Saint Peter – the most outspoken apostle, the first Pope, the rock upon which Jesus built His church – is one of the greatest stories of redemption and love in the Bible. His bold faith that would ultimately change the world was gained from humble beginnings, repeated missteps and a stubborn trust that Jesus Christ was truly God.
It is nearly impossible to fully encompass all of Peter’s deeds in the Bible. His adventures are recounted throughout the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and numerous letters of St. Paul; his name appears a total of 187 times in the New Testament.
As prominent of a role Peter played in Jesus’ ministry, we know very little about his life prior to his conversion. Tradition places his birth in the 1st century BC, and he was originally named Simon. He lived in the village of Bethsaida, near the Sea of Galilee, and scripture (as well as most historians) point to him having been married. Him and his brother Andrew were both fisherman by trade and Peter owned his own boat.
It was in this boat that Peter’s life was changed forever. Matthew 4:18-19, Mark 1:16-17, and Luke 5:1-11 all depict Jesus encountering Peter as he was fishing on the Sea of Galilee. As the crowds listening to Jesus pressed in, He hopped into Peter’s boat and asked him to put out from the shore. Obeying the preacher, Peter rowed out so Jesus could continue to teach the people.
After Jesus finished speaking, He turned to Simon Peter to teach one of the most important lessons Peter would ever learn: trust in Him.
“When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”
Simon Peter, already sensing the prominence of Jesus by calling Him “master”, obliged the request, and upon seeing the miraculous catch of fish they procured, fell to his knees in front of Jesus.
“Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”
But Jesus instead called him deeper, replying, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” So, they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.”
The Gospel of John tells a slight variation of when Simon Peter first met Jesus, including an earlier name change than the other three Gospels. John 1:35-42 tells of Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, hearing John the Baptist cry out, “Look, the Lamb of God!” as Jesus passed by. After Andrew heard this, he immediately ran to find his brother and tell him, “We have found the Messiah.”
Jesus, meeting Simon for the first time, greeted Simon with a gift: a new name. “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter).”
In all of the Gospels, Jesus began to travel throughout the region after he had called His first disciples. He taught in synagogues, healed sicknesses and attracted large crowds everywhere He went. How awestruck must these first Apostles have been witnessing these miracles and hearing the Sermon on the Mount as written in Matthew 5. Just a few chapters later, Simon Peter witnesses a very personal miracle, as Jesus visits his mother-in-law, sick in bed with a fever. Matthew 8:14-15 tells of Jesus “touching her hand and the fever left her.” The faith of Peter was growing.
That faith would be tested though later in Matthew 8, when the experienced fisherman found himself caught in a furious storm while out in a boat with Jesus, who was sleeping. The Apostles, many of whom were likely still just beginning to grasp the divine abilities of Jesus, frantically awoke him saying “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”
Matthew 8:26: “He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.”
Sitting in the boat, an astonished Simon Peter stared at the calm waters which just seconds ago had been raging all around him. His faith was growing.
Another miracle that Jesus would perform not long thereafter points to Simon Peter beginning to form a particular group with James and John out of the twelve Apostles. When a synagogue leader named Jairus earnestly pleaded with Jesus to heal his dying daughter, as written in Mark 5:21-43, Jesus would eventually only bring Peter, James, and John into the home to witness the healing. Perhaps it was for them to witness the mourners laughing at Jesus as He announced “The child is not dead, but asleep” or maybe Jesus wished Peter to see those miraculous steps the little girl took towards Him after she was resurrected. No matter what Jesus’ motives, it’s clear that this trio of Apostles (who would also be the only ones present at the Transfiguration of Jesus and were called deeper by Jesus into the Garden of Gethsemane) were special.
It’s clear throughout the Bible that Simon Peter was essentially the “spokesman” of the twelve Apostles. Whenever they are all listed by name (Matthew 10:2-4; Mark 3:16–19; Luke 6:14–16; Acts 1:13), Peter is mentioned first. On a few occasions, when multiple Apostles were present or speaking, only Peter is specifically mentioned by name and the others are merely with him (Mark 1:36; Luke 8:45). His authority was recognizable by others as well; Matthew 17:24 tells of the collectors of the temple tax approaching Peter specifically to question him regarding Jesus.
