When 1 Corinthians 3:11 reads “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.”, it’s a fair question to wonder – if the foundation is already laid, why do we have a Pope? Further, how do we know Peter really was the first Pope?
First, it’s important to note that Jesus, knowing he wouldn’t be here (physically) forever, recognized his own mortality and instructed his disciples to carry out his work. Like any good leader, he knew his disciples would need a leader among them – and he gives the task to Simon Peter.
Jesus, as noted in Matthew 16:18-20, tells Simon Peter “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church (a), and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven (b); whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven (c).” Wow – can you imagine how Peter felt when Jesus told him this?
The components of this conversation are so, so important.
(a) “and I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church”. Here, Jesus gives Simon Peter the name Peter which, in Greek, means “rock”. He tells Peter that he will be the cornerstone on which the church is built.
(b) “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven”. In searching for keys within the Bible, Isaiah 22:21 comes up. “I will clothe him with your robe and fasten your sash around him and hand your authority over to him. He will be a father to those who live in Jerusalem and to the people of Judah. I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David….” Just as the servant of the house was made second in charge and given responsibility for the house of David, so too was Peter made second in charge and given responsibility for the church. The papal insignia, shown below, includes these same two keys even today:
(c) “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” This, too, continues to mirror Isaiah 22: “I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.” The promise is the same, as is the decision-making authority behind it.
Not only was it clear that Jesus gave a special authority to Peter, but it was clear that the disciples recognized it as well. In John 3-8, Peter and another disciple ran to the tomb. The other disciple reached the tomb first, but waited outside until Peter got there and didn’t enter the tomb until after Peter went in first. I doubt it was fear of the dark that stopped him from entering, and more-so a deferment to their leader.
There are also numerous instances within the Bible where Simon Peter is shown to be just a bit different than the others. Growing up, we can all remember the story of the apostles fishing at sea, catching nothing, until Jesus tells them to fish on the other side of the boat. Know whose boat the were on? Simon Peter’s. At the transfiguration, Simon Peter was not only one of the three but the first to be mentioned. He was also the first to perform a miracle in the name of Christ.
In reading 1 Peter 5:2-3, I think our very first Pope truly understood his – and his successors – role. “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; 3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.”. Peter is not describing the papacy as a master/servant relationship, but instead focus on serving those that are in your care…be an example to them. Take care of them. In John 21:15-17, Peter is told several times by Jesus to “feed my lambs…tend my sheep…feed my sheep”. We, the believers, are the sheep being tended to by Peter, our first Pope.
I come back to 1 Corinthians 3:11 and see it in a new light: the Pope is not looking to lay a new foundation, he is instead looking to guide and serve us just as Peter was instructed so many years ago. The word Pope comes from the Latin word papa and the Greek word pappas, meaning “father”. This is what the Pope is to us. He is our father figure here on earth. He guides us when we are lost and offers an example through actions of how we should be.
I’m interested in what you think, and what other examples you know of. I see this “popeinary” as a work in progress, and would love to update it as time goes by.