Sanctification is never linear. The Christian life always undulates on the way to greater Christlikeness. We may bear the fruit of the Spirit in increasing measure, but the flesh of our former life still rears its ugly head from time to time. And that biblical reality plays out vividly in the lives of the apostles, most notably Peter.
We have four lists of the twelve apostles in the New Testament: Matthew 10:2–4, Mark 3:16–19, Luke 6:13–16, and Acts 1:13. In all four biblical lists, the same twelve men are named, and the order in which they are given is strikingly similar. None more so than the first name in all four lists—the man who became the spokesman and the overall leader of the group—“Simon, whom [Jesus] also named Peter” (Luke 6:14).
It is significant that the Lord gave him another name. Jesus didn’t merely give him a new name to replace the old one. He “also” named him Peter. This disciple was known sometimes as Simon, sometimes as Peter, and sometimes as Simon Peter.
“Peter” was a sort of nickname. It means “Rock” (petros is the Greek word for “a piece of rock, a stone”). The nickname was significant, and the Lord had a specific reason for choosing it.
By nature Simon was brash, vacillating, undependable and outspoken—with a habit of revving his mouth while his brain was in neutral. I have often referred to him as the apostle with the foot-shaped mouth. He tended to make great promises he couldn’t follow through with. He was one of those people who appears to lunge wholeheartedly into something but then bails out before finishing. He was usually the first one in; and too often, he was the first one out.
When Jesus met him, Peter fit James’s description of a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways (James 1:8). Jesus changed Simon’s name, it appears, because He wanted the nickname to be a perpetual reminder to him about who he should be. And from that point on, whatever Jesus called him sent him a subtle message. If He called him Simon, He was signaling him that he was acting like his old self. If He called him Rock, He was commending him for acting the way he ought to be acting. From then on, the Lord could gently chide or commend him just by using one name or the other.
After Christ’s first encounter with Simon Peter, we find two distinct contexts in which the name Simon is regularly applied to him. One is a secular context. When Scripture refers to his house, for example, it’s usually “the house of Simon” (Mark 1:29; Luke 4:38; Acts 10:17). When it speaks of his mother-in-law, it does so in similar terms: “Simon’s mother-in-law” (Mark 1:30; Luke 4:38). Luke 5, describing the fishing business, mentions “one of the ships, which was Simon’s” (Luke 5:3)—and Luke says James and John were “partners with Simon” (Luke 5:10). All of those expressions refer to Simon by his given name in purely secular contexts. When he is called Simon in such a context, the use of his old name usually has nothing to do with his spirituality or his character. That is just the normal way of signifying what pertained to him as a natural man—his work, his home, or his family life. These are called “Simon’s” things.
The second category of references where he is called Simon is seen whenever Peter was displaying the characteristics of his unregenerate self—when he was sinning in word, attitude, or action. Whenever he begins to act like his old self, Jesus and the gospel writers revert to calling him Simon. In Luke 5:5, for example, Luke writes, “Simon answered and said, ‘Master, we worked hard all night and caught nothing, but I will do as You say and let down the nets.’” That is young Simon the fisherman speaking. He is skeptical and reluctant. But as he obeys and his eyes are opened to who Jesus really is, Luke begins to refer to him by his new name. Verse 8 says, “When Simon Peter saw that, he fell down at Jesus’ feet, saying, ‘Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!’”
We see Jesus calling him Simon in reference to the key failures in his career. In Luke 22:31, foretelling Peter’s betrayal, Jesus said, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat.” Later, in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Peter should have been watching and praying with Christ, he fell asleep. Mark writes, “[Jesus] came and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, ‘Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? Keep watching and praying that you may not come into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak’” (Mark 14:37–38). Thus usually when Peter needed rebuke or admonishment, Jesus referred to him as Simon. It must have reached the point where whenever the Lord said “Simon,” Peter cringed. He must have been thinking, Please call me Rock! And the Lord might have replied, “I’ll call you Rock when you act like a rock.”
It is obvious from the gospel narratives that the apostle John knew Peter very, very well. They were lifelong friends, business associates, and neighbors. Interestingly, in the gospel of John, John refers to his friend fifteen times as “Simon Peter.” Apparently John couldn’t make up his mind which name to use, because he saw both sides of Peter constantly. So he simply put both names together. In fact, “Simon Peter” is what Peter calls himself in the address of his second epistle: “Simon Peter, a bondservant and apostle of Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1). In effect, he took Jesus’ nickname for him and made it his surname (cf. Acts 10:32).
After the resurrection, Jesus instructed His disciples to return to Galilee, where He planned to appear to them (Matthew 28:7). Impatient Simon apparently got tired of waiting, so he announced that he was going back to fishing (John 21:3). As usual, the other disciples dutifully followed their leader. They got into the boat, fished all night, and caught nothing.
But Jesus met them on the shore the following morning, where He had prepared breakfast for them. The main purpose of the breakfast meeting seemed to be the restoration of Peter (who, of course, had sinned egregiously by denying Christ with curses on the night the Lord was betrayed). Three times Jesus addressed him as Simon and asked, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” (John 21:15–17). Three times, Peter affirmed his love.
That was the last time Jesus ever had to call him Simon. A few weeks later, on Pentecost, Peter and the rest of the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit. It was Peter, the Rock, who stood up and preached that day.
Peter was exactly like most Christians—both carnal and spiritual. He succumbed to the habits of the flesh sometimes; he functioned in the Spirit other times. He was sinful sometimes, but other times he acted the way a righteous man ought to act. This vacillating man—sometimes Simon, sometimes Peter—was the leader of the twelve.
We know Simon Peter was the leader of the apostles—and not only from the fact that his name heads every list of the twelve. We also have the explicit statement of Matthew 10:2: “Now the names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter.” The word translated “first” in that verse is the Greek term protos. It doesn’t refer to the first in a list; it speaks of the chief, the leader of the group. Peter’s leadership is further evident in the way he normally acts as spokesman for the whole group. He is always in the foreground, taking the lead. He seems to have had a naturally dominant personality, and the Lord put it to good use among the twelve.
It was, after all, the Lord who chose him to be the leader. Peter was formed and equipped by God’s sovereign design to be the leader. Moreover, Christ Himself shaped and trained Peter to be the leader. Therefore when we look at Peter, we see how God builds a leader.
Peter’s name is mentioned in the gospels more than any other name except Jesus. No one speaks as often as Peter, and no one is spoken to by the Lord as often as Peter. No disciple is so frequently rebuked by the Lord as Peter; and no disciple ever rebukes the Lord except Peter (Matthew 16:22). No one else confessed Christ more boldly or acknowledged His lordship more explicitly; yet no other disciple ever verbally denied Christ as forcefully or as publicly as Peter did. No one is praised and blessed by Christ the way Peter was; yet Peter was also the only one Christ ever addressed as Satan. The Lord had harsher things to say to Peter than He ever said to any of the others.
All of that contributed to making him the leader Christ wanted him to be. God took a common man with an ambivalent, vacillating, impulsive, unsubmissive personality and shaped him into a rocklike leader—the greatest preacher among the apostles and in every sense the dominant figure in the first twelve chapters of Acts, where the church was born.
We see in Peter’s life three key elements that go into the making of a true leader. And we’ll consider the first of those—the right raw material—next time.
(Adapted from Twelve Ordinary Men.)