Profiles of Faith: Peter - From Fisherman to Fisher of Men

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Peter - From Fisherman to Fisher of Men

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The night sky grew dark and frightening as the boisterous winds whipped up the waves that pounded mercilessly against Peter's fishing boat. The men in the boat, all disciples of Jesus Christ, rowed frantically against the ferocious winds, making little headway. In spite of the dangerous circumstances, they clung to the hope they would make it to shore and safety.

The people who lived around or made their living from the Sea of Galilee knew the capriciousness of this usually tranquil body of water. Strong winds could arise suddenly and without warning. The sailors on the Sea of Galilee had no opportunity to check the latest weather report. But they were accustomed to observing the sky, watching for familiar signs that could foretell the possibility of strong weather.

Though the Bible reveals little about Peter’s life before he met Jesus, we can learn some of his background from anecdotal accounts and factual history. 

In the fourth watch of the night Jesus' followers found themselves in a serious situation, fighting a strong headwind and hammering waves. Between the fear of losing their lives at sea-always a possibility in such a storm-and the arduous, painful task of rowing to safety, they were suddenly shocked. Abruptly, and with no warning, they saw the figure of a man walking on the water near them. In surprise and fear they cried out, "It's a ghost!" But the "ghost" was none other than their Master, Jesus. Immediately He reassured them: "Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid" (Mark 6:50).

Characteristically, the ever-impulsive Peter spoke first: "Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water" (Matthew 14:28). Jesus told him to come ahead.

What followed depicts both the weaknesses of human beings and the spiritual strength of God. Much to his credit, Peter showed a willingness to try the humanly impossible-to actually walk on water.

Hearing Jesus' reassuring voice and encouragement, Peter stepped overboard while none of the others dared leave the safety of the boat. He began walking toward his Master, seemingly doing the impossible with ease.

But the howling wind and crashing waves soon diverted his attention. He began to sink into the raging sea, and panic set in. With fright in his eyes he looked up to Jesus and cried, "Lord, save me!" (Matthew 14:30). Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him in a firm grip. Reassuringly, He offered a few words of instruction and comfort: "O you of little faith, why did you doubt?" (Matthew 14:31).

This drama, one of many told in a few verses in the Gospels, provides us a powerful lesson in faith. This kind of trusting relationship is a gift from God but a gift that must be nurtured and used.

Peter's life is filled with inspiring lessons; only a few are explored here. In this article we consider several that can help us compare some of our life experiences with Peter's, with the hope that these lessons can help us grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ (2 Peter 3:18).

Simon Peter's occupation

Though the Bible reveals little about Peter's life before he met Jesus, we can learn some of his background from anecdotal accounts and factual history. Peter's name was also Simeon-the same as the patriarch of one of the 12 tribes of Israel-which was shortened to Simon. In the Scriptures he is also called Simon bar Jona (meaning Simon the son of Jonah). Apparently he was born in or near Bethsaida-Julius (John 1:44), which lay on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. The town's name means "house of the fisherman," and it sat just east of the Jordan River. This was just outside the province of Galilee and under the rule of Herod Philip, a son of Herod the Great.

Bethsaida-Julius was a town inhabited by mostly wealthy Jews and Greeks. Simon Peter and his brother Andrew likely traded with both Jews and Greeks and probably spoke Aramaic as well as some Greek.

Before Simon Peter met Jesus, he lived a few miles to the west in the Galilean town of Capernaum and was married (Matthew 8:14). It was here that he and Andrew went into partnership with James and John, the sons of Zebedee (Luke 5:10).

Peter's calling

Andrew and John expected the appearance of the Messiah, for they had traveled down the Jordan River valley to hear the prophet John the Baptist, cousin of Jesus of Nazareth. John the Baptist preached the coming of the Messiah, calling for his countrymen to repent.

Andrew and John had even become disciples of John the Baptist. When their teacher pointed out Jesus to them as the Lamb of God, Andrew told Simon Peter, "We have found the Messiah" (John 1:41). Andrew brought his brother to Jesus, and when Jesus looked at him he said: "You are Simon the son of Jonah. You shall be called Cephas" (John 1:42).

Cephas is the Aramaic word for "stone" - as is the Greek name Petros, translated into English as Peter. This is how Simon bar Jona came to be known as Peter.

