Jesus had twelve disciples, but He renamed only one of them. It’s not like the guy had a really long name that was difficult to pronounce (and there are plenty of those names in the Bible). The guy’s original name was Simon, and Jesus decided to rename him Peter.
Here’s how it happened:
“When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ ‘But what about you?’ He asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’” (Matthew 16: 13-19, NIV).
Let’s explore why this change occurred. I’ll give you a variety of possibilities and you can take your pick.
Why did Jesus change Simon’s name to Peter?
Because Peter was a great lover? Peter is a euphemism for something on a male body that gets rock hard, so maybe Jesus was remarking on Peter’s ability to be “fruitful and multiply,” as directed by the Jewish Scriptures. Isn’t that how some churches start? Somebody wants to form a church and so he or she gets all of the family members to be the core. Actually, Peter didn’t have a big family. He may have had a wife and a daughter (according to legends), but that’s not enough to make a whole church.
Because Peter was a Neanderthal? The Greek word used in Matthew is Petros. Some scholars say Jesus never called Peter a “rock,” but rather a “pebble,” pointing out that “petros” means pebble, while “petra” means rock. Honestly, you do you think Jesus called the guy Peter the Pebble? Wasn’t that a character on the Flinstones? No, wait. That was Pebbles. Maybe Jesus was telling Peter he belonged in the Stone Age. Isn’t a pebble rather small? How do you build a church on a pebble?
Guess what? Both petros and petra mean rock; the former is the masculine form and the latter is the feminine form. Lithos is the Greek word for pebble or small rock. Jesus didn’t use the term Lithos.
The Gospel of John avoids the confusion and uses the Aramaic word Cephas, which clearly means rock:
“Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas’ (which, when translated, is Peter)” (John 1: 42, NIV).
Because Peter was the first convert? One scholar points out that Jesus was using a little word play – saying that the word “petros” exists both in Aramaic and in Greek, but they mean different things. In Aramaic, it means “firstborn” and in Greek it means “rock.” Thus, you end up with, “You are Firstborn and on this Rock I shall build my church.” If that’s the case, can’t you reverse them and mess with this scholar’s whole theory? (You are Rock and on this Firstborn I will build my church.) Was the original sentence written in part Hebrew and part Greek?
The scholar’s theory is that in Christ, you are born again. Since that happens when you declare your faith in Jesus, Peter’s declaration was the first of its kind and thus Peter would be the “Firstborn” of those who have been born again.
Because Peter was trying – very trying? Peter at times showed great faith, but other times that faith dwindled down to almost nothing. Three of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and John) tell how Jesus walked on water. When Peter saw this, he decided to try it, too. Peter actually did walk on water for a little while, but began to sink when his faith “petered out.”
This is how Matthew describes it: “‘Lord, if it’s you,’ Peter replied, ‘tell me to come to you on the water.’ ‘Come,’ He said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Immediately Jesus reached out His hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ He said, ‘why did you doubt?’” (Matthew 14: 28-31, NIV).
During the Last Supper, Jesus foretold that Peter would be in denial three times:
“Peter declared, ‘Even if all fall away, I will not.’ ‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus answered, ‘today – yes, tonight – before the rooster crows twice, you yourself will disown me three times.’ But Peter insisted emphatically, ‘Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.’ And all the others said the same” (Mark 14: 29-31, NIV).
Peter said no he wouldn’t deny his Lord, but oh yes he did. During the frightful hours before Jesus’ Crucifixion, Peter three times denied that he was a follower of Jesus.
Even though Peter’s faith “petered out” occasionally, Jesus knew Peter’s potential. After the Resurrection, Jesus gave Peter and the other disciples something to boost their faith fuel: the Holy Spirit. On the day of Pentecost, it was Peter who stood up and gave an impassioned speech about the day’s events (Acts 2: 14). Peter, thus empowered, became a leader of the early Christians.
Because Peter was a musician? According to the Eastern Orthodox Church, another title used for Peter is Coryphaeus, which could be translated as “choir director” or “lead singer.” There’s no mention in the Bible that Peter enjoyed loud music that could make a person deaf. However, the Bible does say Peter impulsively cut off the ear of a slave who was with one of the soldiers at the time of Jesus’ arrest:
“Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear” (John 18: 20 NIV).
A Christian band called Petra once issued an album with the great title, “Petra Means Rock.” We have no idea whether Peter would have liked the music that bears his name. Well, OK, rock and roll music wasn’t named after the disciple, but the band was.
Because Peter was rock solid? Peter was grounded in a firm foundation. He was taught by the best, Jesus Himself. As the apostle Paul points out, “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11, NIV). In the passage from Matthew which is the foundation for this little discussion we’re having, Jesus wanted to know who His disciples thought He was, and only Simon correctly identified Jesus as the Christ (Matthew 16: 16-17). Immediately after that, Jesus renames Simon, calling him Rock. Some say that Peter’s confession of faith is the Rock and not Peter himself.
