The Twelve disciples of Jesus often argued about which of them would be the greatest. But Jesus tried to turn that question inside out. He taught that the greatest leader would be the greatest servant.
Two of the Twelve did eventually stand out from the pack. Peter and John appear together frequently in the New Testament documents. Let’s work backwards through the stories to see where they fit in to the leadership of the Jesus community.
Stories About Peter and John
Sometime in the late 40s or early 50s, the apostle Paul wrote the book of Galatians. In it, he names three pillars of the Jesus community he met in Jerusalem. They were James, the brother of Jesus, along with the disciples Peter and John. Some scholars think James was one of the Twelve, and some think he wasn’t. But everybody agrees Peter and John were in the Twelve.
Skipping back in time a couple of decades to about the year AD 35, we read a surprising story in Acts 8. The Jesus movement had become popular in an unexpected place—Samaria. The Samaritans and Jews hated each other. And yet some Samaritans became followers of Jesus, thanks to the work of a man named Philip.
So the Jesus community in Jerusalem sent Peter and John north to investigate. Peter and John gave their blessing to these weirdo enemies. And that marked a huge turning point in the history of the Jesus movement. This Samaritan group was the first Jesus community that wasn’t Jewish. Only strong leaders could have sold that to the folks in Jerusalem. It looks like Peter and John were the right guys in the right place at the right time.
Skipping back another couple of years to about the year AD 33, we read a long story in Acts 3 and 4. Peter and John were going to the Temple in Jerusalem for the afternoon sacrifices. They healed a disabled man and got into a heap of trouble with the chief priests. This is one of the earliest stories of a public miracle by any of the Twelve disciples. And Peter and John were right at the heart of it, leading the way, doing what Jesus had done.
Skipping back to the spring of AD 33, we find one more mention of Peter and John working together. Luke 22 says Jesus sent Peter and John into Jerusalem to prepare for the Last Supper. Just those two—nobody else.
Peter and John With Their Brothers
If you read through Mark, Matthew, and Luke, you’ll find numerous other stories about Peter and John, along with Peter’s brother Andrew and John’s brother James.
- In Mark 1, Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James, and John as his first four disciples.
- In the same chapter, the four are with Jesus when he heals Peter’s mother-in-law.
- In Mark 5, Peter, James, and John go with Jesus to raise a dead girl back to life.
- In Mark 9, the same three go with Jesus to the top of a mountain in the famous transfiguration story.
- In Mark 13, Peter, Andrew, James, and John ask Jesus about the coming destruction of the Temple.
- In Mark 14, after the Last Supper, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John aside with him to pray in the very place where Jesus is about to be arrested.
Most of these stories are also told in parallel accounts in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. It’s an interesting exercise to read the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke and just count the frequency each disciple is named. If you do that, you get the clear idea that the most important of the Twelve are, in order:
- John, the son of Zebedee
- James, the son of Zebedee
- Andrew, Peter’s brother
Peter and the Beloved Disciple
Very strangely, the gospel of John never mentions the disciples John and James, the sons of Zebedee, by name. When they’re referred to, the gospel of John simply calls them “the sons of Zebedee.”
However, the gospel of John does single out one person for special recognition—“the disciple Jesus loved.” And this disciple isn’t Peter. We know this because there are several stories in which Peter and this Beloved Disciple interact in various ways.
Church tradition for many centuries has claimed that John was this Beloved Disciple, although many modern scholars don’t accept this connection. For more on the Beloved Disciple, see my recent blog post, The Mysterious Disciple Jesus Loved.
It’s interesting to note that in the gospel of John, Peter appears in almost every story involving the Beloved Disciple. It’s clear from these stories that Peter and the disciple Jesus loved had a special rapport.
As we’ve already seen, stories from Mark, Matthew, Luke, Acts, and Galatians all paint a picture of Peter working closely with John. So that adds a bit of weight to the idea that the Beloved Disciple was John. I wouldn’t call it proof. I would call it evidence. Make of it what you will.
Why Did Peter and John Rise to the Top?
Of the Twelve disciples, Peter and John were two of the very closest to Jesus. We don’t know the reasons for this. We do know Jesus valued servant leadership. Maybe he saw that kind of leadership in Peter and John.
I like to think that neither Peter nor John was the best leader for the Jesus community. My hunch is that the two of them together were better than either one alone. Maybe John had the brains and Peter had the charisma. That’s the way I’m playing things in my Crown of Thorns series. John is the lovable kid genius. Peter is the blustery self-appointed leader of the Twelve. Each of them hopes to be the Commander of the Host when Jesus calls out an army to fight the Romans.
We don’t know enough about the group dynamics of the Twelve to know if this scenario is correct. But it’s clear from the frequency of names in the gospel stories that Peter and John were very close to Jesus, for whatever reason. And it’s also clear from later history that both eventually gave up any hopes they may have had to become the Commander of the Host.
Ultimately, Peter and John teamed up with James, the brother of Jesus, to lead the Jesus community for its first few decades. (James, the brother of John, was beheaded by King Herod Agrippa I in the early 40s. He doesn’t play much role in the stories in Acts, so we don’t know if he was also a leader of the early community before his life was cut short.)
So the greatest disciple of Jesus was not just one person. The greatest disciple of Jesus was a team. And maybe that tells us something about Jesus.