Peter is a key player in the birth of Christianity, a disciple of Jesus and apostle of the early church. In the gospels, he is cast as an important support actor, the leader and spokesperson of the twelve and a member of Jesus’ inner circle with the sons of Zebedee. In Acts, he moves centre stage. Oscar Cullmann divides his life into three stages: disciple, apostle and martyr.
Peter birth name was Simon, a Greek name like Andrew, his brother and Phillip, who all came from the border town of Bethsaida on the eastern bank of the Jordan river. Simon and Andrew were fishermen, who worked alongside James and John (Mk 1.16-20). As a small businessman, Peter was probably bilingual, speaking Aramaic and Greek. Like most of the disciples he would have spoken with a strong Galilean accent (Mk 14.70).
Mark paints a warts and all picture, including failure at key moments and later restoration. The early church Father Papias, tells us that Mark travelled with Peter for many years, as his interpreter. Mark’s Gospel therefore is likely to be closely based on Peter’s preaching and probably tells Peter’s own version of his story. He comes across as brash and impulsive, but also brave and passionate. Matthew and Luke give a more positive account of Peter’s journey of discipleship, perhaps because they see him as a model disciple.
Peter or Cephas(Aramaic, ‘Rock’; Gk Petros) is the name that Jesus gives to Peter after his confession (Mt 16). At the same time, Jesus also gave Peter ‘the keys of the kingdom’. Peter uses these keys at pivotal moments in the foundation of the church. Cephas is also the name that Paul uses when he talks about Peter.
In Acts, Peter quickly becomes the leader of the apostles and the newly formed Christian movement in Jerusalem. He is the clear leader of the mission to the Jewish world, which is mostly focused in Jerusalem, in spite of Jesus’ final commission and command (Mt. 28.19-20).
Peter continues in his role as the main spokesperson, having most of the speaking parts in the first few chapters, preaching at Pentecost (Ac. 2) and Solomon’s colonnade after healing the man crippled from birth at the Beautiful gate of the temple (Ac. 3). He gives the defence to the Jewish council (Ac.4) and boldly refuses to bow to their demands to stop preaching – ‘we will obey God, not you’(4.19).
Later, Peter exercises terrifying judgment on Ananias and Sapphira (Ac. 5) and leads the apostles in ‘performing many miraculous signs and wonders among the people’(5.12-16) resulting in their second arrest (5.17-33). Again, Peter is the main spokesperson before the Sanhedrin, giving a fearless defence at this trial. At this point, Luke shifts his attention to Stephen, Phillip and the conversion of Saul of Tarsus.
Luke’s record of Peter’s sermons gives us an insight into how the earliest Christians told Jesus’ story. C.H. Dodd, in his landmark study Apostolic Preaching, identified six elements that feature in Peter’s sermons in Acts 2-4:
- The age of fulfillment has dawned;
- This has happened through the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (with proofs from scripture);
- Resurrection means that Jesus is exalted to God’s right hand as Messiah and the head of the new Israel;
- The Holy Spirit is given as the sign of Jesus’ presence, power and glory in the church;
- The messianic age will soon conclude with Jesus’ return in glory;
- close with appeal for repentance, offer of forgiveness of sins, the Holy Spirit and salvation (which is the life of the age to come).