In the Gospels whenever the twelve are listed Peter comes first–and Judas last. He is the first apostle to whom Jesus appears after the resurrection. He is one of the small group of select apostles Jesus takes in to witness the raising of Jairus’ daughter and the transfiguration. Peter is the one who declares that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and Jesus says it was by special divine revelation that Peter was able to say this. With John, Peter’s the one to set up the Last Supper and at that supper in Luke 22.31-32 Jesus affirms Peter’s importance by telling him to hold the faith and he gives Peter a special job to strengthen his brothers in their belief.
There is more to Peter’s role than simply being the leader of the twelve. When he receives the divine revelation that Jesus is the Son of God–as recorded in Matthew 16.13-20, Jesus says that this truth which Peter confesses, is the rock on which the church will be founded; and then Jesus makes a pun on the name Peter–which means rock. Because he was able to receive this fundamental revelation from God, Peter himself will be the Rock on which the church is founded. That Peter–the leader of the Apostles– is the Rock on which the church is founded matches up with Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 2.20 where he says the church is built on the foundation stone of the prophets and apostles.
This important passage in Matthew is full of fascinating details. For example, we’re told that this conversation took place near Caesarea Phillipi. At that place was a huge natural rock formation on top of which the Romans had built a temple to the pagan shepherd god Pan. So when Jesus said, ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.’ he was looking at this great rocky foundation on which stood a pagan temple to a shepherd god, and Jesus’ meaning was clear–Peter, whose name means ‘rock’ was to be a great foundation for Christ’s church–the Church of the real Good Shepherd.
The passage reveals other truths about Peter’s special relationship with Jesus. It reminds us that it was Jesus who gave Simon the name Peter in the first place, and in the Bible when someone is given a new name by God it means they are given a new calling and a new identity. So when God called Abram to be the father of his people his name was changed from Abram to Abraham. In fact, there is an interesting parallel between Peter and Abraham which Jesus’ hearers would have understood perfectly. In Isaiah 51.1 the prophet says to the Jewish people, ‘Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were digged. Look to Abraham your father…’ The Jewish teachers said about this passage– ‘When God looked upon Abraham …he said, “Behold I have found a rock on which I can build and found the world.”‘ Of course Jesus–as a faithful Rabbi and teacher himself– knew this passage and in calling Peter the ‘Rock’ he is saying Peter–who was also given a name change–is like the new Abraham, the one who will be the foundation stone of the church and the spiritual father of his people.
There is still more detail hidden in this complex and fascinating passage. In verse nineteen Jesus equates the church with the kingdom of heaven. In other words the church is like a kingdom, and Jesus is the king. But a good king has ministers and governors beneath him. Here in England, for example, the Prime Minister is the monarch’s right hand man. In many ways the Prime Minister runs the country on behalf of the monarch. It was the same thing in the Old Testament. The Israelite king had a Prime Minister, and if we look at Isaiah 22.22 we get a fascinating glimpse into the royal court of Israel. In this passage, the prophet Isaiah recognises the Prime Minster of the king and describes his royal appointment to the office. Isaiah addresses the former prime minister and says, ‘In that day I will summon my servant Eliakim, son of Hilkiah. [that’s the Prime Minister] I will clothe him with your robe [that is the king’s] and fasten your sash around him and hand your authority over to him…I will place on him the keys to the house of David, what he opens no one can shut and what he shuts no one can open.’
There is one other aspect to the gospels which backs this up and shows Peter’s special relationship with Jesus. We know that Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd from John 10.14. All through the gospels he talks about sheep and goats and shepherds and likens the people of God to the flock of God. This was nothing new. The Old Testament prophets had also seen God as the shepherd and his people as the flock. In this picture of Jesus as the Good Shepherd he is fulfilling the prophecy from Ezekiel 34.23 where God himself promises to become the Good Shepherd who will judge his people with justice. Jesus fulfills this prophecy when he declares himself the Good Shepherd. But who would be the shepherd after Jesus returned to heaven? After his resurrection in a moving and tender conversation with Peter, Jesus delegates his job as shepherd of the sheep to Peter himself. In John 21.15-17 Jesus solemnly commands Peter three times to ‘Feed his sheep and take care of his lambs.’ So in three powerful images Jesus hands over his own authority not only to all twelve apostles, but in a special way to Peter. Peter is–like Abraham, the spiritual father and rock of the People of God. He is to be the Prime Minister of the Kingdom in Jesus’ absence, and Peter is to take charge as the chief shepherd of the flock for Jesus. How exciting that Jesus–knowing he would return to his Father in heaven–set up this earthly system to continue his presence and power on earth.
And when we look at Peter’s ministry in the Acts of the Apostles we see him leading the other apostles in their God-given ministry of overcoming evil, forgiving sins and teaching the truth. Peter exercises the authority to forgive sins when he calls people to repentance in Acts 2.38. In Acts chapter five Peter overcomes the evil Ananias and Saphira and we’re told he cast out many demons. Finally, when he stands up to preach at Pentecost Peter exercises the authority to teach the inspired truth of God’s good news. When he leads the church to accept non-Jewish believers he is exercising his authority to teach the truth–even when that truth seems new and controversial.
