We often think that the first encounter Simon had with Jesus was on the seashore of the Sea of Galilee. But John’s Gospel tells us they first met months earlier.
Jesus grew up in Nazareth, about sixteen miles due west of the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee. But at the age of thirty, he traveled sixty miles southeast, as the crow flies, to a place along the Jordan River, just before it flows into the Dead Sea, where his cousin John the Baptist was preaching and baptizing.
Jesus was not the only one who came from Galilee to hear John preach. Andrew, Philip, Nathaniel, and Simon had also come to hear John.
The arrival of Jesus as well as Philip, Andrew, Simon, and Nathanael tells us that word of John’s ministry had spread to Galilee and that there were likely many who felt an inner compulsion to come to hear John, to be baptized by him as an expression of their desire to repent, and to offer their lives to God.
John goes on to tell us what happened on that first encounter between Jesus and Simon: “Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon, son of John. You will be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter)” (John 1:42). Cephas (pronounced Kay-fus) in Aramaic is Petros or Peter in Greek. Both words mean "Rock."
Why did Jesus choose this nickname for Simon? Was it because he was strong and mighty, giant biceps forged from hauling in fishing nets? Possibly. Or could there be something else? Throughout the Hebrew Bible, God is described as a Rock, or the Rock. God is steady, strong, immovable, like a rock. But how could Jesus call Simon a rock? After all, this man is going to blow it consistently. He will be less like a rock and more like a reed or blade of grass, easily moved, swayed, or broken. He will miss the point again and again. Why in the world would Jesus call him “the Rock”? I think it’s because Jesus saw past the unsteady, easily unnerved man Simon was. He could see what Simon one day would become: immovable, foundational, steady, strong. Jesus could see that one day the Rock would live into this auspicious name.
The nickname stuck, a term of endearment and a name meant to encourage Simon. In the Gospels the name Simon appears 54 times in reference to Simon Peter, but “Rock” (Peter) is used 115 times.
After this initial encounter between Jesus and Simon Peter, Jesus headed into the wilderness of Judea—a desert-like area near the site where John was baptizing. He went to fast and to seek God, and there he was tempted and tested. Meanwhile Simon, Andrew, Philip, and Nathanael returned to Galilee, to their everyday lives, having renewed their commitment to God. I suspect they were also quite curious about this man, Jesus, whom they had just met.
A month and a half went by following Peter’s first encounter with Jesus. He’d returned to his fishing business with his brother and the sons of Zebedee, James and John. And while Simon and Andrew had grown up in Bethsaida, as adult men they now lived in the town of Capernaum, four miles west of Bethsaida, a town also located on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee.
Simon had married, likely when he was fourteen to sixteen years of age. His wife was from Capernaum, and the young couple likely had moved into living quarters that had been added to the home she’d grown up in. Capernaum was in Galilee proper, and the taxes in Galilee were lower than those in Gaulanitis, which provided an incentive to live in the hometown of Simon’s wife rather than in Bethsaida.
The village was home to as many as 1,500 people by some estimates. It was located very near if not actually on a major trade route linking Egypt to Damascus, which then went on to the major cities to the east—a road often referred to as the Via Maris (Way of the Sea) or the International Trunk Road. From the most ancient of times, this road conveyed trade and travelers from Africa to Asia. A mile marker for this trade route can be seen among the stones at Capernaum. This strategic location made it an important place for fishermen to sell their wares to the caravans of people passing through.
It was to this village that Jesus came, after having been rejected in his own hometown of Nazareth. There he began to teach, to preach, and to heal. And it was here that he called Simon to follow him.