**Precursor: Ok, so today I am going to (briefly) tackle an interpretive issue and see what kind of response we get.**
The Roman Catholic Church has tampered with Holy Writ more than many of the Christian “cults.” Yet one place they seem to possible have done decent study is in Matthew 16:18. Though their theological outcome that they are the only true church is wrong (because they teach an altogether different gospel, Gal 1:8-9), their position is worth considering. Therefore I turn to Matthew 16 for this blogpost and would like to look at the various positions on who “the Rock” Jesus was speaking about and what a probable understanding should be.
Jesus, being alone with his disciples, ask them a question concerning who people say He is. After giving what others are saying about Jesus, knowing themselves that the people’s view of Jesus were inadequate, Jesus turns the question on them. “But who do you say that I am?” (Matt 16:15). Peter immediately pipes up with a short, pithy answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (16:16). Jesus affirms this to be true (16:17), then makes a statement that has caused controversy: “I say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” (16:18).
Who or what is the rock that Jesus is speaking of?
Suggestion #1 – Peter Himself
Many see this as the Roman Catholic (RCC) view and therefore outright reject it. However, a number of Protestants believe this interpretation, such as Leon Morris, R. T. France, Michael J. Wilkins. The argument here is that this is the most straightforward reading. Peter is in view both before and after v. 18, he is the focus individual in Acts until chapter 15, and the feminine word for “rock” turned to masculine for “Peter” is merely a word play.
This view, however, fails on five accounts. First, in the case of how the RCC uses Peter, even if Peter is the rock in Matthew 16:18, this is meaningless in giving the RCC any authority. Scripture nowhere records Peter being in Rome. Peter was not the first pope, and Peter did not start the RCC. The origin of the RCC is not in the teachings of Peter or any other apostle. If Peter truly was the founder of the RCC, it would be in full agreement with what Peter taught (e.g., Acts 2, 1 Peter, 2 Peter). Secondly, Scripture nowhere describes Peter as being supreme over the other apostles. Rather, Peter refers to himself as a “fellow elder (1 Pet 5:1) and one who is held accountable as a pastor among many (5:3). Third, as an argument from the Book of Acts, Peter is sent to Samaria with John (Acts 8) by the apostles in Jerusalem. Later, the leaders in Jerusalem rebuke him (Acts 11) and he must answer to them. After Acts 12, Peter is mentioned in only one passage (Acts 15:7, 14), and the primacy there belongs to James, not Peter. Fourth, Peter never gives himself this title, but uses the same imagery or “rock” as the church built of numerous petros “living stones” who, like Peter, confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God (1 Peter 2:5).Fifth and finally, if Jesus had Peter in mind, it is awkward to address him as “this” (houtos) and not “you” (su). “You” would be more natural if Jesus was speaking to Peter.
Suggestion #2 – Christ
This particular view tried to take into account the whole of the New Testament and make the meaning fit into Christ himself. Jesus is the rock in Matthew 7 to be built upon. Jesus is the rock rejected in the parable of the vineyard (Matt 21:42; Mk 12:10-11; Lk 20:17). Jesus is the stone of stumbling (Rom 9:33), the rock of offense (1 Peter 2:8), a spiritual rock (1 Cor 10:4), and the foundation (1 Cor 3:11). In the Old Testament, the Messiah was called a stone many times (Ps 118:22; Isa 8:14; 28:16; Zech 3:9).
This view has weaknesses in several areas. First, if “rock” refers to Jesus, he would probably have said, “upon myself, I will build my church.” Second, many may point to the fact that Jesus may have spoken Aramaic. This is at best a Red Herring and therefore unhelpful, mainly because the Greek that is recorded in the Bible is God’s inspired text and it would not contradict what Jesus (who is God) meant the say He said it. Third, exegetically speaking, if Matthew wanted to say no more than that Peter was the stone while Jesus was the rock, then the more common word to use would have been lithos rather than petros (which denotes a “stone” of almost any size) and no pun would have existed. It is true that there are numerous instances of God the Father being described as “rock” in the OT (e.g., Deut 32:4, 15, 18, 30; 1 Sam 2:2, 22:32, 47; Ps 18:31, 19:14, 28:1, 42:9, 89:26; Isa 30:29) and Jesus being described as “rock” or “foundation” in the NT (1 Cor 3:11; 10:4); however, that does not necessarily mean that Jesus is referring to himself (or the Father) as the “rock” of Matt 16:18. As a chapter, Matthew 16 does concentrate heavily on the theme of Jesus’ identity, but vv. 17-19 seem to focus particularly on Peter and his statements regarding Jesus’ identity. Therefore, it would seem likely that the petra of v. 18 either refers to the man or to his confession of faith.
