Everything I Know About Conversion I Learned from Peter the Apostle

Simon is Called

If there were no fish to be found, there was no reason to keep fishing. Simon hollered for the men on his other boat to come to shore, then rowed in his boat with his brother Andrew.

Simon breathed in the familiar earthy musk of the freshwater lake he had lived next to his entire life. Fishing, nearly every day. Just like his father.

So perhaps as he began the depressingly rote steps to end a wasted night, his mind wandered off to John, a preacher his brother had introduced him too.

John had worn a smock made of camel skin, and riled up the local priests. That was his charm. And, there was no risk in just listening, right?

Simon’s boat reached shore. He dragged his fishing nets up, and with the calloused hands of a fisherman began to clean the dead fish, sticks, shellfish and seaweed from the soggy rope netting. Nearly ten years older than the others, you can imagine the weight of the unsuccessful night sinking into Simon’s neck and shoulders.

Perhaps his mind wandered back to when John had told the pharisees and sadducees God would cut them down like a dead tree. It took real nerve to say something like that.

John had told the tax collectors that they shouldn’t take more than necessary to be saved. He had told the soldiers to do no violence to be saved.

And . . . well he hadn’t told the fishermen how to be saved.

Just like the morning sun peaking over the horizon, Jesus and his usual throng appeared in the distance.

Simon had met Jesus before. Andrew had introduced them months ago. He was going on and on about the Messiah who would deliver the Jews from Roman rule.

But when they met Jesus just looked deeply into Simon.

“You are Simon,” Jesus had said, “But you will become Peter, the rock.”

Jesus reached Simon on the shore. He asked to use his boat so he could deliver a sermon. Simon looked back. He had what most people would call a resting grumpy  face. But he agreed. He gathered the nets and pushed a few feet from shore so that the entire crowd could see Jesus.

When Jesus finished his sermon. You can imagine Simon was anxious to finish his chores and be on his way. But instead, Jesus told Simon to drop the nets.

Simon owned his boats, his nets, his fishing business. He had done this his entire life. People didn’t tell him how to fish. He protested.

He tried to explain to this carpenter that they had worked all day and caught nothing. His method for fishing was dropping the nets to the sandy ground, and dragging them along the lake bed. So even one more drop of the nets meant all his cleaning work would be undone. His wife, likely waited at home, caring for her sick mother.

Simon almost denied Jesus’ request. But perhaps this man was everything Andrew said. Perhaps HE knew what a fisherman needed to do to be saved.

Or perhaps there was simply a longing in Simon’s heart—a recognition that he wasn’t the man he could be. So why not. Simon finally added, “Since you asked me to, I will.”

Simon dropped the nets. The ropes in his hand probably started to feel unusually tense. Did Simon’s heart sprint in anticipation? Simon had grown wealthy providing fish for the growing population of Galilee, but he had never felt a haul this heavy. When exactly between the time he bent down to grab the nets, and when he hauled them back on board, did Simon realize this was more than just good luck, that he experienced a miracle?

The fish from the net overflowed his boat.

Simon called out for help “John, James!” to his partners waiting on the shore. They rowed out to take some of the fish so it wouldn’t sink his boat.

When the rush of the miracle subsided, Simon was taken aback. He had almost said no. He fell to Jesus’ feet. His face down in the fish he had just filled his boat with. “Leave,” Simon begged Jesus unworthily, “I’m just a sinner.” Simon, the sinner, in a great irony, didn’t feel ready to be near his only source of redemption.

Jesus looked down at Simon grateful, humiliated, and scared to change.

“Fear not,” Jesus said. “Follow me, and I will make you a fisher of men.”

When Jesus told Peter he would make him, he used the word Po-ay-oh. Which means to construct, to mold, to create. If Peter followed, Jesus would mold him into a fisher of men.

They rowed ashore. Simon had just completed the greatest night of fishing of his life. Perhaps he could have bought another boat, or another home. It certainly would have improved his reputation.

