I’ve read the Gospels dozens and dozens of times over the last forty years since I first became a follower of Jesus. Most of the time I was focused on Jesus, as the authors of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John intended. But recently I decided to read through the Gospels paying close attention to Simon Peter. I began to notice just how important a figure he is for each of the Gospel writers. In nearly every episode of Jesus’ life and ministry, Peter is somewhere nearby.
Most of the twelve disciples are scarcely mentioned by name in the Gospels. The disciple believed to be the “beloved disciple,” John, is mentioned about twenty times by name in the Gospels, as is Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus. Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, is mentioned twelve times. Thomas the doubter is mentioned ten times. Bartholomew, James the son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot (also known as Simon the Cananaean), and Thaddaeus (also known as Judas son of James) are mentioned only three times each. Simon Peter, on the other hand, is mentioned by name over 120 times.
Peter is not only mentioned more often than the other apostles in the Gospels, he is the leading figure among the twelve in the first half of the Acts of the Apostles. And while Peter and Paul had a bit of a rocky relationship at times (see Galatians 2), Paul recognized Peter, or Cephas as he referred to him, as one of the pillars of the church, entrusted with taking the gospel to the Jews. In addition, two New Testament epistles are attributed to Peter. In the centuries following his death, it was Peter, not Paul, who was considered Rome’s first bishop and founding pope.
But what was most fascinating to me as I took a closer look at the Peter stories in the Gospels is that, regardless of the Gospel writer, Peter is nearly always portrayed as a flawed disciple—one who seeks to follow Jesus, yet one who is also confused, afraid, and faltering. So much so that, when his faithfulness mattered most, he denied knowing Jesus.
This stands in contrast to the normal pattern in history where, over time, the less flattering episodes in a beloved figure’s life become minimized or forgotten, and only their more heroic acts remembered. The Gospels, all written after the death of Peter, do just the opposite. They each paint him as a flawed follower of Jesus. Why would they do this with the memory of one of their beloved leaders?
I believe the Gospel writers were comfortable telling these stories because Peter himself told these stories again and again across the last thirty years of his life. I suspect Peter highlighted his own failings, using his shortcomings to connect with the common struggles and failings of ordinary followers of Jesus.
My congregation tells me that the most helpful personal stories I share with them are those where I’ve failed or missed the point. These are the stories my parishioners remember and connect with. In the same way, the stories of Peter’s shortcomings serve to humanize Peter, allowing ordinary Christians to identify with him. And in the end, these stories always help to amplify or in some way clarify the identity, power, or mercy of Christ.
While Simon Peter’s shortcomings are clearly on display in the Gospels, so also are his courage, his determination, his longing to follow Jesus even if it costs him his life. The early church knew how his story ended after his dramatic denial of Jesus on the night Jesus was arrested. Following Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, Peter would, in fact, become the rock upon which the church was built. He would carry his cross to follow Jesus. He would lay down his life for the gospel. While in Peter’s flaws Christians might see themselves, they might also see themselves in the moments of Peter’s courage and faithfulness, and ultimately they might see in him a picture of what they might aspire to be when empowered and led by the Spirit.