Warning! This is a long read. Grab a coffee. Close your office door. Open your Bible. Pray for understanding, grace, and patience.
A few months ago I preached on Matthew 16 and made the statement that I agree with the Catholic interpretation that the “rock” on which Christ will build his church is Peter himself. That discussion came up again in a Sunday School discussion and a bunch of sharp, thoughtful “Bereans” asked me for clarification. Being a Protestant church such a statement seems quite at odds with what we stand for. Am I denying the gospel? Am I supporting the pope? Or as one brother asked, “What is wrong with giving God all the glory?”
You can be assured that I am not on a slippery slope to Catholicism. I weep over how that “church” has lost the gospel and trapped millions in a false hope of works-righteousness. I was raised Catholic and nearly lost my soul to bearing its burdens. I have many in my family who are in that bondage and still speak with people regularly who think they are doing a pretty good job of pleasing God through Catholic works.
For years I grew up under the heavy yolk of Catholic legalism, striving with all my self-righteous might to be a good, pious boy whom God would be proud to claim as his own. But God saved me from being the self-righteous older brother. He revealed to me how great he is and how pitiful my attempts to impress him are. I realized my utter helplessness and need of his mercy. Suddenly all of the Bible stories I learned growing up began to fit together into a story of redemption all focused on Jesus Christ.
As I grew in my knowledge of the word, the teachings of the Catholic Church became an abomination to me. It’s views on marriage and divorce infused in me a constant sense of inferiority and shame. When I was saved I felt a desperation on behalf of my family who had been taken in by the impressive, yet empty rituals of the Church. I was deeply frustrated that I felt I had been lied to for nearly 20 years of my life and I was determined to cast off every vestige of this damning institution.
So it is with no flippancy that I tread into interpretive territory that sounds Catholic. Growing up Catholic I am quite familiar with the papacy and the arguments for it. Chief among them is Jesus statement toward Peter in Matthew 16:18: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” From this one statement the Catholic Church defends centuries of papal succession which they claim goes all the way back to Peter (though church history documents a far different story).
Brief History of Interpretation
According to Catholic dogma, at this moment Jesus proclaimed Peter to be the first in a line of popes who would have authority over all the church until King Jesus returns. These words are inscribed inside St. Peter’s basilica in the Vatican where the Pope’s sits on his chair as a reminder to carry on the successive authority of Peter.
As church history progressed, it became clear to many faithful Christians that the papacy and the Catholic Church had lost their way. They did not represent biblical truth. First they sought to reform (i.e. fix) the broken system. Eventually they were forced out and began their own movements. These new movements vehemently rejected many of the forms that had been so easily corrupted by the Church. Chief among these abominable offenses was the entire concept of the papacy.
Some of these reformers attacked the very root of the argument by presenting an alternate interpretation of the Matthew 16 text. They claimed that the “rock” on which Jesus would build his church was the confession Peter made, not Peter himself. This gave the people more fuel to reject the assumed authority of the Pope because they had biblical justification to do so.
In faithful, biblically-serious Protestant churches today this is the most common interpretation. Especially for baptists, we hold that there is no authority outside the local church except for King Jesus himself. We are confessional people who hold to a confession of Christ (Rom. 10:9), not allegiance to a church structure.
Plus, we all know that Peter was a fool. He put his foot in his mouth a lot. He was rebuked for exalting himself. He couldn’t stay awake to pray with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He rejected Jesus three times. There is no way this guy is the foundation of the church. Jesus is the foundation of the church (1 Cor. 3:11; Eph. 2:20; 1 Pet. 2:6–7).
Any attempt to add anyone to the foundation of the church besides Jesus should be rejected as an attempt to steal glory from God! “What is wrong with giving God all the glory?”
But I want to argue that it is precisely through Peter as the rock that we glorify God in the way God chose to be glorified. Who am I to decide how God gets all the glory? He could have just snapped his fingers and built an impregnable church, but he didn’t. He chose to use brittle, cracked, weak, broken stones like Peter and you and me. I want to argue that to deny Peter is the rock is to deny an assurance that Jesus has given us in the success of his mission—not in a papal succession, but in the work of his Spirit.
A proper interpretation of the grammar, the context, and a whole-bible theology will bear this out.
Grammar and Context
It is often argued by my Protestant brothers that there is a lexical distinction between the Greek word for Peter (petros) and rock (petra). And this is true. Rock (petra) is the common word for a large stone or bedrock. Peter is a rather common name derived from that word. Some try to distinguish between them by saying Petros is diminutive meaning a smaller stone. But the linguistic evidence just doesn’t bear that out. Peter is simply the way you make a name out of a common word.
