Who was the Apostle Peter, according to Scripture? I’m not asking about the things passed down by history and tradition, which may be subject to embellishment, error, or misunderstanding. I’m asking what the Bible, which is inspired of God, teaches.
“Peter” was a sort of nickname Jesus gave to a man named Simon (Matthew 4:18; 10:2). Jesus appointed him, along with his brother Andrew, to serve as an Apostle (Mark 3:16). He was Jewish but not a priest or a scribe, meaning he did not possess the highest level of training in the Scriptures and Jewish traditions. Instead, Peter and his brother were fishermen (Mark 1:16).
Peter is well-known for denying Jesus three times, which led Jesus to reinstate and re-commission him three times (John 21:15-17). The rooster weathervane (pictured above) was placed upon churches as early as the 6th century as a symbol of this denial, since it occurred when the rooster crowed. The weathervane reminded worshipers of Peter each week – not a reminder of his grandeur and success, but of his failure and the need for humility – lest they, like Peter, deny Christ.
The Inner Circle
Along with James and John – and sometimes Andrew (Mark 13:3ff.) – Peter was part of Jesus’s “inner circle.” While the Twelve were privy to the majority of Christ’s private ministry, Peter, James, and John had access to all of it, including such events as the raising of a small girl from the dead (Mark 5:37ff.), the transfiguration (Matthew 10:2ff.; Mark 9:2ff.), and Christ’s extreme anguish in Gethsemane (Mark 14:33ff.). They did not keep those events to themselves for long, though. They were publicly preached and written down after the arrival of the Spirit at Pentecost.
Spokesman of the Apostles
The Bible gives no indication that Jesus appointed Peter to lead the Twelve, but he was certainly the first to speak up. When he, James, and John saw Jesus transfigured on the mountain, Peter suggested that they construct tents (Mark 9:5-6). When Jesus taught about the impossibility of entering heaven by works, Peter exclaimed on the Disciples’ behalf, “We have left everything and followed you!” (Mark 10:28). When Jesus asked the Disciples “But who do you say that I am?” Peter replied, “You are the Christ!” (Mark 8:29-30). His zeal could be commendable, and it could get him into trouble.
Matthew 16 & 18 and “the Rock”
Surely the most controversial thing about Peter is his relationship to the Church, and it is here that we must take some time. The Roman Catholic Church assigns Peter the “primacy” among the Apostles. According to them, Peter is the source of all authority and unity in the Church. In other words, the other Apostles would have had no authority if they diverged from Peter. This is of great significance because Roman Catholicism then asserts, without any biblical warrant, that this primacy is bestowed upon every successive bishop of Rome (i.e., the Pope).
The biblical text does not support the incredible claims of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Yes, it is true that Jesus called Peter “the Church’s rock” when the latter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah. But we must recognize that Jesus bestowed the same honor upon the other Apostles. Peter, the first to call Jesus “the Christ,” became an object lesson for the others. Just as Peter was entrusted with the keys of the kingdom in Matthew 16, after his correct confession, the other Apostles are entrusted with that same authority in Matthew 18. The Apostles did not receive the keys of the kingdom from Peter but directly from Jesus Christ.
If Matthew 16 does not teach Petrine primacy, what does it teach? Consider the text carefully. Why does Jesus call Simon “Rock” (aka “Peter”)? Because Simon confessed Him to be “Christ.” Simon and his true confession are linked together, making him Peter (a foundational “rock” for the church) in that moment. But note what happens next: Simon objects to Jesus going to the cross. What does Jesus, then, call Simon? Is he Peter/Rock? No! Jesus calls him Satan! These names cannot be absolute; otherwise, Simon is “Satan” just as much as he is “Peter/Rock.” Jesus made an example of Simon. If the Apostles were to serve as “rocks” for the Church, they needed to always remain faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ. If they didn’t, they, like Simon, would relate to the Church as satanic opposition, not as foundational rocks.
The Teaching of the New Testament
Let’s say that Peter had received primacy in Matthew 16. Wouldn’t you expect something that is of such incredible importance to be taught elsewhere in Scripture? It is not.
In Ephesians 2:20, the Apostles and Prophets are together called the foundation of the Church, which can only mean that they are all foundational “rocks” for the new creation Temple. The same is the case in Revelation 21:14; the names of all the Apostles are the foundation of the walls of the New Jerusalem. The primacy of Peter is nowhere to be found.
If Peter had primacy and were the unifying figure of the Church, surely Ephesians 4 would be the place to deliver that teaching, since it is all about the unity of the Church. Yet, Paul speaks about the Church’s unity in these seven terms: one [Church] body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father. The Church finds seven-fold unity, perfect unity, in those things. Notice that Peter is not mentioned; instead, what is mentioned is the apostolic message. The Twelve Apostles all shared the same office, the same power, the same message.
If Peter had primacy, the other Apostles and church leaders would have recognized it in their actions, right? The Apostles, after all, were there when Jesus called him “Rock.” But did they treat him as one with primacy, as the bishop of bishops? Again, the answer is no.
Recall the time when Peter lived hypocritically, denying justification by faith alone with his actions. Paul did not submit to Peter and find his apostolic unity in Peter; rather, Paul opposed him to his face, because he stood as one condemned (Galatians 2:1-14). When the doctrine of justification was discussed in Jerusalem, no one looked to Peter for guidance (Acts 15:1-21). In fact, there’s no record of Peter uttering a single word. James made the speech that won over the Apostles and elders and brought unity to the Church’s teaching.
If Peter were the source of unity, how could Paul rebuke him and say that he stood condemned?! If Peter were the fount of unity, why was his voice silent in Jerusalem?! Why were the other Apostles given the very same authority, i.e., the office of the keys, in Matthew 18? And why is there no mention of Peter’s primacy in either Ephesians 2:20, Ephesians 4, or Revelation 21:14?
Author of Two Letters
Peter’s two letters articulate a message that is very different from those that claim to succeed him as “bishop of Rome.” He makes no mention of Mary, “saints,” a sacrifice of the Mass, or a church hierarchy. Instead, we find in his letters a love for the gospel of Jesus Christ, who bore our sins in His crucifixion (1 Peter 2:24). Jesus suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous (1 Peter 3:18). His suffering is finished – the sacrifice is finished – which produces Christian holiness and hope.
Peter’s writings also demonstrate a great love for the Bible. His letters are filled with direct quotes and allusions to the Old Testament. He celebrates the preaching of the Bible. He teaches us that the Old Testament Prophets were all leading us to Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:10-12). He encourages the churches to read Paul’s letters, though he acknowledges that some things in them are difficult (2 Peter 3:15-16). To avoid false teachers, Peter instructs us to devote ourselves to the written word, Holy Scripture, since it is inspired of God (2 Peter 1:16-2:3). He does not direct us to unwritten traditions or a Roman hierarchy.
Who are the priests Peter knows? The entire church is a priesthood (1 Peter 2:9)! But don’t some Christians have a higher standing with God, perhaps Mary, the Apostles, priests, or the saints? No! We have an equal standing with the Apostles by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:1).
Similarly, Peter shows no awareness of purgatory. He celebrates that the Return of Jesus Christ will bring glory to all believers, past, present, and future (1 Peter 1:3-9; 2 Peter 3:10-13).
Who is Peter? He was one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ. Along with the others, he delivered the gospel message to the world through his preaching and writing, being enthralled with the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection for sinners. Peter was very fallible, a true sinner like us. Thus, the message of Peter is not one of glory and primacy, but it is the message of the weathervane – one of betrayal, humility, and forgiveness. We show him honor, not by bowing the knee to him, but by learning from him and looking to Jesus for forgiveness.