Matthew 16:13-19 is one of the more hotly debated New Testament texts. Mainly the debate centers between Catholics and Protestants concerning the primacy of Peter. Catholics use this text to show that Peter was initiated as the first pope of the church by Jesus and that succession would be through Peter. Others say that this is not the proper interpretation of Jesus’ words to Peter. The crucial question is: how are we to take the play on words involving Peter’s name? Everyone agrees that Jesus uses a play on words in Peter’s name and most everyone thinks that the key to understanding what Jesus is saying is found in understanding this play on words.
Two Diametrically Opposed Views
There are two main views in understanding Matthew 16:17-19. One side says that Peter must obviously be the rock Jesus is speaking about because it is the same root Greek word. The other side says that the “rock” refers to something other than Peter because it is a different form of the Greek word. Peter’s name is petros while the Greek word for rock is petra.
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.
Therefore, we need a way to understand this text since looking at the Greek words themselves cannot shed enough light to know one way or the other. We need some sort of key to help us understand this text and the objective guide we need is found in the Old Testament. Open your Bibles to Isaiah 22:15-25.
Chapters 21-22 of Isaiah have cryptic headings as beginnings to these oracles. These chapters refer to the Assyrian invasion by Sennacherib in 701 B.C. Chapter 21 describes the approaching doom as the threat of Assyria grows larger while Assyria conquers surrounding lands. In Isaiah 22:1-14 we see that Jerusalem is now threatened by Assyria’s invasion. Isaiah is focusing on the deportment and capture of the people in this chapter (22:1-3). But rather than trusting in God during this crisis, the people are trusting in themselves (22:11). Further, the people are feasting during this distress, rather than fasting to God for help (22:12-13).
The second half of chapter 22 is dedicated to an oracle against Shebna, who represent the problem with Israel. Shebna is “steward” “who is charge of the royal household.” The Hebrew word for “steward” is used in other Semitic languages to indicate that this is a very high official in the government, second only to the king (Oswalt, John N.; Isaiah 1-39: New International Commentary on the Old Testament). The phrase “in charge of the household” is used similarly of a high official, second only to the king. We see this in 2 Kings 15:5, “The LORD struck the king, so that he was a leper to the day of his death. And he lived in a separate house, while Jotham the king’s son was over the household, judging the people of the land.”
The problem is that Shebna is more interested in death than life seeing that he has a tomb prepared for himself due to the coming invasion of Assyria. Rather than think about his duty to the people of Israel as second in command to Hezekiah, Shebna is concerned only about himself. Therefore, Shebna is going to be removed from office and replaced by Eliakim (22:19-20). Being in this position of authority, Eliakim would have many things bestowed upon him: (1) clothed with Shebna’s tunic, (2) Shebna’s sash tied around Eliakim, (3) Authority given to Eliakim, taken from Shebna, (4) father of inhabitants, (5) key to the house of David so that what he opens will not shut and what he shuts will not open, (6) driven like a peg in the firm place, and (7) become the throne of glory to his father’s house. Now, many commentaries and scholars make the connection between Isaiah 22 and Matthew 16:19. But none of them tell how these two passages connect. But these are unusual texts and we must recognize that there is a meaning to be found. This is especially true when we recognize how rarely the figure of “keys” appears in the scriptures.
Connections Between Isaiah 22 and Matthew 16
Both are commissioning texts.
These kinds of commissioning texts are also rare in the scriptures. In Isaiah we see that Eliakim is specifically named as the one to be “over the household,” meaning he is second only to the king. Eliakim is given keys, and these keys are to the Davidic kingdom. The meaning of the keys is that Eliakim has authority, such that “when he opens no one will shut” and “when he shuts no one will open.” Matthew 16 has very strong connections to this concept. Peter is specifically named and given keys. These keys are also to the Davidic kingdom (the kingdom of heaven). This authority means that whatever was bound on earth was also bound in heaven, and whatever was loosed on earth was also loosed in heaven.
Both involve a play on words with the individual’s name.
Matthew 16 is the only place in the New Testament where Jesus makes a word play on someone’s name. Because this is a highly unusual event, we have to ask these questions: Why did Jesus do it here in Matthew 16? Why did Jesus do this now? We cannot pass this off as meaningless. Jesus has a reason for making this word play, especially when we recall who gave the name “rock” to Simon in the first place. Remember that Peter was not his given name, but Simon was his name. Jesus calls him Peter, “rock.” The connection leads us back to Isaiah 22. Eliakim’s name means “God will place” or “God will establish.” Notice how Isaiah’s prophecy is also a word play on Eliakim’s name. Isaiah 22:23 says, “I will drive him like a peg in a firm place.” Verse 25 says “In that day the peg driven in a firm place will give way.” The emphasis on the name is put before us twice. But there are even more connections that these.
Both involve an individual serving as penultimate (not the ultimate) foundation of the kingdom.
Eliakim was not the ultimate foundation, but Hezekiah was in the time frame where Isaiah prophesies. Peter was also not being spoken of as the ultimate foundation, because Christ is the ultimate foundation of the kingdom of God. But both Eliakim and Peter are being told that they will play important roles in the foundation of the kingdom. Eliakim will be like a peg driven into a firm place (immoveable, solid). Peter will be a rock (immoveable, solid) in the kingdom. The Old Testament shows us that there is a parallel between the peg, a foundation of a tent, and the rock, the foundation of a house. Zechariah 10:4 says, “From Judah will come the cornerstone, from him the tent peg, from him the battle bow, from him every ruler.” Both are being called foundations, but not the ultimate foundation.
