An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church

Peter, Saint

(d. c. 64). Apostle and leader of the early church. He was first named Simon, but Jesus named him Cephas, or Peter, which means “rock.” He was also known as Simon Peter. Peter and his brother Andrew were fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus invited them to follow him and fish for people (Mt 4:18-20, Mk 1:16-18). In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells Peter to go into the deep water and let down his nets for a catch. Peter and his partners James and John then have a miraculous catch of fish. Jesus promises that from now on they will be catching people (Lk 5:4-11). The Gospel of John records that Andrew brought Peter to Jesus, and told him that Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus tells Simon that he will be called Cephas, which is translated Peter (Jn 1:40-42). Peter was married, and his wife accompanied him on his missionary journeys (1 Cor 9:5). Peter is named first and included in all lists of the twelve disciples (see Mk 3:16, Acts 1:13).

The NT records many vivid events and discussions involving Peter and Jesus. Peter offered to walk to Jesus on the water, and he began to walk on the water. But Peter became frightened and began to sink. Jesus reached out his hand and caught him (Mt 14:28-33). Peter asked Jesus if he should forgive his brother as many as seven times. Jesus answered that he should forgive seventy-seven times (Mt 18:21-22). Peter asked Jesus what the disciples would have for following him. Jesus promised that when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of glory they would also sit on twelve thrones and judge the twelve tribes of Israel (Mt 19:27-28). Jesus asked his disciples “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the living God (Mt 16:15-16). In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus then names Peter and states that on this rock Jesus will build his church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. The “rock” has been interpreted to mean either Peter or the faith in Christ that Peter expressed. Jesus also states that he will give Peter the keys of the kingdom, so that whatever he binds on earth is bound in heaven, and whatever he looses on earth is loosed in heaven (Mt 16:18-19). However, Peter’s confession of faith is followed by his rebuke of Jesus, who told the disciples about the great suffering that he would face in Jerusalem. Jesus sharply rebukes Peter, saying “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mt 16:21-23). Peter was always included in the “inner group” of disciples who were present with Jesus for times such as the healing of Jairus’s daughter (Mk 5:21-43), the Transfiguration of Jesus (Mt 17:1-8), and Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mt 26:36-46). On the night of Jesus’ betrayal, Peter boasts that he will never deny Jesus. But Jesus correctly predicts that Peter will deny him three times that night (Mt 26:33-35, 69-75). Jesus charges Peter to strengthen the other disciples after they have been scattered (Lk 22:31-32). Peter cuts off the ear of the high priest’s slave at the time of Jesus’ arrest (Jn 18:10). Peter was the first disciple to witness Jesus’ resurrection (Lk 24:34, 1 Cor 15:5).

Peter was at the heart of the organization of the Christian church after Jesus’ resurrection. The Gospel of John records a post-resurrection appearance in which Jesus charges Peter to feed his lambs and tend his sheep. Jesus also predicts Peter’s martyrdom (Jn 21:15-19). Peter urged the selection of a twelfth witness to the resurrection to take the place of Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:15-22). Peter preached to the multitude on Pentecost, and some 3,000 people were converted (Acts 2:14-41). Peter often served as spokesman for the church. He denounced the deceit of Ananias and Sapphira who were holding back money from the church (Acts 5:1-11), and he rejected an offer from a man named Simon who wanted to pay for the power to confer the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:18-24). Paul says that Peter was entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised (Gal 2:7). Peter also opened the church to Gentiles after seeing a vision of ritually unclean food descending from heaven and being told not to call profane what God had made clean. Peter ordered the baptism of the Gentile Cornelius along with his relatives and close friends (Acts 10:1-48). Peter was involved in miraculous healings. He healed a man who was crippled from birth (Acts 3:1-10), a man who had been bedridden for eight years (Acts 9:32-35), and a woman who had died (Acts 9:36-42). The sick were even placed on cots and mats in the streets so that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by (Acts 5:15). Peter ate with Gentiles at Antioch until certain people came from James. Peter then drew back and kept himself separate from the Gentiles. Paul opposed Peter to his face for this hypocrisy. Paul urged that we are justified by faith in Christ and not by doing the works of the law (Gal 2:11-21). The NT witness presents Peter to be a person with notable strengths and weaknesses. He was fallible and impetuous. He was also a strong leader of the disciples and the church, and a devoted witness to Christ. Although the NT is silent concerning his death, Peter was probably martyred in Rome during the persecution of the church by the Roman Emperor Nero. According to Origen, Peter was crucified head down at his own request. The Confession of Saint Peter the Apostle is celebrated on Jan. 18, and the feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Apostles, is celebrated on June 29.

Glossary definitions provided courtesy of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY,(All Rights reserved) from “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians,” Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.