Getting to Know the Major Characters of the New Testament: Part 2 (Peter, Stephen, Paul, John)


Photos illustrating life during the New Testament; photo credits on Unsplash beginning upper left to right clockwise by: Robert Bye, Portuguese Gravity, Stacey Franco, and Pisit Heng

By Christopher Reese

This is the final article in our series that introduces 7 major characters of the New Testament of the Bible. In the previous post, we surveyed the lives of Jesus, Mary (the mother of Jesus), and John the Baptist. Now, we’ll get to know Peter, Stephen, Paul, and John (the apostle). You can also find our posts on 11 major figures of the Old Testament here (Adam and Eve, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph), here (Moses, Joshua, David), and here (Solomon, Daniel, Ezra). As we get to know the major characters of the Bible better, we also become better acquainted with the Bible’s storyline and its message for us today.

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Before Peter met Jesus, he was a fisherman in the region of Galilee, where he worked with James and John (Luke 5:1-10). When Jesus called Peter and the others to follow him, he famously promised, “from now on you will fish for people.” Peter’s brother, Andrew, was also a disciple of Jesus, and was the first to meet him. After learning who Jesus was from John the Baptist, Andrew told Peter, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). And he brought [Peter] to Jesus.”

It was also at this point that Jesus gave Peter the name Peter. Peter’s birth name was Simon, but Jesus said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter)” (John 1:40-42). Cephas in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jews in Israel in Jesus’s day, means rock, and the equivalent term in Greek is petros, which is translated into English as Peter. Peter was certainly a rock in the sense that he was a leader and spokesman for the disciples, and would later become a leading figure in the early church.

Before he became a rock in the fullest sense, however, Peter had to learn some difficult lessons. While bold and courageous, he also tended to speak before thinking and placed too much confidence in his own abilities. One example of this is found in Matthew 16:13-28. Here, Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is. He wants them to be aware of his true identity. Peter boldly steps up and offers the correct answer, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus praises Peter for his insightful answer, but also observes that “this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.”

Peter answered accurately and without hesitation. Yet a short time later, Jesus begins to tell the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, be persecuted by the religious leaders there, and ultimately die and be raised back to life. Upon hearing this, Peter insists, “Never, Lord!” . . . “This shall never happen to you!” But Jesus responds with a strong rebuke: “Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.’” This was a stinging statement, asserting that Peter was representing the devil’s viewpoint. Peter had correctly identified Jesus as the Messiah, but had failed to accept Jesus’s explanation of his mission and what had to take place.

Peter later learned a hard lesson in humility when he declared to Jesus that he would never betray him, but then denied knowing him three times, as Jesus predicted Peter would (Matthew 26:31-35). Yet as John Maxwell observes,

“In the end, Peter was able to fall forward. On Easter morning, the angels asked the women who came to the tomb to tell Peter that Jesus had risen and would meet him in Galilee. Peter was going to have to face Jesus again. But in facing Jesus, Peter found hope and gained great influence by obeying him.”

Jesus forgave Peter for his betrayal, and reaffirmed his calling to continue Jesus’s work on earth by “[taking] care of my sheep” (John 21:16). We all fail as followers of Jesus, on a regular basis, but Scripture promises that if we “confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9), no matter how serious our sin.

Peter went on to write the New Testament books of 1 Peter and 2 Peter.

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Though not an apostle, Stephen is notable for being the first martyr of the early church. Although tragic, God used his death to spread the gospel to several new regions in which both Jews and Gentiles were reached with the Good News (Acts 11:19-21).

Stephen is first mentioned in the sixth chapter of Acts, where he’s chosen along with six others to ensure that a minority group of widows received a daily allotment of food. Of these six, only Stephen is referred to as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5). As time went on, Stephen became known as “a man full of God’s grace and power” who “performed great wonders and signs among the people.” This resulted in opposition from members of a certain synagogue in Jerusalem. They argued with Stephen about Jesus and Christian teachings “but they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke” (Acts 6:8-10).

Unable to silence him with their accusations, they spread lies about Stephen and stirred up the Jewish religious leaders against him. He was brought before the Sanhedrin—the Jewish governing body in Jerusalem—who demanded that he answer the accusations. Stephen replied by reviewing the history of the Jewish people, beginning with Abraham, and ending with a condemnation of those who were accusing him because, like their ancestors, they were resisting the Holy Spirit and persecuting those who were now proclaiming God’s message (Acts 6:11-7:53).

Furious, his accusers dragged him out of the city and began stoning him. In his death, his actions mirror Jesus in the way that he asks Jesus to receive his spirit (as Jesus had asked the Father to receive his while on the cross), and by praying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). It’s also at this point that Stephen’s life intersects with a man named Saul, who was present at the stoning and “approved of their killing him” (Acts 8:1). It appears in Saul’s case that Stephen’s prayer was answered because Saul—also known as Paul—became the great apostle, evangelist, and author of several books of the New Testament.

Stephen’s knowledge of Scripture, service to the church, and faithfulness to Christ—even to death—are examples believers can learn from today, as well as his love, even for those who were persecuting him. As we noted earlier, God brought good out of the evil of Stephen’s death by using it to save many more people in parts of the world that had never heard the gospel.