But Simon gave it all away, the fish, the boats, the nets. What would a fisher of men need with those things?

Years later, Simon sat with the scribe Mark to recount his memories of Jesus. But he didn’t mention that miracle. Perhaps it was too personal, too embarrassing. To Peter, the important part of the story is that Jesus said “Come,” and he went.

Christ Heals Peter’s Mother-In-Law

Simon was a new man. Well, Simon wanted to be a new man. So he started going by the name Jesus gave him, Simon Peter.

I can only imagine the look on the face of Simon Peter’s wife when he told her he was taking a new name. For a middle-aged man who had gone through the same fishing routines nearly every day of his life, this change must have seemed dramatic. Important.

Simon Peter now spent his days listening to Jesus preach around Capernaum, his hometown.

But the festival of Purim, which commemorates Esther saving the Jews, was quickly approaching, and Jesus was to travel to Jerusalem.

Simon Peter’s wife couldn’t go. She took care of her sick mother in their home. This wasn’t the cultural norm. Simon Peter was already housing his brother Andrew. Besides husbands, sons, fathers took care of the sick women in their culture, not daughters. But Peter desperately loved his wife. Years later he would write a letter to converts in Turkey. He spoke about how men and women would be “heirs together of the grace of life,” and of a woman who was “in the sight of God great price.” I imagine he spoke from experience.

I’m not sure if Simon Peter hesitated to follow Jesus to Jerusalem. But what we do know is that one night after synagogue, Jesus went to Peter’s home, took his ill mother-in-law by the hand and lifted her up, the illness gone. And the only thing tying him to Capernaum gone too. She rose from her bed looked at Peter and Jesus and offered to make something to eat. Because you know that’s what great mother-in-laws do.

Peter Goes on a Mission

The next morning, Jesus left, and Peter followed, leaving the place he had known all his life, and taking only his family with him.

Can you imagine this time in Peter’s life? He listened to the greatest sermons and parables ever delivered. He saw one healing after the next. He almost certainly was invited to at least one of the many feasts Jesus visited during this time.  

But Peter was learning. When Jesus sensed that a woman had been healed from simply touching his hem, he turned and asked who had touched him. Peter incredulous said, “There are people all around you. What do you mean, who touched you?”

I wonder if Peter felt silly, or simply in awe, when Jesus pointed out the woman.

And Jesus seemed to take a special liking to Peter.

When he needed to raise the daughter of Jairus from the dead, a miracle too magnificent to be made public so early in his ministry, Peter was one of only three people Jesus invited to witness.

On this particular morning, Peter stayed with a large group of Jesus’ followers in a clearing near the rocky base of a Galilean mountain. In their travels they had wound their way nearly back to Capernaum. But I imagine Peter couldn’t have felt further away.

The night before, Jesus went into the mountains to pray alone. When he returned to the crowd that morning, he called Peter forward, and placed his hands on his head.

I imagine those hands felt very very heavy. Jesus ordained Peter to be an apostle, to be with Him, and to go forth and preach.

The gospel writers disagree on exactly what was said during the ordination prayer. Matthew and Luke say Peter received authority so he could cast out devils, heal sickness, and preach. But Peter remembered it a little differently. In his mind he received authority so he would cast out devils, heal sickness and preach.

In the world Peter had grown up in, religious leaders spent their entire life studying and preparing to teach. Peter had no time to waste.

After Jesus had ordained each of the twelve, He led them to the next clearing so he could give them special instructions before they left on missions.

He started with a list of missionary rules. Essentially like the little white handbook our missionaries carry today.

Jesus then delivered this commandment, “Whosoever shall confess me before men, him will I confess before my Father in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father in heaven.”

To Peter, a man about to leave to testify of Jesus, this must have seemed like a great comfort . . . for now.

Peter Walks on Water

After several months away, Peter returned to Galilee with the other apostles for Passover.

