Friday, September 11, 2009

The Petrine Fact, Part 3: Peter and the Twelve

By Jimmy Akin

Continued from Part 1 | Part 2

Teaching of the Twelve icon

"First Simon, who is called Peter."

With these words St. Matthew begins his enumeration of the Twelve, emphasizing the primacy of Simon Peter among the Twelve (Matt 10:2ff). A similar prominence is given to Peter in every enumeration of the Twelve, where Peter is always listed first, followed by the next most prominent disciples, John and James, with Judas Iscariot always in the last position (cf. Mark 3:16ff, Luke 6:14ff, Acts 1:13ff).

The word "first," protos, is the same word that Jesus later uses when he says, "Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first (or "chief") among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matt 20:26-28). (It's also the same word Paul uses in the passage from 1 Corinthians 15 previously discussed, in which he called himself the "chief" [protos] of sinners.)

This saying, in response to the petition of the sons of Zebedee to sit as Jesus' right and left in positions of honor, establishes that primacy in the new order that Jesus brings is a very different thing from primacy in the world. For now, though, I am concerned with the mere fact of Peter's primacy, without losing sight of the reversal of worldly standards that Jesus brings.

A casual perusal of the Gospels and Acts is sufficient to establish Peter's prominence among the Twelve in early Christian memory. Peter is named far more often than all the rest of the Twelve combined (nearly 200 times). After Peter, the most prominent disciples are John and James, the sons of Zebedee, who with Peter formed an inner circle of Jesus' closest disciples, and whose names are listed close to Peter's (along with Peter's brother Andrew) in all the enumerations of the Twelve. (John, the most frequently mentioned disciple after Peter, is mentioned fewer than 40 times, not even 1/7th as often as Peter.)

We even encounter phrases like "Peter/Simon and those who were with him" (Mark 1:36, Luke 9:32, 8:45) and "Peter and the apostles" (Acts 5:29), subsuming other apostles under Peter, as well as "his disciples and Peter" (Mark 16:7), emphasizing Peter in particular. (St. Paul similarly makes special note of Peter in 1 Corinthians 9:5, referring to "the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas").

Peter's prominence is not simply a matter of literary shorthand. Both in the Gospels and in Acts Peter is often seen speaking for and taking the initiative among the Twelve, for good and for ill (e.g., Matt. 18:21, Mark 8:29, Luke 12:41, John 6:68-69). Peter expresses the faith of the Twelve when he confesses Jesus as the Christ; he also expresses their ill-fated claim to be ready to die rather than fall away (e.g., "And they all said the same," Mark 14:31). Peter's denials, reported in all four Gospels, represent a low point of Peter's prominence, followed by his prominence in the resurrection accounts previously discussed.

Matthew's Gospel depicts Jewish interlocutors approaching Peter to question him about Jesus (Matt 17:24); in the same episode, Jesus associates Peter with himself by making provision for their payment of the Temple tax, without involving the rest of the Twelve. It is also in Matthew that Peter shares with Jesus the extraordinary miracle, reported in Matthew, Mark and John, of walking on water (Matt 14:22-23).

Jesus treats Peter as representative of the others. In Gethsemane, though James and John also were asleep, it is Peter that Jesus rebukes ("he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, 'Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour?'" Mark 14:37). There is a hint of something similar in Jesus' rebuke to Peter following Peter's confession: "But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter, and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men" (Mark 8:33). Just as Peter's confession articulated the faith of all, so perhaps Peter's opposition to the foretelling of Jesus' passion articulated the resistance of all.

Much of this prominence, even in Jesus' own interaction with Peter that the Twelve, can be ascribed at least in part to by Peter's impulsive, headstrong personality, which makes him a natural spokesman, if an uneven one. At the same time, Jesus repeatedly offers clear indications of a unique purpose for Peter — a purpose not defined or limited by Peter's personal strengths and weaknesses.

We have already seen how in John 21 the resurrected Christ solemnly instated Peter by triple commission as vice shepherd; and we have not yet come to the Petrine locus classicus, Matthew 16. But there is also the pivotal role that Jesus intends for Peter in relation to the Twelve and the apostolic ministry, most clearly attested in a saying in Luke's Last Supper account.

Significantly, this saying takes place in the context of a familiar motif, a dispute among the disciples about "which of them was to be regarded as the greatest" (Luke 22:24ff). In this passage, the disciples' quarrel about greatness is connected to the puzzle of which disciple would betray Jesus, and leads directly to Simon Peter's claim to be ready to go to prison and death.

Jesus' response here to this issue comes in three parts. First, as he did in response to the request of the sons of Zebedee mentioned above to sit at his right and his left, Jesus is careful to emphasize the reversal of worldly ideas of greatness implied by his own example: "The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves."

Then, very nearly reversing his reversal, Jesus affirms the greatness that indeed awaits the Twelve in the kingdom: "You are those who have continued with me in my trials; and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel." (This is rather more encouraging than what he told the sons of Zebedee about sharing in the cup and the baptism of his sufferings.)

