Identity, Witness, and the Death of Peter

According to tradition, the Apostle Peter went to Rome during the rule of the Emperor Nero to lead the church there. At that time, Emperor Nero was looking for a reason to put Peter to death and stamp out the sect called the Way. When the followers of Jesus in Rome heard the news, they pleaded with Peter to flee. They persuaded Peter and he made preparations to leave the city, in the same way that Paul had fled from execution in Damascus and Jerusalem. As Peter came to the gates of Rome, he saw Jesus coming to meet him. Peter worshiped, and asked, “Lord, where are You going?” Then Jesus answered and said, “I am come again to be crucified.” When he heard these words, Peter remembered the last time he had spoken with Jesus. Jesus had said “Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Peter realized that Jesus’ cryptic saying meant that it was time for this prophecy to be fulfilled, and so he returned to Rome. Not many days later, Nero showed the superiority of the empire of Rome to the kingdom of God by having the Apostle Peter executed. The disciples, eyes brimming with tears, glorified God because of Peter’s testimony.

How do you understand this story? How can the kingdom of Almighty God be dominated by mere men? How could Peter’s death possibly be cause for glorifying God? Tertullian, an early church father writing in the late 2nd century AD, gives us a hint.

“But if you are near Italy, you have Rome … What a happy church that is, on which the apostles poured out their whole doctrine with their blood; where Peter had a passion like that of the Lord, where Paul was crowned with the death of John [the Baptist]”

Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics

Doctrine is not a common word. It means a body of principles or beliefs. Tertullian’s word picture is graphic. Peter and Paul’s beliefs: salvation by grace through faith, unity of the church, the resurrection of Jesus and the saints, and all the rest, were all poured out with their blood. They were proven by the way that their life ended. Their death was a testimony to their belief in Jesus.

This idea that one’s voluntary death for a cause validates or proves one’s belief in that cause has a long history. When Socrates’ died because he was unwilling to recant his philosophical beliefs or teaching methods, he said, “Death offers mankind a full view of truth.” Socrates knew that words and actions in this world are always ambiguous. Humans are not given the power to see people’s motivations. We can’t see the why, we can only perceive the what, when, how, and where. The human dilemma is that humans lie and cheat and mislead. An action that seems to mean one thing could mean something entirely different. So Socrates chose to die to show that his belief in his philosophy was pure. He had no ulterior motives.

Voluntary or sacrificial death is thought to give us insight because the “ultimate sacrifice” is thought to outweigh any other possible motivation. What one chooses to die for reveals one’s true identity, beliefs, and motivations. We see this trope in novels and cinema regularly. Professor Severus Snape of the Harry Potter series seems a traitor until his death. Darth Vader seems purely evil until he gives his life to save his son. Tony Stark gradually transforms from an arrogant, self-centered industrialist terrified of death to a hero willing to give his life for the universe. The truth of their new identity is demonstrated through self-sacrifice.

Similarly, Jesus’ sacrificial death proves God’s love for mankind. It is how we know what love is. Our words and deeds in any particular situation are always ambiguous. Only by building up credibility and coherence between words and deeds over a lifetime do we have the chance to reveal our character and true beliefs.

When we speak of integral mission, we speak of bearing witness with words and deeds in all areas of life. All of life, even unto death. What a glorious testimony then was Peter’s martyrdom! How it spoke to his transformation!

Everyone in the kingdom of God bears witness to the kingdom, from the King Himself with His Son and His Spirit, to its lowliest citizens. The English word “martyr” comes from the Greek word μάρτυς (pronounced mar-toos) meaning “a witness, someone who testifies”. The only way one can testify about the kingdom of God is with one’s life. Testimonials, in the modern sense of verbal advertisements by celebrities, are worthless. But one’s life and death can speak volumes.

“Martyrdom … was not the fate of the powerless, those finally forced to admit the grandeur of the state. Martyrdom was a witness to the state of its subordination to the God of heaven.”

Kalantzis, Caesar and the Lamb, p.35

By his death, Peter said, “Heaven is greater than you, Nero. Jesus is greater, grace is greater, forgiveness is greater. Life is greater than you are Nero, and nothing in your little empire can make me say anything different.” This is what Jesus referred to in Matthew 10:18 “And you will be brought before governors and kings because of me, as a witness to them and the Gentiles.” Martyrdom is, in a sense, the ultimate expression of witnessing to the kingdom. It is both a final testimony, and the highest form of testimony.

But martyrdom is different only in degree, not in kind. Bearing witness to the kingdom in a trial before the Emperor is only the continuation of a lifetime spent bearing witness to the kingdom of God by choosing to live out the values of the kingdom in the trials of daily life. Living out the values of the kingdom regardless of what the kingdoms and rulers and authorities of this world threaten. Living out the values of the kingdom regardless of what our friends and family and coworkers think about us. That may mean being honest when it costs us respect, being humble when it costs us opportunities, being kind when it costs us self-righteous pride. Only at the end might it mean dying instead of denying the faith.

Our lives bear witness to Jesus all the time, whether we are aware of it or not. We are always kingdom witnesses, even in our imperfection. This is a mystery of the kingdom. The kingdom of the all-powerful God is so humble that it allows its apostles to die. And in their death, as in the death of God in Jesus, the kingdom wins and grows. We stand in a great mystery. Luke’s narrative doesn’t end with Jesus riding into Jerusalem with a sword of justice to judge the nations as the Jews expected. Instead it continues to Acts 28 where an imprisoned, imperfect Paul, “proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!” Later, he, like Peter before him, would bear witness to the kingdom with his death. The perfect kingdom of the Almighty God is being spread by God’s imperfect people. The only way this can happen is by the grace of God empowering the people of God to live according to the values of the kingdom through the Holy Spirit.

Tintoretto, The Martyrdom of St. Paul (c. 1556)

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