WHO IS THE “ROCK” OF MATTHEW 16:18?

WHO IS THE “ROCK” OF MATTHEW 16:18?

INTRODUCTION

Matthew 16:18 is arguably the one verse that fundamentally divides the Roman Catholic Church from Protestants. In this crucial text, Jesus asks his disciples “who do you say I am?” Peter responds “You are the Messiah,* the Son of the living God” (16:16, NRSV). Jesus blesses Peter and declares “you are Peter,* and on this rock* I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” 19(16:18). This passage has been interpreted in mainly two ways, 1) Peter is the “rock,” and 2) Peter’s confession is the “rock.” Frederick Bruner notes “there has been inter-confessional dispute here…between Roman Catholics, who believe that Jesus especially honors Peter’s office and person here (and so the office of Peter’s successors) and the Eastern Orthodox and Protestants, who believe that Jesus especially honors Peter’s faith and confession here”[1] The Roman Catholic Church has embraced the first position as biblical proof that Peter, and subsequent leaders, serve, and continue to serve as the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. This view may be an errant extrapolation of the text, but a number of evangelical scholars hold the position that Peter himself is the “rock.” The second position is held by a majority of evangelicals, for it is a rejection of the Roman Catholic Church and its justification of the papacy through this text. In this paper, I will argue that Peter himself is the “rock” of this passage, but find the Catholic view to be wrong application of the text. I will first explore the Greek text of Matt. 16:18, analyze the two opposing viewpoints in light of this exegetical study, summarize my arguments, and draw implications in light of my conclusion of Peter being the rock of this passage.

AN EXEGETICAL STUDY OF MATTHEW 16:18a

In order to carefully craft an answer the question of the rock in Matthew 16:18, we must first establish the context of this passage. Jesus and His disciples have just entered Caesarea Philippi, where he inquires of his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (16:13, ESV). The disciples answer with the typical messianic expectations of Israel waiting their Messiah. “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and other Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (16:14). Jesus then narrows the question, tailoring His question to provoke a serious answer from his disciples. “But who do you say that I am?” (16:15). Simon Peter responds with the monumental statement of faith, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (16:16). Christ then blesses Simon Peter, telling Him that this answer is not man-made (“For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you”), but divine (“but my Father who is in heaven”) (16:17). Christ then makes the historic remark, “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” (16:18). Until this point, the narrative is a straightforward telling of events. In verse 18, however, we encounter the exegetical issue of who the “rock” is in this text.

With the context established, we can begin to explore the first question which arises from this verse: What does “Peter” mean? The Greek term used here is Petros, meaning a rock or small stone.[2] France notes, “Jesus gives Simon a ‘title’, a nickname, which…also speaks of his future role, and that role is spelled out in vv. 18-19.”[3] France goes on to note that Petros represents the Aramaic Kepha, meaning “stone,” or “rock.”[4] Hare notes that the Aramaic term can occasionally mean an immovable rock.[5] Traditional Protestantism has shied away from this interpretation, opting to believe that Petros means a “small pebble.” Luz would argue that Petros in this passage denotes a small stone, not something someone can build upon.[6] However, “word play does not demand the usual meaning of words, especially in metaphorical applications such as the present one.”[7] Thus, the term Petros can be taken as “rock,” not just a small stone. The context does not provide for Petros as a small stone, and cannot be held as a valid meaning of the word.

Now that we have established that Petros means a “rock,” the logical flow of this exegesis leads us to examine what the phrase “and upon this rock” means. The Greek phrase for “and upon this” is kai epi houto taute te, which literally means “and upon this very.” Using the Greek article kai is of utmost significance in this passage, seeing as “Jesus’ entire pronouncement is directed toward Peter and the connecting word kai most naturally identifies the rock with Peter himself.”[8] Thus, when Jesus is using the word kai, He is indicating that He is still discussing the same object, Petros. The phrase taute te is important note here as well, for the use of this phrase indicates even further that Christ is referring to Peter. Bruner notes, “’on this very’ Peter—on believing, confessing, christocentric Peter, Jesus will build His church.”[9]

