Simon Peter was one of the three members of Jesus’ inner-circle (Mark 5:37; 9:2; Matt 17:1–3). He was a fisherman (Matt 4:18; Mark 1:16; Luke 5:1–7; John 21:3), preacher (Acts 2:14–40), miracle worker (Acts 3:1–10, 9:32–42), prophet (Acts 5:1–11), and author (1 Pet 1:1; 2 Pet 1:1). Originally called Simon, he was later renamed Peter by Jesus (Mark 3:16), which means “rock” or “stone” (kephas in Aramaic; petros in Greek). The New Testament also refers to him as Simeon (Acts 15:14), the “son of John” (John 1:42; 21:15–17), and “son of Jonah” (Matt 16:17).
One of the more celebrated statements by Peter is his confession of Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16). In Matthew’s account, Jesus responds by saying it is “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matt 16:18).
All four gospels include Peter’s denial of his association with Jesus (Matt 26:69–75; Mark 14:66–72; Luke 22:54–62; John 18:17, 25–27). In Mark 14:72, he weeps, experiencing inward conflict and self-awareness. Of the Gospels, only the Gospel of John directly recounts Peter being restored, with his triple declaration of his love for Jesus and his commissioning by Jesus to shepherd of His flock (John 21:15–17).
The first 12 chapters of the book of Acts are dominated by events related to Peter and his involvement in the early church. Peter is imprisoned for preaching (Acts 12:3) and is later released by an angel (Acts 12:7–10). If Acts is chronologically arranged, Peter is the first to preach to and convert Gentiles after being guided by a vision of a sheet containing clean and unclean animals (Acts 10:1–11:18). After his legitimization of a mission to the Gentiles, the book of Acts no longer mentions Peter (Acts 15:7–11).
In John’s Gospel, Jesus directly prophesies Peter’s future, contrasting his present freedom with his forthcoming restriction and alludes to his martyrdom (John 21:18–19). Early church tradition states that Peter was martyred during the reign of Emperor Nero (AD 64–68).
Slavery in the First Century
In the Roman Empire, people were either slaves or they were free. These two statuses were central to the social and the legal fabric of the Roman world. Unlike in recent history, slavery in Rome was not based on race or ethnicity; anyone could become a slave and nearly any slave could become free. Consequently, the Roman world was composed of these two groups of people who lived and worked together and were distinguishable by their social status.
Becoming a Slave
Prior to the first century AD, the majority of slaves in the Mediterranean world were prisoners of war. By the first century, however, the primary source was through birth into the slave system. A child born to a female slave was also a slave, regardless of the status of the father. A freeborn child could also be enslaved: exposure of newborns was a practiced form of post-birth control, and these infants, who were left exposed to the elements to die, were often gathered by slave traders and sold as slaves. Children were also sometimes sold by their fathers due to the pressures of poverty.
Penal slavery was used to punish crimes committed against the state, such as evading a census, taxes, or military service. A judgment against a debtor could force a free person into slavery. In limited cases, a person might sell himself into slavery in order to improve his social standing once freedom was restored, but there is uncertainty regarding the frequency of this practice. Masters had a tremendous amount of control over slaves and there was no law guaranteeing that the master would live up to any agreement with a slave.
Living as a Slave
Slavery meant the complete loss of rights. It terminated marriage, family ties, business partnerships, and any public or private offices previously held. Slaves could neither act as debtors or creditors, nor was their testimony admissible in court unless it was gained through torture; they could be sold or loaned out at the will of the owner.
The treatment slaves received depended on their owner. Sexual abuse was not uncommon. Punishments, often cruel, included: flogging, shackling, branding of the face and forehead, iron collars, and dismemberment or maiming. There were few restraints placed upon the owner in the punishment he was allowed to inflict upon his slave who was viewed as property.
Roman laws did afford slaves some protection. Temples and statues of the emperor legally provided a place of asylum from unusually cruel masters.
Under good conditions, slavery could offer security. In theory, all of a slave’s needs were provided for by his or her owner (i.e., food, clothing, shelter, medical care). Slaves were allowed a peculium (property of their own), but since they did not have the right to possess property, the peculium technically belonged to the owner. Retirement, for those who survived, was usually at age 60; those who died while enslaved were buried at the expense of the owner.