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Saul was from the city of Tarsus, a major metropolis and center of Greek culture, and preferred going by the Roman name Paul. Raised by devout Jewish parents, he was fluent in both Aramaic and Greek, which would serve him well as he traveled throughout the Roman Empire and ministered to both Jews and Gentiles.

Paul received his education in Jerusalem, studying under Gamaliel, one of the most notable rabbis of the day (Acts 22:3). He was trained in the tradition of the Pharisees, the most conservative branch of Judaism of the day, and recounts that he was “advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:14).

As someone fiercely dedicated to Judaism’s laws and customs, it’s perhaps not surprising that Paul would have viewed the early Christians as a threat. In his view they were undermining the foundations of the religion he had devoted his life to. As Paul himself would later say about his fellow Jews, which also described him prior to his conversion, “they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge” (Romans 10:2). As we saw above, Paul was present at the stoning of Stephen, approving of what they were doing.

After Stephen’s death, Paul began actively persecuting followers of Jesus. “Breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples,” he “persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison” (Acts 9:1; 22:4). But while traveling to Damascus to arrest Jewish Christians, Paul encountered the risen Christ and his life was forever changed. In a blinding light, Jesus appeared to Paul on the road, called him to be his servant and witness, and told Paul that his mission would be to preach the gospel to both Jews and Gentiles (Acts 26:12-18).

Obeying Jesus’s call, Paul became the most prolific evangelist of his day. He embarked on three separate missionary journeys, preaching the gospel and founding churches in numerous regions of the Roman Empire, as recorded in Acts 13-21. These were difficult undertakings that constantly put Paul and his companions in danger. As he recounts in 2 Corinthians, he was frequently persecuted by both Jews and Gentiles, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, deprived of sleep, and often faced hunger and exposure to the elements (2 Corinthians 11:24-27). Yet his response to these difficulties was, “I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24).

Paul also penned 13 New Testament epistles (Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon), written to explain Christian doctrine, encourage believers, and address problems that arose within the churches.

The attacks against Paul came to a head when he was nearly killed by a mob in Jerusalem, but rescued by Roman soldiers (Acts 21:30-36). Knowing that his life was in danger in Jerusalem, and at the Lord’s direction, Paul requested to be tried before the emperor in Rome. Bible scholars disagree about the next sequence of events, but Paul may have been discharged in Rome for a time and then rearrested during the Emperor Nero’s persecution of Christians. Paul mentions a hearing he had in Rome in 2 Timothy 4:16—the last letter he wrote. At some point after this hearing, he was sentenced to death by Nero, most likely before AD 68.

We learn a number of important spiritual lessons from Paul’s life. One is that no person lies beyond God’s ability to save. Paul persecuted God’s people, but God had mercy on him and used him in a powerful way for his kingdom. God’s love pursues us, even when we run from him. Paul also demonstrated a deep love for Christ and a singular focus on accomplishing the mission Jesus had called him to. In his letter to the Philippians he wrote, “I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8). May that be our attitude as well.

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The Apostle John

As we saw earlier in our survey of Peter, John was a partner with Peter in the fishing business they ran, along with John’s brother, James. These three were also Jesus’s inner circle of disciples (e.g., Matthew 17:1-3). Somewhat humorously, Jesus gave John and James the nickname “sons of thunder,” probably because emotional volatility or aggressiveness characterized their personalities (Mark 3:17). On one occasion, for example, a certain village did not welcome Jesus, and John and James asked, “‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’” In response, Jesus “turned and rebuked them” (Luke 9:54-55), since Jesus had come to “seek and to save the lost” rather than destroy them (Luke 19:10).

John had an especially close relationship with Jesus, referring to himself in his Gospel as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (e.g., John 13:21-25). Out of modesty, John likely wished to avoid using his own name in the Gospel, and this choice of description reveals the depth of love that he felt from Jesus. It’s also noteworthy that, on the cross, Jesus entrusted the care of Mary his mother to John (John 19:26-27).

John wrote his Gospel, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, and the book of Revelation several decades after Jesus’s death and resurrection. Much time had passed since he had earned the nickname “son of thunder.” In the intervening years, John had learned the importance of love and mercy, and this is reflected in his writings, which focus heavily on the theme of love. He writes, for example, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16). As the Believer’s Bible Commentary elaborates,

“Our Lord Jesus gave us the ultimate example of love when he laid down his life for us. Christ is here contrasted with Cain. He gives us love in its highest expression. In one sense, love is invisible, but we can see the manifestation of love. In the cross of Calvary we see the love that is love indeed. John draws the lesson from this that we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. This means that our lives should be a continual giving-out on behalf of other believers.”

John reminds us of the priority and importance of love. Jesus said that the two most important commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40), and Paul wrote that of the three things that remain forever—faith, hope, and love—the greatest is love (1 Corinthians 13:13). We should make love—the love that seeks our own and our neighbors’ highest good—the shape and focus of our Christian lives.

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Also see these articles in this series:

BIO: Christopher Reese (MDiv, ThM) (@clreese) is a freelance writer and editor-in-chief of The Worldview Bulletin. He is a general editor of the Dictionary of Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2017) and Three Views on Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2021). His articles have appeared in Christianity Today and he writes and edits for Christian ministries and publishers.

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