The Greek term for “rock” here is Petra, the feminine equivalent of Petros.[10] When discussing the relationship between Petros and Petra, we must recognize the wordplay that occurs between these two words. Turner astutely notes the views on this wordplay and formulates the correct conclusion:

“It is…argued that Peter cannot be the rock, since the name Peter (Petros) is masculine and the word rock (petra) is feminine. But grammatical precision is not required in metaphors such as this. Another argument is that Peter is not the foundation of the church because petra means bedrock and Petros means an individual stone. But this extremely subtle distinction would make metaphorical speech impossible.[11]“

France, along similar lines, comes to the same conclusion, noting, “The feminine word for rock, petra, is necessarily changed to the masculine petros, to give a man’s name, but the wordplay is unmistakable (and in the Aramaic would be even more so, as the same fork kepa would occur in both places.”[12] Thus, according to France, the terms Petros and petra, essentially mean the same thing.

Perhaps the most pivotal question is whether or not Petros and petra could be distinguished from each other in the common speech of Jesus’ day. If they can be distinguished, Peter may not be the rock of this passage, and we must concede to a different conclusion. But if these two words were indistinguishable in Jesus’ day, Peter is the rock of this passage. France beautifully describes the distinction that must be made between these two Greek terms, and points out the usages of both terms in Jesus’ day.

“The masculine noun petros occurs infrequently in classical poetic Greek to mean a stone…though the distinction from petra is not consistently observed. But petros as a common noun is unlikely to have been familiar to Matthew’s readers, as it is not found in the LXX…or in the NT and related literature. In these writings the term for stone is          lithos. The Greek reader would therefore see here a different in form but not in meaning, since petros was not now…the term for a “stone.” If Jesus was speaking in Aramaic, there would be no difference at all, with kepha occurring in both places. The reason for the different Greek form is simply that Peter, as a man, needs a masculine name, and so the form Petros has been coined. But the flow of the sentence makes it clear that the wordplay is intended to identify Peter as the rock.[13]“

The observation which France notes is astounding. Petros and petra mean the exact same thing in the original Greek text. Moreover, assuming that Jesus is speaking in Aramaic (which He almost certainly is), He would have used kepha in both instances. Thus, the two Greek terms are indistinguishable from each other, meaning that Peter has to be the rock of Matthew 16:18.

Now that we have established Peter as the rock of this passage, what is the significance of Peter being named “rocky?” Hagner notes that “rock imagery implies both stability and endurance, even before the gates of Hades.”[14] He goes on to note, “’Rock’ of course refers not to Peter’s character, as will become clear later in the narrative, but to his office and function as leader of the apostles.”[15] Therefore, Peter has been elevated by Christ in 16:18 to a position of influential authority where he, having made the first-ever confession of Christ as God’s Son, goes on to lead the earliest church. This is demonstrated throughout the NT. A simple read-through of the gospels shows that Peter is mentioned more often than the other disciples and essentially serves as their leader. In the early chapters of Acts, it is Peter who takes the “initiative in the key developments which will constitute the church as a new, international body of the people of God.”[16] Peter was indeed the leader of the early church, and certainly served as a strong link between Christ and the church, and between the church and the Jewish people. Peter initiated the selection of Matthias (Acts 1:15-22), preached on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), where three-thousand people believed, healed the beggar (3:4-6), proclaimed Jesus before the Sanhedrin (4:8-12, 29) and was involved in the addition of two-thousand added to the fold (Acts 4:4). In addition to these historic events depicted in the book of Acts, Peter wrote two epistles, and most likely “ghost-wrote” the gospel of Mark. Peter’s resume is certainly impressive, and testifies to his position as the “rock-man” of the early church.

