Simon Peter was one of the most dynamic figures in biblical history. During his career in Christ’s service he accomplished several astonishing feats: walking on water, Matt. 14. 29; helping to feed the 5,000 and 4,000; vv. 13-21; 15. 32-39; hauling in a miraculous catch of fish, Luke 5. 5-11; and the great confession at Caesarea Philippi, Matt. 16. 16, just to name a few of his apostolic activities. On a personal level, his qualities are a familiar compendium of everyday traits that readers find in themselves. By God’s amazing working, Peter became one of the most used men in the unfolding drama of redemptive history.1 Among his many successful labours, two events stand out as ‘his finest hour’: the opening of the door of faith to Israel, Acts 2, and to the Gentiles, Acts 10.
The Lord Jesus selected His closest disciples from the ranks of ordinary people. Prominent among them were fishermen like John, James, Andrew, and his forceful older brother, Simon. Christ recognized his strong personality by conferring on him the nickname, Cephas, or Peter, John 1. 42 – in Aramaic and Greek respectively. Nevertheless, his natural forwardness needed to be tempered and instructed by the Lord’s gracious pastoral ministry.
The historian Philip Schaff captured the extremes of his personality, describing Peter this way, ‘He had an ardent nature, a sanguine, impulsive, hopeful temperament, was frank, open, fresh, enthusiastic, and energetic, and born to take the lead, but apt to overrate his strength and liable to change and inconsistency. He was the first to confess and the first to deny his Lord and Saviour, yet he repented bitterly, and had no rest and peace till the Lord forgave him. He had a great deal of genuine human nature, but divine grace did its full work, and overruled even his faults for his advancement in humility and meekness, which shine out so beautifully from his Epistles’.2 J. C. Ryle added, ‘With all his faults, Peter was a true-hearted, fervent, single-minded servant of Christ. With all his imperfections, he has given us a pattern that many Christians would do wisely to follow. Zeal like his may have its ebbs and flows, and sometimes lack steadiness of purpose. Zeal like his may be ill-directed, and sometimes make sad mistakes. But zeal like his is not to be despised. It awakens the sleeping. It stirs the sluggish. It provokes others to exertion. Anything is better than sluggishness, luke-warmness, and torpor, in the church of Christ. Happy would it have been for Christendom had there been more Christians like Peter and Martin Luther, and fewer like Erasmus’.3
The Lord progressively chipped away at this rough-hewn stone until he was Peter, the heaven-inspired spokesman who uttered the great confession at Caesarea Philippi, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God’, Matt. 16. 16. It is true that he had notable failures, such as attempting to correct Christ a few moments later, and, more famously, denying his Master three times in the priest’s courtyard on the night before Calvary, 26. 69-75. Yet, in spite of these serious missteps, he eventually became a mature, Spirit-filled preacher, opening unimagined doors of blessing to Israel and the nations.
In the four Gospels, he appears as one of the Lord’s chief lieutenants. As Whyte explains, ‘After the name of our Lord Himself, no name comes up so often in the Four Gospels as Peter’s name. No disciple speaks so often and so much as Peter. Our Lord speaks oftener to Peter than to any other of His disciples; sometimes in blame and sometimes in praise. No disciple is so pointedly reproved by our Lord as Peter, and no disciple ever ventures to reprove his Master but Peter. No other disciple ever so boldly confessed and outspokenly acknowledged and encouraged our Lord as Peter repeatedly did; and no one ever intruded, and interfered, and tempted Him as Peter repeatedly did also. His Master spoke words of approval, and praise, and even blessing to Peter the like of which He never spoke to any other man. And at the same time, and almost in the same breath, He said harder things to Peter than He ever said to any other of His twelve disciples, unless it was to Judas’.4
At Caesarea Philippi the Lord marked out Peter for a dispensationally unique work in these words, ‘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’, 16. 19. ESV. That this work of ‘binding and loosing’ is a heavenly authority that is conferred on the church as a whole is demonstrated a few chapters later, 18. 18-20. But Peter in particular was given the keys, as Ryle points out, ‘[H]e was to have the special privilege of first opening the door of salvation, both to the Jews and Gentiles. This was fulfilled to the letter, when he preached on the day of Pentecost to the Jews, and visited the Gentile Cornelius at his own house. On each occasion he used “the keys”, and threw open the door of faith. And of this he seems to have been sensible himself: “God”, he says, “made choice among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel, and believe”, Acts 15. 7’.5
Fifty days after the Lord’s resurrection, He fulfilled His promise to pour out the Holy Spirit on the disciples on the day of Pentecost. Peter and the other disciples began to proclaim the good news in various foreign languages that they had never previously studied. This display of supernatural power elicited incredulity from some bystanders in Jerusalem and mockery from others, Acts. 2. 12-13. In response, Peter preached one of the greatest sermons in church history, declaring a new epoch in the development of God’s promises.
