In Matthew 16:18, a verse which has been the subject of controversy and debate, Jesus states “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.” (ESV). Below we explore common interpretations and applications of this text. As with any question of Biblical interpretation, it is necessary first to understand the passage in its context, and in light of scripture as a whole.
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, ESV
In these verses, Jesus asks his disciples “Who do people say I am?” to which they respond by naming various prophets. Jesus then turns the question specifically to the twelve, asking, “But who do you (plural) say that I am?” Supplying the answer, Peter declares that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” After blessing Peter, Jesus then makes the statement at the root of this controversy, calling Peter the rock (Greek Petros), and declaring that on this rock (Greek petra) He will build his church.
Before we examine possible interpretations of this text, let us note that while all three synoptic gospels record Peter’s confession, only Matthew preserves Jesus’ response. Understanding that Matthew was addressing a Jewish audience, (whereas Mark and Luke wrote primarily for a Gentile audience), we note two items of significance. First, Matthew calls attention to the fact that Jesus has given Simon a new name. Two patriarchs (Abram and Jacob) were given new names (Abraham and Israel, respectively) by God to signify a new work that He was initiating through them. A Jewish reader would understand that Matthew is telling us not only that God is doing a new thing through Peter, but also that Jesus possesses the authority, as God incarnate, to make this declaration. Second, in verse 19, Jesus directly quotes Isaiah 22:22, describing himself as the one who possesses the key to the house of David. In doing so, Jesus establishes his own divine authority.
Having established the context of Matthew 16:18, let us consider four interpretations and consider which is most Biblically sound.
The Catholic tradition of Petrine Primacy, which developed between the fifth and eleventh centuries, cites this passage as the beginning of the papacy and the foundation of multiple Catholic doctrines, notably apostolic succession and Papal infallibility. Relying on the use of the same Aramaic word (Kepa) in both references to “rock”, the Catholic Church teaches that only Peter could be the rock on which the church is built. The Catholic argument further suggests that the keys to the kingdom of Heaven (v. 19) are representative of the authority given to Peter by Jesus. Protestant interpretations of these two verses vary, as we shall see. But they all agree that Jesus’ statement here does not suggest, as the Catholic Church teaches, that he bestowed on Peter, or the office of the Pope, any unique authority over and above the authority that he gives to the whole church.
Some Protestants interpret Christ himself as the rock in the passage, with Peter, representative of the whole church, being named for the rock. Relying, on Jesus’ use of two different Greek forms for the word “rock” (Petros for Peter, and petra for rock), proponents of this interpretation suggest that Jesus calls Peter a “little stone”, while Jesus himself is the rock. However, this interpretation is not supported by the Greek grammar, which shows that Petros is not a diminutive form of petra, but is instead simply a masculine adaptation of a grammatically feminine root word.
Similar to the above interpretation of Jesus as the rock, another prominent view is that Jesus is identifying Peter’s confession as the rock. Peter’s role in this interpretation, then is understood not to embody the authority of Christ (who alone is the head of the church), but to embody the witness of the church. Textually, this interpretation is problematic in that it downplays Peter’s role (seemingly in an effort to refute the Catholic position) to the point that it strips his renaming of its profound importance and historical meaning.
This final interpretation brings Peter’s role as the Rock of the church into its proper Biblical light without casting aside the Greek grammar or Jewish roots of this passage. Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah was a new event, rooted in Divine revelation (v. 17). This confession is the basic statement of belief affirmed by all Christians throughout history. To summarize, Peter is called the rock here because he is the first Christian. Just as followers of Jesus came to be called Christians (literally, “Christ-like”), Simon was given a name (Petros) derivative of Jesus, the rock (petra).
Peter had received the gospel, the key to the kingdom of Heaven, and was commissioned with sharing the gospel, that others might confess and believe. From his sermon in Acts 2, by which 3000 heard and believed the gospel, to his witness to Cornelius, by which the gospel first reached the Gentiles, Peter has indeed played a foundational role in the building of the early church.
Jesus himself is the cornerstone of the church (Matthew 21:42), and Peter was the first rock laid down against the cornerstone, as God began the new work of building the church. And in Peter’s own words he tells us that all who believe are subsequent stones, added by God, in the continuing building up of His church (1 Peter 2:4-5).