Peter immediately took up the leadership role in Christ’s church– just as Jesus had predicted and commanded. In the first chapters of the Acts of the Apostles we see this natural leadership of Peter being exercised further. After the ascension Peter takes the leadership role in choosing a successor for Judas. He is the main preacher on the day of Pentecost, he is the first of the apostles to perform a miracle in Jesus name. He is the speaker before the Jewish leaders. Peter takes the bold step of opening the church to non-Jewish people after he is again given direct divine guidance.
So far we’ve seen that Jesus is sent by God and given God’s own power and authority over all things. He shared that authority with his twelve apostles, and they in turn passed the authority to forgive sins, overcome evil, and teach the truth to their successors–the leaders of the early church. We’ve also seen that among the apostles Peter was not only the natural leader, but Jesus chose him specially to be the Rock on which the church would be built. Jesus chose Peter to be spiritual equivalent of Abraham–the founding father of the people of God. He chose him to be the Prime Minister of his Kingdom, and the earthly shepherd of the flock of God. We’ve also seen how Peter began to do this in the Acts of the Apostles. But what happened to Peter afterwards? The New Testament doesn’t tell us much about his missionary journeys and we don’t have much Bible evidence about his leadership role in the city of Rome. Did Peter really end up as the leader of the Roman church? Catholics believe he was not only the leader of the Roman church, but that the leaders who followed him were the successors of his special commission from Jesus to lead the flock of God.
The first chapters of the Acts of the Apostles tell us a lot about Peter’s leadership of the Church. He was obviously in charge when he stood up to preach the first Spirit-filled sermon at Pentecost. He was also the one who led the church to accept non-Jewish believers. We know that he too set out from Jerusalem on missionary journeys. But then the book of Acts shifts its attention from Peter to Paul. This was because Acts was written by Luke, who was a companion of Paul. So where else can we get information about what happened to Peter?
First of all there is the rest of the New Testament itself. Most scholars agree that the first letter of Peter was written by Peter. In I Peter 5.13 we find that Peter is writing from a place he calls ‘Babylon’. From the book of Revelation we know that ‘Babylon’ is an early Christian code word for the city of Rome. The First letter of Peter tells us a good deal about the situation at that time–about thirty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The church was established in Rome and Paul was also ministering there. From Rome Peter writes to churches throughout Asia Minor–what is now Turkey.
The fact that he addresses these churches suggests that that is where Peter went on his missionary journeys. The Scriptural evidence is also backed up by the historians of the early church. Clement of Alexandria lived about one hundred years after Peter’s death and looking back to much older accounts, he records how the Gospel of Mark came to be written down. He says, “After Peter had announced the Word of God in Rome and preached the gospel in the spirit of God, the multitude of hearers requested Mark, who had long accompanied Peter on all his journeys, to write down what the Apostles had preached to them.” Other earlier writers named Papias and Irenaeus also record the fact that Peter and Mark–his ‘son in the faith’–ended up in Rome and that the Gospel of Mark was written there, and was based on Peter’s preaching and eyewitness accounts.
What else can we re-construct to get a picture of the early church in the city of Rome during Peter’s lifetime? The church was an underground movement. We know from 2 Tim. 4.13 that Paul himself was in chains in a damp prison. Peter probably kept on the move, visiting outlying churches, and meeting in the homes of the Christians for secret worship. In fact in 1915 an ancient house in Rome called the House of Hermes was excavated and many inscriptions on the walls indicate that Peter used that very house as a centre of his ministry. While there are scraps of evidence which tell us what the church was like, In fact we have very little written evidence about the church from those early days. The reason so little exists, is that part of the systematic persecution of the church over the next two hundred years was the widespread destruction of all the Christian holy writings. When the Christians weren’t actually being thrown to the wild beasts, their property was confiscated, their books were burnt and their worship disrupted.
Nevertheless, the historians and writers of the church who lived just following the time of the apostles, did record that Peter and Paul lived in Rome. They recorded that both met their death in the terrible persecutions of Nero around 65 AD; that Paul was beheaded and Peter crucified upside down. They also record that both Peter and Paul were buried in Rome. In fact, when Christianity became legal in 315 the Emporer Constantine built the first basilica of Peter on the traditional site of Peter’s tomb. Then in the early part of this century excavations under the great church of St.Peter in Rome uncovered a first century tomb which many believe is the actual tomb of Peter himself.
So Peter ended his earthly life in the city of Rome. As such, along with Paul, he must have been the leader of the infant Roman church. But what happened next? What about those who came after him? We’ve already seen that the apostles passed on their authority to the church leaders they appointed in various places. So in the New Testament Paul appoints Titus as the church leader for Cyprus and tells him to select and appoint other church elders; and in his first epistle Peter addresses the elders in the various churches he founded as ‘his fellow shepherds’–in other words–those with whom he shared his Christ-given role of earthly shepherd of the flock of God.
But what did the Christians in Rome think about their leaders during the years just after the apostles died? Continue Reading