Contrary to the Jewish leaders’ recent rejection of Jesus, God had now fulfilled a centuries-old prophecy by Joel, promising a new era of the Spirit that would eventually culminate in the cataclysmic events of the day of the Lord, 2. 17-21. Rather than disallow Him, the Father raised His Son from the dead and, eventually, to the glory, and declared Jesus to be both Lord and Christ, vv. 30-36. This vindication might logically be supposed to precede divine vengeance against Israel. Instead, Peter invites them to experience God’s forgiveness by repenting and receiving Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. This change in their attitude towards Jesus would be indicated by their public baptism, 2. 38-41. God is so gracious that He is willing to grant complete amnesty to the actual murderers of His Son; likewise, He offers salvation to whichever sinner will receive the Lord Jesus by repentance and faith. No matter how bad one is, the Lord is ready and able to deliver from wrath and grant eternal life. Peter was privileged to proclaim this incomparably lovely gospel on the day of the church’s creation.
Many first-century Jews believed that God’s grace was limited to Israel. They understood that Gentiles could be blessed, but only by identifying with their nation. Surely, the Almighty would not receive Gentile ‘dogs’! Paul later recounted the hopeless condition of Gentiles in these words: ‘Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; that at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world’, Eph. 2. 11, 12. Yet the Lord showed Peter that the Old Testament boundaries between Israel and the Gentiles were being discontinued for the sake of the gospel. C. H. Mackintosh details the vision of the sheet’s purpose, Acts 10. 10-16, saying, ‘Assuredly, we may say, these were noble lessons for the apostle of the circumcision to learn upon the housetop of Simon the tanner. They were eminently calculated to soften, to expand, and elevate a mind which had been trained amid the contracting influences of the Jewish system’.6
As Peter preached the gospel to Cornelius and his household, they believed, and received the Holy Spirit before the fisher of men concluded his sermon, 10. 34-46; accordingly, he instructed them to be baptized. Later, he defended his actions to the Hebrew Christians at Jerusalem by explaining it in terms of Christ’s promise and what formerly transpired to Israel at Pentecost, 11. 1-18. He did not hang on to the prejudices of his past, but, instead, flung the gospel door wide open for the Gentiles. Along with Paul’s Epistles, Peter’s testimony at the council in Acts chapter 15 further solidified the equal standing of Gentile inclusion in the church. Consequently, Jews and Gentiles owe a great debt to this faithful apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Commenting on Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, Acts 2. 14-40, Spurgeon said this, ‘Grace, grace, thou canst prevail; thou hast done it; thou canst make use of the meanest instruments to produce the grandest effects, and to increase thy glory among men’. C. H. Spurgeon, ‘Reigning Grace’, in The New Park Street Pulpit Sermons, Vol. 6, Passmore & Alabaster, 1860, pg. 354.
Philip Schaff (ed.), A Dictionary of the Bible: Including Biography, Natural History, Geography, Topography, Archæology, and Literature, American Sunday-School Union, 1880, pg. 675.
J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Matthew, Robert Carter & Brothers, 1860, pg. 196. Whyte summed him up in these words, ‘Hasty, headlong, speaking impertinently and unadvisedly, ready to repent, ever wading into waters too deep for him, and ever turning to his Master again like a little child’. Alexander Whyte, Bible Characters: Joseph and Mary to James, The Lord’s Brother, Oliphant, Anderson and Ferrier, n.d., pg. 47.
Whyte, pg. 46.
Ryle, pg. 194. Roman Catholicism puts undue emphasis on the Lord’s commissioning of Peter at Caesarea Philippi. Though prominent among the twelve, he never had authority over the other apostles, as Gray declares, ‘Such supremacy was never conferred upon him by his Master, it was never claimed by himself, and was never conceded by his associates’. James M. Gray, ‘Peter, Simon’ in The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, ed. James Orr et al., The Howard-Severance Company, 1915, pp. 2349-2350.
C. H. Mackintosh, Genesis to Deuteronomy: Notes on the Pentateuch, Loizeaux Brothers, 1972, pg. 358.