13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 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.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. Matthew 16:13-20
In the passage cited above, we have what may be properly called the first confession of Christ’s ekklesia, given by Peter via revelation from God the Father. Our Lord Jesus’ reply has led to numerous interpretive challenges that have caused no shortage of division and schism among those who profess the name of Christ, at least outwardly.
To address the first of these controversies, we begin by asking, “Who or what is this rock upon which Christ will build His ekklesia?”
Historically, there has been recognition given to a word play between Peter (masc. – petros) and the rock (fem. – petra) that some have used to help support their interpretation. There may be something to this and our Lord seemingly is making a distinction between the two, i.e. “You are Peter (little rock) and on this rock (rock cliff) I will build my ekklesia“. Despite the obvious differences, I do not lean on this distinction to determine the meaning of the passage.
Traditionally, the Roman Catholic Church has asserted that the “rock” in this passage is Peter, which for them sets up the doctrine of Apostolic succession upon which they fabricate their doctrine of the Pope. Some, even well-intentioned Protestants, affirm that the rock does indeed refer to Peter, their implications simply being that the church was built upon the apostles, of which Peter may have had preeminence. Of course, this latter, Protestant interpretation in no way allows for the establishment of apostolic succession from Peter to popes.
Others, perhaps recognizing the validity of such an interpretation have affirmed not only Peter as the rock, but Peter + his confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. This is the view that I held by default, meaning I hadn’t really studied the passage for myself but relied on faithful teachers who held this view (never a good idea by the way!). Similarly, some have simply allowed that the rock is the confession that Peter makes or even the faith that he displays.
However, now arriving at this passage with fresh eyes for the purpose of defining my understanding of the church, I find myself in disagreement with all of the above interpretations concluding that, along with John Owen, the rock is none other than Christ.
First, notice the ESV translation of this interaction between Peter and our Lord:
16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
In making observations on this passage, the question that I’ve asked first is not who is the rock, but why does our Lord repeat Peter’s name in a formulaic expression, first in saying Simon Bar-Jonah and then declaring “you are Peter”? The answer, I humbly assert, is to repeat the formula that Peter uses. In doing so, Christ reminds Peter of the name change that He gave him (John 1:42), the little rock from the larger Rock, so to speak, thereby affirming Himself as the central focus of this confession and passage, not Peter. Note below:
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church“
If our Lord was determined to declare Peter as the rock upon which He would build His ekklesia He could have simply said “You are Petros and upon this Petros I will build my ekklesia”, no word play necessary. The two confessions seem to be directly parallel, but let’s go on.
Second, note the framework for this entire section is the assertion that Jesus is the Messiah (Christ/Annointed One). It begins with the question, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” to which Peter answers, “The Christ, the Son of the living God”. The section ends with the instruction by Jesus for His disciples to “tell no one that he was the Christ.” The focus is not that Peter has been in some way given the distinction as the rock, but that Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed One and Son of God. This fact frames the entire interaction between Jesus, Peter, and subsequently the other disciples.
Third, almost as if to dispel any confusion that Peter may have been given the preeminent designation as THE rock, Matthew’s gospel follows up this account with a rather inauspicious portrayal of Peter. If in fact he was just designated as the rock upon which Christ’s ekklesia would be built, then this foundation begins to crumble in the very next narrative.
21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Matthew 16:21-23
Fourth, the word our Lord chooses to use here for rock, petras, has a prior usage in Matthew’s gospel. In Matthew 7:24-25 we read
24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.
Can there be any reasonable argument made that the rock upon which the wise man builds his house is none other than our Lord?
Fifth, outside of the Gospel of Matthew, we have clear passages that designate Christ as the stone, or Cornerstone, upon which His ekklesia is built. Sometimes this is the word lithos, but other times it is the very word we find here in Matthew. We can see this in Romans 9:33, 1 Corinthians 10:4, and most notably 1 Peter 2:8 (see also Isaiah 28:16 and Psalm 118:22)
Finally, the equivocation of Christ as the primary rock (Cornerstone) and the apostles as the foundation upon which the “church” is built is made in Ephesians 2:20.
19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
Additionally, note the larger context of 1 Peter 2 and the highlights I’ve made below
4 As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, 5 you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For it stands in Scripture:
“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
7 So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone,”
“A stone of stumbling,
and a rock of offense.”
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
It seems likely that the above two passages, Ephesians 2 and 1 Peter 2, could easily explain the declaration of Peter as little rock and Christ as THE rock.
Peter’s role in the formation of the early church is important, no doubt. But if preeminence were to be given to any Apostle, we might more easily conclude that this eventually became the Apostle Paul, whose influence was arguably greater that Peter’s. Additionally, in Acts 15, at the so-called Jerusalem council, a passage we will look at later, James seems to have a position of seniority or superiority, not Peter.
Finally, let’s conclude with a summary statement from Owen,
There is but one rock, but one foundation. There is no mention in the Scripture of two rocks of the church. In what others invent to this purpose we are not concerned. And the rock and the foundation are the same; for the rock is that whereon the church is built, that is the foundation. But that the Lord Christ is this single rock and foundation of the church, we shall prove immediately. Wherefore, neither Peter himself, nor his pretended successors, can be this rock. As for any other rock, it belongs not unto our religion; they that have framed it may use it as they please. For they that make such things are like unto the things they make; so is every one that trusteth in them: Psalm 115:8. “But their rock is not as our rock,
themselves being judges;” unless they will absolutely equal the pope unto Jesus Christ.