This was Peter’s first time back with Jesus since his ordination as an Apostle. What had he learned? How much had he grown?

I can imagine that when Peter saw the five-thousand people come to hear Jesus speak the sheer mass of shuffling and chatting must have felt overwhelming. Five thousand! Listening to the man who plucked him off a fishing boat.

When Jesus finished preaching, He told his apostles to take a boat to Bethsaida to to the Northeast, while he sent the crowds away.

Peter likely assumed that Jesus would catch up with them. But night brought with it a strong western wind, and Jesus had not yet appeared.

The winds grew stronger, more ragged. And any progress the apostles had made in their boat quickly disappeared. They abandoned any hopes of reaching Bethsaida, and turned instead to Capernaum, not their goal, but a nearby safe harbor.

Peter hadn’t been back to Capernaum, and now he might arrive simply because he hadn’t made any progress in his boat.

For six hours they rowed, helpless, powerless while they waited for Jesus.

It was 3 AM. Peter had ridden the Sea of Galilee many time at these hours. Surely he knew the danger they were truly in.

In the dim night a shadowy figure drifted into view. Black movement on black sky.

The wind sliced water across their faces. Had they unknowingly drifted to the shore? No. Was there another boat? No. The other apostles had seen Jesus cast out enough evil spirits to know exactly what they thought it was. Imagine the fury they plowed into their oars desperate to escape but absolutely incapable.

“Don’t be afraid, it’s me,” Jesus spoke.

The other apostles calmed at his voice, but Peter knew what the real Jesus was capable of. “If it’s really you, tell me to walk out to you on the water.”

“Come.”

When Peter gripped the edge of the boat, did it wobble? As he pulled himself over the edge, did he worry, or was he just excited to see Jesus again? When his sandal touched the Sea of Galilee, the Sea that gave him his old life, and was now giving him his new, did the water lap onto his feet, or stream between his toes, or did he levitate on the peaks of the current held up only by the power of faith? Could he see Jesus smile? He was surely looking straight at him.

But Peter knew what these storms could do. He’d surely lost someone to them at sometime in his life. And the waves strong enough to freeze their boat for six hours caught his eye.

The water returned to its natural state, and Peter sank. “Jesus,” he cried, “Save me.” In Greek the word Peter used was Sozo, rescue me from danger.

The warmth of Jesus’ hand enveloped Peter’s before it could hit the water. Jesus looked at the only apostle with the faith to ask to walk on water, and lectured him about his doubt, before returning to their boat.

Peter proved that night that his conversion was from over. His faith imposing but frail. But it was okay. Because who was there to save him? Jesus.

Is it any surprise that just over a year later, when Peter gave his first sermon as president of the church, that he told the people that if they called on the name of Jesus they would be sozo. They would be saved. He knew.

Peter would leave on additional missions, and occasionally join back together with Jesus or the other apostles.

Confession and Transfiguration

As Jesus’ reputation grew larger and more infamous in Jerusalem, he travelled further away from the Holy city.

Peter reconvened with Jesus in Caesarea Philippi, the furthest north Jesus would reach in his lifetime.  When they arrived, the city was run by the worshippers of Pan, the erotic half-goat deity, often seen playing the flute.

Jesus gathered his disciples, likely against the sheer face of the orange mountain cliffs, near the marble columned sanctuary of Pan.

“Whom do men say that I am?” he asked.

He got various answers. John the Baptist, Elijah, a prophet. But then he made the question personal, “Who do you say I am?”

During the first two years of Jesus’ ministry, he never explicitly said who He was. Not entirely. He was certainly a special man. A prophesied man. A spiritual man. But as far as anyone had been told, He was a man.

But surely Peter had begun to feel bubbling suspicion. He had seen more of Jesus’ miracles and been tutored more closely, than the others. He must have suspected something more of this miraculous ministry. Something shocking, and eternity rattling.