To summarize my position, Petros and petra are the same words, except the former is masculine in order to refer to Peter. Since these words are the same, it is only logical to conclude that Peter is indeed the rock referred to in this passage. In his capacity as the “rock,” Peter would play a pivotal role in the growth of the early church, and contribute two epistles and a ghost-written gospel (Mark). With this position established, we must analyze the two main positions on the passage mentioned before in the introduction (Office and Person, Faith and Confession) and critique them in light of our interpretation of Matthew 16:18.

A CRITIQUE OF THE TWO VIEWS

Office and Person—Roman Catholic Position

Essentially, the Roman Catholic Position can be summed up in a statement issued by the Second Vatican Council in Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, which states, “In order that the episcopate itself might be one and undivided, Jesus placed blessed Peter over the other apostles, and instituted in him a permanent and viable source and foundation of the unity of faith and fellowship.”[17] In this statement, we can see that Peter is the rock as mentioned in Matt. 16:18. In this regard, The Roman Catholic Church has taken Peter to be the rock, which is absolutely correct. Catholic apologists will often come to the same conclusion of Peter as rock through exegesis, but also supplement this idea with evidence from the church fathers.[18] Tertullian, after quoting Matt. 16:18-19, notes, “What kind of man are you, subverting and changing what was the manifest intent of the Lord when he conferred this personally upon Peter? Upon you, he says, I will build my Church; and I will give to you the keys.”[19]Origen notes, “Look at [Peter], the great foundation of the Church, that most solid of rocks, upon whom Christ built the Church.”[20] Cyprian quotes Matt. 16:18-19, then expounds, “On him [Peter] he builds the Church, and to him he gives the command to feed the sheep [John 21:17].”[21] When one analyzes the history of the exegesis of Matt. 16:18, one will find the sentiment to be that Peter is the rock.

If Catholic dogma ceased at this point, the Catholic position would be founded upon Scripture. However, Dogmatic Constitution elaborates on their position, by noting, “Just as the role that the Lord gave individually to Peter, the first among the apostles, is permanent and was meant to be transmitted to his successors, so also the apostles’ office of nurturing the church is permanent and was meant to be exercised without interruption by the sacred order of bishops.”[22] In this regard, the Roman Catholic notion of papal succession becomes apparent and is certainly not faithful to Matt. 16:18. Catholics will point to Clement I, who described how the Apostles appointed successors, who in turn appointed their own successors.[23] But this idea of succession is not founded on the Scriptures. To be certain, there will always be successors to church leaders, but to denote a succession of authority is unbiblical. Bruner notes, “The text does not say, ‘on this rock and all his future successors I will build my church.’ Solus Petrus. To take this text literally is to honor Peter only.”[24] Thus, Matthew 16:18 refers to Peter only, not to his future “successors.”

How is it possible for Catholics to come to such a conclusion? Apologist Keating notes, “The first Christians had no doubts about how to determine which was the true Church and which doctrines the true teachings of Christ. The test was simple: Just trace the apostolic succession of the claimants.”[25] In this regard, apostolic succession appears to be a reasonable ideal. However, does apostolic authority transfer from one generation of church leaders to others? Enns defines “Apostle” as “(1) an office, it denotes one who followed Christ throughout His ministry; hence, it is limited to the Twelve and, in a special way, to Paul; (2) as a gift, it may be used in a general sense as ‘one who is sent from them.’ In all likelihood the gift was restricted to the twelve and to Paul.”[26] Therefore, to establish apostolic succession does not align with the definition of an apostle. The apostles were a special group of 12 men (altogether, including Paul) who were chosen to establish the church abroad. This is why they are called a part of the church’s foundation (Eph. 2:20). Thus, the notion of apostolic succession is unbiblical.

To summarize, the Catholic view is correct in its affirmation of Peter as the rock of Matt. 16:18. But the stretching of this verse to validate apostolic succession or the papacy is incorrect. Apostleship is limited to the original twelve, thus affirming that past and future popes bear the same position as Peter does not align with the Scriptures. 16:18 affirms the second portion of this view’s title—“person”—but does not validate the institution of a papal office.

