It has been a while since I included a Caravaggio painting, but this one is one of my favorites. You find the scene of the Apostle Peter being crucified upside down, so that he would not undergo the same death as his Savior Jesus. We don’t read about this in Scripture, but it is alluded to in John 21:18-19 very vaguely.
But back to our Scripture, we find here the verses that have been a point of contention between Reformed or Protestant theology and Roman Catholic theology. Read again what Jesus says to Peter in vs.18-19 of this chapter. It is interesting to note that Peter enjoys in this one chapter the best of days and the worst of days.
The best of days comes from answering correctly that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Jesus rewards him with a wonderful accolade and lays out before him what the church is going to be like. As Protestants we say that the foundation upon which the church is built is the rock of the statement of Peter which is that Jesus is Messiah. But the word play that Jesus uses can be used to interpret his statement differently. Look at those verses one more time. The word for Peter in Greek is petros. So in vs. 18 you could read: “You are petros (or the rock) and on this petros (or Peter) I will build my church.” The Roman church has interpret this to mean throughout the ages that it is upon Peter and those who apostolically descended from him upon whom Jesus built his church. From the persepctive of the Roman church this Scripture provides the justification for the role of the Pope which as Protestants we don’t follow. It is a difference of interpretation that has shaped both churches dramatically along the lines of authority being vested within the church and the tradition or authority being vested solely upon the Words of Scripture and the person of Jesus Christ.
I don’t want to belabor the point but it is not just upon this rock which strikes us as Protestants as a problematic Scripture, but what Jesus says next. “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.” You can always pick out Peter in any work of art because he is the one with the keys. It is from this Scripture that art history has attributed to Peter the role of key master. So when we talk about confession in light of theses verses it causes our Protestant hair on the back of our neck to stand on end. But what is a good explanation for these words by Jesus? Is there some truth to Jesus giving Peter a certain opportunity that no other person on earth had before or has had since? I have struggled to come to terms with these verses and have my own understanding of what Jesus meant in these verses. Let’s see if you can follow.
Like all Scripture we have to be able to take it within the context of what is happening in the life of Jesus. We know that Jesus knew that Peter would indeed be the Apostle who would be the leader when the church would explode across the land. The church would be built upon the foundation of the truth that Jesus is Messiah and it is in that truth upon which it is founded. Peter knew that truth and the only hope the church would have would be that this truth of who Jesus was would be dispersed throughout the land. Peter had the opportunity to either allow that foundation to be spread or to bring it to a crashing close. Of course salvation was not in his hands, but the furthering of the Gospel was intricately woven into the desire and the opportunities that Peter chose to take or not. I can’t believe that Peter ever had the power to forgive sins or not. But I can believe that he had opportunities to spread the Gospel, which he took. By reaching out with the Gospel he affected the lives of thousands and so in turn helped by providing them a glimpse into heaven which they could embrace and call as their own.
Those were the best of days for Peter, but the worst of days soon follow. Peter’s denial of who Jesus is begins in these verses. He doesn’t understand the necessity of Jesus’ suffering and so tries to protect him and discourage him from being a half empty type of person. Jesus, you will never suffer if I can help it. That’s really nice Peter, but you don’t get it. I have to suffer in order for you to have eternal life. Okay, Jesus was a little more direct and little more caustic than what I just portrayed him as saying: “Get behind me Satan.” Not much room for error in those words.