Peter, First Among The Apostles

 St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah (Matthew 16:13-20). 


Simon, who Jesus later renamed Peter (John 1:42), lived as a fisherman in Galilee until Jesus called him to be a disciple. As a follower, Simon Peter displayed great enthusiasm for the ministry of Jesus. He also happened to be a great example of the weakness of human nature. Because of his weaknesses, he becomes a strong witness to the power of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life. Eventually this power is so great that the once weak Peter becomes the first leader of the universal Church.

Though Peter was the younger brother of Andrew, Jesus made him first among his disciples. Peter was not the first called (Andrew). Nor was he the oldest. He was not called the disciple whom Jesus loved (John). Nor did he seem like he was the wisest of the disciples. He was not the first to see Jesus risen from the dead. Nor was he the first to die for Christ. There were many things that made Peter an unlikely candidate to lead the apostles. But he is the only one to whom Jesus renamed and said, “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church” (Matt. 16:18). Then Jesus gave him the keys to the kingdom and was the first to be granted the ability to absolve sins. Later, in the Acts of the Apostles, Peter is clearly the first leader of the Christian community.

Over and over in the Gospel accounts Peter is the first to show his desire to boldly follow Jesus. He is the only person that jumped from the boat to walk on water, though he doubted quickly after. He told Jesus at the last supper that he was willing to die with him, he cut off Malchus’ ear in the garden, but then went on to deny Jesus three times. His bold desire to do great things isn’t solidly confirmed in him until Pentecost. After the descent of the Spirit, he delivers a heart-wrenching open air sermon that results in the baptism of many new followers.  He then goes on to be first among the apostles in preaching, ministry, and theological debates about Judaism and Christianity.

At some point, Peter leaves the Christian community in Jerusalem and makes his way toward Rome. On his way to Rome, he stops in Antioch and builds a new Christian community. At the very least, Eusebius, Origen, St. Jerome, St. Innocent, Pope Gelasius in his Roman Council, St. Chrysostom and others attest to his being in Antioch for an extended period of time.  Pope St. Gregory the Great notes that though he did not always reside in Antioch, he had special care for the community for a span of seven years. After this time, Peter made his way to Rome in hopes of converting the most powerful city in the Empire.

According to tradition, Peter lived 25 years in Rome and arrived in the second year of Claudius. Origen, Hegesippus, Arnobius, St. Ambrose, St. Austin, St. Jerome, St. Optatus, Orosius, and others mention his going to Rome. St. Cyprian calls Rome the chair of St. Peter (as Theodoret calls it his throne). Since that time, the general councils and ecclesiastical writers, through every age, have repeated these titles for Peter.

According to the Martyrdom of Peter, to which the apocryphal Acts of Peter was later affixed, the great saint was fleeing crucifixion from Nero. Along the road outside of Rome he met the Jesus walking toward the city. According to the Latin translation, Peter asks Jesus “Quo vadis?”, to which he replies, “Romam eo iterum crucifigi” (“I am going to Rome to be crucified once again”). After this, Peter returns to the city to meet his death under the reign of Nero in the early 60’s. This episode is often cited as an indication that they pope is the vicar of Christ, meaning he stands takes the place of Christ in the world. At the time of his martyrdom he asks to be crucified upside-down because he said that he is unworthy to be martyred like his Master. The Church of Domine Quo Vadis in Rome is built where the meeting took place.