POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

Peter: Disciple, Apostle and Witness for Jesus Christ

Introduction

One of the most compelling and interesting figures in the New Testament is a man named Simon Peter. He is in full focus and featured quite often in the Gospel of Mark. There is a rich church tradition and history which holds that John Mark actually wrote down the accounts of Peter in his gospel. When we come to Mark’s gospel we not only read about Peter’s life with Jesus but perhaps we hear echoes of his own voice and eyewitness accounts.

In this essay I want to do a few ambitious things.  First, I want to lay out a brief sketch of Peter’s life and biography from the New Testament. Second I want to briefly look at how Peter is featured and focused upon in the Gospel of Mark. Finally, for contemporary reflection, I will provide a postscript to discuss the Roman Catholic papacy in relation to the claim that Peter was the first pope. In writing this essay it is my hope and prayer that we will see Peter the man not the superman or Saint with a capital S on his chest. My desire is that we see a real person with real faith in Jesus whose life was transformed by his Lord. Then we might understand how Peter, and the other early Christians, went on to powerfully transform our world through the gospel they proclaimed.

Peter in the New Testament

Peter is a complex character in history leaping to life from the pages of the New Testament. He was many things but here we will focus on just three as they are directly related to Jesus.[1]

Peter: Disciple of Jesus

The New Testament uses a particular word to name the followers of Jesus: disciples.  The English word is derived from the same root as “discipline” and it means one who is a committed follower.  The Greek term which is used for disciple is mathetes, which means one who learns from and follows a master.  It describes a pupil who is submitted as an apprentice to a teacher.[2] In the most basic sense Peter was a disciple of Jesus in this way. In another sense Peter was one of the twelve disciples, a group of men selected by Jesus to serve as his team in gospel ministry.

He was born in the province of Galilee in the city of Bethsaida (John 1:44) and apparently had a home in Capernaum during his adult life. He was born with the Jewish name Simeon or Simon (Acts 15:4, 2 Peter 1:1) and had a wife though we do not know much about her (Mark 1:30).  We do know that she accompanied her husband in his missionary travels at some point due to Paul’s description in 1 Corinthians 9:30.

Peter was called to be a follower of Jesus along with his brother Andrew with this call variously recorded in the early chapters of the gospels of Mark and John. Apparently he was part of the crowd who had gone out to hear and respond to John the Baptizers call for repentance of sin and Jesus met him during this season. It was from Jesus that Simon was also given the named Peter which means “Rock” (John 1:40-42). Throughout his early ministry Jesus called several men to learn from him and be directly involved in leading his mission. Peter was a part of this crew when they became known as the twelve disciples (Mark 3:16).

Peter’s role among the twelve was a prominent one and the earliest writings about him list him as a leader of the twelve. He was called one of the pillars of the early church movement (Galatians 2:9) and was declared to be one of the first witnesses of the resurrected Jesus (1 Corinthians 15). These two traditions were widely in play before AD 50.[3] Along with James and John, Peter was involved in some of the most pivotal times in Jesus’ life and ministry.  He was present at the healing of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5), present as a witness of Jesus’ glorious transfiguration (Mark 9, Matthew 17) and was praying with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before the crucifixion.

We see in the gospels Peter to be as passionate person and even rash at times. At Jesus’ final meal with his friends he strongly protests that his Lord would wash his feet like a common servant only to ask for a full bath after Jesus taught him that servanthood was the way of his Kingdom. He struts boldly out to walk on water with Jesus in Matthew 14:28-33 only to sink quickly with doubt when he is out of the boat.  He talked a big game saying to Jesus, “Even though they all fall away, I will not” (Mark 14:29) only to punk out and deny his king three times when the pressure was on. Yet he also used his speaking ability to represent and speak for the disciples on several occasions.

As a friend and follower, Peter had a very close relationship with his Lord and Jesus seemed to have big plans for Peter as well.  Some of Jesus’ last challenges to Peter were for him to take care of Jesus’ “sheep.” A proverbial way to call him to be a shepherd to God’s people even though in the end it would cost him his life (John 21:15-29). Even though Jesus predicted Peter’s denials before that first Good Friday, he also foreordained Peter’s forgiveness and restoration to leadership. He made sure that Peter knew of his resurrection specifically for he had work for this disciple (Mark 16:7).  The learner would now need to become a leader and bring the message of the gospel to the world.