Peter – displaying remarkable insight, developing a depth to his faith, but still harboring reservations and doubts – was the perfect representative of the Apostles, as stubborn and foolhardy as they often were. Matthew 14 and Matthew 16 both contain a monumental event in Peter’s life and both of them are preceded with a misstep or misunderstanding by the Apostles.
In Matthew 14, Jesus attempts to retreat to a solitary place following the death of John the Baptist. Crowds followed Him regardless, and while still mourning the loss of His close friend, Jesus “had compassion on them and healed their sick.” As night fell though, the worn-out disciples implored Jesus to dismiss the crowds so they would go away to buy themselves food and leave them alone.
Jesus, likely beginning to prepare the Apostles for their ministry following His ascension into heaven, replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” And while they could only muster five loaves and two fish, Jesus taught them an important lesson that night: despite their “little faith” (Matthew 8:26, 14:31, 16:8, 17:20), what they have is enough.
After five thousand were fed and twelve baskets of leftovers collected, Jesus instructed the disciples to get into a boat (a recurring location of transformative moments in Peter’s life) and meet Him on the other side. Jesus dismissed the crowds and retreated up the mountainside to pray alone.
As the night grew later, the Apostle’s boat traveled a “considerable distance from land” as the wind had picked up. As they continued to traverse across the lake and dawn approached, an impossible sight appeared: a man, Jesus himself, walking on the water.
Matthew 14:26-27: When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Do not be afraid.”
Then, Simon Peter took a leap of faith.
“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
“Come,” he said.
Simon Peter, a normal fisherman from Bethsaida, stepped out of the boat. Eyes fixed on Jesus, he began to walk across the water. But as the wind picked up, his gaze on the Lord wavered and he instead looked at the waves all around him. Afraid and sinking into the cold water, Simon Peter cried out, “Lord, save me!”
There was no hesitation at all by Jesus.
Matthew 14:31 – “Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”” Peter and Jesus returned to the boat, where the incredulous Apostles began to worship Jesus saying, ““Truly you are the Son of God.”
Two chapters later, the second prominent milestone of Peter would take place, and it was preceded with Jesus yet again questioning the Apostles and their little faith while in a boat.
Matthew 16:5-12 depicts Jesus and the Apostles traveling across a lake. The Apostles had forgotten to pack bread for their journey, and Jesus took the opportunity to begin teaching them to be on their guard against “the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” The Apostles took the words in a literal sense (as they too often did) and began to discuss the teaching among themselves, as they assumed it was a form of chastisement from Jesus brought forth due to their forgetfulness.
Matthew 16:7 – “They discussed this with one another and said, “It is because we have no bread.”
This reaction is unique for a number of reasons. Firstly, prior to this journey they had witnessed Jesus on multiple occasions supernaturally multiply bread right in front of them. Secondly, both scripture passages of this story (Mark 8:14-21 also tells of this moment) specifically displays them discussing this apparent chastisement by Jesus just among themselves, without including Jesus in the conversation.
The all-knowing Jesus immediately cuts into the chatter and makes it clear that His teaching is regarding something much more serious than baking ingredients.
Matthew 16:9 – Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
It’s not hard to imagine a stunned silence filling the boat, as Simon Peter and the other Apostles realized the profundity of Jesus’ words and the deeper meaning He was speaking to them. Arriving in the region of Caesarea Philippi, these thoughts were likely still swirling in Simon Peter’s head as Jesus turned to His disciples and asked: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
The first replies were hesitant and non-committal: “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
Then, Jesus presented the most important question they’d ever face.
Matthew 16:15 – “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
It was Simon Peter who stepped up for his second leap of faith.
Matthew 16:16 – “Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.””
This was the first outright proclamation by an Apostle that Jesus was truly the Messiah – the one promised by God to save His people. It was a significant moment, and the response by Jesus was also significant.
Matthew 16:17-18 – “Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”
Simon Peter had become the foundation of the future Catholic Church, but just a few verses later, it was clear that his sturdiness was still under construction.
With everything slowly falling into place for Jesus to fulfill His mission, He began to explain what was soon to come. Peter however, still riding high from being given the keys of the kingdom, wasn’t too fond of the idea of his closest friend going to Jerusalem to be killed.
Matthew 16:22 – “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!””
Jesus replied with a stinging rebuke of His own, one that likely cut Peter to the core.
