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For centuries, the character of the apostle Peter and his relationship to Jesus has been the subject of much discussion. In fact, Peter’s place in the New Testament (NT) has even proven to be a divisive issue between Christians of various backgrounds.
I am not going to make these disagreements the central point of this article, though most of what I cover will speak to these matters. Rather, I am mainly concerned with evaluating Peter’s relationship with Jesus and how people of faith might appropriately understand one of the NT’s most important characters.
And make no mistake about it: Peter is easily one of the most important characters in the NT, if not the entire Bible. The Gospels—primarily the “synoptics”—affirm that Peter was one of three apostles who Jesus took into his inner circle. Of the twelve apostles Jesus called, only brothers John and James (sons of Zebedee), and Peter were given this distinction. Since Jesus was actually a cousin to John and James (Jn. 19:25-27)—together called the “Sons of Thunder” (Mk. 3:17)—Peter’s acceptance as a non-relative was both powerful and telling.
Being part of Jesus’ inner circle meant that Peter would be privy to things that most the other apostles were not. Peter was able to see Jesus raise Jairus’ daughter from the dead (Mk. 5:37-43). In the Garden of Gethsemane—before Jesus would be apprehended and taken to his eventual demise—Jesus selected only Peter, John and James to accompany him to a private place of prayer (Mk 14:32-34).
Most notably, Peter was brought to attend Jesus’ Transfiguration (discussed later).
If we look at the book of Acts—which is really the second part of Luke’s Gospel—Peter is given priority throughout the entire first part of the book (cc. 1-12). He clearly plays a prominent role in the first church council (Acts 15) and is considered to be a pillar of the church. While the authorship of these books tends to be hotly debated, Peter is also traditionally credited for writing two letters of the NT: 1 and 2 Peter.
Between the Gospels, the book of Acts, and 1 and 2 Peter, no one can deny that Peter’s life and teachings cast a large shadow over the narrative of Scripture.
Of course, being given such an in-depth glimpse at Peter’s role in Jesus’ ministry and the life of the early church reveals some blemishes, too. On one occasion, Jesus gave Peter some of the harshest words recorded in the NT:
“Jesus turned and said to Peter: Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns” (Mt. 16:23)
What caused Jesus to use such harsh words with Peter?
In short, Peter enjoyed his privileged position as a close disciple of the most famous rabbi of the day (and history). Peter wanted no part of Jesus giving his life away, because that would mark the “end of the ride,” so to speak. As a result, Peter took the great Rabbi aside and reprimanded him:
“Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. ‘Never, Lord!’ he said. ‘This shall never happen to you!” (Mt. 16:22).
In doing so, Peter not only broke with showing his rabbi respect but was essentially trying to convince Jesus not to fulfill his purpose on the Cross. Hence, Jesus returned Peter’s rebuke in stern fashion.
Curiously, this event came very shortly after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah (Mt. 16:13-20). No sooner did Peter ace his most important test that he blew the next one. This is a common theme for Peter. On another occasion, he saw Jesus walking on rough seas towards their boat and asked if he could come out to meet him (Mt. 14:22-32). Peter actually began walking on the water like Jesus until his own fear seized him and he began to sink. Jesus delivered a harsh pronouncement:
“You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
[On a humorous side note, he did something of the sort again later. Seeing Jesus on the shore, Peter proceeded to excitedly jump half naked into the water to swim to him! Personally, I envision Forrest Gump’s response after seeing Lt. Dan, seen here.]
Then there was Peter’s comment during the Transfiguration. Though he had been taken to observe one of the most miraculous events in Jesus’ ministry, he couldn’t help but put forth an absurd—though probably well-intentioned—comment. After seeing Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus on the mountain, Peter proposed that they should all stay up there instead of returning to continue Jesus’ ministry: “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah” (Lk. 9:33). The notion was so misguided that even the Gospel writer, Luke, made a special comment about it (9:33)!
That’s right: the proposal was bad enough that Luke’s commentary on the event was forever ingrained in Scripture!
In a sense, these events serve as a microcosm of Peter’s character. He was exuberant about Jesus and was often the first to react. On the other hand, this compulsion sometimes revealed his lack of faith and understanding.
To return to Peter’s most serious shortcomings, let’s examine the most famous example. Peter denied his association with Jesus three times, after Jesus had been taken captive by the Roman authorities. Questioned every which way about his involvement with Jesus, Peter thoroughly denounced him (Lk. 22:54-62).
It is popularly believed—even among certain scholars—that Jesus reinstated Peter after the Resurrection. This event is called the “Restoration of Peter.” While meeting with the apostles on the seashore, Jesus asked Peter three times if he “loves” him, to which Peter responds that he does love Jesus. To some, this means that Peter had redeemed himself for his three denials.
However, other thinkers (including me) view this differently. Jesus used a form of the term agapaó, which often represents a very strong form of love (as in John 3:16). Peter responded with a form of the term phileó, which can functionally be the same but may represent a lesser intensity. The first two times, Jesus uses agapaó and Peter responds with phileó. On the last occasion, Jesus now switches to phileó, thus perhaps suggesting that he had lowered the bar.
