June 29 in the Orthodox calendar is dedicated to the memory of The Glorious and All-praised Leaders of the Apostles, Peter and Paul. In the Acts of the Apostles St. Peter and St. James the brother of the Lord are clear leaders of the original apostolic group (see for example Acts 15), with St. Paul eventually becoming the focus of the book of Acts. Be that as it may, in current Orthodox celebrations Peter and Paul are honored together as the leaders of the Apostles. James in modern scholarship is recognized as the leader of the Jerusalem Christian community. However, in Orthodoxy today Sts Peter and Paul get the main billing as the leaders of the early church.
St. Peter is one of the twelve men Jesus chose for His inner circle and disciples and his leadership role in the Gospels is easily noted.
St. Paul is not mentioned in the Gospels, and appears only in that first generation of converts who became disciples of Christ in the Apostolic period. Paul was not one of the Twelve, but his passion for the Gospel propelled him to leadership in the church’s first period of evangelism and growth. His role as a true apostle is frequently discussed in his epistles in the New Testament and is recognized in the Orthodox Church in icons of the Communion of the Apostles, where St. Paul is placed in the company of the Twelve receiving the Body and Blood from Christ.
One of the special characteristics of both Sts Peter and Paul is that in our Scriptures they are said to have received their theology and faith by a direct revelation from God.
In the Gospel lesson from St. Matthew for the feast of Sts Peter and Paul we read:
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do men say that the Son of man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:13-19, emphasis mine and not in the original)
According to St. Matthew, Christ Himself affirmed that Peter’s understanding of Christ was not taught to him by humans, but was revealed to Peter by God the Father. Peter was did not learn his faith from human tradition or scriptures; rather, God choose to reveal this truth to Peter who accepted this revelation and began to proclaim this truth.
St. Paul in his Letter to the Galatians makes a very similar claim for himself:
“For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it; and I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus.” (Galatians 1:11-17, emphasis mine and not in the original)
Thus our Scriptures recognize that both Peter and Paul did not learn their faith and theology from other teachers. They both received their faith from God Himself – God reveals the truth directly to these two apostles. This is why we honor them as the leaders of the Apostles. They received directly from God, His word.
One of the hymns from Vespers for the feast of Sts Peter and Paul offers us this insight:
WHAT SPIRITUAL SONGS SHALL WE SING FOR PETER AND PAUL? THEY HAVE SILENCED THE SHARP TONGUES OF THE GODLESS. THEY ARE AWESOME SWORDS OF THE SPIRIT. THEY ARE THE ADORNMENT OF ROME; THEY HAVE NOURISHED THE WHOLE WORLD WITH THE WORD OF GOD. THEY ARE THE LIVING TABLETS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT WRITTEN BY THE HAND OF GOD: CHRIST, WHO HAS GREAT AND RICH MERCY, HAS EXALTED THEM IN ZION.
These two great leaders of the apostles “nourished the whole world with the word of God.” The hymn is not saying they were nourished by the word of God, but rather they nourished the world with God’s word. Their proclamation has gone into all the world. But themselves, in their own persons and lives embodied the word of God. They themselves became the two living tablets as famous as the tablets Moses received directly from God with His commandments on them. No longer is God’s word written on tablets of stone, for now it is written on the hearts of His believers. And His chosen followers become living witnesses to God’s love and plan of salvation.
“You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men; and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Corinthians 3:2-3)