We need to realize that the New Testament repeatedly refers to Peter and the apostles as this foundation of the kingdom of God. “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). Similarly, Revelation 21:14 says, “And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.”
The promise that Jesus makes in Matthew 16:18-19 was not to Peter personally, but to Peter as representative of the apostles. We have just noted a couple of passages where the apostles, not Peter alone, are called the foundation of the kingdom of God. But notice in the text of Matthew 16 itself and one can see this to be the case. When Jesus asks the question in Matthew 16:15, “Who do you say that I am,” the word “you” is plural, not singular. In our English, we would say “Who do you all say that I am?” Jesus is asking all the apostles who they say that Jesus is. Peter answers on behalf of the apostles and Jesus addresses Peter as a representative of the twelve apostles.
We see Peter stand as a representative for the apostles in many instances in the New Testament. “Then Peter responded to Him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed You. So what will there be for us?’ Jesus said to them, ‘I assure you: In the Messianic Age, when the Son of Man sits on His glorious throne, you who have followed Me will also sit on 12 thrones, judging the 12 tribes of Israel'” (Matthew 19:27-28; HCSB). We see this again in Acts 2:14, “But Peter stood up with the eleven, raised his voice, and proclaimed to them….” Are we to think that the other apostles did not preach or perform miracles on Pentecost? Of course not, as we can see in Acts 2:43 that all the apostles were performing signs and wonders. But Peter was a representative of the apostles. Acts 2:37 shows the same thing, “When they heard this, they were pierced to the heart and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?” If Peter was to personally be the penultimate foundation of the kingdom, then why do the scriptures never say such? Rather, the scriptures repeatedly teach the apostles were the penultimate foundation and Jesus was the ultimate foundation. Peter himself recognized this in his own letter. 2 Peter 3:2 says, “you may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us, the apostles of the Lord and Savior.” Peter did not say to remember his words because he is the chief apostle, or the pope, or something like that. He said to remember “the commandment of us, the apostles.”
Both involve a displacement of previous, faithless counterparts.
This is another important point of comparison that helps us understand Jesus’ teaching to the apostles in Matthew 16. Eliakim was established because of the failure of Shebna. Therefore, Eliakim replaced Shebna as second over Hezekiah’s kingdom. In the same way, the apostles were established as a replacement for previous, faithless counterparts. Who were these counterparts? Look at Jesus’ words earlier: “Woe to you experts in the law! You have taken away the key of knowledge! You didn’t go in yourselves, and you hindered those who were going in.” 53 When He left there, the scribes and the Pharisees began to oppose Him fiercely and to cross-examine Him about many things; 54 they were lying in wait for Him to trap Him in something He said” (Luke 11:52-54). Notice that the symbolism of “the key” appears in this text. The scribes and Pharisees had taken away the key of knowledge preventing people from entering God’s kingdom. The key was given to Peter and the apostles, a replacement of the scribes and Pharisees, as they would help people enter the kingdom of God. Jesus gives the apostles the key for they would be the ones after Christ’s death who would bring people into the kingdom.
We need not fear understanding Peter as the foundation for the kingdom of God. In fact, I think we are not correct if we teach that Peter’s confession is the rock upon which God’s kingdom would be established. I do not at all think that is what Jesus was referring to. Jesus gave Simon the name “rock” for a reason. Something was going to be built upon him to be given this name. But Jesus is speaking about Peter as a representative for all of the apostles, as the scriptures repeatedly indicated Peter to represent. What is important is to recognize that Peter and the rest of the apostles were the rock foundation of the kingdom of God in the same way that Eliakim was the foundation of Hezekiah’s kingdom. Eliakim was still second to Hezekiah, and the apostles were still second to Jesus Christ.
Understanding Matthew 16 in the context of Isaiah 22 puts an end to the speculation about Peter being the pope and the line of succession. We must realize that the penultimate could not appoint his successor. Only the king himself could personally and directly appoint his penultimate. Only Hezekiah could personally and directly appoint Eliakim. Shebna could not appoint his successor. Jesus personally and directly appointed Peter and the apostles. The apostles had not power to appoint their successors. Only the king can do that. Jesus has not returned to personally and directly appoint his penultimate. The voting papers, the burning of the papers, and the colored smoke are all man’s invention.
The apostles, as the penultimate, carried great authority. Paul, in defending his apostleship to the Corinthians, said this to be the case: “For even if I boast somewhat further about our authority, which the Lord gave for building you up and not for destroying you, I will not be put to shame” (2 Corinthians 10:8). To follow Jesus is to not only obey the teachings of Jesus, but to also obey those who he left in charge, that is, the apostles. What they said carries just as much power and authority as if Jesus had said those words. Jesus said, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). The apostles said, “Baptism, which is like that water, now saves you. Baptism doesn’t save by removing dirt from the body. Rather, baptism is a request to God for a clear conscience. It saves you through Jesus Christ, who came back from death to life” (1 Peter 3:21; GOD’S WORD). Obey and be saved today.