Some Bible scholars say Peter was called in three stages, the first stage mentioned above when he met Jesus for the first time. The second stage of his calling is identified by scholars as the time when Jesus, walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, saw Peter and Andrew casting a fishing net into the sea. Jesus said to them, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men" (Matthew 4:19).

The third stage of Peter's calling is said to be when Jesus "called His disciples to Himself; and from them He chose twelve whom He also named apostles: Simon, whom He also named Peter ..." (Luke 6:13-14).

The fisherman surrenders to God

Jesus taught people by the Sea of Galilee. When the crowd increased and pressed closer, He looked around and saw two boats nearby. Stepping into Peter's boat, Jesus then asked him to put out a little from the shore so He could better teach the growing crowd. The water surface would help amplify His voice, making it easier for them to hear Him.

When Jesus finished speaking, He told Simon to go further out into the lake where the water was deeper and to lower his fishing nets (Luke 5:4). At first Simon protested that he had fished all night and caught nothing, but then said, "Nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net" (Luke 5:5).

It's a good thing he did. Suddenly the net was so filled with fish that it was stretched to the point of breaking. Immediately Peter signaled to his partners, James and John, to bring the other boat. Soon both boats were so weighed down with fish that they were in danger of sinking.

Surprised and humbled by this supernatural event, Simon Peter fell at Jesus' knees, saying, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!" (Luke 5:8). Jesus reassured the shaken fisherman: "Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men" (Luke 5:10). From this point on, the fisherman Peter became Peter, the fisher of men. "So when they had brought their boats to land, they forsook all and followed Him" (Luke 5:11).

Peter witnesses the transfiguration

Peter was also a witness, along with his former fishing partners James and John, to another miracle-the apparent transfiguration of Jesus into His glorified state. "Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves, and was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him" (Matthew 17:1-3).

God showed these apostles a preview of things to come. When Jesus returns to earth He will resurrect both the lawgiver Moses and Elijah the prophet, and they will reign forever with Christ in His Kingdom.

Perhaps the most significant lesson here is something that probably had never occurred to the disciples: Their master, the rabbi from Nazareth, was at least equal to Moses and Elijah, two of the greatest teachers in all of Israel's history. Not only that, Jesus was clearly superior to Moses and Elijah. "... A bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, 'This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!'" (Matthew 17:5).

God revealed that Jesus was much greater than Moses or Elijah-He was the very Son of God. After this divine confirmation, the three apostles became aware that now only Jesus was with them. The visionary images of Moses and Elijah were gone, but Jesus was still there. "Now as they came down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, 'Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead'" (Matthew 17:9). Peter and the other apostles would never forget this great lesson.

This momentous event strengthened the apostle Peter throughout His ministry. Just before his martyrdom, he reminded his readers of the wondrous occasion in his final epistle: "For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For He received from God the Father honor and glory when such a voice came to him from the Excellent Glory: 'This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.' And we heard this voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain" (2 Peter 1:16-18).

Peter denies Christ, and a rooster crows

After Jesus and His apostles observed the Passover on the night before His crucifixion, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

"Then Jesus said to them, 'All of you will be made to stumble because of Me this night, for it is written: "I will strike the Shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered ..."'

"Peter answered and said to Him, 'Even if all are made to stumble because of You, I will never be made to stumble.' Jesus said to him, 'Assuredly, I say to you that this night, before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.' Peter said to Him, 'Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You!' And so said all the disciples" (Matthew 26:31-35).

Jesus understood the weaknesses of our flesh and minds—that we lack the willpower and conviction to do what we know we should. He also well understood that the apostles didn't have the power of God's Spirit within them, so they couldn't as yet understand their weaknesses. They wanted to be perceived as credible, faithful and stalwart, just like we want to be perceived. They wanted to do right, as shown by their promises of loyalty, but Jesus knew better.

Later, through the ability to perceive provided by God's Spirit, they would understand. They would come to see what Jesus knew: that the fear of other people can overwhelm our best-laid plans and professions of loyalty. All the disciples would flee when their lives were at risk.

Peter would deny Jesus publicly even as his Master was being beaten and humiliated in the high priest's residence.

"Now Peter sat outside in the courtyard. And a servant girl came to him, saying, 'You also were with Jesus of Galilee.' But he denied it before them all, saying, 'I do not know what you are saying.' And when he had gone out to the gateway, another girl saw him and said to those who were there, 'This fellow also was with Jesus of Nazareth.' But again he denied with an oath, 'I do not know the Man!'

