For 5 years I was the pastor of Trinity International Church in Strasbourg, France. I created this blog with those people in mind. In mid-November 2018 I will become the Senior Pastor of Word of Life Church in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. The focus of this blog will therefore shift, but I pray that people from the blogosphere will continue to find it helpful wherever they might be found.
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Friday, April 13, 2018

Upon This Rock

Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  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 hell shall not prevail against it.  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.”   (Matthew 16:16-19 ESV)

There are three basic interpretations of this passage. They all revolve around the question of the identity of "the rock" upon which Jesus says he will build his church.

Interpretation #1: Peter is the Rock.

This is the common traditional interpretation of the passage. It is based on two primary facts. First, Jesus calls Simon "Peter", which is Greek for rock. Then he says that "upon this rock I will build my church." In the context, it is not difficult to imagine Jesus pointing at Peter as he says this. The second fact is that Jesus says, "I will give you the keys to the kingdom" and it is important to understand that the "you" in that phrase is singular, not plural. Jesus is giving Peter the keys. This is the natural reading of the passage.
The statute of Peter
holding "the keys" in
St. Peter's Basilica, Rome.

Of course, this is also the passage that the Roman Catholics turn to in order to support the idea of the Roman papacy. Is the best application of this passage the idea that Jesus was establishing an ecclesiastical structure with Peter as its head?

It is an important question because of the prominence of Roman Catholicism. The importance of the church in Rome developed early in the church. In 96 AD, the church in Corinth turned to Clement, the leader of the Roman church, to help them with some internal problems. While the Catholics point to that as an example of Clement being the pope, there is little evidence, however, that the first generations of Christians thought of Rome as being the "head church" or that Peter had been the head of the church. Rome gained in importance primarily because of its location as the center of political power. When Christianity became the state religion, it was natural for the leader of the church in Rome to be seen as the leader of the whole church.

There are serious problems with seeing this passage as the founding of the office of the head of the worldwide church. There is nothing in the text or in the rest of the Bible that indicates that this is an appointment that could be transmitted from one person to another. Certainly, there is nothing in this passage that gives Peter either infallible or supreme authority in the church. In fact, in just a few verses Jesus calls Peter Satan!

The Reformers were correct in saying that the passage does not establish the papacy.

Interpretation #2: The Confession is the Rock.

Over the centuries a highly organized church structure developed with the pope as the head of the church. It was said that the pope "occupied Peter's seat" and his power was absolute. Corruption and unbiblical practices had infiltrated the church and it was in desperate need of reform. The pope fought against the reformers and turned to this passage as a key basis for their authority.  Protestants have tended to interpret "the rock" as being Peter's confession of Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God. The church, according to this interpretation, is built upon the foundation of people's profession of faith.

This interpretation draws on many other passages of Scripture. The reformers noted that all believers are living stones that are being fit together into a living temple and that Jesus himself is chief cornerstone (1 Peter 2:1-5). In addition, Paul writes that we are being built into a temple with Jesus as the cornerstone, only he indicates that the apostles and the prophets are the foundation of the building! (Ephesians 2:18-22). A person's profession of faith is an indication of their salvation and their inclusion in the church (Romans 10:9).

The reformers also pointed out that Jesus had chastised the teachers of the law in Luke 11:52. They held in their hands "the key of knowledge" and they had not used it and had hindered others from entering. This supports the idea that the "Rock" is the confession of faith. Peter had understood and declared the truth about who Jesus is. The declaration of truth unlocks the door to the kingdom so a person can enter it. Thus the teachers of the Word hold the key to the kingdom.

Interpretation #3 The Revelation of Jesus is the Rock

In more recent times there has been an interpretation that identifies the revelation of Jesus's identity to Peter by the Father as being the rock upon which the church is built. This interpretation tends to be more common in more charismatic churches which stress the ongoing work of the Spirit and its importance in building up the church.

It rightly emphasizes that human ingenuity and reasoning are not sufficient to understand who Christ is in a way that brings salvation. This revelation must come from God to each individual. No one can come to Christ unless the Father draws him (John 6:44). It is similar to the interpretation that the confession of Christ is the rock, only that it goes back up the timeline to point to the work of the Spirit in Peter's life.


If one asks the question, "What was Jesus pointing to when he said 'upon this rock I will build my church?" the answer would have to be Peter. Protestants today too quickly reject that answer because they reject Catholicism. But if the Bible is our authority, then we must submit to what it says. It is clear that Peter is the rock. But he was not the only rock that made up the foundation. The other apostles and prophets were also part of the foundation. And we demonstrate that we are living stones by making the same profession of faith that Peter did. In that sense, Peter's profession of faith is foundational in building the church. That the identity of Jesus was revealed to Peter (and to us) by God is good theology. However, it is not the intent of the passage or the answer to the question of what the rock is.

A final thought:

Protestants should think about why they so quickly reject the idea of the papacy. It should be rejected because it is not biblical. I fear that too often people reject it for a different reason: They object to the idea of there being a spiritual authority that they must submit to. However, we must remember that the scripture does teach us to submit to leaders in the church (Hebrew 13:7). We must ensure that our individualism is not a subtle form of simple rebellion against authority.

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