v. 13) When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His Disciples, saying, “Whom do men say that I the Son of Man am?”
v. 14) And they said, “Some say that you are John the Baptist: some, Elijah; and others, Jeremiah, or one of the Prophets.”
v. 15) He said unto them, “But whom say you that I am?”
v. 16) And Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
v. 17) And Jesus answered and said unto him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood have not revealed it unto you, but My Father which is in Heaven.”
v. 18) And I say also unto you, “That you are Peter and upon this rock I will build My Church; and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.”
v. 19) “And I will give unto you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven: and whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven: and whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven.”
This article is the second in this series, and it’s topic is not a new one. This debate has been raging for centuries, and many gallons of ink have been spilled in defending the arguments on both sides, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. But we would like to examine the Catholic view of this passage and offer some food for thought on this topic.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the ‘rock’ of his Church. He gave him the keys of his Church and instituted him shepherd of the whole flock…” [directly referring here to Matthew 16:18]. (CCC #881)
“The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful. For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.” (CCC #882)
The Catholic Church claims that Peter alone is the rock upon whom Jesus built His church. And from that “foundation” grows this giant structure which is known today as the Catholic Church, with Peter as its Supreme Pontiff (pope), whose successors will enjoy the gift of infallibility and “universal power” over the whole church, and will each be known as the “Vicar of Christ.” He will be headquartered in Rome, with his multi-layered hierarchy of priests, monsignors, bishops, archbishops, cardinals, and popes, not to mention other sub-categories, e.g., nuns, monks, abbots, etc. All this mostly arises out of an eisegesis of the passage above. Eisegesis is reading something into the passage rather than allowing the text to speak for itself.
So, let’s analyze the passage in question.
“Petros” and “Petra”
There are two important Greek words in Matthew 16:18 relevant to this topic, “petros” and “petra.” Jesus stated, “You are Peter [“petros”] and upon this rock [“petra”] I will build My church.” According to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance (Complete and Unabridged), “petros” (Strong’s #4074) means “piece of rock.” On the other hand, “petra” (Strong’s #4073), means “mass of rock.” So, we immediately see that there is a distinction between these two words. And, by the way, Strong is not the only scholar who makes such a distinction. See here:
Yes, Peter’s name means “rock” (actually, “piece of rock”) and he was indeed, in a sense, a rock. We’re not denying that. But it’s like saying that a man’s son is “a chip off the old block” when he resembles his dad. In the same way, Peter resembles Jesus (in purpose and behavior) and is therefore named Peter (“petros”). In other words, it is simply a play on words, where Peter is a representative of Jesus. Just as there is a resemblance between Jesus and Peter, there is a resemblance between “petra” and “petros,” but again, “petros” and “petra” are two different words with similar, but distinct, meanings.
But Catholics are trying their best to say that Peter alone (CCC #881) is the “petra,” the rock and foundation upon which the church is built. Was Jesus really saying that only Peter is the foundation of the church (along with all the “hierarchy” and “infallibility” attachments) or did He mean something else?
Let’s look at it more closely. In v. 16, Peter makes an extremely important statement, confessing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Ok, now notice the tiny word, “it” in v. 17: “flesh and blood has not revealed IT unto you,” referring to what Peter said in v. 16. In v. 18, Jesus points to this same “it” when He says, “Upon THIS rock.” These two tiny words (“it” and “this”), we believe, are the key to this whole argument. “It” (v. 17) and “this” (v. 18) are pointing to the same thing. They are pointing to Peter’s statement of who Jesus is. THAT is what the church of Jesus Christ is built upon – the revelation that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, the Christ. He is the object and focus of the good news (the gospel) of salvation. So, it is that truth, that revelation of Peter’s statement about Jesus, or better yet, Jesus Himself, that is the foundational Rock, not Peter. We’re not trying to take anything away from Peter, but we want to be faithful and accurate with God’s Word.
If God intended to identify Peter as the rock, then why doesn’t the inspired Greek text say, “You are Peter and upon you I will build My church”? This would have removed all doubt. If Peter is the intended foundation, then why would Jesus use two different words in the Greek (“petros” and “petra”) with two different meanings? Again, this a play on words and God intended to distinguish the two from each other. Related, but not the same.
The Gender Argument
But Catholics will say that “petros” is masculine and it wouldn’t be right to call Peter a feminine name like “petra.” Yes, “petros” is masculine, but this gender argument doesn’t hold water, because the feminine “petra” is also used in other verses (Romans 9:33; 1 Corinthians 10:4; 1 Peter 2:8 – see below) in describing Jesus Himself (certainly a male). But the inspired author could have easily avoided any “gender issues” by simply saying, “You are petros and upon this petros I will build My church.” Problem solved. But no, the inspired Greek doesn’t say this. So, this “gender objection” falls flat.
Consistency in Scripture
“Petra” refers to Jesus here in Matthew 16:18 just as much as it refers to Jesus here:
“As it is written, Behold, I lay in Sion a stumblingstone and rock [“petra”] of offence: and whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.” (Romans 9:33)
“And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock [“petra”] that followed them: and that Rock [“petra”] was Christ.” (1 Corinthians 10:4)
And also here:
“And a stone of stumbling, and a rock [“petra”] of offence, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed.” (1 Peter 2:8)
Notice who is speaking in this last verse. This was written by Peter. Of all people, Peter himself would have known if he was the “rock,” the foundation of the church. If Peter really did have a “special office,” different than, and above all the other apostles, then why doesn’t anything in Peter’s epistles reflect that idea? In fact, we see equality with the other apostles there, instead (1 Peter 5:1).