Faith and Confession – The Protestant View

The traditional Protestant view of Matt. 16:18 is that Peter’s confession is the rock, not Peter himself. This view is best articulated by conservative  John Macarthur, who notes, “Perhaps the most popular interpretation is…Jesus was comparing Peter, a small stone, to the great mountainous rock on which He would build His church. The antecedent of rock is taken to be Peter’s inspired confession of Jesus as ‘The Christ, the Son of the Living God (vv.16-17).”[27]

A thorough exegesis of Matt. 16:18, as shown in the first part of this paper, demonstrates that Peter’s confession of faith in Christ in 16:16 is not the rock of 16:18. Whilst discussing the faith and confession view, France frankly notes,

If that [the faith and confession view] was what Jesus intended He chose His words badly, as the wordplay points decisively towards Peter…as the rock, and there is nothing  in His statement to suggest otherwise. Even more bizarre is the supposition that Jesus,   having declared Simon to be Petros, then pointed to Himself when He said the words “this rock.” This would be consonant with subsequent NT language about Jesus as the   foundation stone…but in regard to this passage it is the exegesis of desperation; if such    an abrupt change of subject were intended, it would surely require ‘but’ rather than an  ‘and’ and could hardly be picked up by the reader without some ‘stage direction’ (as in 9:6) to indicate the new reference.[28]

France’s point is that the faith and confession view deliberately violates the text and commits unfaithful exegesis. The faith and confession view doesn’t hold a candle to the view that Peter is the rock because of the use of kai in the verse.

Sprinkle notes that this view appears to be “based more on a kneejerk reaction against Catholic interpreters who used this passage to justify the papacy rather than any sound exegesis from the text.”[29] Sprinkle’s observation is absolutely correct.  Hagner echoes the sentiment when he observes,

The frequent attempts that have been made, largely in the past, to deny this [Peter as rock] in favor of the view that the confession itself is the rock…seem largely motivated by Protestant prejudice against a passage that is used by the Roman Catholics to justify the papacy. Not infrequently these attempts reveal the improper influence of passages such as 1 Cor. 3:11 and Eph. 2:20.[30]

Hagner elaborates to affirm that even though Peter is the rock, the passage does not give credence to the idea of the papacy: “But to allow this passage its natural meaning, that Peter is the rock upon which the church is built, is by no means either to affirm the papacy or to deny that the church, like the apostles, rests upon Jesus as the bedrock of its existence. Jesus is after all the builder, and all that the apostles do, they do through him.”[31]

To summarize this view, Peter is not the rock of Matt. 16:18; his professed faith in Christ as the Lord and Messiah in 16:16 is what is in view here. This view lacks sound exegesis and cannot be held as a valid viewpoint. Countless scholars have affirmed that Peter is indeed the rock in this passage, and to believe otherwise would be belief based on bias and an “exegesis of desperation.”[32]

CONCLUSION

To summarize my paper, I have argued that Peter is the rock that mentioned here in Matt. 16:18. Petros and petra have the same meaning, and thus can be used interchangeably. However, Petros is used to name Peter in order to better suit his masculinity. Sound exegesis proves that “this rock” is none other than Peter himself, who would later go on to write two epistles, ghost-write one gospel (Mark), and lead the church in its first years of development. The two views noted in this paper are the “office and person” and “faith and confession” viewpoints. The first view holds that Peter is the rock, but also comes to the conclusion that the verse justifies the Roman Catholic office of the Papacy, which is unbiblical. The second view holds that Peter’s confession is the rock of this passage, which is based off of a less-than-satisfactory exegesis of the passage. The view appears to be an overreaction to the Roman Catholic doctrine of the papacy. Between these two views, the Roman Catholic view is more faithful to the text than the protestant view, despite serious concerns over the application of this verse to their doctrine. With these conclusions in mind, what applications and lessons can we draw from this text?

