One of the most hotly-contested passages in Catholic-Protestant dialogues is the “Upon This Rock” passage in Matthew 16:18. After the Apostle Simon confesses faith in Jesus as the Messiah (the Christ), Jesus says to him “And I tell you, you are Peter, [Petros] and on this rock [petra] I will build my church, and the powers of death [Hades] shall not prevail against it.” So is Jesus founding His Church upon Peter, the first pope, as Catholics say? Or is He just saying that the Church will be built off of those who confess faith in Jesus as the Christ, as many Protestants claim?
The Protestant website GotQuestions? does a good job of presenting the basic argument on both sides:
The debate rages over whether “the rock” on which Christ will build His church is Peter, or Peter’s confession that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16). In all honesty, there is no way for us to be 100% sure which view is correct. The grammatical construction allows for either view. The first view is that Jesus was declaring that Peter would be the “rock” on which He would build His church. Jesus appears to be using a play on words. “You are Peter (petros) and on this rock (petra) I will build my church.” Since Peter’s name means rock, and Jesus is going to build His church on a rock – it appears that Christ is linking the two together. God used Peter greatly in the foundation of the church. It was Peter who first proclaimed the Gospel on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-47). Peter was also the first to take the Gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 10:1-48). In a sense, Peter was the rock “foundation” of the church.
Peter Paul Rubens, Delivery of the Keys (1616)
I’ve previously presented the case for the Catholic interpretation before, but that’s not what I’m going to do today. In this post, I want to show why the popular Protestant interpretation doesn't work.The other popular interpretation of the rock is that Jesus was referring not to Peter, but to Peter’s confession of faith in verse 16: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” Jesus had never explicitly taught Peter and the other disciples the fullness of His identity, and He recognized that God had sovereignly opened Peter’s eyes and revealed to him who Jesus really was. His confession of Christ as Messiah poured forth from him, a heart-felt declaration of Peter’s personal faith in Jesus. It is this personal faith in Christ which is the hallmark of the true Christian. Those who have placed their faith in Christ, as Peter did, are the church.
First, let's examine the Scriptural passage in context (Matthew 16:13-19):
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesare′a 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 Eli′jah, 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.”In the span of just three of those verses, Jesus addresses Peter personally ten times. Yet under the Protestant interpretation, we’re supposed to believe that this passage wasn’t meant to apply to Peter personally. It’s allegedly addressed to any Christian making such a profession like the one that Peter makes: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
There are a couple glaring problems with this theory. First, we hear Martha making this exact declaration in John 11:27, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.” And you know what Christ doesn’t do? Change her name to Petra, and promise to build the Church upon her. Nor do we see any of the other Christians in the New Testament renamed Peter. The only person in Scripture ever referred to as “Peter” is the Apostle Simon. This looks a lot like Jesus meant to build the Church upon Peter, and not just anyone willing to declare Him the Messiah.
Well, this raises the other, even more-glaring problem: Peter didn’t get there first. John 1:32-49 eliminates any room for the Protestant interpretation of the “Upon This Rock” passage. Here it is:
This passage is fantastic. We hear a series of proclamations of the faith:
And John bore witness, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
Mathis Gothart Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece (1516)
(detail - John the Baptist)
The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples; and he looked at Jesus as he walked, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned, and saw them following, and said to them, “What do you seek?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying; and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. One of the two who heard John speak, and followed him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon, and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him, and said, “So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter).
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. And he found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Beth-sa′ida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathan′a-el, and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathan′a-el said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” Jesus saw Nathan′a-el coming to him, and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” Nathan′a-el said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathan′a-el answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
- John the Baptist proclaims Jesus as the Son of God (John 1:34) and the Lamb of God (John 1:36).
- The Apostle Andrew, Simon’s brother, proclaims Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ (John 1:41).
- The Apostle Philip proclaims Jesus as “him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote,” which is to say, the Messiah (John 1:45).
- The Apostle Nathaniel proclaims Jesus as “the Son of God” and “the King of Israel” (John 1:49).
So John 1 basically shows us that: (1) everyone but Simon proclaimed that Jesus is the Messiah; (2) Jesus then announced that Simon, Son of John, was the one He would choose as the Rock; and (3) Protestants are left spending five hundred years trying to explain why this passage doesn't mean that Simon is really the Rock, or is personally the Rock, etc.
Bear in mind, this event happens at the very start of Jesus’ public ministry, long before the events of Matthew 16. This eliminates any chance that Simon is named Peter because he’s the first to declare Jesus the Christ. Jesus was being declared as Messiah before Peter had even met Him. Instead, Jesus has made it abundantly clear that He, the Sovereign God, specifically chose Peter as the Rock.
Peter is hand-picked from among the crowd, even when he is surrounded by men who seem like they would be better candidates. It is another reminder that “the LORD sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). And Peter alone is renamed. We may all be rocks (Peter calls us “living stones” in 1 Peter 2:5) but Jesus (the “Living Stone” in the fullest sense, 1 Peter 2:4) chose one from among of us, the Apostle Peter, to be the Rock upon which He built the Church.
Update: Two additional points, worth mentioning, were raised in the comments:
- Many Protestants base their rejection of the Catholic view off of the supposed difference in meaning between Petros and Petra. That difference in meaning doesn’t really exist in the Greek spoken at the time of Christ. But in any case, as John 1:43 shows, Jesus named Peter “Cephas” in Aramaic, which is the exact same word as “Rock.” In Aramaic it’s Cephas and cephas; literally translating that to Greek would give you Petra and petra, which is a problem, since Petra is feminine, and can’t be used as a man’s name. So St. Matthew renders it as the male Petros instead.
- Even if Protestants were right about the proper interpretation of “the Rock” in Matthew 16, the broader passage still supports the papacy, since it shows the foundation of an institutional Church, and the giving of specific powers (the Keys, and the powers of binding/loosening) to Peter individually. For this reason, you can have Fathers like St. Augustine, who aren’t sure on the proper interpretation of “the Rock,” but are steadfast in their belief in the papacy, based upon Petrine authority.
In fact, even if Matthew 16 didn’t exist, there would still be abundant support for the papacy throughout the rest of Scripture and in the testimony of the early Christians.