Today the Orthodox Church celebrates the two Leaders of the Apostles (Οι Κορυφαίοι): Peter and Paul. This is a great Feast which was preceded by a period of fasting. Peter was one of Christ’s first Apostles. And Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brothers, Simon, called Peter, and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. Then He said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” They immediately left their nets and followed Him (Mt 4:18-20). This promise would later be fulfilled: for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit, not many days from now (Acts 1:5).”
Jesus was referring to Pentecost, when the Apostles would receive the Holy Spirit. From that day they would begin their missionary work, preaching the Good News throughout the world. Peter and Paul represent the entire οικουμένη, civilization, Jew and Gentile. Peter was Jewish, a fisherman from Galilee, spoke Aramaic and some Hebrew. He would become the Apostle to the Jews.
Paul was also Jewish, a Pharisee in fact. He was very educated, fluent in Greek, Aramaic and knowledgeable in Hebrew. The lingua franca of the Roman Empire at that time was Greek. Since Paul was fluent in Greek, he was able to preach the Good News throughout the pagan empire. For this purpose, he became the Apostle to the Gentiles.
Peter was originally called Simon or Simon Bar-Jonah (son of Jonah). It was the Lord who changed his name to Peter. Now when Jesus looked at him, He said: “You are Simon the son of Jonah. You shall be called Cephas (which is translated: A Stone.) (Jn 1:42) It was Peter who answered the Lord’s question: Who do you say that I am? This is a question we all need to answer as the faithful in Christ. He asked His disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And 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 (Mt 16:13-19).”
This is a very significant verse in the New Testament. In fact, the interpretation of it is disputed between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. The former believes that the “rock” on which Christ would build His Church is Peter himself. The authority of the Pope is based on the primacy of Peter, since he was the first Bishop of Rome.
The Second Vatican Council's 1964 dogmatic constitution Lumen gentium declared that the "pope's power of primacy" is by "virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church," and has "full, supreme and universal power over the Church" which he "is always free to exercise." The coat of arms of the Vatican denotes the authority of the Pope based on the primacy of Peter. The crossed gold and silver keys of the See of Rome symbolize the keys of Peter, representing the power of the papal office to loose and bind. The triple crown papal tiara symbolizes the triple power of the Pope as “father of kings,” “governor of the world” and “Vicar of Christ.”
The Orthodox Church rightly contests this claim, since it is a misreading of Scripture. In the original Greek it says: κἀγὼ δέ σοι λέγω ὅτι σὺ εἶ Πέτρος, καὶ ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν, καὶ πύλαι ᾅδου οὐ κατισχύσουσιν αὐτῆς. It is clear from the original Greek text that Πέτρος refers to Simon Peter and πέτρα, the rock, thus Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. If Jesus was referring to Peter, He would have used the masculine demonstrative pronoun, instead of the feminine (ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ).
Furthermore, Christ confirms who is the stone in Mt 21:42: Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief cornerstone. This was the Lord’s doing, And it is marvelous in our eyes’? Jesus is referencing Psalm 118, verses 22-23. Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. (Mt 7:24-25) Once again, there is reference made to rock. The faith in Jesus Christ is the rock; thus, Jesus is the Rock.
The Orthodox Church has both a hierarchal and synodal system. Hierarchal with a ranking order of deacons, priests and bishops. Bishops may be diocesan or titular, or elevated to metropolitans, archbishops or patriarchs. The synodal system is conciliatory. Among the Orthodox Churches, the Ecumenical Patriarch is “head among equals.” The Patriarch makes decisions on Church governance and other ecclesiastical matters in concert with the Holy Synod. This Synod is made up of other hierarchs.
Paul was not one of the Twelve Apostles. His name was originally Saul and he was a tentmaker from Tarsus. In fact, he was a great persecutor of the early Church. Saul was involved in the stoning of St Stephen, the Archdeacon. Yet, he would later be called by Christ to be the Apostle to the Gentiles. Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. Then he fell to the ground , and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” Then the Lord said, I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” So he, trembling and astonished, said, “Lord, what do you want me to do?” Then the Lord said to him, “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do (Acts 9:1-6).”
A disciple named Ananias was told by Christ to find Paul and baptize him. Ananias was hesitant at first, knowing what kind of person Saul was. But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before the Gentiles, kings and the children of Israel (ibid 9:16). Immediately when Ananias laid his hands on Paul, something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight. Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God (ibid 9:20).
Paul went on four missionary journeys throughout Asia Minor, Greece, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon and Jerusalem. He wrote a total of fourteen epistles and was eventually martyred in Rome in the year 68.
Peter was also martyred in Rome around the year 67. He asked to be crucified upside down because he did not find himself worthy to be crucified in like manner as Christ. Peter wrote two letters or books and established the Church of Rome and Antioch. He along with James and John were the closest to Jesus, witnessing His miracles and His Transfiguration. Peter, out of fear of persecution, denied the Lord three times. Yet, he repented for his sin and the Lord forgave him. Similarly, Paul was a persecutor of the Church, yet Christ forgave him as well and revealed Himself to him. God’s love and economy is infinite, beyond our comprehension. He provided a way for Peter and Paul, first for their own salvation and for them to lead others to salvation. Likewise, He has a plan for each of us which will be fulfilled according to His will in time.
First in prominence among the Apostles, and teachers to the Universe, intercede to the Master of all for peace in the world and for our souls great mercy (Festal Apolytikion).
A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.
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