Perhaps in this remote city, with it’s strange beliefs, Peter felt emboldened to reach down into his heart without fear and follow his faith wherever it led him, no matter how vulnerable.

Perhaps Peter simply needed to believe more than anyone else.

But for the first time ever, Peter said what every Christian would believe from that day forward, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

Peter was correct. Jesus told the gathered disciples to tell no one else. He then prophesied that in time he would be taken by the chief priests and killed.

As the chief apostle, Peter needed to accept this information, and begin to prepare himself.

But this was his friend, the man he gave up everything for. “No! Not you. They can’t. Don’t even say that.”

“Get thee behind me Satan. You do not have the thoughts of God, but of men,” Jesus rebuked Peter’s hasty, faithless, and weak natural man.

He needed Peter to accept, to grow, to become “The Rock,” he told him he would become the first time they met.

Jesus turned to the group with a message surely designed for Peter, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross.”

Peter’s stern rebuke surely seared into his mind the surety and imminence of Jesus’ death.

The next day, Jesus took Peter, along with his two old fishing partners, turned apostles, James and John up the nearest mountain. Peter had taken a step of faith in declaring Jesus the Son of God. Now he would see it.

You can imagine Peter huddling atop a mountain in the chilly early morning mountain breeze, when glory burst through Jesus, turning his face into a glowing sun and his clothes into rays of light. Moses and Elijah appeared to deliver the keys of the priesthood Peter would soon need to lead the Church. And the voice of God came down from heaven. “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.”

The Atonement

Months later, on the first night of Passover, Jesus gathered his apostles together on the streets of Jerusalem to take a short walk outside town to the Mount of Olives.

They had just left the contentious last supper. Peter had spent a lot of his recent time preaching, so I imagine, he was thinking about those few moments he did spend with Jesus.

Recently, in Perea, a good man, a rich man approached Jesus. Peter could recognize himself in the young man’s desperate desire to find redemption. He asked Jesus how to gain eternal life. Jesus told him he needed to give up everything he had, so the man left, sad.

But I’ve done that, Peter had thought of his home and fishing boats. “I’ve forsaken everything and followed you,” Peter had reminded Jesus pleadingly.

In the cold Passover night air, Jesus began to lead the apostles toward the water gate, the southeastern exit of Jerusalem.

As they walked, Jesus gave his apostles instructions for later that night. “Tonight you will desert me.”  

“Where are you going?” Peter asked.

“You cannot follow me.”

As they spoke, Kidron brook, just outside the city grew louder. In Hebrew, Kidron means gloomy, and each spring the ravine grew into a tumultuous torrent. As the dark descended, Peter would have had nothing to focus on but that roar.

“Even if everyone else leaves you, I won’t,” Peter said. How many times had he second-guessed, interrupted, corrected Jesus.

If Peter wouldn’t leave when the time came, then Jesus knew what would happen, “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.”

“Even if I die,” Peter retrenched, “I will not deny you.”

“Satan wants you,” Jesus said, “and I’ve prayed that your faith will not fail you. When you are converted,” he explained to the man who would in four days lead the Church, “when you are converted, strengthen your brethren.”

The road from Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives starts east, and then makes a dramatic left turn north.

As Peter took this turn, the Mount of Olives would have filled his vision with untamed olive trees speckling its rocky slopes. In contrast, at the mountain’s base there was a cultivated garden of olive trees.

While Jesus spent much of his time among those wild and untamed trees, tonight he no longer had the time. He needed the productive, fruit-bearing trees of the garden. He brought Peter, James, and John with him, left them to sit against the coarse knotted trunks, and walked a stone’s throw away.

The sticky spring day, turned cold with the night. I imagine Peter huddled together with his old friends. What did they talk about? Did they sit in perfect silence?

Surely the events of that night were on Peter’s mind.

After dinner, Jesus had gotten a towel and basin and had begun to wash the feet of the disciples—a common chore, but one exclusively performed by yourself, or a servant.