We do this all the time in our language. We make names out of other words because of their meaning, but in order to make the name make sense, we adjust the spelling just a bit. This is especially necessary in Greek which has masculine and feminine forms of words. This doesn’t necessarily mean an object is masculine or feminine, it is just how the system works.
But when it comes to names, men have masculine word endings and women have feminine word endings. Typically, male names end in –os: Petros (Peter). But rock (petra) has a feminine ending: -a. In order to give your son, whom you want to be strong as a rock, the name Peter, you need to change the ending from feminine (-a) to masculine (-os). But quite simply, Peter and petra are the same word. The first being a proper name.
So Jesus is literally saying, “You are a rock, and on this rock I will build my church.”
Some want to argue that the antecedent of “this rock” is Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” But grammatically it just doesn’t work that way. A demonstrative pronoun (“this”) has clues to which word it is referring to. It will match the gender form if it can (in this case it can’t because of the two forms of “rock” being used) or it is arranged nearest to the word it references.
Greek is a flexible language when it comes to word order. Because each word is so precise with its meaning, the order of words doesn’t need to be in as strict order as in English. You can move words and phrases around to make clearer other points without sacrificing the meaning of the word. The nearest antecedent to the demonstrative pronoun is “Peter.” If Jesus wanted to connect it to the confession he would have front loaded the phrase “this rock” to put it nearer the confession: “On this rock I will build this church, Peter.”
He also could have given the pronoun a neuter ending—“-o”—to emphasize he is not connecting it to a specific word, but to a concept or larger phrase. Matthew records neither of these attempts, but clearly shows that the reference of “this rock” is to Peter. There is no other way to make that clearer.
The earliest interpreters of the Bible (who knew Greek far better than we do) agree on this interpretation. Catholics like to trot out the Church Fathers to make their point on a lot of things (while they also ignore the discontinuity of the Fathers in other things). But here we find much help in interpreting this confusing phrase.
There are many more from the first three centuries that see Peter as the rock in Jesus’s statement. It is difficult to argue grammatically against Greek speakers and writers that the confession is not the object of the metaphor, Peter is.
Matthean Context and NT References
The context bears this out. Jesus switches metaphors for a moment from a building to authority in a kingdom. He hands Peter the keys to the kingdom, symbolic of a king handing off authority in his absence to a trusted friend. Handing the keys to Peter and calling him the rock foundation of the church are saying the same thing. If we reject Peter as the rock, we must reject him as the key holder.
But again, the Catholic church loves to take this and run with a papal succession. “See! Peter has authority over the entire church because he is the rock and holds the keys.” But the text says no such thing. There is no reason to make the jump from Jesus calling Peter a rock with keys to a line of Popes. The text just doesn’t say that.
Protestant scholar and commentator R. T. France argues similarly and says there is no reason to establish a papacy from this text. “All such apologetic rewritings of the passage are in any case beside the point, since there is nothing in this passage about any successors to Peter. It is Simon Peter himself, in his historical role, who is the foundation rock. Any link between the personal role of Peter and the subsequent papacy is a matter of later ecclesiology, not of exegesis of this passage” (623).
There is no succession from Peter to a line of Popes. In fact, we see this very same authority of the keys (“binding and loosing”) given to all the disciples (and by extension the future church) two chapters later in Matthew 18:18. The succession is from Peter to the small group of disciples to the entire church. This spread of authority continues at the end of Matthew’s gospel where Jesus commissions his disciples to share the authority with the whole world.
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me, therefore go…” (Matt. 28:18). Matthew’s Gospel is telling the story of Jesus as the King with all authority. Israel, the pagan nations, and especially Jesus’s disciples are all rebels to his kingdom. Nobody is good. We are all fools. Yet the conflicting paradigm through the entire story is that Jesus is welcoming these losers into his kingdom. And not just welcoming them, but giving them his authority!
We rightly cringe at the thought of Peter being called the rock, because God will not share his glory with any man (Isaiah 42:8). Yet we see this very thing happening in the Gospels. God gave his glory to this man Jesus, who is more than a man, and he is sharing it with sinful people! How can that be? Because he bore their rebellion on the cross and offers them his righteous authority as an exchange.
We should marvel at that and wonder with my brother, “What is wrong with giving God all the glory?” But the answer is that, because of Christ, God is using us despite our sin to build us into a home to share with us his glory. God isn’t sharing his glory with anyone but Christ. Yet we share in his glory precisely because we are in Christ, precisely because we confess Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
This is where my Protestant brothers and sisters finally want us to be. But I don’t want us to take shortcuts to get here. The confession is not the rock, but Peter, a sinful man who makes such a confession becomes the rock. Christ is the solid rock, and all who are in him are solid rocks too.