Suggestion #3 – Peter’s Confession
This view is focusing on the distinction between Peter (petros) and “rock (petra). For those who hold to this view, the masculine to feminine is the key to unlock this interpretation. To these, Peter’s confession (“you are the Christ”) is the most natural interpretation and it is what the whole time in Caesarea Philippi led up to. “Rock” (petra)is never used for people. And the first 500 years of church history this was the major interpretation.
This view is inadequate for a number of reasons. First, creeds/confessions are not spoken of in Scripture under the figure of a rock; the figure is used for men, and for Christ. Second, the Matthew 16 context places an emphasis on Peter and on Christ, so the logic of this position is rather misleading. Third, Christ’s church is never said to be based upon a man’s testimony. Fourth, if Peter’s confession of faith is the “rock,” then why did Jesus not say “upon this faith” or “upon your words” I will build my Church? It seems to me this view is an overreaction against the papal claims of the RCC. It seems that the word-play and the whole structure demands that v. 18 is every bit as much Jesus’ declaration about Peter as v. 16 was Peter’s declaration about Jesus.
Suggestion #4 – Peter as the Spokesman for the Disciples (i.e., Apostolic Testimony)
This view is very close to #1 above, but rather than it being all about Peter, Peter is merely the spokesman or representative for the others. The argument here is that the wordplay of Peter’s name in the masculine and the “rock” in the feminine is clearly representing a distinction, that being the masculine form refers to Peter as one singular rock and the feminine form may be understood to represent s bedrock or a rock quarry. Therefore it is reasonable to understand Jesus’ statement to mean Peter was one rock among a rock quarry.
I believe this is the best of the four options for the following reasons:
(1) it accords well with other New Testament passages:Right after Pentecost, the church is said to “be devoted to the apostles teaching,” not just Peter(Acts 2:42). Ephesians 2:20 claims that the foundation rock of the church is the apostles and prophets. No specific name, such as Peter, is mentioned. First Peter 2:4–6 and 1 Timothy 3:15, the pillar is the congregation of the faithful. Matthew 18:1-4, the disciples are arguing about who will be the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven. If the disciples had understood (two chapters earlier) that Peter was the one whom the church was solely built, this argument would not have existed. Jesus had other chances to affirm Peter as preeminent over the group (e.g., Matt 20:20-21; Mk 10:35-37), but never did. In Matthew 16:19, the keys of the kingdom are given to the “rock.” In 18:18, Jesus tells the disciples they have the binding power as a group: “whatever you(plur.) bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you(plur.) loose on earth shall have been loosed in Heaven.”
(2) The demonstrative pronoun: “this” (houtos) can refer to an individual (“this is my beloved Son,” Matt 3:17), but is usually at a distance. Therefore, Jesus could be speaking directly at Peter, but also have the nuance of his (and his fellow disciple’s) confession. This makes much sense in that in all four gospel accounts Peter is the leading apostle, and he remains so through Acts 10. He was most often the Twelve’s spokesman during Jesus’ earthly ministry (e.g., Matt 15:15; 19:27; John 6:68), and he was the chief preacher, leader, and worker of miracles in the early years of the church (e.g., Acts 1:15–22; 2:14–40; 3:4–6, 12–26; 5:3–10, 15, 29). It therefore seems that in the present passage Jesus addressed Peter as representative of the Twelve.
(3) Ephesians 2:20: Paul says that God’s household is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone.” It was not on the apostles themselves, much less on Peter as an individual, that Christ built His church, but on the apostles as His uniquely appointed, endowed, and inspired teachers of the gospel. The early church did not give homage to the apostles as persons, or to their office or titles, but to their doctrine, “continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). Furthermore, this interpretation fits with the “prophets,” because they participated with the apostles in proclaiming the authoritative gospel of Jesus Christ. So, the prophets of the early church were also part of the church’s foundation. Plus, the Lord is still building His church with “living stones … built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5), which prompted Martin Luther to observe, “All who agree with the confession of Peter [in Matt. 16:16] are Peters themselves setting a sure foundation.”
The foundation of the church is the revelation of God given through His apostles, and the Lord of the church is the cornerstone of that foundation. Because it is His Word that the apostles taught and that the faithful church has always taught, Jesus Christ Himself is the true foundation, the living Word to whom the written Word bears witness (John 5:39). And “No man [not even an apostle] can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11). The Lord builds the church on the truth of Himself, and because His people are inseparable from Him they are inseparable from His truth. And because the apostles were endowed with His truth in a unique way, by their preaching of that truth they were the foundation of His church in a unique way.