Feed My Sheep!

In this survey of Jesus’ apostles, we have come once more to the towering figure of Peter. The early part of his biography is found in the four Gospels (see the Vision series titled The Gospels for the 21st Century). His middle years are accounted for in the book of Acts (see the first three articles in the Apostles series). But there are yet more aspects of his life and teaching to be gleaned from other New Testament books. Before doing that, let’s recap the essentials.

Jesus Himself gave Simon, a Galilean fisherman, the name by which he’s best known. He “looked at him and said, ‘So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas’ (which means Peter)” (John 1:42). These names, Aramaic and Greek respectively, both mean “rock.” Peter is also referred to as Simon Bar-Jonah (Matthew 16:17) and Simon or Simeon Peter (John 1:40; 2 Peter 1:1).

If Mark’s Gospel was indeed the earliest written, as many scholars think, then we first meet Peter there. Alternatively, the several references to “Cephas” in Paul’s letter to the Galatians may be the earliest written mention of him, as some scholars believe that Paul wrote to the church in Galatia before any of the Gospels or other epistles were set down. And Paul is consistent in his use (see 1 Corinthians) with only a couple of exceptions in Galatians.

Paul says that three years after his own conversion, he “went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days” (Galatians 1:18; see also Acts 9:26–30). 

At this point, early in Church history, Cephas/Peter is specified as the main contact. This is understandable from several perspectives. As Paul later noted, Cephas was the first apostolic witness of Christ’s resurrection. He wrote, “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (1 Corinthians 15:3–5). 

This is indicated and confirmed in the Gospel accounts. The women who visited the tomb only to find it empty were told: “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee” (Mark 16:6–7). Peter is again singled out. 

The apostle John’s account is similar; it, too, emphasizes Peter’s role in discovering Jesus’ resurrection (John 20:1–8).

The Gospel writer Luke makes reference to Peter in the account of two men who met the resurrected Jesus on the road from Jerusalem to nearby Emmaus. Only after they sat down to eat together with Jesus and He disappeared from view did they realize who the stranger among them was. Shocked, “they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!’” (Luke 24:33–34).

The Middle Years

When Paul went back to Jerusalem after 14 years, he again met Peter. But this time it was to resolve a growing contention in the early Church—the idea that to become followers of Jesus, non-Jews must be circumcised. Paul had taught that physical circumcision was not necessary for adult gentile believers. To be sure that his teaching was in accord with that of the other apostles in Jerusalem, he went to see them privately. The result, he says, was that “when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised . . . James and Cephas and John . . . gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised” (Galatians 2:7–9). 

It is noticeable that Cephas is no longer the only apostle mentioned by name. Here he is listed as one of three, with James first in order. It may well be that by this time James, the brother of Jesus, had come to the fore as the leader of the Jerusalem church while the apostles traveled. 

When Peter came to Antioch, I had to oppose him to his face, for what he did was very wrong.” 

Galatians 2:11, New Living Translation

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul is trying to set the congregations straight on a few points of doctrine. The reference he makes to recent Church history is to support his case that what he has taught them is in fact in line with official teaching. He mentions Cephas specifically, because Paul’s opponents may have been using his poor example to support their case for circumcision. He continues, “When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party” (Galatians 2:11–12).

So at this point, Peter displayed a partiality toward the gentile converts that did not match his belief and experience. He was being hypocritical and leading others, such as Barnabas, astray. The resolution of the problem was for all to come into line with the decision made at a special meeting in Jerusalem (see Acts 15). There Paul, Barnabas and Peter recounted how the gentiles had come to conversion. With their input and discussion with the apostles and elders, James, as Jerusalem leader, concluded that circumcision was not to be imposed on adult gentile converts.

That Peter was reconciled with Paul is obvious here. Their relationship was clearly a brotherly one. It was a relationship that survived the human characteristics each man had. At the end of his life, Peter could refer to his colleague as “our beloved brother Paul” (2 Peter 3:15). There are other references to Peter in Paul’s writings that show their friendship (see 1 Corinthians 1:12; 3:22). Paul also makes an interesting aside that confirms Cephas’s marital status. He says, “Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” (1 Corinthians 9:5).

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’”

John 21:15, English Standard Version

In John’s Gospel, we read that Christ put Peter to the test with an exchange that upset him (John 21:15–17). In a postresurrection appearance, Jesus asks him about the quality of his devotion: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Then twice more, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” When twice Peter replies, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you,” Jesus commands, “Feed my lambs” and “Tend my sheep.” John notes that “Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’” Peter learned a profound lesson in this exchange, one that would be tested as time went by in the Church’s expansion. Further, Jesus told him that his life in caring for the sheep would not be easy and in fact that he would pay the ultimate price—with his life: “‘When you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.’ (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, ‘Follow me’” (verses 18–19). Like Jesus, Peter would end his life in martyrdom.

