A few years ago I did a lesson on the meaning of Peter’s confession and Jesus’ statement about that confession, which is found in Matthew 16:17-18. This was based upon a lecture presented at the Florida College lectures, a lecture I found very enlightening and informative. A little while back I made a reference to this lesson by saying something about Peter being the rock that Jesus is speaking about. I had a number of people come to me about this, since this is not typical Protestant teaching. So it seems it would be useful to go through this text again. There have also been questions raised about the keys of the kingdom and the nature of the church in relation to the kingdom. So, what we are going to do is sit on this text in Matthew 16:13-20 and do a number of studies from this scripture. Then, in our Wednesday night class we can discuss this topic and what I have presented. But this will give you a couple of weeks to think about this and prepare for our upcoming discussion.
Before we begin the study, I want to offer a kind reminder that we want to examine the scriptures honestly, without regard for tradition or for how people may misunderstand. People misunderstood the teachings of Jesus repeatedly, but that did not change the message Jesus was giving. Further, I am begging you to have an open mind about these lessons. In all three lessons, it is a teaching that I have changed my mind on from what I used to believe. I have not made these changes lightly, but from what I believe is the straightforward reading of the scriptures and the stripping away of tradition. I know I am knocking over some “sacred cows” in these lessons. I ask you to think and study on what I am teaching before passing judgment on it. Only after your own personal study, come back to me and the Wednesday class and let me know where your difficulties with these studies lie, if there are any difficulties.
Our scene begins with Jesus asking the disciples who people say that the Son of Man is. Notice that Jesus is asking all of his apostles this questions. Jesus has not singled out one person. In verse 14 we see that all of the apostles respond with the different answers people have given concerning who the Son of Man was. While it is not within the scope of our lesson to deal with this verse much, I do not want to leave it behind too quickly. Verse 14 reveals to us the variety of points of view concerning who the Messiah was. In fact, we read from Jewish literature that many expected multiple Messiahs to arrive to be the fulfillment of the assorted messianic passages. The people of the nation think that Jesus one of the different deliverers. This controversy concerning who Jesus is leads to Jesus’ next question.
But who do you say that I am?
It is important to note that the word “you” is plural. In the South, we would translate this accurately as, “But who do you all say that I am?” It is a plural “you.” All of the disciples are being asked this question. The beginning of verse 15 shows this also. “He said to them…” For Peter to respond on behalf of the apostles should not be surprising in the slightest. In Matthew 15:13-14, Jesus told a parable to the disciples (apostles) (see verse 12). But the apostles do not understand the parable. So Peter speaks on behalf of the apostles, “Explain the parable to us” (vs. 15). Peter is often depicted as the mouthpiece of the apostles and often speaks on behalf of the apostles. In Matthew 17:4 we see Peter speak on behalf of some of the apostles who are witnessing the transfiguration of Jesus, saying, “Lord, it is good that we are here.” In Matthew 19:27 Peter speaks on behalf of the apostles, saying, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” I could continue on and on about how this takes place throughout the gospels.
It happens repeatedly in the book of Acts. Let me show just a few important places.
In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said… (Acts 1:15)
But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. (Acts 2:14)
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:37-38)
In these three instances, Peter is speaking on behalf of the apostles and represents the apostles. Before we even study the words that Jesus utters in Matthew 16:18 we ought to know that Peter speaks on behalf of the apostles and represents the apostles. Friends, there is a reason that Peter’s name comes first in every listing with Peter’s name in it. The book of Acts shows us that Peter is a leader of the apostles. Why can we say that? We know this because we know nothing about the acts of the apostle Thomas, Andrew (Peter’s brother!), Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, or Simon the zealot. We know nothing about the acts of Matthias, who replaces Judas in Acts 1. Nearly half of the book of Acts centers around Peter and a little bit about James and John. That’s it! None of the apostles are discussed. Peter represents the apostles and he is the leader of the apostles. In Matthew 16 Peter is speaking on behalf of the apostles when Peter says,
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” I do not think it is tenable to suggest that only Peter believed this, but the other apostles did not. Peter is speaking on behalf of the apostles. All twelve of them believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Peter is not alone in this belief. The other apostles are not disagreeing with this. This is the confession of all of the apostles. But Peter says these words on behalf of them all.
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. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:17-18)
Let us carefully examine the words of Jesus now. Jesus answers Peter because Peter utters the words. What does Jesus call Peter? Simon. Remember that Simon is his birth name. Jesus is the one who gave Peter the name “Peter.” Until Jesus came along, his name was Simon. Jesus states his full name — Simon, son of Jonah. Notice that Jesus is offering a blessing. Jesus is not criticizing Peter but blessing him. The world did not teach Peter and the apostles that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. The people were saying that Jesus was John the Baptist, Elijah, or a prophet. The people did not declare who Jesus truly was. But Peter says the words of truth. Peter was not taught this fact from the world, but he had learned from God by listening and believing Jesus’ words. They had drawn the correct conclusion from Jesus’ teaching and the miracles he performed.