Finally, he concludes with a warning and a promise: a warning and a promise simultaneously directed at all the Twelve and one in particular: "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have ye (second person plural, i.e., "all of you"), that he might sift [ye] like wheat, but I have prayed for thee (second person singular, i.e., "you, Simon"), that thy faith may not fail; and when thou hast turned again, strengthen your brethren" (Luke 22:31-32). (This direct affirmation of the role that Peter will play makes an intriguing contrast with Jesus' demurral to the sons of Zebedee that to sit at his right and his left belongs to those for whom it has been prepared.)

In the context of the dispute as to which was the greatest, this saying to Peter offers three different layers of meaning. First, Jesus stresses that temptation stands at the gate. The disciples are unprepared for what is coming; while they quarrel over who is the greatest, they are easy pickings for the enemy; their minds are dominated by earthly notions of greatness.

Second, in singling out Peter, Jesus may well implicate Peter in particular in the sorry dispute — in part, perhaps, because of Peter's own awareness, and possibly to some extent his misapprehension, of his own primacy among the Twelve. (There is a note of remonstration in Jesus' "Simon, Simon," though it is not impossible that this alludes to Peter's promises of faithfulness rather than the dispute about which of them was the greatest. Nevertheless, the two issues seem linked here, the bridge being who would betray Jesus.)

But thirdly, Jesus implicitly affirms a particular sort of primacy to Peter: All the Twelve are in line to be sifted, but Jesus' prayer is for Peter in particular — not just because of what may be his special danger, but also because of the special role Jesus intends for him to play in strengthening his brethren.

This saying does not mean, of course, that Jesus does not pray also for the other apostles (cf. John 17:6-19). Nevertheless, Jesus' prayer for the Twelve, whom he says are all in line to be sifted, comes to a head or finds a focal point in Peter. It is Peter's faith that Jesus has prayed will not fail; it is Peter who, when all have fallen away, will turn again and strengthen his brethren.

Had Jesus wanted to affirm a completely egalitarian ideal among the Twelve, with no sort of priority or prominence of any kind, it is difficult to see why he would have expressed himself in this way. Indeed, on an egalitarian theory of apostlehood, Jesus' words seem almost perversely bound to lead to misunderstanding. It seems, that, rather than denying any sort of primacy among the apostles, he seeks to redefine how primacy will be understood among his followers, while nevertheless definitely attaching a sort of primacy — however unlike the sort of primacy the disciples, not excluding Peter, might have been grasping at — to one apostle in particular: one who, precisely because of his preeminent position among the Twelve, requires Jesus' individual attention in prayer on behalf of all.

Having reported Jesus' prayer in Luke 22, Luke goes on in Acts to demonstrate its fulfillment as Peter, following Jesus' resurrection and ascension, comes into his own in an extraordinary way. Peter's role in Acts is so prominent that the first half of the book could almost be dubbed "Peter & Friends." (The second half, of course, would be "The Paul Show," a point I'll return to later.)

In Acts 1, Peter initiates the action to select Judas's replacement and articulates the criteria for apostleship. In Acts 2, on Pentecost, Peter speaks on behalf of the Twelve to the Jewish onlookers, proclaiming the Gospel of the church for the first time and bringing thousands to baptism on the birthday of the church.

When Peter and John are arrested in Acts 4, Peter, "filled with the Holy Spirit," leads their defense (after which Luke tells us that "Peter and John" both spoke; Acts 4:8-19); when the apostles are arrested again a chapter later, we read, "Peter and the apostles answered, 'We must obey God rather than men'" (Acts 5:29). When members of the company are laying the proceeds of sold property at the apostles' feet, it is Peter who speaks for the apostles to Ananias and Sapphira, prophetically exposing the lie they tell him ("You have not lied to men, but to God"), for which their lives are forfeit (Acts 4:33-5:11).

In Acts 5 the apostles are miraculously liberated from prison by an angel; then, in Acts 12, James bar-Zebedee (another apostle of Jesus' inner circle) is seized and put to death by the sword — but Peter, arrested immediately afterward, is again liberated by an angel. (Paul and Silas are also delivered from imprisonment, though technically there is no mention of an angel, "only" an earthquake that opens the doors and unfastens everyone's fetters.)

Finally and most crucially — along with Peter's role at Pentecost — it is Peter who receives the vision that opens the door for table-fellowship between Christian Jews and Gentiles; Peter who authorizes the first administrations of baptism to Gentiles (Acts 10), and who defends the acceptance of Gentiles to the "circumcision party" (Acts 11).

On Pentecost, Peter first preached the Gospel to Jews; in Acts 10-11 Peter brings to light the fullness of the Gospel message that in Christ the barrier between Jew and Gentile has been demolished, and that circumcision is no longer a prerequisite to salvation. (These are themes we will revisit in a very different light in Galatians 1-2 and also Acts 15.)

More to come.

Continued from Part 1 | Part 2

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