Peter as High Priest

The Gospel According to Matthew presents Jesus as a new Moses, which is why there are so many speeches in Matthew and why Matthew focuses on Jesus as Lawgiver. In terms of this, Matthew presents Peter as a new high priest, established by Jesus. The rest of the twelve are priests; or perhaps in terms of the Temple-system, chief priests.

Peter is clearly the leader. The fact that Peter speaks so often in the gospels is taken by some as a sign that Peter was a blabbermouth, an impulsive fisherman. This is nonsense. Jesus doubtless had hundreds, even thousands of conversations with His men. Only a few are recorded for us, and in those Peter usually is spokesman. (Moreover, nothing indicates that Peter was “the big fisherman.” He may have been the shortest of them all. And nothing indicates that he was impulsive. He may have been a man who found it hard to speak and thus when he mustered the ability to speak, blurted things out. We ought to avoid the kind of psychologizing that is so common in studies of the Gospels.)

In Matthew 16, Jesus tells Peter that His Church will be built upon him and that he is given the keys of the kingdom. By implication, this extends to the other disciples as well. Peter was the leader of the first phase of the Church, until at his own “death and resurrection” he passed the torch to Paul. (See my essay, “The Resurrection of Peter and the Coming of the Kingdom” in Biblical Horizons 34.) The Roman Catholic doctrine that there is a perpetual office of Petrine high priesthood, carried through the Papacy, is not taught in Scripture. Peter’s work was finished, and so was Paul’s, before the end of the outward trappings of the Old Creation in ad 70. As I have shown (see above), the primacy of Peter lasted only until ad 44.

Nevertheless, Peter’s position next to Jesus, and as the actual leader of the Church set up by Jesus, makes him Aaron to Moses. Moses set things up; Aaron administered them. When Peter falls into sin immediately after his appointment, in Matthew 16:22-23, we should think of Aaron’s sin with the golden calf right after his own appointment.

But there is a larger fulfillment of this pattern. In Matthew 17, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up to the Mount of Transfiguration. This correlates with Exodus 24, when Moses, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu went up on the mountain with God. From this time forth, Jesus moves toward Jerusalem, and does more teaching. Then, when Jesus is taken away, Peter sins and rejects Him. This correlates with Moses’ being taken up onto the mountain to receive further revelation (Exodus 25-31), and Aaron’s sin with the golden calf during that time. Matthew tells us that Jesus was interviewed by Caiaphas the high priest, and that Peter entered the courtyard of the high priest at this time (Matthew 26:57-58). While Jesus was before Caiaphas, Peter betrayed him (Matthew 26:59-75). Peter’s betrayal is thus made parallel to Caiaphas’s betrayal of the nation.

This is where Matthew ends it. He tells us nothing specific about Peter’s later repentance. Peter is not mentioned in the resurrection narratives of Matthew 28.

The second gospel to be written, that of Mark, presents Jesus as a new David. Jesus is a man of action and warfare, “immediately” going here and there, casting out demons. He enlists with him Peter, James, and John, who in this context are “David’s three mighty men.” Though this is Mark’s emphasis, when he comes to the trial of Jesus, he makes the same parallel between Peter and Caiaphas that Matthew does (Mark 14:53-72). In Mark’s gospel, however, we find Jesus singling out Peter for special mention after His resurrection (Mark 16:7), indicating both his restoration and his continued primacy.

The third gospel is Luke. Here Jesus is a prophet, and as He is Elijah, Peter is Elisha. This association can be seen in Luke 5, where Jesus calls Peter in the midst of his work, and tells him to leave his nets to become a fisher of men. Matthew and Mark tell the same story, but without the details, and thus Luke calls to our mind how Elijah called Elisha (1 Kings 19:19-21). Similarly, Elijah told Elisha that he would receive the Spirit if he saw Elijah ascend to heaven, and this is recapitulated in Acts 1 & 2, where the disciples see Jesus ascend and then receive the Spirit, and Peter is the leader.

Luke’s account of Peter’s betrayal omits any allusion to the high priest (Luke 22:54-63). Jesus is simply “taken away” and Peter is simply in “a courtyard.” If Luke 24:12 is genuine (and there is some dispute), Luke does show Peter rushing to the tomb, but that is his only mention of Peter after the resurrection, until we come to the book of Acts.

Now we come to the last gospel, that of John. John presents Jesus as the Son of God. He is God Incarnate, and Peter is His high priest. John presents Jesus as the Great High Priest, moving through the Tabernacle, and Peter as His assistant.

John highlights Peter as high priest in his betrayal and restoration. John tells us that while Annas, the actual high priest, abused Jesus, Peter betrayed him in the courtyard of the high priest (John 18:13-24). Then John says that Jesus was led before Caiaphas, but says nothing about the inquiry. Instead, John shifts back to Peter for his second and third betrayals (John 18:24-28). The way this is written we can hardly fail to see the association: “Annas therefore sent Him bound to Caiaphas the high priest. Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself” (vv. 24-25). Peter denies Christ twice (vv. 25-27). “So they led Jesus from Caiaphas” (v. 28). Nothing is said about Caiaphas, only about Peter. Peter is Caiaphas, in a sense.

At the tomb, we find that John arrives first, but then waits for Peter to enter first (John 20:4-8). Why? It makes sense to see the tomb as a holy of holies, which only the high priest might enter. John instinctively holds back. (See “Jesus Burial Clothes” below.) Now, however, the lesser disciple can enter also, though Peter goes in first. Our hypothesis is confirmed by the fact that, third, Mary Magdalene looks into the tomb and sees “two angels in white sitting, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying.” This cannot fail to call to mind the Cover over the Ark of the Covenant, which was a golden slab with a cherub at each end. The new slab is where Jesus lay, and these angels form a mercy seat. Mary, signifying the whole Bride of Christ, is now able to enter the holy of holies.

The interaction of John and Peter is instructive on this point. Previously, Peter had not been permitted to enter the courtyard of the high priest, but John (being of a priestly family) had been. It was John who went in first, and then brought Peter in (John 18:15-16). Now the situation is reversed. Peter goes in first and brings in John after him.

John 21 focuses on the restoration of Peter and his appointment to lead the new Church. Peter returns to his nets, but leaves them again when called to follow Jesus again. Jesus tells him to shepherd and tend His lambs and sheep. Still humble, Peter turns and sees John, “who had also leaned back on His breast at the supper and said `Lord, who is the one who betrays You?’” Peter asks, “Lord, and what about this man?” (John 21:20-21). Peter realizes that he had betrayed Jesus, but John had not. Perhaps John should be the leader, not Peter. But Jesus says that Peter is the leader, and it is John, who writes the gospel, who tells us this.

Thus, two things emerge. First, as Jesus moved through Judea and Galilee He reconstituted Israel, and as part of that work made Peter His high priest. Peter failed in this appointment, as part of the general failure of Israel to acknowledge Jesus. Second, though, after His resurrection Jesus re-appointed Peter as leader and high priest of His Church. Peter would go first, and the rest would follow. Once Peter’s work was done, and the Church was established, he could retire from this leadership position, leaving Jerusalem in the hands of James and the gentile mission in the hands of Paul.

James Jordan is scholar-in-residence at Theopolis. This article originally appeared at Biblical Horizons