One of the victims of the Protestant Reformation was St. Peter. Because of the high accord in which Catholics hold Peter, there’s been a knee-jerk reaction to sort of “rob Peter to pay Paul,” by degrading the status in which Peter was held. One of the ways in which this was done is the creation of the “restoration of Peter.” According to this theory, Peter’s denial of Christ (recorded ini Matthew 26:69-75; Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:54-62; and John 18:15-18,25-27) meant that he was no longer head of the Disciples (or the Church), and needed Christ to restore him. It’s the earliest sedevacantist conspiracy, and it relies upon two Biblical passage to make it case, so to speak:
- In Mark 16:7, the angel says, “But go and tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.'” According to this theory, this meant Peter wasn’t considered a Disciple anymore.
- In John 21:15-17, Jesus asks Peter: “Do you love Me more than these?” “Do you love Me?” and “Do you like Me?” and responds with the commands “feed My lambs,” “tend My sheep,” and “feed My sheep.” This section is popularly known as the “restoration of Peter,” and is titled as such in the NIV.
Both of these passages are actually strong supports for Petrine primacy, the opposite of how many anti-Catholic apologists use them. But first, let’s make something very clear. Peter never lost his spot as a Disciple because of his denials. The Bible nowhere says that, and while Peter’s cowardly denials are an early Church scandal, he’s still a disciple, and more than that, a chief disciple. John 20:10 refers to Peter and John as “the disciples” when they return home from the Empty Tomb, a period of time between Peter’s denials and his alleged “restoration.” In John 20:22-24, Jesus breathes upon all of the disciples except for Thomas (who isn’t present) and Judas (who is dead) and provides them the Holy Spirit and the power to forgive sins. So he’s not just a disciple, but he’s a disciple with the Holy Spirit. John 21:2 again lists Peter as one of the disciples, and the four other disciples follow him when he decides to go fishing. There’s not a single clue in the text that Peter is un-discipled. And if he were, why not the others, who abandoned Jesus?
This is just another example of letting anti-Catholicism cloud one’s reading of the Bible; it’s similar to the way that a number of anti-Catholic Protestants can’t afford even the basic respect for Mary, for fear that they’ll end up worshipping her somehow. And now, since mainstream Protestant Bibles present it as historical in the headers, it’s just taken for granted.
The two passage I cited above actually prove something nearer the opposite of what they’re used for. That is, rather than proving that Peter is a black sheep that needs to rejoin the herd, they present him as the lead Disciple:
- This phrasing “His disciples and Peter” is used to signify rank. We see it elsewhere. Remember that Acts 3:1, 8:14, Galatians 1:18-19, and Galatians 2:9 all present Peter and James as leaders within the Church in Jerusalem (this is before Peter left for Antioch: cf. Acts 12:17, Galatians 2:11; and well before he made it to Rome: cf. 1 Peter 5:13). Now look at what happens in Acts 12. Peter gets arrested (v. 3), but an angel springs him from jail (v. 7-8). He goes to Mary’s house and tells her, in Acts 12:17, “Tell James and the brothers about this.” So did James somehow lose his Apostleship? Of course not. He’s singled out because he’s the main guy around – Peter was in jail and John (James’ brother) is dead – see Acts 17:2. He’s the de facto leader of the Apostles while Peter’s gone. So when the angel says in Mark 16:7, “tell His disciples and Peter,” the angel is referring to Peter’s prominence, not his delinquency.
- In John 21:15-17, two important things happen. First, Peter is asked, “do you love Me more than these?” He’s expected to have a superior love than the others: it’s a primacy of love, if you will. And he’s then explicitly given the task of shepherding Jesus’ flock. To understand the importance, go back to John 10. In John 10:11-16, Jesus famously describes Himself as the Good Shepherd. But right before that, He uses a totally different analogy. In John 10:1-2, Jesus says “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber. But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. ” You might expect that Jesus is the shepherd in this metaphor, but He’s not. As He explains in John 10:7 (and John 10:9), He’s the Gate. So who’s the shepherd? Who’s the person who enters his leadership role through the Gate? Jesus spells it out in John 21:15-17: it’s Peter. Who else gets explictly called by name to tend Jesus’ flock?
Of course, it’s true that while Peter is the shepherd on Earth, Jesus is the Good Shepherd. 1 Peter 5:2-4 points both up and down: up, to Jesus, who Peter refers to as the “Chief Shepherd,” and down, to the priests (presbyters) of the Church, who Peter calls to be shepherds as well. The Catholic understanding is pretty straightfoward, and loyal to the text. Jesus is the Chief Shepherd, a.ka., the Good Shepherd. In calling Peter, He doesn’t lose any of His status as Shepherd. Likewise, Peter calls priests to tend the flock, and doesn’t lose his status as shepherd.
Finally, note that St. Peter’s job is to shepherd these shepherds as well. Luke 22:31-32, NAB version: “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.” So when confronted with the possibility that Satan will have his heyday with all Twelve, Jesus prays for Peter specifically, and then leaves him in charge of the other Eleven.