The man who had saved Peter, healed his mother-in-law, glowed from heaven, the Son of God was about to wash Peter’s feet?

“What are you doing?” Peter asked.

“You won’t understand until later,” Jesus told him.

“You never have to wash my feet,” Peter said.  

Just like on that boat years before, Jesus had wanted to serve Peter, and Peter had protested.

“If I do not wash your feet, then you have nothing to do with me,” Jesus had said.

The weight of the terse dinner, prophecies of betrayal, death, and desertion, and Peter’s fight with Jesus must have left him emotionally worn and spiritually weary. He couldn’t keep his eyes open, and soon fell asleep “for sorrow.”

The next thing Peter heard was Jesus waking him up. “You couldn’t watch for one hour?”

In the books of Matthew and Luke, it says that Jesus chastised all three. But in Peter’s memory, Jesus spoke only to him. “Peter, Simon,” Jesus said, “You’re sleeping?” In Peter’s mind, he was at fault, he was the one who needed to do better.

Jesus left again. And Peter sat, he forced open his droopy eyes, but as Jesus just ruefully described, while the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak.

Earlier that night, after Peter had heard Jesus’ rebuke for refusing his feet washed, he changed.

“Then wash my hands and head too.” Peter had asked.

I’d like to think that Jesus smiled, Peter had grown. But Peter had desperately needed one last lesson.

“If you are washed, you only need to wash your feet. You are clean. But not entirely clean.”

When Jesus checked in with his sleeping apostles a second time, he didn’t bother to wake them. Could Peter appreciate how desperately he needed what he slept through?

Peter’s Denial

When Jesus’ hour had passed, he returned and woke the apostles. I imagine the scuffling crowd, and clanging lanterns could be heard, before anything could be seen through the dark night. Perhaps Peter felt groggy and unfocused, as the armed mob surrounded him.

“Who are you looking for?” Jesus asked.

“Jesus of Nazareth” one of the guards announced.

“I am Jesus. You can let everyone else go.”

Now was the chance. Leave like Jesus had told him to do.

As one of the soldiers stepped forward to take Jesus, one of the other apostles asked Jesus if they should attack.

But Peter, who was always more willing to fight for Jesus then listen to him, didn’t wait for a response. He unsheathed his sword, and swung wildly, slicing the ear of Malchus, the servant of the high priest.

Jesus reached out and healed the man’s ear with a touch, giving Peter one last chance to desert, to escape. But he stood by Jesus.

Jesus submitted to the men, allowing his wrists to be bound with a leather strap.

As soon as they had Jesus, the mob began seizing anyone nearby who may have been associated with him.

Peter ran.

We don’t know where most of the apostles went that night. But no matter how clearly Jesus had told Peter not to follow him, Peter swore he wouldn’t desert Jesus. So after the ruckus settled, Peter followed the mob from a safe distance back into the city. Jesus told him what would happen. Peter could have gone anywhere. But he went to the one place with the most danger.

The mob entered through the stone walls and Roman columns of the headquarters for the High priest. They whisked Jesus into a back room for the group of priests to interrogate.

As Peter walked in, the woman at the door looked at him, “Aren’t you one of this man’s disciples?”

He had to get in.

“No,” Peter said, walked in, and warmed himself at the fire.

I imagine Peter felt anxious, impatient. And soon enough he left the comfort of the fire to the porch, where a small group of people were speaking. One of the men looked at Peter, “Hey,” he said, “You were with Jesus of Galilee.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I’m sure Peter could come up with justifications. He needed to stay unrecognized so he could help Jesus down the road. Or maybe he felt it was the only way to not desert Jesus like he foolishly promised. Or maybe Peter didn’t justify, maybe his instinct was simply selfish self-preservation.

The questioning ran through the night, and Peter returned inside to the crowds. If he had been so tired he couldn’t stay awake at the beginning of the night, I can only imagine the adrenaline-sloshed weariness that now took Peter.

