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Is Peter the Rock/Foundation of the Church?

Some have suggested that Jesus established the Catholic notion of the papacy and that He declared that Peter would be the first pope, since He referred to Peter as the “rock.” Read carefully the context:

When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:13-20).

Did Jesus intend to convey the idea that the church is built on Peter or that Peter was the head of the church?

The word for “Peter” in Greek is petros (masculine gender) and means a “stone.”1 In contrast, the word for “rock” is petra (feminine gender) and refers to “bedrock or massive rock formations, rock as distinguished from stones.”2 It is true that, assuming Jesus spoke Aramaic, the Aramaic word for both Peter and rock (kepha) are the same.3 However, God did not inspire the writers of the New Testament to write His Word in Aramaic.4 Rather, He inspired them to write in Greek—and the Greek text makes a clear distinction between petra and petros. Interestingly, so does the Latin Vulgate. Anticipating confusion, the Holy Spirit could have easily caused the same word to be used twice, or He could have had Matthew simply state that the Church would be built “on you.”

Contextually, the “rock” upon which Jesus built His Church was the truth that Peter had just articulated: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). This truth is, indeed, the great ledge-rock foundation of the Church. Both Christ’s headship over the Church and His undergirding foundation are stated emphatically in the New Testament:

And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:22-23).

And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence (Colossians 1:18).

For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11; cf. Ephesians 2:20).

In fact, Peter Himself forthrightly declared Jesus to be the “living stone” (lithos—1 Peter 2:4). He then applied Isaiah 28:16 and Psalm 118:22 to Jesus as the “chief cornerstone”5 (1 Peter 2:6-7). And he also quoted Isaiah 8:14 and applied it to Jesus as well, indicating Him to be “A stone of stumbling and a rock of offense” (vs. 8). The Hebrew synonymous parallelism makes “stone” (from lithos) and “rock” (from petra) the same. Peter is clearly not the petra of Matthew 16:18. Rather, Jesus is—specifically, that He is the Christ, the Son of God.

Endnotes

1 Frederick Danker, et al. (2000), Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press), second edition, p. 809.

2 Ibid., emp. and italics in orig. See the use of petra to refer to such formations (as opposed to stones) in Matthew 27:60; Mark 15:46; Luke 8:6,13 (on the rock—ESV, NKJV, RSV, NIV, etc.). Also Exodus 17:6 and Numbers 20:7-8,10-11 and Paul’s typological comparison to Christ as “that spiritual Rock” (1 Corinthians 10:4)—hardly a small stone. See also the use of petra in parallelism with lithos in Romans 9:32-33, as opposed to the use of petros.

3 In fact, Jesus bestowed the name “Cephas” on Peter (John 1:42) and Paul so referred to Peter in 1 Corinthians (1:12; 3:22; 9:5; 15:5; Galatians 1:18; 2:9,11,14). However, Jesus specifically alluded to petra as the foundation on which His church would be built.

4 The New Testament includes a few Aramaic words found in the following verses: Matthew 5:22; 6:24; 27:46; Mark 5:41; 7:34; 10:51; 11:9; 14:36; 15:34; Luke 16:9,11,13; John 1:42; 20:16; Acts 9:36,40; Romans 8:15; 1 Corinthians 16:22; Galatians 4:6.

5 The Greek has “head of the corner,” with “head” being the Greek term kephale. Jesus is the “head”—not Peter.


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