Jesus’ Life-Changing Relationship with Simon Peter

By Chris Pain 05 Jun 2007

The transformation of Simon, a Galilean fisherman, to Peter, leader of a religious movement prepared to challenge and defy the Jewish and Roman authorities, is a story of enduring power and has provided hope and inspiration for Christians throughout the ages. In this article we can only highlight some key moments in the relationship between Jesus and Simon Peter that caused this transformation.

A Call To Follow Jesus

Mark and Matthew’s description of the call of Peter and Andrew is brief. Jesus sees them, calls them and they obey. The gospel writers clearly intend to portray Jesus’ authority as the one who calls and the appropriate response to this call. For our purposes it is the content of the call that is important; it is first and foremost a call to follow Jesus, to be in relationship with him. This is the foundation of all the other aspects of the relationship that we will explore. In fact the call to follow Jesus is so important that Jesus’ last words to Peter, recorded this time in John’s gospel, are also ‘Follow me.’

Jesus seeks a relationship with Peter, but its particular shape is inevitably defined by the fact that Jesus is the Master, Peter the disciple. Jesus prophetically calls Peter to a new way of life and living as a fisher of men. It is significant that Jesus tells Peter of his new role so early in their master–disciple relationship. He wants Peter to be clear about the nature of their relationship and the goal towards which they are aiming.

To this end, Jesus renames Simon. He knew that Simon was not yet the rock ( petros ), but needed to be shaped and trained into that character and role. A key purpose, therefore, for Jesus in his relationship with Peter is to accomplish this training so that Peter becomes the rock, able to fulfil his calling as a fisher of men.

Given that Jesus gives Peter a unique role, we might also expect to see him giving particular attention to Peter and his development as a disciple and there are hints of this in the gospel accounts. Peter is one of the ‘inner circle’ with James and John. They are singled out to spend extra time with Jesus and are given the privilege of seeing the raising of the Synagogue Ruler’s daughter from the dead, witnessing the Transfiguration, and keeping watch with Jesus in Gethsemane. They receive teaching along with Andrew about the end of the age. Peter also has a one-to-one question-and-answer session with Jesus about the Temple Tax and has the privilege, apparently unique among the disciples, of hosting Jesus.

Peter’s Confession And Jesus’ Rebuke

A crucial moment in the relationship between Jesus and Peter is Peter’s confession. Luke often shows Jesus in prayer at key points, including prior to Peter’s confession. The implication is that Jesus’ prayers are answered in some way by it. Jesus has prayed to the Father, who has given Peter insight to understand that Jesus is the Messiah.

The confession that Peter makes, as spokesman for the disciples, is a significant one. As a result, Jesus appoints Peter to a key role in the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus reaffirms Peter as the rock because he understands who Jesus is; it is the quality of his relationship with Jesus, based on the knowledge revealed to him, that makes him suitable for this role.

However, when Peter presumes to take Jesus to one side and rebuke him for talking of dying, Jesus’ response is sharp and immediate ‘Get behind me Satan!’ The strength of this response is shocking; how should it be explained?

One possible explanation is that Jesus is himself struggling with this aspect of his vocation (as we see clearly in Gethsemane) and needs to be decisive in resisting the temptation that Peter offers, just as he was when directly tempted by Satan. A further explanation is that Jesus knows Peter’s need to accept Jesus’ words and authority if he is to become the rock and fisher of men that he should. Peter unwittingly stands in opposition to the central act of Jesus’ vocation from the Father and needs to understand the peril of doing so. Any lesser or gentler rebuke to Peter would have been a disservice to him, underplaying the seriousness of his actions.

Peter’s strength of character also requires a sustained moulding process. Whilst we are not told why Peter is so opposed to the idea of Jesus dying, it seems likely that he is expecting Jesus to be some kind of political Messiah, and that Jesus’ exaltation to the throne of Israel will also mean glory for Peter, reinforcing the need for Jesus’ strong correction. We can also see the extent of the change that takes place in Peter for he eventually submits to Jesus’ will and no longer seeks his own glory. [1]

Walking On Water

Peter’s strength of character was also an asset and on another occasion we see Jesus seeking to channel it towards a deeper faith. In this incident, recorded by Matthew, Peter and the other disciples have spent a busy period of ministry with Jesus. They have tried to take rest together in a solitary place, but the crowds have continued to pursue them. Jesus then involves the disciples in an amazing miracle when he feeds over 5,000 people, before dismissing them to cross the lake in a boat.