This is massively encouraging to us. It is assuring to every person. You don’t have to be some high and holy pope. You can be an ordinary sinner like Peter to become an important part of his spiritual building project. You can be this by confessing Jesus as Lord (even when right after this confession Peter stumbles and speaks foolishness again and again).
Our response to Jesus calling Peter the rock should not be that nobody but Jesus should be the rock. But we should marvel that he would use sinners like Peter, Paul, you and me as part of his spiritual house. A paradigm that makes even more sense if we zoom out on the biblical story a bit more.
Biblical Theology of the Temple
This language of buildings and churches didn’t start with Peter’s confession. It goes back to the beginning and spans the entire Bible. To put it shortly, in Eden God had a temple where he dwelt with man who was to become a great assembly (same word as “church”). They rejected this arrangement, but God planned to rebuild his temple to be with his worldwide church. Throughout the Old Testament we see many examples of rebuilding projects that fell short: Babel, the Tabernacle, the Temple. Each of these was either an evil or holy attempt at restoring what was lost: a place to dwell with God.
The temple was the pinnacle of this effort. This was where the assembly of Israel gathered. It was massive, beautiful, and holy. God could be there and nobody else (remember he would not share his glory, in fact, it would kill anyone who came near him). There was a problem. The assembly (church) and God’s dwelling place could not come together as they were in the garden.
Eventually God destroyed it and promised something better. In the Gospels we see Jesus come and call himself the temple (John 1:14; 2:19). He is the only man who can dwell with God. He is God dwelling with us (“Immanuel” Matt. 1:23). Yet this temple was destroyed.
When Jesus died and rose from the dead, he began to rebuild the temple with the church (assembly) and the structure combined into one entity in which God would dwell. In Acts 2 the Spirit comes down to dwell in his people. Back in Ezekiel the glory of the LORD departed from the temple and never returned until it descended upon the saints at Pentecost. The church has become the building in which God dwells.
Paul uses this imagery in 1 Corinthians 3:16–17 and Ephesians 2. Actual people assembled together (church) is now the building in which God dwells. We in successive generations of believers are built upon that first generation, the first disciples, the apostles, beginning with Peter himself.
Peter is the first stone laid in this spiritual assembly temple. And the first stones laid in the dirt are called the foundation. So in the storyline of the Bible in which God is building a temple, Peter is quite literally the first rock (after Christ) that is laid down in the new covenant building which is built upon him.
We see this play out then in the book of Acts. Peter is the primary spokesperson in the first few chapters. Yes, his only message is Christ the Lord, crucified and risen from the dead; that is his only source of authority. But he is the first one to whom the church looks. All who follow Christ follow because they heard first from Peter. Then we see the succession of authority move to men like Philip, Stephen, Ananias, Paul, and others. It is not a succession of popes but of more “rocks” to throw on the temple Jesus is building which will never be destroyed, rocks which repeat the same confession.
In the NT references where Christ is spoken of as the chief cornerstone and foundation (1 Cor. 3:11; Eph. 2:20; 1 Pet. 2:6–7) it is right alongside the idea that part of the foundation is the apostles and prophets. Peter, the other Apostles, and Paul are the ones who wrote Scripture. The Bible is the foundation for our faith written by Peter and the Apsotles. The Bible is the word of God (Jesus) brought to us through the Apostles. Jesus is the foundation with his Apostles butting up right against him on which all of our church stands.
Calling Peter the rock doesn’t steal glory from Jesus, it reminds us that it is Jesus who is at work to build his church, not because we are so great, but because he is. Peter is the first rock of many including all today who believe in Jesus. Peter being the rock should encourage us that it is not our faith that holds this temple together, but the God whom we confess.
All of these images are tied together with the confession, with the gospel, but we don’t see that as clearly until we step away from the immediate context to see the trajectory of the entire Bible. The problem with the Catholic view isn’t their grammatical interpretation, but their view of the entire Bible lacking a redemptive hermeneutic. We need to take a birds-eye view of what God has been building from the beginning, to see why it is so profound that Jesus makes Peter part of the foundation of the church.
“What is wrong with giving God all the glory?” We should. And we should do it in the way he has ordained: building the church out of people who become spiritual stones by repenting and confessing Jesus. Because of Jesus God’s glory dwells in redeemed sinners like us.
John Calvin comments on this text:
The confession isn’t the rock, but it is people (starting with Peter) who make the confession that Jesus is LORD who was crucified for our sins and rose victorious from the grave. God guarantees that this building project will succeed, not because of the strength of the brittle rocks he uses to build it but because of the strength of the blood that binds them and the Spirit that lives within.