Because Peter would sit on a stone throne? Catholics believe that Peter became the first pope, that Peter the Pope ruled from Rome, and that every pope since then is descended from Peter in some magical, spiritual way. According to the Book of Acts, Peter was actually based in Jerusalem. There’s no evidence that he was ever in Rome. Legend places him there, claiming that he founded the church at Rome and became its first bishop and somehow that turned into the pope. Supposedly, Peter was persecuted in Rome by crazy Nero and then crucified – crucified upside down so he wouldn’t dishonor Christ on the cross.
Protestants certainly go out of their way to claim that Jesus never called Peter “Rock.” They’re so afraid that any acknowledgment of Peter’s name would prove the Catholic claim that Peter was the first pope. As a Protestant myself, I think that’s stupid.
It’s clear that Peter was called “Rock.” It’s in the Biblical text. But Peter wasn’t the first pope. The word “pope” is NOT in the Bible. By acknowledging Peter as Rock, I’m not saying anything pro or con about the papacy.
Because Peter would be a stumbling block? Legend has it that once Peter got to heaven, he was assigned the duty of gatekeeper (or bouncer), grilling everyone who shows up to determine whether the person gets in or not. However, there’s nothing in the Bible that says Peter would have this role. Actually, Jesus is the Judge and Gatekeeper.
Because Peter would be a prisoner? Apparently, Peter is a slang term for a prison cell, and prisons were often made of stone. I don’t think that was named after this Peter, as he didn’t make a very good prisoner. He was in jail twice, but he escaped both times (Acts 5: 17-25 and Acts 12: 1-19). I think Paul was in jail more than Peter was.
Because Peter was a great chef? Peter once had a vision, and it was all about food:
“About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’ ‘Surely not, Lord!’ Peter replied. ‘I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.’ The voice spoke to him a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven” (Acts 10: 9-16, NIV).
This may sound like a strange dream, but it was God’s way of telling Peter that all foods were now OK to eat. This meant Christians would not be restricted by the Jewish dietary laws which dictated which foods were Kosher. A variety of meat is a tasty treat. “Can you smell what the Rock is cooking?” So perhaps he was a chef, or maybe a wrestler.
Because Peter was a body builder? Perhaps he worked out and was rock-ribbed. We don’t know anything about his physique, but we do know about his faith and leadership ability. He definitely went on to build the Body of Christ.
If Christ is the Rock and also the Chief Cornerstone, then how can Peter be the Rock?
Did Jesus forget who He was when He called Peter the Rock? Was Jesus snorting rocks of crack cocaine when He said that?
Christ is definitely the Rock of our Salvation. Paul tells us Christ has been that since the time of the ancient Israelites:
“They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:3-4, NIV).
St. Maximus of Turin (AD 423) said, "Paul teaches the Rock was Christ, so through Christ, Peter was made the Rock, the Lord saying to him "thou art Peter."
It’s clear that Peter was the leader of the early Church. As with any organization, the Church cannot exist without leadership, and Jesus chose Peter to provide that leadership. In our study passage, Jesus gives Peter “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16: 19). Jesus didn’t give them to any other disciple, so Jesus must have intended for Peter to lead once Jesus ascended back into heaven.
That’s even clearer in the Gospel of John where Jesus directs Peter to feed His sheep:
“When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ he said, ‘you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Feed my lambs.’ Again Jesus said, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He answered, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Take care of my sheep.’ The third time He said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ He said, ‘Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep” (John 21: 15-17, NIV).
Peter had denied Jesus three times; now Jesus reinstated Peter three times – and instructed Peter to care for Christ’s followers.
Peter would lead the Church with Christ as his model. He would be an imitator of Christ. Even Peter, with his name being what it is, acknowledges that Christ is the Rock:
“As you come to Him, the living Stone – rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to Him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says: ‘See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in Him will never be put to shame’” (1 Peter 2:4-6, NIV).
That’s an interesting passage. Peter doesn’t remind people that his name is Rock and the Church is build on him. In fact, he says that all Christians are building blocks in the Body of Christ (the Church).
Origen points out, “If you shall think that the whole church was built on Peter alone, what shall we say of John and each of the apostles? Shall we dare to say that the gates of hell shall not prevail against Peter alone?”
All of the apostles had a role in the rock formation, as Paul acknowledges:
“Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of His household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:19-20, NIV).
To put it another way, Christ is the cornerstone and Peter is the rock upon which the cornerstone and the Church rests. Each church leader since then has been another layer building up the Body of Christ.
The Church is the continuing presence of Jesus Christ in the world, and we are reminded that the Church is a people and not a building. We are, in fact, serving as the hands and feet of Christ, doing the work of the Church just as Peter did.