Peter: Apostle of Jesus

The Book of Acts is a fascinating work that details the spread of the gospel from its Jerusalem roots out into the reaches of the Roman Empire.  As the gospel began to be proclaimed Peter was at the center of the early ministry of Christ’s messengers. The disciples were now apostles with a message to spread to the uttermost parts of the world.  Peter’s role is so prominent in Acts that many outline the book by the ministry of Peter and the ministry of Paul.  The first twelve chapters focus on Peter’s leadership in the Jerusalem context amidst early persecutions and spread of the gospel.  From chapter thirteen on the focus shifts to Paul as a missionary in the empire finally making his way to Rome.

What we find in Peter’s apostolic ministry is that he begins as an emboldened preacher of the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  At the feast of Pentecost Peter brings the gospel in power and a huge crowd of people get saved (See Acts 2 and 3).  Furthermore, Peter also serves as a representative of the Christians in Jerusalem and courageously stands before the ruling council with the message of the gospel.  The believers are greatly encouraged by Peter and his faithful Spirit filled leadership brings great unity and boldness to the church (See Acts 4).  Peter also served as a church leader, ruling and judging in the affairs of the people with miraculous signs accompanying his work (See Acts 5). Finally, we see Peter as a missionary helping the gospel forward in the province of Samaria (Acts 8).  We also find a wonderful story of God convincing him and sending him to Gentiles (Acts 10) so that God’s work could begin among them.  This initial work gives way to the apostle Paul’s commissioning into the Gentile world where the gospel spread broadly.  Peter also serves making wise judgments at the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 on important questions that new Gentile Christians had about Jewish observances as followers of Jesus. There has been speculation about how Peter ends up in Rome, but how he ends up there after his early missionary work cannot be known with certainty. One thing is sure, all roads did lead to Rome and Peter arrives there to lead the church in the great city as a witness for Jesus.

Peter: Witness for Jesus 

In his final years Peter wrote and transferred much of his thought and teachings of Jesus into the writings of our New Testament. His preaching and teaching about the life and message of Jesus make it to us by way of his secretary John Mark (see below for issues related to this). In the epistles which bear his name he pastors the church well in many ways.  He encouraged believers to persevere in times of suffering with full hope in the gospel and coming Kingdom of God. He spurs us on to mature in our faith and deepen in our commitment to Jesus so that our lives reflect the character of our King.  Jesus taught us that Peter would have a central role in building his church and we certainly see that in the movement that flowered in history after his life.  Though it is difficult to confirm without doubt, tradition teaches that Peter indeed did fulfill his calling and died as a martyr for his faith in Rome during the persecutions of Nero in AD65. Jesus had told Peter that he would eventually give the last full measure of devotion as a leader of his church. It may well be that the once denier of Jesus died as one of his champions on his own cross of crucifixion.[4]

Now I wish to turn briefly to the gospel of Mark for a discussion of how Peter is particularly seen in this work. We will begin that task by looking at Peter’s voice found in the writings of the gospel itself.

Peter in the Gospel of Mark

Peter’s Voice in Mark

The earliest church traditions all associate this gospel with John Mark and his task to record the account of the apostle Peter in writing. The earliest sources we have are from the writings of Papias, a church leader in Hierapolis (in modern day Turkey), and Irenaeus, a bishop from Lyon (in what is modern day France). Papias’ work survives in a text written by the prominent early church historian Eusebius.  It reads as follows:

And the Elder said this also: “Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatever he remembered of the things said and done by the lord, but no however in order.” For neither did he hear the Lord, nor did he follow him, but afterwards, as I said, Peter, who adapted his teachings to the needs of his hearers, but not as though he were drawing up a connected account of the Lord’s oracles.  So then Mark made no mistake in thus recording some things just as he remembered them.  For he took forethought for one thing, not to omit any of the things that he had heard, nor to state any of them falsely. [5]

 It is estimated the Papias tradition is very early and dates perhaps to within 90-100 AD.[6] Irenaeus, writing in the second century, recorded the following:

After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him.[7]

 The oldest traditions all hold that Mark was the author who arranged the teachings of Peter to give a written account of Jesus Christ to the church. In addition to the tradition there is good internal evidence in the book that Mark’s gospel greatly reflects the preaching of Peter that we see in the book of Acts.[8] New Testament scholar Daniel Wallace provides a great summary of the internal connection with Mark and Peter; I will quote him at length:

  1. John Mark had contact with Peter from no later than the mid-40s (Acts 12:12) and it appears that the church met at Mark’s own residence.
  2. Both Peter and Mark were connected to the churches in Antioch and Jerusalem.
  3. Paul sent Mark from Rome to the Colossian church and to Philemon in 60-62. If Peter were in Rome at this time, Mark would have had contact with him there.
  4. 2 Tim 4:11 we find Paul giving Timothy instructions to bring Mark with him from Ephesus to Rom (c. 64). It is possible that he had been outside of Rome since his departure in 62.
  5. Mark is with Peter in Rom in c. 65 (1 Peter 5:13) perhaps after his return at Paul’s request. Peter also calls Mark his “son” in this passage indicating a more long-standing relationship.
  6. The book of Mark’s outline follows the Petrine teaching recorded in Acts 10:36-41. (1) John the Baptist  (2) Jesus Baptized by John (3) Jesus’ miracles show he is from God (4) he went to Jerusalem (5) was crucified (6) he was raised on the third day. This shows that perhaps Mark even received a framework for the oracles of Jesus from Peter.
  7. The low view of Peter and the other apostles in Mark shows that the person writing was not trying to put them on a pedestal.  A non-apostolic writer would have done this unless he was recording what he actually had received from Peter.[9]

So we have good reasons, both the external testimony from church tradition and the content of the book itself, to hold that John Mark arranged the instruction of Peter who gave eyewitness testimony to the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

In light of this conclusion, in the gospel of Mark we likely have Peter’s accounts of direct events with Jesus and perhaps Mark’s own style reflecting upon them in his writing style.  As we come to the actual text, the question I want to pose is how do we see Peter portrayed in Mark? Do we find Peter put in just a positive light or is there some honest, even critical, stories told about him?[10] The actual data is quite mixed.

Peter in Positive Light

As mentioned in the biographical sketch above Peter is very important in the New Testament and Mark’s gospel is no exception. He is the one who speaks for the apostles, he present with the other “pillars” at crucial times in the life and ministry of Jesus and his progressive understanding of Christ is key to understanding the narrative as Mark crafts the text. Jesus even makes a special mention to tell Peter of his resurrection, reassuring him of his role in the mission of Jesus that is coming. In these ways Peter is a very important, yes positive, character in the gospel of Mark.

Peter in Negative Light

At the same time Peter is a central and cathartic character in Mark and does come off looking rather dumb witted at times. In Mark 1 he is trying to get Jesus to become a superstar prematurely. In Mark 8 Jesus calls him Satan as Peter is opposed to the messianic mission of death and resurrection. Furthermore, he shows much foot-in-mouth disease on the mountain of transfiguration where he really doesn’t know what to say in Mark 9. Peter takes a nap at just the wrong time when Jesus is asking for prayer and support in Mark 14. Finally, one cannot miss Peter full out denying Jesus three times when the pressure of the arrest and pending execution is visited upon the disciples. Some speculate whether the gospel of Mark is part of a wider attack upon Peter[11] as it shows him in such negative light. Perhaps there is a much simpler explanation for how Peter is portrayed?

Peter – Human in Process

Peter throughout the gospel of Mark is certainly one thing. A human being. He is also a person of passion and commitment to Jesus who has given all to follow him. What is seen in the gospel of Mark is a man who has hopes and expectations yet these are not quite in congruence with Jesus’ purposes and plans.  Peter therefore has to be adjusted, he was to be corrected and he has to grow in faith and trust in Jesus’ actual plan. This at times comes off painful as Peter gets it wrong, shows weakness and punks out on Jesus. Yet one thing is clear.  Peter is also a human being Jesus loved and wanted to use in this world. So we see his life and faith grow in the gospel of Mark until the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Mark makes sure we see that Jesus wanted Peter to know what he had risen for as we read in Acts and in church history: God had much work left for Peter in his world.  In Mark’s gospel I believe we are also to see ourselves. We are to see the blind and mute come to see clearly and speak the truth. Just like Peter.  Then we take up seeing eyes and speaking lips to serve Jesus in our world.