Matthew 16:23 – “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.””
The teaching that followed from Jesus, as Peter stood reeling from the swift reproachment, was one that would shape the lives of many future holy men and women of the Catholic Church.
Matthew 16:24-25 – “Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.””
As sharp as this moment was for the future saint, Peter took it in stride. He experienced the wonder of the Transfiguration of Jesus just six days later, at which he had the unique opportunity of being interrupted by God Himself, speaking down from the clouds.
Matthew 17:4-5 – “Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!””
Peter and his fellow Apostles continued to do just that, but they found themselves dumbstruck while listening to Jesus on the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, as they sat around the table to eat: one of them would betray the Messiah and Peter would deny Jesus three times.
Jesus, alluding again to His death, had foretold the desertion of the Apostles and Peter’s response again resolutely denied this charge: “Even if I fall away on account of you, I never will.”
Matthew 17:34-35 – ““Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same.”
But try as he might to prevent Jesus from being taken away later that night, going so far as to strike the servant of the high priest with his sword and cut off his ear, Peter was forced to witness the betrayal of Judas and arrest of Jesus.
Peter, his world crashing down all around him, retreated to the courtyard as Jesus was brought before the high priests, who mocked and scorned his friend, his leader, the Son of Man.
First, a servant girl came to him: “You also were with Jesus of Galilee,” she said to Peter as Jesus was spit at and struck. He uttered his first denial – “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Then, a second slave woman noticed him and said to the people around them – “You too were with Jesus the Galilean.” As bloodthirsty cries for Jesus, who had called Peter out into the depths, to be put to death rung out in the courtyard, Peter denied him again – “I do not know the man.
And a final time, as more bystanders noticed his accent and came up to him with accusations, he began to curse and swear, crying out – “I do not know the man!”
Immediately, a rooster crowed, and the devastating words of Jesus Christ had come true: Peter had denied Jesus three times. Just before Jesus was led away to face Pontius Pilate, be crowned with thorns, and ultimately crucified upon Golgotha, He locked eyes with Peter, who was filled with sorrow. He left the courtyard and wept bitterly.
But the tomb would not remain occupied for long, and redemption was on its way to Peter.
All four Gospels tell of the Resurrection of Jesus, with the Gospel of John providing unique details to the discovery of the empty tomb.
After Mary Magdalene discovered the stone had been rolled away, it was Peter who she ran to in distress, believing someone to have taken the body of Jesus from the tomb. Simon and John immediately ran to the tomb, with John arriving first but remaining outside. Peter however, arrived at the tomb and went straight in. Stunned, Peter saw the strips of linen and the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head, lying on the ground. The immensity of what had happened was beginning to dawn on them.
Even when Mary Magdalene told them of her seeing Jesus risen from the dead, many of the Apostles were likely still in a state of tense disbelief while together later that day in the locked upper room. But before they knew it, Jesus was there, standing in their midst. He would appear in the room again a week later to prove He had returned to Thomas the Apostle, who had been absent at the first reappearance. But it was the third time Jesus appeared to His disciples after being raised from the dead that was most significant for Peter.
John 21:1-14 tells of the Apostles once again on the Sea of Galilee. Peter, likely still yearning for a chance to reconcile with Jesus after his denials, had returned to his original occupation and familiar pastime: fishing. In a reflection of the first time Peter had encountered Jesus, they were fishing without success until a man on the shore called out to them.
John 21:5-6 – “He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”
“No,” they answered. He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.”
The disciple whom Jesus loved immediately cried out “It is the Lord!” and that was all Peter needed to hear. Refusing to even wait for the boat to return to shore, Peter sprung into the water and swam the roughly hundred yards to shore, where Jesus was preparing a familiar breakfast of bread and fish.
It was after this meal that Jesus finally spoke to Peter, but the conversation did not go how the future saint likely expected.
John 21:15 – “When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.””
Twice more Jesus would ask Peter, “Do you love me?” and a perplexed Peter responded earnestly in affirmation but was hurt by what he perceived as a lack of trust between Jesus and himself on account of the repeated questions.
“Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you,” Peter responded to Jesus’ final question.
But it was not an absence of trust that had led Jesus to ask Peter three times, but instead an opportunity for redemption – the three denials of Jesus had now been countered with three declarations of love.
