Upon this Rock
Question: Christ ordained Peter, and his successors, the Popes, to be the head of the church on earth. This is scriptural: "And I say also unto thee, Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church and the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18).
Answer: This verse has been repeated so often that many Catholics simply take it for granted that it proves the legitimacy of the papacy. May I invite you to take a second look?
The meaning of "this rock" in Matthew 16:18 has been disputed for centuries, and that not only between Catholic and Protestant scholars. No consensus is found among the Church Fathers on its meaning either; some say the rock refers to Peter, others to the confession made by Peter, and yet others to Christ himself.
The uncertainty is not resolved by the study of the original Greek. The Lord said, "And I also say to you that you are Peter (petros, a stone, a piece of rock), and on this rock (petra, a mass of rock) I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it." Jesus employs a different word for "Peter" and "rock" and so it is possible that "this rock" refers to something other than Peter.
Some argue that Jesus originally spoke in Aramaic, and that he must have employed the same word, kepha, for both. This is an argument based on speculation, for we simply do not know what Jesus said in Aramaic. What we know for sure is the God-inspired words of the New Testament written in Greek and not in Aramaic. The Bible itself interprets the meaning of Cephas with regards to the apostle in John 1:42: "And he brought him to Jesus. Now when Jesus looked at him, He said, “You are Simon the son of Jonah. You shall be called Cephas” - which is translated, A Stone (petros)."
The real issue is not the exact meaning of "this rock" in Matthew 16. It seems that many, both Catholics and Protestants, assume that if "rock" refers to Peter, then ipso facto, the Roman Catholic papacy is established, with its pompous claim of universal dominion over all churches worldwide.
That is certainly not the case. For Peter is, along with the prophets and the other apostles, part of the foundation on which the church is built. The church is built "on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone" (Ephesians 2:20). That does not mean however that Peter, or any other apostle, is the ruler of the universal church. The apostle Paul goes on to explain that the church is established on the truth of God, which was "revealed to His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit" (Ephesians 3:5). The church is built on the foundation of the apostles in the sense that it is built on the apostolic teaching.
So, we can understand "rock" to refer to Peter without jumping to the Roman Catholic interpretation of the universal and supreme headship of the bishop of Rome.
On the other hand, we can simply understand "rock" to refer to the confession of faith made by Simon Peter. This is not a fanciful Protestant interpretation as some might suppose. Many Church Fathers gave it this meaning, and even the modern Roman Catholic church admits that this is the possible meaning. We read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "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" (paragraph 424). Truly, the rock is the faith confessed by Peter.
There is no reason therefore for Catholics to insist that "rock" must only be understood as a reference to Peter, much less that it is a proof of the papacy. Our Roman Catholic friends should not be surprised that Evangelicals maintain that Jesus Christ builds his church on the faith confessed by the apostle Peter.
Truly, every individual who would be a living member of the church of Christ must, like Peter, believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. "But these are written 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).
The Patristic Exegesis of the Rock of Matthew 16:18, compiled by William Webster. This is the most extensive documentation of the patristic understanding of "the rock" of Matthew 16 in the English language, spanning the third to the eighth centuries.
Copyright Dr Joseph Mizzi. Oct 2011, updated April 2012.