To walk south from Rome along the Via Appia is to follow in the footsteps of Saint Peter. Mostly, people take the journey for different reasons than he did. When my wife and I took this road some years ago, our destination was the Catacombs of Saint Callixtus, one of the many underground testimonies to the faithfulness of the early Christian martyrs who lie buried there. According to Christian legend, Peter’s purpose in traveling the Via Appia was to escape martyrdom.
Coming to meet him from the opposite direction was the risen Lord. The astonished Peter repeated the question he had once asked in the Upper Room, “Domine, quo vadis?”—“Lord, where are you going?” (cf. John 13:36). Jesus offered the sobering response, “Eo Romam iterum crucifigi”—“I am going to Rome, to be crucified again.”
A small, unimposing church halfway down the Via Appia still testifies to Peter’s encounter with the risen Lord. In the center of the Church of Domine Quo Vadis, you can see Jesus’s footprints in a marble slab, marking the place where the Lord ascended back to heaven.
Peter, shamed into repentance, turned around. Before long, he was martyred in Rome, allegedly upside down on a cross, in fulfillment of Jesus’s words: “When you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go” (21:18).
As North Americans, we don’t know what martyrdom is. To be sure, the increasingly blatant intolerance of growing swathes of our population does not bode well for the future. But martyrdom it is not. (And, in fairness, I often worry whether perhaps our Christian witness is too anemic to warrant anyone to martyr us.) I am not one of those who celebrate the return to the pre-Constantinian counter-Christianity of “exiles of the Dispersion” (1 Pet. 1:1). The stories of early Christian martyrdom are much too chilling for such naiveté and the dividends of Christian culture far too rich to actually advocate a return to the catacombs. Still, the vestiges of Christendom are disappearing, and we must prepare for whatever may come.
It may be of some use, therefore, to meditate on Saint Peter’s claim to be a “witness of the sufferings of Christ” (1 Pet. 5:1). Do these words take us back to the crucifixion, which Peter may have witnessed from a distance (Luke 23:49)? Is he alluding to his role as a preacher, serving as a witness of the gospel in compliance with Jesus’s command, at the time of his Ascension, to be his “witnesses” to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8)? Or is he perhaps acknowledging the hardships of the recipients of the letter—whose “suffering” he links to the suffering of Christ throughout his epistle (1 Pet. 2:18–23; 3:17–18; 4:1, 13)?
These sorts of questions regarding authorial intent are notoriously difficult to answer. And it is probably more important to recognize that each of three meanings offers theologically rich insights into Peter’s role as a witness (martys) and that each one implies the other two.
It’s impossible to tell whether or not Peter witnessed Jesus’s crucifixion. We do know, however, that he was present with John at the high priest’s courtyard on the night of the betrayal. Peter, by the charcoal fire (John 18:18), stopped short of witnessing (martyrein) where witness might mean martyrdom (martyria). Once brashly confident that he could follow Jesus into death (13:37), he had to face a second charcoal fire (21:9) before he would be ready to be crucified. Only at this point, having told him “by what kind of death” Peter would glorify God, Jesus finally said to him, “Follow me” (21:19).
Throughout his epistle, Peter faithfully follows the Lord’s command to be his “witness.” The epistle is a testimony to the risen Lord, whose revelation (or second coming) on the last day fills both Peter and his readers with joy (1 Pet. 1:5–8). Peter testifies that suffering is followed by resurrection (1:21)—steeling himself no less than his readers. The proclamation of the gospel is a major theme in the letter. Peter puts his hope in the “living and abiding word of God,” which causes us to be born again (1:23) and whose nourishment—“pure spiritual milk”—gives us a “taste” of the Lord’s goodness (cf. Ps. 34:8), leading to our maturation (1 Pet. 2:2–3).
Peter’s readers are in Christ. The apostle says so explicitly in his farewell greeting: “Peace to all of you who are in Christ” (5:14). I suppose the greeting serves as a boost to people who are in exile, reviled and suffering. But the greeting is also an expression of bare-knuckle realism. Those who are “in Christ” live the life of Christ—a life of suffering: “Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (4:13).
Perhaps we need to relearn the joy of suffering in Christ and prepare for martyrdom—by meditation on the suffering of our Lord, by voluntary renunciation of God’s good created gifts, and by mortification of the flesh.
Saint Peter is a “witness of the suffering of Christ.” Peter’s encounter with the risen Lord—on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and perhaps again on the Via Appia—equipped him to follow Jesus in his suffering martyrdom and to draw others into suffering martyrdom. The location of the Church of Domine Quo Vadis, halfway down the Via Appia to the Catacombs of Saint Callixtus, seems fitting: Only an encounter with the risen Lord adequately prepares us to be witnesses of the sufferings of Christ.
Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House.