Was Peter impulsive, pious, or vacillating? Was he the first pope?

These questions reflect distorted opinions of the personality and life of Christ’s chief apostle. The authentic Peter towers in the New Testament, where more information is found on this apostle than any other except Paul. None of the first disciples is mentioned as frequently in the gospels and the Acts; Peter’s recorded speeches, letters, and deeds exceed what remains from any other original apostle.

The first episode in Peter’s life is indicative of his character. Neither indifferent nor reluctant, Peter joined his brother, Andrew, and other Galileans and walked 60 miles south to investigate the message of John the Baptist. There they decisively accepted John’s testimony of Jesus. Peter followed Andrew to measure the Messiah, but it was Jesus who measured his new disciple: “Thou art Simon the son of Jona: thou shalt be called Cephas, which is by interpretation, A stone.” (John 1:42.) The King James Version renders literally both the Aramaic word for stone (Cephas) and its Greek equivalent (Petros, normally translated Peter). This name was no small compliment in rockbound Palestine, where most buildings were stone.

The Bible also describes the Messiah as the stone that the builders rejected (Matt. 21:42), and Christ likewise built his leadership with solid material. If Jesus so judged Peter, that disciple’s human hesitance is an exception to his main quality of reliability. Yet Peter was not static; he reached out for the new revelations of John the Baptist and of Jesus. In Christ’s leading disciple there was a living stone that he encouraged all members of the church to be. (1 Pet. 2:5.)

Peter was not an untested youth when he met Jesus. He was married (Mark 1:30) and had long pitted his strength against a treacherous inland sea to earn his living by fishing. But in the Lord, Peter confronted ability beyond his seasoned experience.

Jesus demonstrated his remarkable powers to Peter one morning on the open sea, when He directed Simon to lower the nets again after a night of fruitless toil. Such instruction was contrary to common sense—fish were better caught at night than during the day—but Peter reluctantly complied with Jesus’ request. After he had hauled in a net-breaking catch, Peter’s first reaction was humility, for he fell before the Lord, saying, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” (Luke 5:8.) After this miracle Jesus called him and others to be “fishers of men.”

Peter’s life was later saved by the miracle of stilling the storm as he saw the deadly wind and waves subside before the Creator’s superior force. He reached out for that power.

In another storm, Jesus appeared on the water to bring aid to his distressed apostles, who were terrified at the strange sight. Keeping his composure, Peter courageously asked the Lord to bid him come. At Jesus’ invitation, Peter “walked on the water, to go to Jesus.” (Matt. 14:29.) Yet his faith failed before the wind-swollen waves, and the Lord reached to rescue the sinking man, at the same time rebuking him for doubting. Such an incident is understandable, for Peter’s superhuman trust turned to all-too-human skepticism. One sees a powerful spirit with seeds of perfect faith taking its first weak steps. Before criticizing Peter for his incomplete faith, perhaps we should take a few steps on water.

It was Peter who held the keys of presidency of Christ’s church: “… whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 16:19.) This commission did not create the first pope, for Peter never called himself bishop of Rome. He identified his office as “an apostle of Jesus Christ.” (1 Pet. 1:1.) Only a church preserving the apostleship of Peter can claim his authority.

Peter’s bravery was not perfect at first. Three times in the courtyard of the house where the Lord stood trial for His life, Peter denied that he knew Jesus. Yet even this incident shows a strength, for Peter and John were the only apostles seen at the headquarters of their enemies. And Peter denied only that he knew Jesus, not the truth of the gospel.

Chastened by the Lord, Peter grew in fearlessness. His testimony in Acts comes with special power to everyone realizing that he asserted it at the risk of imprisonment and death.

In the book of Acts, Peter was not merely the church’s chief administrator and spokesman; he also received revelation to guide Christ’s church into new paths. The most notable examples are the baptism of the first gentile, after Peter received a vision from God (Acts 10), and later the modification of the Old Testament requirements of circumcision for gentile converts (Acts 15). When the “apostles and elders” of the church deliberated on this question, Peter asserted his leadership by stating that God had authorized gentile baptism “by my mouth.” (Acts 15:7.)

Peter’s successors were not Bible scholars, ministers, evangelists, bishops of any kind, or even general councils of the church. Peter was an apostle raised to presidency and a prophet and revelator for the church. No one less can perpetuate his office in any Christian organization.