"And after a while those who stood by came up and said to Peter, 'Surely you also are one of them, because your speech betrays you.' Then he began to curse and swear, saying, 'I do not know the Man!' Immediately a rooster crowed. And Peter remembered the word of Jesus who had said to him, 'Before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.' So he went out and wept bitterly" (Matthew 26:69-75).

Peter's denial shows the weakness of our human frame. Had we stood in Peter's sandals at this frightening and tumultuous time, we, too, would have denied Christ. Peter denied Jesus three times, and it wasn't a seasoned Roman soldier who confronted Peter; his first two denials were to young women who questioned him about his association with Jesus.

No doubt Peter showed some courage by following, at a distance, the arresting party into the courtyard of the high priest. Yet he panicked when bystanders questioned him. Before alarm clocks were invented, roosters faithfully served to signal the crack of dawn. The rooster that crowed at the precise point of Peter's third denial was a shrill reminder of his professed conviction and loyalty. This piercing signal brought Jesus' loving and patient words to mind, and Peter wept bitterly because he had betrayed His Master and friend.

Peter's restoration

Later, after Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected, seven of the apostles went fishing with Peter (John 21:1-25). All night long they fished but caught nothing. When the sun rose the next morning they saw a man on the shore. It was Christ, although the disciples didn't know it was He.

Jesus said to them: "Children, have you any food?" (John 21:5). They told Him they hadn't caught anything. "Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some" (John 21:6).

They did as He suggested, and their net was so loaded with fish they couldn't draw it in. Suddenly the apostle John recognized Jesus: "It is the Lord!" (John 21:7). Peter, still impulsive, plunged into the water and swam for shore. The other apostles followed in the boat, dragging the net full of fish. When they came to land they saw a fire bed of coals and fish spread out on it, along with some freshly baked bread. Jesus had prepared a meal for them. "Come and eat breakfast," He invited (John 21:7-12).

After they had eaten, Jesus asked Peter a question: "Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these?" Peter answered that he did. "Feed My lambs," Jesus replied. Again He asked Peter if he loved Him. Peter again said, "Yes, Lord; You know that I love You." "Tend My sheep," Jesus responded (John 21:15-16).

For the third time Jesus asked Peter, "Do you love Me?" Peter was grieved that Jesus would ask him a similar question three times: "Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You." Jesus again said, "Feed My sheep" (John 21:17).

This exchange reminds us of the time when Peter was questioned for his professed loyalty to Jesus. Three times bystanders questioned Peter's association with the Master. Now Jesus questioned Peter three times about his love for and loyalty to Him. Christ's gentle rebuke no doubt made a huge impression on the disciple.

Jesus then told Peter where his loyalty and faithfulness would lead: "'Most assuredly, I say to you, when you were younger, you girded yourself and walked where you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish.' This He spoke, signifying by what death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, 'Follow Me'" (John 21:18-19).

A tool for God

On that last remarkable morning by the Sea of Galilee, Simon Peter had not yet received the Holy Spirit-that divine power that would transform this take-action apostle into a faithful servant.

Not long after, on the Day of Pentecost, God gave His disciples the promise of the ages-the gift of His Spirit (Acts 2:1-47). From that day on the apostles were transformed men, willing to risk their lives for the sake of Jesus the Messiah (2 Corinthians 1:9). Peter would faithfully feed and tend Christ's sheep and lambs, those whom God would call.

Peter delivered his sermon on that Pentecost boldly and with conviction. For the first time Peter realized the power of God's Spirit. That sermon characterized the remainder of Peter's life, a life dedicated to God and mankind.

Following Peter's example

What does Peter's example mean for us? Can we see ourselves in Peter's experience on the windswept Sea of Galilee as he stepped out of his boat onto the waves of a roiling sea to walk toward His Master? Do we see a parallel in standing for God and His truths, truths that often go against the grain of our societies, neighbors and families' beliefs?

Peter was a fisherman whom God remade into a fisher of men. Today Jesus encourages us to feed His sheep and tend His lambs. We are called to spread the gospel to the world and help prepare a people for the family of God. We are to become fishers of men and women. There is no greater work or privilege on the face of the earth, as a man called Peter learned.