Slavery in the Roman world was not necessarily a permanent state. Emancipation was possible under certain legal stipulations. Owners were prevented, however, from releasing a slave from service directly. Both the slave and the owner were required to appear before a magistrate in a ceremony where a “freedom tax” was paid to the magistrate on top of the price already being paid for freedom.
Becoming a freedperson meant acquiring certain social and economic advantages. Former slaves owned by Roman citizens could, under certain requirements, become citizens. This new status placed them in a social level above slaves and free noncitizens, but restricted their status below that of freeborn citizens. Former slaves who remained attached to their masters’ house could receive economic and political boosts not normally available to poor free persons. Former slaves may have learned a skill that enabled them to open a business—some entered freedom with money saved.
Newly-acquired freedom also had its drawbacks. Even after freedom had been granted, a former master could still control aspects of a former slave’s life and finances. In addition to various social obligations, freedpersons could be required to work for their former master a set number of days each year. In contrast to the slave, however, the freedperson gained certain rights. The former master was required to allow the freedperson sufficient time to earn an income. Obligations of service could be reduced due to health complications, or if the former slave had reached a social position or age that was not fitting for such services. These rights, and a variety of others, protected the freedperson from being re-enslaved.
Spirit and Flesh in Paul’s Letters
In Romans 6, Paul asks a rhetorical question about continuing to sin in order that grace might be multiplied. He answers this question with another: “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom 6:2). This raises the question of why believers still struggle with sin. Are some believers somehow defective?
Jesus’ death and resurrection not only conquered death once and for all, it enabled believers to have new life as well (Rom 6:4; Col 3:1–3). Paul describes a twofold division between the flesh and the spirit. The flesh refers to God’s originally perfect creation, which is now mortal and in decay as result of sin entering the world through Adam (Rom 5:12). The spirit is the essence of who we are, the part of us that lives on after our physical bodies die. In 2 Corinthians 4:16, Paul contrasts the two, stating that our outer person is being destroyed as our inner one is being renewed. Our physical bodies will continue to decay until God gives us a new, spiritual body (Rom 8:23; 1 Cor 15:39–42).
When Paul talks about being raised from the dead once we have believed in Jesus (Rom 6:4), he is talking about the spirit rather than the flesh. Second Corinthians 5:17 states, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” Here, the old and new refers to our spirits.
This is where the ongoing problem of sin arises. Although someday our physical body will indeed be raised and transformed (1 Cor 15:50–52), our new spirits must dwell in our fallen bodies (Rom 8:12–14). Previously, our spirits were in bondage to sin, but now our spirits have been set free from this bondage (Rom 6:17–18). Paul is not saying that the body is bad—God created it, so he is not opposed to it—but instead is using “flesh” as a metaphor where sin resides as we await our sinless, resurrected bodies.
Inner Spirit and Outer Flesh
The problem of sin for believers stems from the struggle between the new inner spirit and our old sinful flesh (our old sinful self). Since our spirits are no longer slaves of sin, we must no longer obey the lusts and desires of our flesh (Rom 6:12; 8:12). Although sinful desires reside in the flesh, we must consider ourselves dead to sin (Rom 6:11; Col 3:5).
The only way we can overcome sin in this way is by walking in the Spirit. Paul says that if we live by the Spirit, we will “put to death the deeds of the body” (Rom 8:13). Where we choose to set our mind makes the difference between life and death (Rom 8:6). Living by the Spirit is the only way our new self can overcome the desires of the flesh (Gal 5:16). Paul contrasts the natural consequences of each option: the fruit of the Spirit versus the deeds of the flesh (Gal 5:19–23).
When Paul addresses this theme in his letters, he highlights the now and “not yet” tension of the Christian life. The rebirth of our inner spiritual beings enables us to live for God as He intended. But since we continue to live in our earthly bodies, we continue to engage in the battle between flesh and spirit. The key to victory is walking in the Spirit, no longer obeying the desires of the flesh. If we allow our inner spirits to obey “the flesh,” we choose to allow sin to reign over us again (Rom 6:12–13). Paul offers us hope as we wait for the “not yet.” All of creation waits with us for the same restoration and fulfillment of God’s original intention (Rom 8:18–19).
STEVEN E. RUNGE