Now in verse 17 Jesus called Simon by his full, given name: Simon son of Jonah. Now he changes and no longer calls him Simon, but calls him by the name that Jesus gave him, Peter. I would like to begin by suggesting to you that if Jesus’ answer has nothing to do with Peter, why does Jesus call him “Peter” which means “rock” rather than Simon? Jesus is intending a word play to take place. If not, it would have been natural to do one of two things: (1) Say, “Simon” since Jesus called him Simon in the last breath. (2) Why say his name at all? Jesus just identified him as Simon, son of Jonah. Jesus could have simply continued, “And on this rock I will build my church.” But Jesus is intending to do something with Peter’s name. Peter’s name mean “rock” and it is the name given to him by Jesus. Now Jesus is using this name as a word play with his teaching, “On this rock I will build my church.” So the great question that has stirred great controversy for 1700 years is “who or what is the rock?”
There are three standard interpretations: (1) Peter is the rock, (2) Peter’s confession is the rock, or (3) Jesus is the rock. I am going to show why I think Jesus is teaching that Peter is the rock and why that is the most natural understanding of the text.
Addressing False Arguments
Because the Greek words are not the same gender, they cannot be referring to one another. The argument is that since Jesus uses the feminine for rock, petra, Jesus cannot be referring to Peter when Jesus says, “upon this rock I will build my church.” However, no such grammar rule can exist in gender-based language, like Greek. If you have taken a foreign language that is a gender-based language, then you will understand what we mean. For example, in the Spanish language every noun is assigned a gender. A bathroom is assigned a masculine gender (el bano) while a house is assigned a feminine gender (la casa). The Greek language does the same thing. A rock in Greek must be spoken of as feminine because that is proper Greek. Jesus had to say, “petra” because that is the only proper way to say “rock.” We cannot assume anything beyond this. This happens in other places in the New Testament that we may not be aware of. For example, in 1 Corinthians 10:4 we read, “and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ.” The word for “rock” is petra (feminine) even though it refers to Jesus, a man.
To further bolster this point, it is highly likely that Jesus was speaking in Aramaic, the language of the Jewish people in the first century. There is no distinction between the two words “rock” in the Aramaic.
“Although it is true that petros and petra can mean “stone” and “rock” respectively in earlier Greek, the distinction is largely confined to poetry. Moreover the underlying Aramaic is in this case unquestionable; and most probably kepa was used in both clauses (“you are kepa and on this kepa”), since the word was used both for a name and for a “rock.” The Peshitta (written in Syriac, a language cognate with Aramaic) makes no distinction between the words in the two clauses. The Greek makes the distinction between petros and petra simply because it is trying to preserve the pun, and in Greek the feminine petra could not very well serve as a masculine name.” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary)
The idea is that in most languages there is no distinction between the words “rock” and “Peter.” The Greek shows two different words because it is a gender-based language.
The two “rocks” refer to different rocks. Peter is called a pebble or a small rock while the rock that the church is built on means a large stone. The argument is false. The reason for the different Greek words is gender, not meaning. Further, there is not evidence to show such a distinction between these Greek words. That is, petros does not always refer to little pebbles and petra does not always refer to large stones. The argument does not hold up. To go even deeper, Expositor’s Bible Commentary points out, “Had Matthew wanted to say no more than that Peter was a stone in contrast with Jesus the Rock, the more common word would have been lithos (“stone” of almost any size). Then there would have been no pun—and that is just the point!” But Jesus is intending the word play.
If the Catholic church had not turned this text into proof that Peter is the pope with the right of transferal, I do not believe this passage would present any difficulty. The most natural reading is, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah. You are rock, and on this rock I will build my church.” Jesus is pictured as the builder of the church, and Peter and the apostles (remember, Peter is representing the apostles in his confession) are the foundation. This is in accordance with the scriptures.
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone… (Ephesians 2:19-20)
Notice that the metaphors are used interchangeably through the scriptures. In 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, Paul calls himself the expert building and Jesus the foundation built. In Revelation 21:14 we read the apostles are the foundation of the city of God. Here Peter has the keys; in Revelation 1:18; 3:7, Jesus has the keys. In John 9:5, Jesus is “the light of the world”; in Matthew 5:14, his disciples are. To say that Jesus is the only foundation is to miss the other metaphors in the scriptures. Each metaphor must be held in its own context. In one case, Jesus is the foundation and Paul is the builder. In another case, the apostles and prophets are the foundation and Jesus is the cornerstone. In Matthew 16:18 Jesus is the builder. “I will build my church.” The foundation of the church is the apostles.
I see Jesus’ teaching to be rather simple and does not need to be full of controversy. Jesus is telling Peter (and the apostles because Peter represents them) that they will play a central and vital role in the establishment of the church. I do not think this observation can be denied by any cursory study of the book of Acts. After Jesus ascends to heaven, it is the apostles who are given the life purpose to go into the world, preaching the gospel to every creature. The church was not built on Peter’s confession. The church is built upon the teaching of the apostles, given by God through the Holy Spirit, and their actions of going into the world and preaching the good news of our resurrected Savior, Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God.
The meaning of Peter being the rock is explained by Jesus in verse 19. We will have to leave that for the upcoming lesson. I will give a fuller answer on fighting against the Catholic interpretation in our last lesson in this series. So you will have to hold out for that.
Reminder: We need to give caution to false arguments. If we are found to make up things because we do not like an interpretation, we lose all credibility, influence to teach, and are not any different than false teachers and charlatans who use the scriptures to maintain their own religion. We are simply doing the same.