Claim to fame: Jesus's right-hand man.
More than any of the other gospel writers, Matthew really digs Peter. We almost wonder if he drew little hearts around Peter's name while he was writing (note: Shmoop has no historical proof of that. It's just a hunch). The author gives us loads more information about Jesus's closest disciple, plus Peter gets some pretty impressive credentials laid on him.
Okay, let's dive right in.
The Family Guy
Matthew's story tells us a bit about Peter right from the beginning. First, he lives in Galilee and works as a fisherman with his brother, Andrew (family business, anyone?). Both the brothers join Jesus's entourage together (4:18), but Peter quickly moves to the head of the class and claims the position of leader of the disciples. Sorry, Andrew. It's tough living in the shadow of a famous sibling.
The Gospel also tells us that Peter had a mother-in-law whom Jesus healed (8:14), which means Peter was married. Mazel tov! Of course, Matthew doesn't mention anything about Peter's wife or if he had any kids. Maybe that's because the Mrs. had passed away. Or else she didn't approve much of her husband spending all his free time with that good-for-nothing Jesus. Guess Peter's hoping that no one needs to take the trash out in the kingdom of heaven.
Peter's Time to Shine
Because Matthew thinks Peter is the bomb, he also has loads of stories about Peter that you won't find anywhere else. These include:
- The time Peter tried to walk on water (14:28-31). Epic fail.
- The time Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive someone (18:21-22). Is seven good? Nope, sorry. Try seventy-seven times (or in some versions, seventy times seven).
- The time Peter gets to pay Jesus's taxes with a magic coin from the mouth of a fish (17:24-27). Um, awesome.
Churching It Up
Matthew's Gospel is also the only in which Peter is given special church leadership powers. Jesus says that Peter is the rock that on which he's going to build the church (16:18). (Fun fact: the name "Peter" means rock. Nice word play, Jesus.) He's also going to get "the keys to the kingdom of heaven" (no taking it out for a late-night joy ride, though!) and special authority to make laws on earth and heaven (16:19). Whoa.
So why does Peter get all this extra attention from Matthew? It's not just because the author of the Gospel thinks the leader of the disciples has mad fishing skills (he does). Matthew is really into the role of the church. After all, Matthew is living in an age without Jesus and he sees a need for the church to shepherd the faithful. And what's a church without a leader? And who better to fill that role than Jesus's second in command? Peter, you're it.
He's Still a Dunce Sometimes
It's clear we're supposed to like Peter and see him as a bona fide leader. Someone worthy of being the one who heads the church once Jesus dies. You know, the keeper of the keys. But there's another side to Peter. Chew on these:
- The time Peter told Jesus he wouldn't die and Jesus called him Satan (16:22-23). Harsh.
- The time Peter freaked out during the transfiguration (17:1-6). To be fair, so did James and John. Plus, things did get kind of weird.
- The time he (and the other disciples) didn't have enough faith to cast out a demon (17:19-20). Peter, all you needed was a mustard-seed-sized amount, bro!
- The time Peter nodded off while Jesus was fretting about his impending death (26:40). Hey, watching other people die makes a man tired.
Okay, so none of this really looks good for Peter, but we still think he's swell. Sure, he can be a bonehead, but so are all the other disciples. Peter's still got the moral high ground, right?
Don't Try to Deny It
Well, maybe not. Peter's biggest gaffe comes when he famously and conveniently pretends not to know Jesus. Ouch. This looks bad. On the night he's arrested, Jesus predicts, "before the cock crows, [Peter] will deny [him] three times" (26:34). Sure enough, within a few hours, Peter is shrugging his shoulders and saying, "Jesus who?" to some persistent questioners.
Why does Peter deny Jesus? Well, maybe because he's scared. Can we really blame him? The Messiah has been arrested on capital charges and Judea is not known for having a long and thorough appeals process. And even though he totally promised Jesus he would die for him—"Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you" (26:35)—once the smell of death starts creeping in, Peter has second thoughts and his survival instincts kick in big time.
Matthew gives Peter a tiny redemption after his three denials. Once Peter realizes that Jesus was totally right (as usual), he "wept bitterly" (26:75). Sure, he doesn't try to find Jesus, or go to his trial, or help him in any way, but weeping is good, right? And, don't forget, it's a step up from a Peter who does nothing, which is what happens in all the other gospels.
The tears do seem to be enough, because when Peter and Jesus meet again, all has been forgiven. Jesus addresses Peter with the other disciples (sans Judas) and tells them to go out and spread his message to the world (28:16-20). Peter keeps the keys to the kingdom of heaven and all is well. Forgive and forget. It's kind of how Jesus rolls.
In a Nutshell
So it's obvious that Peter goes through some highs and lows during his relationship with Jesus. Sometimes he's offering to pitch a tent during the transfiguration (so helpful!), but other times, he ends up almost drowning in the Sea of Galilee (wear a life vest next time, dude). Overall, the guy's heart is definitely in the right place. Sometimes he fails, but don't we all? Jesus hits the nail on the head when he tells Peter that "the spirit willing, but the flesh is weak" (26:40). Oh, that Jesus….
Peter Is Out There
Matthew's portrayal of Peter has been hugely important for Christians. The Catholic Church, especially, loves the whole exchange between Jesus and Peter in Chapter 16. They think that all points to the formation of the Christian church, with Peter as its head as the First Pope. Quite the neat little package (source).
You'll see a nod to this verse on the flag of Vatican City: it has two keys to the kingdom of heaven on it. There's also the Basilica of St. Peter, where Peter's remains are supposed to be buried, and which is home to some of the most stunning art and architecture the world has ever known. So, yeah, Catholics kind of dig the guy.
The plot of the movie Dogma also hangs on Jesus's words in Matthew 16:18. The two rogue angels can reenter Heaven because Jesus went and gave Peter (and thus the Catholic Church) authority to make rules that God must follow. Might want to think that one through a little better next time, Jesus.