With that conversation Jesus reinstated Peter; the betrayal had been superseded by an ultimate act of forgiveness and love.
Peter was at the head of a flurry of activity following the Ascension of Jesus Christ, which is depicted clearly in the Acts of the Apostles. He was in charge of appointing the replacement of Judas Iscariot, he was the first to preach following the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (which was so powerful that 3,000 people asked to be baptized following his preaching), and he even was the first one to defend the Church by rendering judgement upon anyone who sought to damage it (the first case being Ananias and Sapphira for lying about their almsgiving).
He was even the first Apostle to perform a miracle of healing. A crippled beggar, cast down lame on the side of the road by some affliction, asked Peter for some money. While he had none on him, he instead told the man that in the name of Jesus the Nazarene, to arise and walk. Immediately cured of his lameness, the beggar stood up and was able to walk freely.
As the Apostles began to fan out across the regions, Peter was instrumental in spreading the message of Jesus, but not without coming into conflict with the Jewish authorities, still dismayed by the boldness being displayed by the followers of the man they had put to death.
Acts 4 tells of Peter and John being brought before the same high priests who had not long ago been spitting upon Jesus, to question their power to teach the people.
Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, delivered a matchless declaration that it was by the name of “Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead” that they did their mighty deeds.
The high priests were astonished that these “unschooled, ordinary men” could have such wisdom and courage and they quickly attempted to threaten and silence them. But it was the faith of Peter, growing steadily through every miracle and misstep he had experienced in his journey with Jesus Christ, that led him to boldly reply, “we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
Even when King Herod attempted to arrest and persecute some who belonged to Christ’s Church, including Peter, God had other plans for him.
Acts 12 depicts Peter, bound with chains, freed and guided out of the prison by an angel; an escape so miraculous that when he arrived at the house of Mary, the mother of John, he had to knock multiple times before they believed it was truly him to let him in!
On and on the stories continue, as Peter preached to countless regions and races, converting hearts for the Lord. We don’t know precisely the events towards the end of his life and details such as whether he ever physically resided in Rome, but testimony of Peter’s martyrdom is widespread.
Following the Great Fire of Rome in A.D. 64, the emperor Nero wished to place the blame on Christians for the fire that had destroyed their city. Three months after the fire, on the “dies imperii” of Nero assuming power (the ten-year anniversary of him ascending the throne), Church tradition tells of Peter being sentenced to death by crucifixion at Vatican Hill.
Peter had initially been encouraged to flee the city by his followers, in order to escape persecution, but stories tell of Peter coming across Christ, heading the other way as he fled the city.
Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus replied, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.”
Realizing he is about to make the same mistake he made when denying Jesus three times, Peter turned around to return to Rome and accept his martyrdom.
The death of Peter had been foretold by Jesus during that fateful breakfast next to the Sea of Galilee: “when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” However, Peter felt he was unworthy to die in the exact same manner that Jesus had, so he made one final request: to be crucified upside down.
Most historians believe he died between the ages of 62 and 67.
Most recounts of Saint Peter’s life tell of him having been buried in Rome near Vatican Hill. It was at his burial site that in the early 4th century, Emperor Constantine I built a large basilica in honor of Peter. The exact location of Peter’s body and relics were largely a mystery until 1950, when human bones were discovered beneath the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica. Believing these to belong to Saint Peter, an excavation began in 1953 that unearthed St. Peter’s tomb in Jerusalem (bearing the name Simon) as well as the tombs of other apostles.
More excavations were conducted in the 1960s, which eventually led to Pope Paul VI in 1968 announcing that the relics they had discovered belonged to the Apostle Peter. Finally, on November 24, 2013, Pope Francis revealed the relics of nine bone fragments for the first time to the public during a Mass celebrated in the very square that bore Peter’s name.
Jesus did not coddle the twelve Apostles. He loved them and cared for them deeply, but He was unafraid to correct the course of their words and actions. Fully God and fully man, He purposely selected fallible, fragile humans to be His closest followers. Saint Peter, an inquisitive, brash, hopeful follower of Christ, was the perfect leader of this group and provided the foundation for the Church we still love and cling to today.
As the waves of our life rise, and the winds blow all around us, may we keep our eyes on Jesus as Peter did, and walk towards him with trust and faith.