Peter And Paul Came Together In Death To Show Their Unity of Love

Peter And Paul Came Together In Death To Show Their Unity of Love June 27, 2016

Sts Peter and Paul icon by Mihalko Golev [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Sts Peter and Paul icon by Mihalko Golev [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The fact that the Apostles Peter and Paul share a single feast honoring their accomplishments demonstrates the spiritual unity which was able to bring them together despite whatever conflicts which could have divided them if neither of them held such unity as taking precedence over their own personal interests. They both were martyred in Rome under Nero so that they could become champions of the faith and be crowned in glory together and in some fashion to be remembered together as one.

Lactantius described in his fourth century text, “On the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died,” the basic elements of the tradition which had been passed down about their deaths:

And while Nero reigned, the Apostle Peter came to Rome, and, through the power of God committed unto him, wrought certain miracles, and, by turning many to the true religion, built up a faithful and steadfast temple unto the Lord. When Nero heard of those things, and observed that not only in Rome, but in every other place, a great multitude revolted daily from the worship of idols, and, condemning their old ways, went over to the new religion, he, an execrable and pernicious tyrant, sprung forward to raze the heavenly temple and destroy the true faith. He it was who first persecuted the servants of God; he crucified Peter, and slew Paul: nor did he escape with impunity; for God looked on the affliction of His people; and therefore the tyrant, bereaved of authority, and precipitated from the height of empire, suddenly disappeared, and even the burial-place of that noxious wild beast was nowhere to be seen.[1]

Irenaeus, in the second century, likewise saw a unity behind the work of Peter and Paul which gave the church in Rome prominence and authority:

Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.[2]

The fact that Peter and Paul were able to come together and form a united witness for Christ is itself a miracle. Peter, who had walked with Christ and was Christ’s chosen leader for the Apostles, would never have suspected that Paul, who once had persecuted Christians, would become so integral to his mission in Rome. It is clear, even when Peter was led to acknowledge Paul’s conversion and mission, they found it difficult to work together, with Paul being openly critical of Peter whenever he believed Peter failed his flock:

But when Cephas came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.  For before certain men came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.  And with him the rest of the Jews acted insincerely, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their insincerity. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”  (Gal. 1:11-14 RSV).

Peter, as the Gospels often made clear, was a man of faith who often made mistakes, the greatest of which was his denial of Christ. And yet he was willing to ever turn back to Christ and acknowledge his failing, so that though he sinned greatly, he also loved greatly and when rebuked, he would agree with the rebuke and try once again to follow Christ and do what Christ had set him out to do: feed the flock of Christ (cf. John 21:17). It is for this reason Peter, though he probably felt annoyed by Paul, took Paul’s words to heart and never rejected the authority Christ had given to Paul. Indeed, Paul clearly was inspired by God to teach and explain what Peter had lived and experienced, to give theological reflection to the truth Peter had come to know. When Paul spoke with authority, his authority was to be accepted, though of course, his words would have to be properly understood. Probably following some of the conflicts of early church, where Christians were struggling to understand Paul, we find in Second Peter a fine presentation of the spirit of Peter’s acceptance of Paul:

And count the forbearance of our Lord as salvation. So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures (2 Ptr. 3:15-16 RSV).[3]

It probably took considerable time for Peter to first accept Paul, not only as a convert, but as a newly formed Apostle of Christ. While we have the record of what happened after Paul was accepted as one of the Apostles, how Paul proved himself to James and Peter we can only guess. His profound understanding of the life and work of Jesus must have been seen early on, and once he was questioned, and examined closely, it would have been clear he was not just a common convert, but that Paul had been given a mission, one which was to extend beyond historical Israel and reach out to the whole world. Paul was able to see how and why Christ was the expectation of the Gentiles, and so it was accepted that he was to represent this aspect of Christ’s mission while Peter was to be more pastoral and work with the believers who had already come to believe and needed spiritual nourishment of their own (and at this stage, they were the circumcised because the majority of the first believers were from the Jews):

And from those who were reputed to be something (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality) — those, I say, who were of repute added nothing to me;  but on the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised  (for he who worked through Peter for the mission to the circumcised worked through me also for the Gentiles), and when they perceived the grace that was given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised;  only they would have us remember the poor, which very thing I was eager to do (Gal. 1: 6-10 RSV).

Peter, therefore, was to find himself working mostly as a pastor who had to work for the needs of those who already believed, to be the guardian of their faith, to make sure they continue to be enriched, while Paul was to be the missionary, to represent the other aspect of the faith, the fulfillment of Christ’s command to go to the nations and to make believers from among them, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is not to say Peter did not have a share in missions (he did), nor that Paul had no pastoral work of his own (he certainly did), but the general vocation of the two can be distinguished by these two distinct responsibilities. With Peter and Paul, therefore, together, we see the glory of Rome, and its significance, where Rome is to serve both as a pastor to those who already believe, helping them overcome internal conflicts, while also remembering missions, and working for those who are not yet believers, helping them understand the faith through acts of love.

Peter and Paul were able to come together and be as one because they complemented each other despite the conflicts they had with each other in accordance to each other’s personality. We should follow their example with our interactions with each other. It is difficult, but we must remember the unity of love first and foremost, and work for it instead of following the passions which would have us work first on what divides us and reinforce that division. The faith with its bond of love is not hurt by such conflicts, so long as they are done and with love at the heart, but when such conflicts appear for other reasons, such as vainglory, what could serve as needful complements can end up becoming dividing lines which wound everyone who come in the path of that conflict. Again, today we need to remember this. The spirit of criticism, no matter how much “truth” is employed by it, is sinful when its foundation is sin and seeks to divide and destroy the unity of the faith. Love overcomes such conflicts so that when some external challenge comes, the bond of love brings those who occasionally fought together as one as a witness to love. Only in this way, in and through the love which transcends such conflicts, can there be a proper witness to truth. For we are witnesses of Jesus when we act out of love, and the world would know us as Christ’s by our love, but if we seek some Gnostic truth outside of such love, we end up with nothing, and the truth we thought we possessed is far outside our grasp. Peter and Paul shows us we can fight and still fight in and with love, but in doing so we must remember the words of Paul, who tells us not to form factions around contenders in a fight but to place ourselves fully under Christ whose body unites us and knows no such division:

I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren.  What I mean is that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1Cor. 1:10 -13 RSV).

Paul, who certainly could be and was contentious, should not be viewed as approving division within the church as a result of his conflicts with others, which is what he saw some did with his words. He wanted nothing of partisan divisions within the church, and it is clear, his most contentious fights with Peter were a result of Peter failing to work against such dissension. Paul served Peter as his needful conscience, not as a rival, and this is how and why, despite whatever conflicts they might have had, they were able to come together in unity, preach together in Rome, and die with each complementing the other. It is in this unity in love they could be seen as demonstrating and proving the one united faith which we must all follow if we are to be true followers of Christ.


[1] Lactantius, “On the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died” in ANF(7):302.

[2] St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies in ANF(1): 415-6.

[3] Whether or not Second Peter was written by Peter, it certainly follows him in spirit, and comes from the Petrine tradition. It serves as a fine example of how Paul’s words were to be taken, not as something which is read in the most simplistic of fashions and with an interpretation used to bring conflict into the church, but as theological mysteries, as wisdom which gives depth to the Christian faith.

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