Often my Protestant friends will allege that when Christ declares, “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.”1 – that He wasn’t really referring to Peter. They will talk at length about the difference between petra and petros in the Greek, and declare with certainty that Christ was referring to Peter’s declaration two verses earlier, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”2 as the great truth upon which Christ will build His Church.
I can relate. As a former Protestant I used to believe as they did. And then I read something very interesting.
I was leading a men’s bible study going through the gospel of Matthew using the NIV Application Commentary published by Zondervan – in other words a thoroughly Protestant commentary. When we came to the passage in Matthew 16 the commentary presented a number of options for how to properly interpret the passage, but ultimately agreed with the Catholic Church and the historic orthodox Christian position; namely, that the most natural reading of the passage was the correct one.
The NIV Commentary then went on to quote D.A. Carson who notes, “if it were not for Protestant reactions against the extremes of Roman Catholic interpretation, it is doubtful whether many would have taken ‘rock’ to be anything or anyone other than Peter.”3
Needless to say, I was a little shocked.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been. As it turns out, many Protestants, as well as most of the Eastern Orthdoox biblical scholarship of today, would acknowledge that the rock Jesus speaks of is Peter himself. Why? Quite simply, it would appears that as the NIV Application Commentary points out, this is, “the most natural reading of the wordplay…[and] borne out in the historical record.”4 Some additional points that are commonly addressed by biblical scholars?
- It is certain that Christ and the apostles spoke in Aramaic. It is probable that Matthew’s gospel was originally written in Aramaic. Thus, Christ’s actual declaration to Peter would have been simply, “I tell you, you are Kepha (rock), and upon this kepha (rock) I will build my church,” It’s actually pretty straight forward in the Aramaic.
- When it comes to the gospel written in Greek; we have two synonyms for Rock – one masculine and one feminine. Petra in the Greek is the most common and closet equivalent to kepha in Aramaic, but it is also a feminine noun. Therefore when Matthew writes his gospel in Greek he more appropriately refers to Simon as Peter – instead of Patricia.
- Additionally, we can look at how many times the personal pronoun “you” is used in the passage:
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.”5
Reading the above it’s hard to argue that Peter wasn’t the object of Christ’s words!
What about the significance of the new name which Christ gives to Simon? In the Scriptures when God changes someone’s name it is typically significant. Thus Abram becomes Abraham, father of multitudes, and Sarai becomes Sarah, mother of nations. Jacob the supplanter becomes Israel – he who has the power of God.
Are we really to suppose that Simon’s name change wasn’t significant? Simon (which means he has heard) becomes the one who now declares on behalf of the other apostles and ultimately the entire Christian Church, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Peter is literally history’s first “Rocky”, the first man to bear the name of rock, and in the context of this passage it is a name with tremendous significance.
When examining the writings of the early Church fathers, it is undeniable that they understood Peter to be the rock upon which Christ built His Church. Consider the following quotes:
“[T]he Lord said to Peter, ‘On this rock I will build my Church, I have given you the keys of the kingdom of heaven [and] whatever you shall have bound or loosed on earth will be bound or loosed in heaven’ [Matt. 16:18–19]. . . . Upon you, he says, I will build my Church; and I will give to you the keys, not to the Church” Tertullian6
“The Lord says to Peter: ‘I say to you,’ he says, ‘that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.’ . . . On him [Peter] he builds the Church, and to him he gives the command to feed the sheep [John 21:17], and although he assigns a like power to all the apostles, yet he founded a single chair [cathedra], and he established by his own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity.” Cyprian of Carthage7
“[Christ] made answer: ‘You are Peter, and upon this rock will I build my Church. . . .’ Could he not, then, strengthen the faith of the man to whom, acting on his own authority, he gave the kingdom, whom he called the rock, thereby declaring him to be the foundation of the Church [Matt. 16:18]?” Ambrose of Milan8
But like so many other issues, Catholics recognize this as a both/and passage. The faith confessed by Peter is the rock upon which Christ builds His Church, and Peter himself is the rock upon which Christ builds His Church. The Church recognizes that we don’t have to limit ourselves to an either/or proposition.
For those who have read my post, That Damnable Catholic “And”, it will probably come as no surprise that the Catholic Church doesn’t have a problem agreeing with Protestants that Peter’s declaration of faith is one of the “rocks” upon which Christ has built His Church.
In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church itself, in paragraph 424 states, “Moved by the grace of the Holy Spirit and drawn by the Father, we believe in Jesus and confess: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ On the rock of this faith confessed by St. Peter, Christ built his Church.“9
In other words; Yes – Peter’s declaration of faith is the rock upon which Christ builds His Church – as is the man himself! The two are inseparable. Reading the early Church fathers we recognize that Peter’s faith could not be separated from Peter the man.
When Christ renames Simon, “Rock”, it draws our attention to both the bedrock nature of his declaration of faith, and to his role as the solid foundation of Christ’s Church.
“Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it.”10
Thank God for solid foundations…and a first pope named Rocky!
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