Feast Day: June 29
Patron Saint of: fishermen, Rome, Popes
Beyond the accounts in Sacred Scripture, not much of the early life about this saint is known. Peter, born Simon son of Jonah (also named John), was a fisherman by trade, probably born near Capernaum.
And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Mt 16:18-19).
Jesus made this affirmation in Caesarea Philipp. Caesarea Philippi is situated about 20 miles north of the Sea of Galilee where there was located a huge granite rock face of about 300 feet wide by 200 feet tall. On the top of this rock was a temple built in honor of Jupiter, the chief god over all the Roman gods, representing power and money. At the base of this rock a sanctuary was erected to the god Pan, who represented unbridled male sexuality. These temples represented the three great dangers of power, money and sex.
Names changes are important in the Bible, especially when God makes them. In the Old Testament the word “rock” refers to God with one notable exception in Isaiah 51:1-2: Listen to me, you who pursue justice, who seek the LORD; Look to the rock from which you were hewn, to the pit from which you were quarried; Look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth; When he was but one I called him, I blessed him and made him many.
It is illuminating that this passage refers to the barrenness of Abraham and Sarah, described as a “rock,” out of which God expanded His covenant relationship and formed One Holy Tribe. Jesus draws on this Old Testament imagery to stress that Peter is a rock, barren of himself, upon whom He will build His Church. Jesus is staking His claim on Peter by becoming the guarantor of His Church just as Yahweh staked His claim on Abraham and Sarah when he gave them the promised son, Isaac. Peter is the human foundation, but Jesus is the builder. Those listening to Jesus would have immediately and clearly drawn upon this Sacred Scripture imagery. We also see this in Luke 6:48-49 when Jesus tells the parable of the wise builder, who builds upon rock and the foolish builder who builds upon sand. Jesus, the wisest builder of all, has just stated (Mt 16:18-19) that He will build His Church upon the rock of Peter. The Church is not some man-made organization because Jesus is the builder working through Peter and his successors.
When Jesus stated that he would give to Simon Peter “the keys to the kingdom of heaven,” he was speaking about a dynastic office in his kingdom. This understanding is clear because Jesus is citing Isaiah 22. In this passage an unworthy prime minister, Shebna, is being removed in favor of another man, Eliakim. David is long since dead (200 years or more), but his dynasty (his house) continues. Eliakim, the new prime minister will replace Shebna when he is invested with the complete authority of the king: “I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open” (Is 22:22).
In Acts it is evident that the Apostles understood that Jesus intended offices in his kingdom, the Church, to be passed on. Succession is obvious when Peter determined that someone must be chosen to take the vacancy created by Judas’ death. He quoted Psalm 109:8: “May another take his office.”
Peter’s primacy is seen in many other passages:
- Peter acts as the spokesman for the apostles (Mt 19:27; Mk 8:29; Lk 12:41; Jn 6:69, Acts 1:15).
- The apostles are called Peter and his companions (Lk 9:32; Mk 16:17; Acts 2:37).
- In listing the apostles Peter is always listed first (Mt 10:1-4; Mk 3:16-19; Lk 6:14-16; Acts 1:13).
- Peter is named 191 times – more than all the rest of apostles together. John, whose name appears most after Peter, is only listed 48 times.
- The New Testament attributes the following “firsts” to Peter:
- Decides to elect the successor to Judas (Acts 1:13-26)
- Preached the 1st sermon (Acts 2:14)
- Received the 1st convert (Acts 2:41)
- Performed the 1st miracle (Acts 3:6-7)
- Exercised authority in judgment of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11)
- Exercised authority in the 1st excommunication (Acts 8:21)
- 1st to raise someone from the dead (Acts 9:36-41)
- 1st to receive the revelation to admit Gentiles into the Church (Acts 10:9-16)
- Exercised authority in deciding that the 1st Gentile converts can be baptized (Acts 10:44-48)
The promise of infallibility is evident in the extent of the authority Jesus gives Peter: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
This statement draws on the common rabbinic understanding of the power of the keys, the symbol of a king’s authority, with the unlimited power of binding and loosing, the ability to impose or remove an obligation by handing down an authoritative interpretation of divine revelation. The stunning vastness of authority given to Peter is found in the stunning affirmation: “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Because God cannot bind and loose what is false, the Church has always believed that God protects the popes from officially teaching error. The gift of infallibility is given to the popes to protect the Church, but it does not protect the poses from personally sinning. Thus, Jesus said to Peter: “Simon, Simon, behold Satan had demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed that your [singular] own faith may not fail: and once you have turned back [converted], you must strengthen your brothers” (Lk 22:32).
Peter exercised his authority at the Council of Jerusalem regarding the difficult issue of circumcision. Christian Jews claimed: “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).
As a result, Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem to meet with the other Apostles. “After much debate,” Peter decided the matter. After Peter had spoken: “The whole assembly fell silent, and they listened while Paul and Barnabas described the signs and wonders God had worked among the Gentiles through them:” (Acts15:12).
Petros vs Petra
The text from Matthew 16:16-17 is so unmistakable in affirming Peter's primacy that some have sought to dilute its obvious meaning. A popular approach has been based on the masculine form of the Greek word for rock, petros, which is contrasted to the feminine variation, petra.
Petros, some have claimed, means a “small stone” or a “pebble” indicating Peter's human limitations. Petra, on the other hand, refers to a “massive rock” or “bolder,” representing Peter's profession of faith or faith itself upon which Jesus builds his Church.
This is a distinction without any linguistic merit. The Greek word for small stone is lithos, but not petra or petros. Furthermore in the Greek language endings determine if a word is masculine or feminine. In Greek petra is a generic word for “rock” large or small, but it is a feminine noun. In renaming Simon “Rock,” the Greek language requires that this feminine word be given a masculine ending - thus, petros.
The word petros is used 154 times in the New Testament. In all but one case it is used as the second name for Simon. In the other case it is used to clarify the meaning of “Cephas” (Jn 1:42). The use of Cephas in John’s Gospel and also in Paul's epistles as the name of Peter is also very enlightening. Cephas is the Greek transliteration of the Aramaic word kepha, which means rock without any gender. Thus Jesus said, “you are Kepha and upon this Kepha I will build my church.” This further underscores the weakness of the petros verses petra argument.
In addition the New Testament uses the word petra in passages that clearly refer to a small stone. For example, in Lk 8:6,13 it is used for the rocky soil upon which seed fell. In Rom 9:33 and 1 Pet 2:8 it is used for a stumbling stone. Furthermore, had Matthew intended to make a clear distinction between Peter the small rock as opposed to the big rock of his profession of faith, he would have used the Greek word lithos as he did in other passages.
The reality is that the words petros and petra are used interchangeably in the New Testament with no distinction in meaning.