The Phantom Aramaic
But Catholics will say that Jesus spoke Aramaic, and that the book of Matthew was actually first written in Aramaic, not Greek. They tell us the Aramaic word for rock is “Kepha” (or “Cephas,” which is the name Jesus earlier gave to Peter – John 1:42). Supposedly, the Aramaic uses the same word for “Peter” and for “rock.” They say that this verse in Aramaic would read, “You are Kepha, and upon this Kepha I will build My church.” So Catholics believe that this proves that the apostle Peter and “the foundational rock” are one and the same.
But this is a very weak argument, since we don’t have any manuscript copies of Matthew in Aramaic. Why would the Catholic Church refer to something that doesn’t even exist? This is pure speculation and it only shows the weakness of their argument.
Besides, in John 1:42, when Jesus said, “Thou art Simon the son of Jona: thou shalt be called Cephas, which is by interpretation, a stone [petros],” we can see that the Aramaic “Cephas” is translated into the Greek “petros” anyway, not “petra.” In Scripture, the two terms (“petra” and “petros”) are never used interchangeably. The bottom line here is that the inspired language that God used for the New Testament is Greek. And Greek is a very specific language… which distinguishes between “petros” and “petra.” So, this argument also fails.
Thrones and Foundations
And if Peter really did have primacy over all the other apostles, then why is this not mentioned or implied in Matthew 19:27-28, or Luke 22:29-30, where Jesus tells the apostles that they will sit on twelve thrones? In both cases, Jesus had opportunity to make Peter’s status over all the others clear, but He mentions nothing of the sort. Nothing is said about Peter’s throne being special, or different than any of the others. Again, in Revelation 21:14, the walls of the city of New Jerusalem have twelve (seemingly equal) foundations with the apostles’ names on them, but it never implies that Peter’s foundation would be special or stand out in any way above the foundation of the other apostles. Strange, if Matthew 16 were implying otherwise.
An Argument Settled
In Luke 9:46-48, the disciples are arguing about who is the greatest among them. It is interesting that in this same chapter, just a few verses earlier (Luke 9:18-21), we have the parallel passage to Matthew 16, where Peter is supposedly made the “rock.”
But when the disciples started arguing here (v. 46), Jesus didn’t say, “Hey guys, we’ve just gone through this already! I just told Peter that HE was the rock, that HE was the greatest among you! Why are you arguing about this. Have you already forgotten?” No, Jesus says nothing at all like this. He simply points out their need for humility (v. 47-48). This clearly demonstrates that there was no apostle who was above all the other apostles.
The papacy’s extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. The Catholic Church would need far more than this eisegesis of Matthew 16 to prove anything like a papacy, with all its accompanying (unbiblical) attachments. Peter was indeed one of the leaders of the apostolic circle and he even was a “rock,” but he didn’t have the office or the type of primacy that the Catholic Church gives him.
Ephesians 2:20 would have been an excellent place for Paul to point out Peter’s primacy over all the others. But instead of mentioning Peter only, Paul speaks of apostles (plural) and prophets (plural) as being the foundation of the church.
The reason that they were the foundation is because they were the first to receive the message of the gospel. They were the pioneers of the foundational revelation given to the church, and this is the message of salvation through Jesus Christ alone, who is THE Rock. Neither this passage nor any other in Scripture singles Peter out as a separate foundation.
Emphasis on Peter?
So, the emphasis in Matthew 16 is NOT on Peter. Jesus said, “Whom do men say that I the Son of Man am?” He didn’t ask, “Hey Peter, whom do men say that YOU are?” Just because Peter grasped the revelation of who Jesus was, doesn’t make him a pope.
And it’s not like Jesus’ question about His identity (just above) was a test for all the apostles, and only Peter got the answer right. That’s not likely. It wasn’t that none of them except Peter knew the correct answer, it’s just that Peter would often speak first. He was impetuous, that is, he would often act or speak quickly, without first thinking things through - sometimes with good results, and sometimes with bad - for example, Matthew 14:25-31; 16:21-23; 17:1-5; 26:33-35; John 13:6-9; 18:10-11; 21:5-7. But that was Peter’s nature.
And for the record, pointing out special things that Peter did also does not demonstrate a papacy. We could just as well point out the many special things that the apostle Paul did, but no one is claiming that he’s a pope.
The issue is not whether Peter is some type of “rock” or some kind of “foundation.” Protestants already believe that both can be applied to him. But the real question is this: Can you biblically demonstrate that Peter is above or greater than all the other apostles, as the Catholic Church insists? We firmly believe that the answer is no.
But even if it could be proven beyond a doubt that Peter is the “petra” in Matthew 16, the foundation upon which the church is built, it is STILL not Peter apart from the other apostles. You can say that Peter is a rock in some way, but you cannot biblically isolate Peter, as a foundation, from the rest of the apostles (Ephesians 2:20; Revelation 21:14).
Once again, Catholics are reading way too much into this passage. Matthew 16 is simply about our Lord building, heading and sustaining His church, as Christians proclaim the good news of salvation (the gospel of Jesus Christ) and set people free through knowing Him and trusting in His work on the cross.
We will continue with this series next month.