The first lesson we can learn from this is that when distaste of an opposing doctrine leads to a skewed interpretation of a passage, it becomes necessary to strip away the traditions attached to a passage and objectively interpret it. As was demonstrated before, protestant overreaction to Catholic interpretation has led to weak exegesis of Matt. 16:18. Christians should not let their own personal prejudices get in the way of letting the text speak. To be true and faithful to the Scriptures, we must respect its integrity and place as the center of all Christian truth.

Secondly, conceding that Peter is the rock of Matt. 16:18 does not equal a surrender to the papacy. We can safely assume that Peter is the rock, but not affirm the Catholic doctrine concerning the papacy. Sound exegesis is the first step sound application, and sound exegesis must always be our goal, whether this leads us to agree with Catholics or not.

Finally, Matt. 16:18 can serve as a stepping stone to protestant/Catholic dialogue. Protestants and Catholics can come together discuss similarities and differences in order to gain a comprehensive understanding each other’s doctrines. When both parties see Peter as the rock of this verse, the logical outflow is a discussion that seeks to reconcile the verse with regards to their own respective doctrines. To be certain, much of Catholic doctrine is contrary to the Scriptures, but agreeing on points of doctrine and discussing how these doctrines are inherently related to other theological issues, and helps Catholics see that protestants aren’t the enemy, and vice versa. Hopefully, Catholics will come to understand that protestant faith is mostly[33] based off of the Scriptures and is, at its heart, Christ-centered faith. I do believe that many Catholics are indeed born-again Christians, however, I see that many are not. My prayer is that Catholics come to understand that salvation is not founded upon good works or the words of the Pope, but upon the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Christ.


[1] Frederick Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, the Churchbook, Matthew 13-28, (Boston, Eerdmans, 2007), 127.

[2] John MacArthur, Matthew 16-23, (Chicago, Moody, 1988). 28.

[3] R.T France, The Gospel of Matthew, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans,2007), 620.

[4] Ibid., 620.

[5] Douglas R.A Hare, Matthew, (Louisville: John Knox, 1993), 189.

[6] Donald Hagner, Word Biblical Commentary, Matthew14-28 (Dallas:Word, 1995), 470.

[7] Ibid., 470.

[8] ESV Study Bible, 1855.

[9] Bruner, Matthew, 130.

[10] R.T France, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Matthew, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 254.

[11] David L. Turner, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 406.

[12] France, Matthew, 254.

[13] France, Gospel of Matthew, 621.

[14] Hagner, Matthew, 471.

[15] Ibid., 471.

[16] France, Gospel of Matthew, 622.

[17] Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, (1964): 18.

[18] Apologist Karl Keating provides a list of church fathers who believed that Peter was indeed the rock of Matt. 16:18. See “Origins of Peter as Pope,” http://www.catholic.com/library/Origins_of_Peter_as_Pope.asp.

[19] Tertullian, Modesty (A.D. 220): 21:9-10.

[20] Origen, Homilies on Exodus (A.D. 248) 5:4.

[21] Cyprian, The Unity of the Catholic Church (A.D. 251), 4.

[22] Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution, 20.

[23] Frank Flinn, Encyclopedia of Catholicism,  (New York: Checkmark, 2007):41.This could possibly be an extrapolation of 2 Tim. 2:2, “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (NASB).

[24] Bruner, Churchbook: Matthew, 129.

[25] Catholic Answers, Apostolic Succession, available from http://www.catholic.com/library/Apostolic_Succession.asp

[26] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008), 350.

[27] MacArthur, Matthew 16-23, 28.

[28] France, Gospel of Matthew, 622.

[29] Preston M. Sprinkle, Workbook on Matthew Unit 7 (Aberdeen: Key Learning, 2006):10.

[30] Hagner, Matthew, 470.

[31] Ibid., 470.

[32] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 622. Personally, I thought France’s term was a quite fitting way to describe the faith and confession view of 16:18.

[33] I say this because Protestantism is still guilty of clinging to traditions of the past at the loss of sound exegesis of the Scriptures.

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