And here is an important point to understand. If we want to be true followers of Christ, we must do so as He desires, not according to our own agendas. Peter had to learn that.

The Apostle’s Letters

When we study the New Testament record for details regarding the latter part of Peter’s life, we come to two significant letters by his name. Yet some have doubted that the letters are Peter’s, and they advance several arguments to support this idea. None are compelling, however. With respect to the first letter, the English Standard Version Study Bible outlines the arguments and the answers.

One objection is that a Galilean fisherman would not have written such good Greek. The answer is that Peter came from cross-cultural Galilee, where Greek was spoken. A second objection is that his theology sounds too much like Paul’s. This is an amusing one, because often the case is made that the apostle to the Jews and the apostle to the gentiles had very different theologies. The answer to this objection is that it is not at all strange that two followers of Jesus should have the same beliefs. In fact, it’s what would be expected. A further argument is that the Peter of the letters quotes the Septuagint, whereas the real Peter would have used the Hebrew Scriptures. But why wouldn’t he use the Greek Old Testament when writing to Greek speakers? In a fourth objection, skeptics insist that Peter was already dead by the time the first letter was written, because they claim it reflects events in the Roman Empire at the end of the first century. But there is no internal evidence to support this speculation. Last, it’s said that Peter does not refer to Jesus enough to demonstrate that he was the Peter who knew Him. Answer: This is a short letter for a specific purpose. That said, Peter does refer to Jesus’ teachings, as we will see.

The first letter begins: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace be multiplied” (1 Peter 1:1–2, New King James Version).

The letter was probably written around the early 60s—in the reign of Emperor Nero—and is addressed to followers of Jesus in central and northern Asia Minor, just south of the Black Sea, in what is Turkish territory today.

The letter opens in a similar way to James’s epistle. It addresses believers who were predominantly gentile (though some Jews would likely have been included) in an area of the Diaspora where Jews had settled for at least two centuries after leaving their ancient homeland. One commentator says that Peter addressed his readers as if they were Jewish followers of Jesus. The order of the provinces listed is perhaps the way a courier would travel to them on an organized mail route. 

Peter was setting down important foundational knowledge for believers. He was getting old and perhaps sensing that he had little time left (this becomes more apparent in the second letter), so he laid out fundamental truths to help everyone continue, despite difficulties. His emphasis and the emphasis of the grammatical structure in the opening verses is that it is not Peter who is important, but rather the called and chosen readers. He reminded them of the great calling given only to the few. He noted that this is the last age of man’s rule now that Christ has come (1 Peter 1:3–5). They were living in the space between the first and second comings. This belief is what helps sustain God’s people when things get difficult in this world. When trials come, the hope of the future encourages them, and tests and trials are contextualized by the promise of Christ’s second coming (1 Peter 1:6–9).

Peter knew that the follower of Jesus might sometimes diminish the value of these trials and tests. But he insisted that they are for our good—our learning—and that they benefit us eternally. The calling to be a follower is based on spiritual knowledge that God has progressively revealed. Our predecessors did not know what is now known following Christ’s first coming. Peter explained that “the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when [it] predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look” (1 Peter 1:10–12).

The realization of this truth should lead to a mind that is convicted of the need to live a different life than the world around lives. Modern translators have expressed Peter’s words as “preparing your minds for action” (1 Peter 1:13). The Greek verb underlying this means wrapping around the waist the long clothing of those times. A similar thought is found in Luke’s Gospel, where Jesus uses a related verb to say, “Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning” (Luke 12:35). The verse in 1 Peter is one of the places where Jesus’ teaching is apparent. Further, Peter reminds his readers of the goal of their conduct: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:14–16).  

One of the benefits of this knowledge is that believers can call on God the Father, the impartial judge. His Son’s sacrifice means that whatever we do that is wrong in this life can be blotted out, if we seek God’s forgiveness (1 Peter 1:17–21). Our purpose in doing this is to become more and more like the Father. To do so, we have to have our minds in gear. 

All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever.” 

1 Peter 1:24–25 (Quoting Isaiah 40:6, 8), New International Version

An important byproduct of having God’s Spirit at work in us is the ability to love brothers and sisters who are of the same mind. It also provides the important realization that this life is not all there is; in fact, it’s nothing by comparison with our destiny, and this truth sustains us: “Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart, having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever, because ‘All flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of the grass. The grass withers, and its flower falls away, but the word of the LORD endures forever.’ Now this is the word which by the gospel was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:22–25, NKJV).

In chapter 2, Peter takes the discussion of interpersonal responsibility a step further. And that’s where we’ll pick up the story next time.