Where did Jesus make Peter the visible head of His Church? Most people would turn to Matthew 16:17-19, where Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter and says “… upon this rock I will build My Church.” It is also the passage where Jesus gives Peter the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” and the power to bind and loose.
If you look closely at this passage, however, you’ll notice that everything is in the future tense, “… I will build My Church … I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven …” Matthew 16:17-19 is the promise given to Peter, but where does Jesus actually fulfill this promise? The answer is John 21:15-17:
“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ He then said to him a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, ‘Do you love me?’ and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ (Jesus) said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’”
If you’ve ever appealed to this verse to show the founding of the papacy, your non-Catholic friend might have responded, “You’re making too much out of this verse. All that is going on is that Simon Peter denied Jesus three times and Jesus is restoring him with a three-fold affirmation of love. That’s all.”
It’s true that John 21:15-17 is restoring Peter from his threefold denial of Christ before the crucifixion, but what is often missed is that Jesus had already spoken about this moment before his Passion. In Luke 22:31–32, Jesus said to Simon Peter:
“Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers.”
There is a lot going on in this short passage, so let’s unpack what our Lord is saying. First, Jesus says Satan has “demanded to sift all of you like wheat.” When Jesus says “all of you,” who is he talking about? He’s talking about the Apostles. The Apostles were to be scattered, and they were during Christ’s Passion.
Second, Jesus prays specifically for Simon Peter. This is the only time Jesus is said to pray for a specific person, but why would Jesus need to pray for anyone? (He is God, after all.) Jesus prays so that we would know what is on his heart. In this case, he wants us to know that it is his will that Peter’s own faith will not fail and that once Peter has “turned back,” he must strengthen his brothers. Peter turns back in John 21:15-17 when he affirms Christ with a three-fold confession of love for his three-fold denial.
Third, what does it mean to “strengthen your brothers?” Who are Simon Peter’s brothers? Certainly, all Christians are brothers (Matthew 23:8), but in this context the only other people mentioned are the rest of the Apostles, of whom Satan has demanded to “sift like wheat.” Jesus has prayed, and so it will happen, that once Simon Peter has “turned back” after his threefold denial, it is he who will become the source of unity among his brother apostles.
With this in mind, let’s turn back to John 21:15-17 and ask ourselves this question: “How is Simon Peter going to be that source of unity?” The answer is that he will unify Christ’s flock (apostles and all believers) as a shepherd. He will do all the things a shepherd does for his flock, lead it, guard it, and most of all keep it together. Jesus prayed, and so it is.
Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.