The disciples have encountered a storm and have been battling the weather for many hours. When Jesus approaches them it is between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. They must have been physically exhausted, not only from their ministry, but also from their fight with the storm. They possibly feel abandoned by Jesus. However, their principal emotion when they see what they believe to be a ghost approaching is fear. In Peter this emotion is quickly reversed when he sees that it is Jesus. His instinct is to get to where Jesus is. Whilst we might consider that his behaviour is just another example of typically impulsive Peter, and the request to walk with Jesus on such rough and stormy water an ill-considered gesture, Jesus does not condemn but seeks to encourage his faith.

Peter’s question ‘Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water’ assumes that it is Jesus and should be read as a statement of faith, rather than an identity check. [2] Jesus’ response of ‘Come’ is entirely consistent with his initial call for Peter to follow him. Peter, inconsistent with this calling at other moments, wants to obey now in this unusual situation. This ‘getting-out-of-the-boat’ faith that he displays is precisely the kind he will need later on and Jesus’ response to Peter’s subsequent failure is not to condemn his initial faith, but the inconsistency and double-mindedness that he displays in sustaining it. [3] Jesus wants more of this kind of faith from Peter.

Peter’s Denial And Restoration

Whilst all of Jesus’ interactions with Peter can be understood as being loving and motivated by Peter’s best interests, a few insights noted by the gospel writers show us the depth of his concern. Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial is one example of this. At the time it was given, it clearly dispirited and concerned Peter and the other disciples. In retrospect, however, Peter would have been reassured that although Jesus knew in advance of his betrayal, it did not disqualify him from a relationship with Jesus, or a position as his disciple.

Luke’s account gives us particular insight. Jesus begins his prediction with the words ‘Simon, Simon’. The repetition demonstrates a sense of grief, of kindness and of love; Luke uses it to highlight moments of particular emotion that Jesus experiences. Here, Jesus is particularly moved by the trial that he knows Peter will undergo and his use of Simon, rather than Peter, underlines this. All of Simon’s progress towards becoming Peter will be knocked back in this one incident.

Although Satan has asked to sift all the disciples (the Greek ‘you’ is plural), Jesus has prayed for Simon especially that his faith will not fail. Jesus is concerned to guard his relationship with Peter, which, at the moment of his testing and in the future, will be based upon faith. We have already noted Luke’s theme of demonstrating the nature and effectiveness of Jesus’ prayer life as a major source of blessing to his disciples. Luke is clear: Peter will survive the ordeal because Jesus has prayed for him. It displays one of the ways in which his relationship with Peter and his relationship with the Father interact. Jesus has particular concern for Peter in his trial as he will be the only disciple to betray Jesus in such a public fashion. He is also concerned that Peter will come through his ordeal and become the rock he should be. Jesus expects Peter to eventually strengthen the other disciples.

Jesus’ concern and love for Peter is also shown in his post-resurrection conversation in John 21. He takes the time aside (although possibly not out of earshot of the other disciples) to reinstate Peter and demonstrate his forgiveness. Although Peter is hurt by Jesus’ third repetition of his question ‘Do you love me?’, Jesus is gently forcing a threefold declaration of his love that mirrors his threefold denial.

Furthermore, the repetition requires Peter to declare ‘Lord you know all things…’ and throw himself in reliance back on Jesus. Rather than the previous episodes where Peter has demonstrated a penchant for extravagant claims of loyalty, here he keeps the declaration simple and appeals to Jesus to weigh his words. There has been progress in Peter’s relationship with Jesus as Peter responds in a more appropriate manner than he has on previous occasions.

Thus, even in this brief overview, we can see how his relationship with Jesus brought about a dramatic change in Simon Peter.

If you would like to learn more about Peter’s relationship with Jesus and other lessons from Jesus’ relationships, see the new Jubilee Centre report, Towards an understanding of Jesus’ relationships

[1] cf. Acts 5:41.

[2] Hagner, Matthew 14–28 , p.424.

[3] Hagner, p.424.

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