The day that Jesus first met Andrew’s brother, he said to him, "You are Simon the son of Jonah. You shall be called Cephas" (John 1:42, NKJV). But hereafter, whenever the Lord addresses this disciple in the New Testament record, it is almost always as Simon rather than by his new name. Why?The term Cephas is the Aramaic version of Peter, meaning "a stone" and projecting the imagery of firmness and stability. The name Simon is the Greek form of Simeon, derived from a Hebrew expression meaning "he has heard" (see Genesis 29:33). The idea of "listening" is an obvious connotation.
It is of no small significance that the Gospels repeatedly depict Andrew’s brother as impulsive, slow to hear and quick to misunderstand. Thus, whenever the Lord addressed him by his given name, it doubled as a subtle reminder to Simon of his pressing need to pay attention. Jesus consistently called him Simon, in spite of the name change, except on two important occasions.
A couple of years into the Lord’s ministry, popular opinion was divided concerning his identity. It was Simon Peter (as Matthew refers to him) who affirmed on this occasion: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:16). Jesus then commended "Simon Bar [son of]-Jonah" for this great confession (v. 17) and went on to declare, "And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church . . ." (v. 18a).
The Greek text indicates an apparent play on words that is lost in the English translation. The masculine noun Petros ("Peter" or Aramaic "Cephas," the moniker Jesus had said "you shall be called") means "a stone," i.e. a piece of a larger rock. In contrast, the feminine petra is used to describe that upon which the church is built, i.e. a large foundational bedrock. Peter is merely a small (albeit significant) component, while Jesus himself is both the builder and the foundation of what he describes as "My church." The point is that the rock-solid substructure upon which the church stands is the enduring truth that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the living God." Or, as stated elsewhere: "For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 3:11).
The only other recorded instance of Jesus using the name Peter is in the upper room on the evening prior to his crucifixion. The disciples had been arguing among themselves about who should be considered the greatest (Luke 22:24). The Lord singles out one of them and says, "Simon, Simon" (v. 31a). Notice the repetition of the name. Might this have been Christ’s way of emphasizing the importance of what he is about to tell Simon and/or a shrewd way of saying, "Listen, listen!"? Jesus knew the potentially devastating challenge that was about to confront Simon’s faith, so he offers these words of reassurance: "But I have prayed for you that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren" (v. 32).
Instead of carefully and thoughtfully listening, however, impetuous Simon blurted out: "Lord, I am ready to go with You, both to prison and to death" (v. 33). Irrespective of the sincerity of his intentions and the nobleness of his words, he evidently didn’t get it! How would his imprisonment at this time and premature death in any way contribute to the divine scheme of redemption? It was the perfect Lamb of God who had to suffer and die (vv. 19-22), but there was another purpose in God’s plan for Simon.
Jesus responds to the impulsive outburst, saying: "I tell you, Peter, the rooster shall not crow this day before you will deny three times that you know Me" (v. 34). Why did the Lord uncharacteristically address him here as Peter? Would not "Simon, Simon" ("listen, listen") be better suited to this occasion? Well, he had already tried that and apparently it didn’t work! Since Jesus was one to choose his words carefully, never misspoke, had good reasons for everything he uttered, and almost never used the name Peter, surely a point is being made. While we don’t know what facial expression the Lord had at the time or whether sarcasm was in his tone, perhaps this was a pointed reminder that Simon was expected to live up to his new name ("strengthen your brethren"), even though he obviously wasn’t there yet.
Christ’s statement in John 1:42 appears to have been prophetic ("shall be called") rather than an immediate name change. Looking beyond Simon’s weaknesses and inadequacies, the Lord was able to see potential in him that was probably unnoticed by everyone else, including Simon. With a great deal of patience and fortitude Jesus continued working with this fallible human being, continually reminding him to close his mouth and open his ears until the rock-solid character that was needed for God’s purpose had developed.
After the Lord’s personal ministry on earth was completed and the continuance of his work had been delegated to his loyal disciples, the only time in the biblical narrative that the apostle Simon is mentioned without the name Peter is in Acts 15:14. Here James refers to him as "Simeon" (the Hebraic form of his given name), although James is not speaking to him but rather about him. Note that the inherent meaning of this name ("listen") is not directed to Simon Peter but to those who had just heard him speak (vv. 7-11). Peter ("a stone") was now fulfilling his purpose as a strong, reliable representative of the Lord to whom others were encouraged to listen (cf. 2:14, 22).
Is there a lesson to be learned here? Am I currently living up to my full potential in the Lord and fulfilling my purpose in his service? This depends, of course, on how attuned I am to God’s will. In other words, am I making a genuine effort to listen, to learn and to grow? Even if I am not yet where I need to be, am I moving forward and developing the potential the Lord sees in me? Moreover, despite all the rough edges, are we looking for the potential in each other? Are we patient enough and determined enough to help one another grow into the solid people of faith God expects us to be? As Peter himself reminds us, "Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 2:4-5). Are we listening?
--Kevin L. Moore
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