One can learn much about serving God from this New Testament presiding officer. Before the world Peter was a witness of the Lord. The beginning chapters of Acts give many examples of his testimony of Jesus Christ—that he lived, died, and was resurrected for the salvation of men. Peter proclaimed repentance, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Ghost. (Acts 2:38; Acts 8:14ff.)

Peter stands for truth coupled with courage in speaking for God. The vested interest of priests brought immediate warning that declaring the crucifixion could not be tolerated. Yet Peter was obedient to a higher power: “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19–20.) Threatened again, Peter answered in a similar way: “We ought to obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29.)

Peter must be measured by his success in carrying out the final instructions of the Lord. The most intimate scene after the resurrection is when the Lord asked him again and again whether he loved him. Perhaps the threefold denial was purged in the threefold declaration of love by Peter, who insisted in exasperation, “Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee.” And the Lord just as emphatically reiterated, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:17.)

Here is a central principle of God’s work—that all status is tied to service. The man given special authority was given special caution in using it. For the Savior not only prophesied Peter’s weakness in the denial, but Peter’s influence in the church during the rest of his life: “… when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” (Luke 22:32.)

Peter’s two surviving letters show how well he had mastered this key to church leadership. In one of them he significantly calls himself “a servant and an apostle of Jesus Christ.” (2 Pet. 1:1.) And just as Joseph Smith could explain the relationship between love and the proper use of the priesthood (D&C 121), so also could Peter, as he counseled the elders to “feed the flock of God … not by constraint,” not by domination, but as examples. (See 1 Pet. 5:1–3.)

True leadership benefits those led. Thus one finds the leading apostles emphasizing love as much as did the Master, who made it the essence of his message. For Peter, love was far more than a polite greeting to fellow members at church; it was the daily relationship of husband and wife in cultivating compassion, courtesy, and empathy for each other instead of returning “evil for evil or railing for railing.” (See 1 Pet. 3:1–9.)

Being Christ-like had special meaning for one who personally knew the Master’s strength in suffering. Jesus did not angrily blame his oppressors, and whoever follows him must exercise the same self-control when wronged in the daily relationships of life. (See 1 Pet. 2:21–23.)

In his second letter, Peter lists charity or love as the crowning achievement of being “partakers of the divine nature.” (See 2 Pet. 1:4–7.) Despite an unjustified trend of challenging its authenticity, Peter’s second letter is stamped with his teachings and was in Joseph Smith’s mind when he said, “Peter penned the most sublime language of any of the apostles.” (History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, vol. 5, p. 392.)

The resurrected Lord instructed the Twelve to preach the gospel to “all nations,” and history records how faithfully Peter carried out this instruction. Acts describes his blunt witness before the Jewish nation, and his going afterwards to the Samaritan people nearby. Because of policy differences with Paul, we know that Peter preached in the major city of Antioch. (Gal. 2:11.) About A.D. 56 he was probably making regular missionary journeys, and it was his practice to take his wife with him. (1 Cor. 9:5.)

His addressing a letter to church members in several provinces of Asia Minor implies a personal relationship in missionary work there (1 Pet. 1:1), and this letter was written from “Babylon,” the early Christian code name for Rome, indicating Peter’s final ministry in the center of the empire so frequently referred to in early sources. (See 1 Pet. 5:13.)

Two of the first Christian scholars gave details of Peter’s death. Tertullian wrote about the apostle baptizing “in the Tiber” (On Baptism, 4) and enduring “a suffering like his Lord’s” in Rome (On Prescription Against Heretics, 36). Origen said that Peter came “to Rome and was crucified head downwards, for so he had asked to suffer.” (Commentary on Genesis, cit. Eusebius, History 3:1.) So the Lord’s prophecy to Peter was at last fulfilled: “… when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.” (John 21:18.)

No otherworldly, haloed saint, Peter was always at the center of action—risking mistakes and suffering criticism and even persecution. He stood at the Lord’s side, missed no opportunity to learn from the Master, defended Him in Gethsemane, and after the crucifixion testified courageously for a third of a century, emulating Jesus in his manner of living and dying. His speeches and letters deserve repeated reading. But Peter’s greatest message is a life of commitment and courage.

[illustration] Painted by Marilee Campbell

Dr. Richard Lloyd Anderson is a professor of history and ancient scripture at Brigham Young University. He lives in Pleasant View First Ward, Provo Utah Sharon East Stake.