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Simon, as he was originally called, or, as he was afterward named, Peter, was the son of the fisherman Jonas. He was a native of Bethsaida in Galilee, and a resident of Capernaum, where he followed his father’s occupation. His brother Andrew, a disciple of John the Baptist, first brought him to Jesus, by whom he was called to be a fisher of men. After that miraculous draught of fishes, from which he received an overwhelming impression of power and majesty of the Lord, and by which he was awakened to a sense of his own weakness and sinfulness Luke 5:3 sqq.), he surrendered himself wholly to the service of Christ, and became, with John and the elder James, a confidant of his Master, and a witness of the transfiguration on Mt. Tabor and the agony in Gethsemane. And in this triad itself he is plainly the most prominent personage. He is, in fact, the “organ of the whole college of apostles,” speaking and acting in their name. While the contemplative, reflecting John lay in mysterious silence on the Savior’s bosom, the more practical and energetic Peter could never conceal his inmost nature but everywhere involuntarily exposed it. Hence, the gospels reveal him both in his virtues and his failings, more fully than any other apostle. With the most honest enthusiasm, he gives himself up to Jesus, confessing, for all his colleagues, that He is the Messiah, the Son of the living God (Matt 16:16). Soon after, with unbecoming familiarity and unconscious presumption, he undertakes to rebuke his Lord and dissuade him from the course of suffering, which was necessary for the redemption of the world (Matt. 16:22). On the mount of transfiguration, he proposes, under the impulse of the moment, to build tabernacles and make sensuous provision for retaining the happiness he felt (Matt. 17:4). When Jesus was washing the disciples’ feet, Simon, in high-minded modesty, presumed to know better than his Master: “Lord, dost thou wash my feet?” “Thou shalt never wash my feet” (John 13:6, 8). What a remarkable mixture of glowing love to Christ and rash self-reliance expresses itself in his vow shortly before the arrest in the garden: “Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended!”.… “Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee!” (Matt. 26:33, 35.) How stormy and inconsiderate his carnal zeal in the garden of Gethsemane, where, instead of meekly suffering, he draws the sword! (John. 18:10.) And then ere long came his deep and grievous fall; fear of man and love of life making him unfaithful to his Master. But, in the hands of God, all this was the means of showing him his own weakness by bitter experience, humbling his heart, and teaching him to place his strength in the grace of God alone. The Lord did not forsake him. He prayed that his faith might not fail (Luke 22:31, 32); restored him, after His resurrection, to the pastoral office, of which he had rendered himself unworthy by his apostasy; and gave him charge of His sheep and lambs. The apostle had first, however, to be thoroughly tested by the thrice-repeated question: “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me,—lovest thou me more than these?” The Lord would here humble and shame him, by reminding him of his thrice-repeated denial of his Master, and of his self-exaltation above his fellow-disciples. Now his pride is broken, his ardor purified. He ventures no more to place himself above the rest, but submits the measure of his love to the Searcher of hearts; conscious that he loves his Lord, and recognizing in this love the element of his life; but at the same time painfully sensible, that he does not love him as he ought, and as he gladly would (Jno. 21:15 sqq.). That he allowed himself, even after this, to be hurried by momentary impulse into inconsistencies is shown by the well-known occurrence at Antioch. But he was doubtless enabled to improve this repeated disclosure of his weakness to his own humiliation and ever kept in view the Lord’s last, prophetic words, that he should walk in the path of self-denial and should finally complete his obedience and faithfulness by suffering a violent death (Jno 21:18 sq.). For we elsewhere find him fearlessly confessing his faith before the people, before the council, and in the face of the greatest danger; steadfast, in love to the Lord under toil and tribulation, even to the most excruciating martyrdom; and thus, after all, proving himself eminently worthy of his new name.
This sketch of the life of Simon Peter gives us a picture of a remarkable combination of great natural talents and virtues with peculiar weaknesses. This apostle was distinguished from the other eleven by an ardent, impulsive, choleric, sanguine temperament, an open, shrewd, practical nature, bold self-confidence, prompt energy, and an eminent talent for representing and governing the church. He was always ready to speak out his mind and heart, to resolve, and to act. But these natural endowments brought with them a peculiarly strong temptation to vanity, self-conceit, and ambition. His excitable, impulsive disposition might very easily lead him to over-estimate his powers, to trust too much to himself, and, in the hour of danger, to yield with equal readiness to entirely opposite impressions. This explains his denial of his Lord, in spite of his usual firmness and joy in confessing his faith. In depth of knowledge and love, he doubtless fell short of a Paul and a John, and hence was not so well-fitted as they for the work of perfecting the church. His strength lay in the fire of immediate inspiration, in promptness of speech and action, and in an imposing mien, which at once commanded respect and obedience. He was born to be a church leader, and his powers, after proper purification by the Spirit of Christ, admirably fitted him for the work of beginning, for the task of founding and organizing the church.
By Philip Schaff