As Peter spoke to some in the crowd, Malchus, the man whose ear Peter had attacked, looked over. “You have a Galilean accent,” he said, surely a rarity in Jerusalem, “I saw you in the garden.” The entire crowd turned to Peter. Here in front of everyone he had the opportunity to make up for his mistakes, to confess his Lord, to be a Rock.

No excuse would do. Peter had been prepared for this moment for years. He listened as Jesus explicitly commanded to never deny him. He experienced the divinity of Jesus with his natural senses. And then Jesus told him exactly what would happen, so he could avoid this very situation.  

“I swear,” Peter said, “I do not know him.”

The morning sun appeared laying bare all that had lain in darkness, and the cock crowed.

Two years serving the Master. Two years of growth. Was he still just the same sinner bowed in a boat, begging Jesus to leave.

Peter ran out and wept. How do you describe the tears of sincere repentance? When the gospel writers described these tears none of them chose the word κραυγή (kravgi) which means “to cry” and which each of them used at other times. No each of them chose to describe Peter’s cries as κλαίω (kee-lay-oh), which means to mourn, lament, bewail, weep with pain and grief. But still that word didn’t entirely describe Peter’s tears so they added the word  πικρῶς (picros) or bitterly, poignantly, violently.

Mere hours after Jesus had suffered for it, Peter sinned. Imagine the grief as he watched his Lord and Savior killed to complete the penance for his mortal sin. Peter wept bitterly.

Peter Sees Jesus Again

Peter witnessed the crucifixion, the empty tomb, and the resurrected Lord.

After a few weeks, he travelled back to Galilee. He sat with John, and James, along with some of the other apostles, brothers, who he had joined on his journey.

“I’m going fishing,” Peter said, took a boat, and went out into the familiar sea. All night, he caught nothing. In the morning, a single man stood on the shore and shouted to the men on the ship.

“Have you caught anything?”

“No,” Peter shouted.

“Drop your nets on the right side of the ship.”

Peter complied. Immediately he could feel tension in the net. He heaved, but it was so full, he couldn’t even lift it. John looked to Peter, “It’s Jesus.”

Peter dropped the net, and leapt into the lake, swimming to meet his Lord.

They built a fire, and began to cook the fish.

I imagine the dawn light lapping against the early morning fire. Roasted fish, ready for an empty stomach, sitting between them.

Jesus looked to Peter. “Do you love me, more than these?”

“Yes, you know I love you.”

“Feed my sheep.”

“Do you love me?” Jesus asked again.

“Yes, you know that I love you.”

“Feed my sheep.”

“Simon,” Jesus called him one last time, for he was almost ready to become the Peter Jesus prophesied the first day they met, “Do you love me?”  

And Peter felt sorrow.

The Lord mercifully provided the opportunity for restitution. One statement of fealty to repay each denial. “Lord, you know everything. You know I love you.”

And then Jesus gave Peter the greatest gift he could, the path to make repentance perfect, the final step to change and take advantage of His sacrifice. “Feed my sheep.”

Peter left his fishing boats again, and he led the church. Peter’s repentance was not a detour, but essential. For Peter to teach the world how Jesus saves he had to have been saved. For Peter to teach of Christ’s grace, he had to feel Christ’s grace.

“Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out,” Peter taught in his first sermon. “Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him do I stand here before you whole.”

It took until the last bitter moment, but Peter became the man Jesus needed him to be, and it was only possible through His atonement.

Christopher D. Cunningham, the More Good Foundation content director, loves emphatically celebrating the normal healthy development of his sons Albus and Whitman, writing about the Church of Jesus Christ, finding the middle ground on most controversies, and using Western Family generic brand lip balm. Christopher is a proud graduate of Brigham Young University-Idaho, and a resident of San Antonio, Texas. He is a longtime supporter of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.