, after Pentecost, and with the memory of the transfigured Jesus still vivid in his mind, Peter became the pillar of the apostolic church in Jerusalem. His dramatic sermon on the Day of Pentecost was followed by the healing of the lame man by the gate Beautiful. When the lame man begged for alms, Peter said, “ ‘silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk’ ” (Acts 3:6). The man departed walking, leaping, and praising God.

But not everyone was pleased about this episode. The authorities, troubled by apostles’ preaching of the Resurrection, had Peter and John cast into prison. Then, before the authorities (not a mere servant girl), Peter preached a courageous sermon, provoking even more hostility from them. They therefore commanded Peter and John to speak no more of Jesus. But the apostles replied: “ ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard’ ” (Acts 4:19–20).

The authorities saw a different Peter … a transformed Peter. With characteristic understatement, Luke records: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marveled. And they realized that they had been with Jesus” (v. 13).

Here is the crux of the matter, the key that unlocks the personality of Peter—he was a man who had been with Jesus.

Crooked Sticks

Equal Among Firsts

Keep Reading The Many Facets of the Fisherman

From the March 2002 Issue
Mar 2002 Issue