Is Peter the Rock of the Church?
Is there only one true church? The Roman Catholic Church has claimed and taught this for more than fifteen hundred years, based on the claim Jesus appointed Peter to build His Church. He became the first pope and bishop of Rome and from whom the Catholic papacy has since descended. Because of this supposed divine appointment of apostolic succession, the pope is considered to be the supreme and authoritative representative of Christ on earth.
Is this true? It is not my intention to make a controversy, cause animosity between fellow Christians or make an issue where there ought not be. Nor do I make criticism of any person but simply seek to know what the truth is.
Does it matter? Clearly to many, if not most Catholics, this does matter for their assurance of salvation is tied to they being a baptised and faithful member of the Roman Catholic church. For those Christians who are not Catholics (the ‘separated brethren’ in Catholic’s eyes) this has been a dividing issue since the Reformation 500 years ago.
However, the key issue I believe is not what church we are a member of but why we are.
First we’ll consider the Scriptures which are given to make the case for Peter being the one appointed by Jesus to lead and build His church.
Here I’ll quote the whole passage in context:
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some [say] John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal [this] to you, but My Father who is in heaven. I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”
Then He warned the disciples that they should tell no one that He was the Christ. (Matthew 16:13-20).
To Peter’s revelation and statement that He, Jesus, was the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus says he is blessed and that he is Peter (from the Greek ‘Petros‘ meaning a rock) and that on this (the) rock I will build My church (the definitive article ‘the’ is not in the English translation but is in the Greek). Understandably this appears, at first sight, to say Peter is the rock and upon Peter Jesus will build the Church. But is this what Jesus is actually saying?
First we should note Jesus uses two different words ‘Petros‘ a proper name, and ‘petra‘ both meaning rock. When Jesus spoke these words He did so in Aramaic, and in Aramaic Peter’s name was Cephas, meaning rock, yet in the divinely inspired words of the Greek scriptures there is a distinction between the two words. ‘Petra‘ is used to denote a solid mass or foundation of rock, not just a piece or rock or stone (when the Greek word ‘lithos‘ is used). ‘Petros‘, was the name given to Simon by Jesus because of his strength of faith.
We can see in the Scriptures many reasons why Jesus gave him this name: He was the first called by Jesus (Matthew 4:18 and Mark 1:16); the first listed of the apostles (Mt 10:2); to show faith in Jesus when he walked on the water (Mt 14:28 and John 6:68); to confess Jesus was the Christ (Mt 16:18); who first spoke to the crowd on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14); the first of the apostles to see the resurrected Christ (1 Corinthians 15:5); to speak the gospel to Gentiles (Acts 10:34-44) and it was Peter of the apostles whom Paul first consulted (Galatians 1:15-18).
But note what Jesus actually says: He doesn’t say “you are Peter and upon you I will build My church” or “You are Peter and you are the rock upon which I will build My church” but “upon this (the) rock I will build My church“. When Jesus said “this (the) rock“, what rock was He referring to? As said previously we must take all relevant scriptures into account to know what Jesus meant here.
When we look at all other instances in the New Testament of the term ‘the rock‘, in reference to a person, they all point to Jesus and His words:
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock” (petran) (Matthew 7:24)
He is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid a foundation on the rock (petran) and when a flood occurred, the torrent burst against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built (Luke 6:48).
Just as it is written, “Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock (petran) of offense, and he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.” (Romans 9:33)
and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock (petras) which followed them; and the rock (petra) was Christ (1 Corinthians 10:4).
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner [stone] in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:19-22).
This precious value, then, is for you who believe; but for those who disbelieve, “the stone which the builders rejected, this became the very corner [stone], and, “a stone of stumbling and a rock (petra) of offense”; for they stumble because they are disobedient to the word, and to this they were also appointed (1 Peter 2:7-8).
We should also note that in the many instances in the Old Testament where God is said to be ‘the Rock‘, the Hebrew word for rock is tsuwr or tsur. In Isaiah 8:14 this word is translated as petra where it is quoted in 1 Peter 2:8.
The word ‘rock’ is used as a metaphor for a foundation of strength, immovable, upon which we build and are built onto, so that we may be secure, endure against the temptations of this life and the onslaught of the evil one.
What we should see from these scriptures is that the Church is built upon the foundation laid by the apostles and prophets, Jesus Himself being the rock, the chief cornerstone. It is upon the words of Jesus and the apostles that the Church is built and secured. There is no basis from these that Peter himself became the rock upon which the Church was built. In fact it is clear from the words of Peter that he did not take this position for himself but Christ alone. He along with the other apostles formed a foundation which we have today in the words of Scripture. A foundation does not need to be continually built!
The words of Jesus to Peter “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven“ were also said to all the disciples later (Matthew 18:18 and John 20:23). This is the amazing privilege and responsibility we have as disciples of Christ.
So when Jesus said ‘this the rock‘ He must have been referring to Himself and His words. And it is Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of God which is the foundational truth upon which the church is built – not Peter himself. John also stated this key truth:
but these (words) have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name (John 20:31).
Therefore the Church is built on Christ, not Peter, though because of his confession became the first living stone built into the Church, the body of Christ.