This may have been Jesus’ way of saying, “Peter, do you even have affection for me?”
As numerous scholars have pointed out, it is true that the terms agapaó and phileó were often used interchangeably within the Gospel of John. But in the context of this one exchange, it seems highly unlikely that the words have no deeper meaning. The difference in terms sticks out like a sore thumb, frankly. More than that, the text specifically notes that Peter “was grieved” when Jesus questioned him the third time (21:7). If Jesus was simply smoothing things over and reinstating Peter, Peter himself didn’t get that impression.
One does not become grieved if they feel good about the conversation, right?
Even when Peter was selected to privately join Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane—a privilege that only he, John and James were given—Peter came up short. Jesus specifically told his three closest followers to “Stay here and keep watch” (Mk. 14:34). Jesus ventured off by himself to pray for a short time and returned to see the three men fast asleep. He specifically called out Peter, saying, “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour?” (Mk. 14:37).
Besides these examples, Peter was also called out for hypocrisy by the apostle Paul. Paul explained in his letter to the Galatians:
“But when Peter came to Antioch, I had to oppose him to his face, for what he did was very wrong. When he first arrived, he ate with the Gentile believers, who were not circumcised. But afterward, when some friends of James came, Peter wouldn’t eat with the Gentiles anymore. He was afraid of criticism from these people who insisted on the necessity of circumcision. As a result, other Jewish believers followed Peter’s hypocrisy, and even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy” (Gal. 2:11-13)
With all this said, it would be incredibly unfair to leave our discussion of Peter on this note. It is true that he was whimsical, sometimes spiritually dim, and that it took him a long time to truly figure things out.
But figure it out, he did.
Acts reveals that Peter performed many great signs and was an extremely well-respected leader of the church after the Ascension. In fact, people believed so much in Peter’s ability to heal that they brought the sick into the streets in the hopes that his shadow might fall on them (5:15)!
Further, Peter very bravely went before the Sanhedrin, declaring: “We must obey God rather than men” (5:29). The risk of being imprisoned and persecuted was no longer a concern for Peter. Finally, there is very strong evidence that Peter was ultimately martyred for his faith. There is no greater display of faith than martyrdom.
So, what is the verdict to the original question: Did Jesus favor Peter?
To me, the answer is both yes and no. There is no refuting the fact that Peter was part of Jesus’ inner circle. As such, this was certainly an indication of the closeness he shared with Jesus and that he was going to be used for special purposes. Jesus engaged with Peter at some of the most critical times in his ministry, inviting him to private occasions and allowing him to see the Transfiguration. Clearly, he even empowered Peter to perform signs and miracles, as evidenced in the book of Acts.
However, did Jesus favor Peter to the extent of making him the leader of the entire church and giving him control over heaven and earth? No, not by a long shot.
While it is important to note that Jesus gave Peter the “keys of the Kingdom of heaven” after he correctly recognized that Jesus is the Messiah (Mt. 16:19), this cannot be viewed in isolation. Just two chapters later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus in fact tells his collection of apostles that they all have power to “bind” and “loose” things in heaven and on earth (Mt. 18:18). The “you” statements are plural!
After the events described within the first portion of Acts, the apostle Paul clearly takes center stage and does so for the remainder of the NT. This is even true in terms of authorship, with Paul having about 6-7 times the number of biblical writings than Peter.
If Peter was intended to be the sole head and authority of the early church, it doesn’t seem that everyone else got the memo. Despite his privileged position within Jesus’ inner circle and in Acts 1-12, the plain truth is that Scripture does not elevate Peter above all other followers of Christ (particularly John, James and Paul).
Going a step farther, Jesus mentioned that, “ . . . whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (Jn. 14:12). Those who follow Jesus—those within the church—are given the power in the Kingdom. The Holy Spirit empowers all who believe.
Along those lines, one reason Peter’s life was so important is because he was very much “one of us.” Peter was excited about his relationship with Christ and, though he slipped up on more than one occasion, he never stopped actively seeking God and relying on His grace. To me, this is exactly what his dialogue with Jesus on the seashore was all about (Jn. 21:15-19). While he did not give Jesus the perfect response, Jesus still invited him to continue the journey of spiritual growth.
More than that, Jesus did not cast him aside. He told Peter to keep going: to keep working at his faith. Jesus ended his dialogue with this clear message to Peter: “Follow me!”
Fellow believers should view Peter with respect and admiration, appreciating his relationship with Christ and his role in the early church. He became a fine man of faith who was willing to give his life for the sake of getting Christianity off the ground. However, to view him as having powers that exceeded the rest of the apostles or as the first in a mortal line that would have dominion over the church is clearly a step too far.
We can truly appreciate the person of Peter without turning him into something that neither he nor the rest of the earliest church intended.
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 The “synoptic Gospels” is a name given to Matthew, Mark and Luke. The name means “seen together,” and reflects the fact that these three accounts share a great deal of similarities (events, order of events, parables, etc.).