Conclusion

We have looked at Peter the disciple, apostle and witness to Jesus and found a remarkable story.  We find a man compelled and called by God to follow Jesus the Messiah.  We find a man whose natural passions and impetuousness sometimes got him in trouble but also gave him huge potential.  In the life of Peter we also find embedded another narrative; the story of God. In this story a great King comes and pays a great price to purchase a great community to be his people. That community would need shepherds and servant leaders as it followed forward in the King’s mission. Such leaders are forged in the battle of life and ministry and take time to grow. Jesus was patient with Peter for this purpose. To take a human being, shape him into an instrument for the hands of God, and unleash him into the world on mission.  Each of our lives holds the same potential in varying degrees. The question is will we repent of sin and come to Jesus? Will we give ourselves fully to his mission once we have tasted his grace and his forgiveness? Peter would exhort to shout amen to this invitation.

I’ll give him the last word here for us:

[9] But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. [10] Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

1 Peter 2:9-10 RSMESV

Following the witness of Peter to give all for Jesus and his gospel mission in the world,

Reid S. Monaghan

Appendix: Was Peter the first pope?

 The confession of Peter of Jesus being the Christ in Mark 8 and its more robust parallel in the sixteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel has been the source of some historical controversy between Protestants, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics.  It is taken by the latter to be biblical warrant for the institution of the Roman papacy, the Pope as the father of the church and its supreme teacher in regards to faith and morals.  I will quote the Matthew passage here:

16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

While this brief appendix cannot treat these issues with the rigor which is needed, I do hope it might illuminate the differences between Roman and Protestant/Eastern Orthodox views of the Christian faith.  I will lay out a few points of argument made by each side in regards to the issue of the papacy.

Catholic Arguments for Primacy of the Bishop of Rome (The Pope)

There are many arguments that the Roman church makes in favor of the primacy and leadership of the Pope and the hierarchy of cardinal, bishop and priest which is under him.  The argument usually takes two lines—one from the tradition of the church and the other from Holy Scripture.[12] On the tradition front, there is a section in the classic work of the 2nd century church father Irenaeus to which Roman Christians point to as favoring papacy.  Irenaeus was bishop of Lyon which was located in what is now modern day France.  He wrote extensively confronting several heretical teachings of his day. He is quoted often in various contexts—in this case, in favor of the primacy of Rome.

Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre- eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.[13]

Additionally, the ecumenical council of Nicea in AD 325 listed four major patriarchates/sees (seats of authority) being Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem with Rome given the place of highest honor.  In the late fourth century Constantinople was inserted making the list of honor—Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, though the rivalry of Rome and Constantinople would continue until the east/west split in AD 1054.  One of the issues in this schism was papal authority in Rome which the Eastern Orthodox churches still reject until this day. Finally, the text from Matthew quoted above is used extensively in the argument for the papacy. The keys of the kingdom were given to Peter, who was the first bishop of Rome, the first pope. His successors maintain the highest authority in the church. The succession of bishops, or overseers of the church in Rome, is not the issue. The issue is this man’s rule over the church as the supreme representative of Jesus on the earth today.

Arguments against the Papacy

There are many long standing arguments against the papal authority in church history.  They too interpret both tradition and Scripture to make the argument.  Again, this is necessarily brief and therefore incomplete.  First, it is argued that Peter is but one of a plurality of leaders in the early church.  All traditions attribute great honor and leadership to Peter, but he was by no means infallible.  During the life of Jesus we see Peter’s evolution into a great leader through his many failures (see above).  Yet even post resurrection we see the apostle Paul rebuke Peter for his inconsistent and hypocritical actions in relating to Jew and Gentile in a way contrary to the gospel (See Galatians 2:11-14).  Second, the text in Matthew 16 does not imply the papacy and certainly nothing like papal infallibility.  Many interpretations have been offered which give primacy to Peter and his role in the establishment of the church, but none of this need imply the papacy which evolved in the Roman church during the Middle Ages. Third, the historical honoring of Rome by councils does not warrant the papacy. Rome is honored as a great historical church in the councils of Nicea and Constantinople, but the other great churches and their patriarchates were not subjected to her—in fact, this was not the case with Constantinople and continued to be an issue for hundreds of years and persists until today.  There also has been a reality in history which stated that councils should decide matters of dispute, not one bishop.  This was the case through the first seven ecumenical councils and was argued by the conciliar movement in the late middle ages.  Additionally, the apostolic succession of Popes and their infallibility seems historically dubious.  First, one particular pope, Honorius 1, was declared posthumously to be a heretic and false teacher in AD 681 for advocating something called Monothelitism.  How could he be considered infallible?  Second from AD 1378 to 1417 there were actually two popes in the Western church, one in Rome one in France seated at Avignon.  The Council of Pisa in 1409 disposed both popes and appointed another, but both did not step down leaving the church with three popes for a brief time.  The issues were resolved with the Council of Constance (1414-17) but raised the question of whether a council could rule over the pope for the council had removed the two popes and elected Martin V to power.[14] One last historical issue is of note. Although the Roman church claims it was always the case, papal infallibility was not made Roman teaching until Vatican I in 1870. In conclusion it must also be said that the story of the papal institution has been haunted by grabs for power, accumulation of wealth, immorality and sin. Though the Catholic Church claims that the Pope has not erred and has never officially taught in contradiction to Scripture I think history is replete with examples of both action and teaching which do not reflect infallibility. This only means that Popes are people and are in no way infallible. The highest authority for the church has never been the succession of popes in Rome, but the apostolic teaching of Scripture being faithfully entrusted and passed on through the ages. 

We trust not hierarchy or power to maintain the church, but the Spirit and the Word of God. There are errors on all sides…Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic.  There are none who have everything perfect in life, faith and doctrine. Yet our disputes are resolved in humility, standing under, not over the very Word of God in Holy Scripture.  History and our lives are messy, we no doubt move forward with truth and at times error.  But much as Luther echoed long ago under great pressure to recant his views—our consciences are chained to the Word of God…here we stand, we can do no other.

Notes

[1] Here I will follow a basic outline of Peter’s life which focuses on his role as disciple in the gospels, apostle and messenger in the book of Acts and then suffering witness to his Lord as church leader in Rome. This approach is taken in both the Wood, D. R. W., & Marshall, I. H. (1996). New Bible dictionary (3rd ed.). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. and The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised. 1988 (G. W. Bromiley, Ed.). Wm. B. Eerdmans.

[2] μαθητ╬«ς, Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed.) (609). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[3] The book of Galatians is one of the earliest Pauline epistles written around AD 48/49. First Corinthians was most likely written around AD53 but the resurrection narrative in chapter 15 is likely even earlier than this. The clear reality is that Peter and his role was well known even before the writing of Mark’s gospel in the 60s.

[4] Peter is said by many in the first few centuries of the church to have died by way of an upside down crucifixion.

[5] Ibid., 8.

[6] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2002), 4.

[7] Irenaeus. Against Heresies (Book III, Chapter 1).

[8] William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark; the English Text with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes (Grand Rapids,: Eerdmans, 1974), 10-12.

[9] Daniel Wallace, “Mark: Introduction, Argument, and Outline”, Bible.org http://bible.org/seriespage/mark-introduction-argument-and-outline (accessed Jan 4 2012).

[10] Even to those who may not conclude that Peter’s direct testimony is found in the gospel, there has been reflection as to whether Mark casts a positive or negative light upon Peter. See E. Best, “Peter in the Gospel According to Mark”, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 40, 1978.  

[11] Best, 558.

[12] It should be noted that in the Roman religion that Scripture and the teaching Tradition of the church are equal forms of authority which are seen as complementary and never contradictory.   Protestants hold that Scripture is the supreme authority and is the corrective and judge of all human teaching in the church.

[13] Irenaues, Against Heresies 3.3.2—http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iv.iv.html

[14] For a good summary of church history during this era see Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol 1 (New York: HarperOne, 1984) - See particularly the chapter on the Medieval Papacy.