Is Peter The Rock?

Is Peter The Rock?

S. Lewis Johnson, Jr.

Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. is a Bible teacher at Believers Chapel, Dallas, Texas. He is also visiting Professor of New Testament at Grace Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 16:13-18


The Lord has led His disciples into a quiet part of the land, and there in Caesarea Philippi He is engaged in teaching them in greater depth that which lies before them. He has taught them by example and by word that His ministry, while directed to the nation Israel, also encompasses the Gentiles. He has also warned them of the false doctrine of the religious leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees. From this point on He will lead the apostles into a deeper knowledge of His identity, showing them that He is not only the Messiah, but also the Son of the living God. Further, His ministry on earth will come to an end in the passion of Jerusalem and the cross. The quiet of Caesarea Philippi, where they were free from the danger of interference from the partisans of Herod, afforded them an opportunity to consider these important matters.

Two questions are directed to the apostles by the Lord, and they were designed to stir them to reflection upon His person and work. The first raised the question of the views that the people had of the Lord Jesus. The second is more personal, and by it He draws from them a confession of their convictions about Him. “And you — who do you say that I am?,” is His query.

The answer of Peter, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16), is, of course, remarkable. It was not, however, the first time that one of them confessed His Messiahship, When Andrew first found Peter, he said, “We have found the Messiah,” and Philip and Nathaniel shortly after this express a similar faith (cf. John 1:41-51). It is, thus, likely that the important part of the confession is the acknowledgment of Christ as, “the Son of the living God.” I think I agree with Tasker’s words, “It would seem clear, as the same writer goes on to say (he refers to Dom John Chapman), that it is the confession by Peter of Jesus as the Son of the living God, repeating the witness of the heavenly voice at the baptism and re-echoing the words of the disciples after the walking on the sea (see iii. 17 and xiv, 33), that is now accepted by our Lord as a revelation, coming from the lips of Peter but inspired by the Father, that the time has now come for Him to initiate them into the mystery of His forthcoming passion and resurrection. This confession of Peter had been made quietly and deliberately in answer to a specific question, and in this respect it was different from the words uttered perhaps somewhat impulsively by the disciples in a tense situation after Jesus had come to them walking on the sea.”1 The statement of verse twenty-one, “From that time forth began Jesus to show unto His disciples, how He must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day,” supports the correctness of this exegesis. He is the Son, not John the Baptist, Elijah, or Jeremiah, but the unique Son of the living God.

Barclay does not exaggerate at all when he says, “This passage is one of the store-centres of New Testament interpretation. It has always been difficult to approach it calmly and without prejudice, for this passage is the Roman Catholic foundation of the position of the Pope and of the Church. It Is taken by the Roman Catholic Church to mean that to Peter was given the keys which admit or exclude a man from heaven, and that to Peter was given the power to absolve or not to absolve a man from his sins.”2 Further, that the Church has argued that Peter ultimately became Bishop of Rome, and that his power as bishop of the Christian church has descended to all the succeeding bishops of Rome, that is, the Popes. Thus, the present Pope is the bishop of the true Christian church. Is that true? We shall see.

The Situation

The place (16:13). The revelation to Peter took place “in the borders of Caesarea Philippi,” that is, about 24 miles north of Bethsaida Julias. The town, named in honor of Caesar Augustus and called Caesarea Philippi in honour of its enlarger and beautifier, Philip the tetrarch, and to distinguish it from the far more important seaport town of Caesarea, is located in what is now southwestern Syria. It is presently occupied by Israel. It is situated near one of the sources of the Jordan River and just below majestic Mt. Hermon, a year-round snow-covered peak of over 9,000 feet. A beautiful place, it was ideally situated for the purpose of instruction and quiet reflection on the course of the ministry of the Messiah, as well as for the exercise of prayer (cf. Luke 9:18)

The persons (16:13). The text calls His companions, “disciples,” but from the accounts it appears that the revelation and the teaching given at this time were given only to the apostles.

The Apostle Peter (16:16) . Playing an important role in the ministry here is Peter, who has been called “the American of the apostles,” no doubt because he was always putting his foot in his mouth! We are inclined to think of the great apostle as a colossal blunderer (cf. 17:1-11, 24-27; 18:21-22; John 13:1-10), but we must remember that it is our Lord who said to him, “Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona” (v. 17), and then emphasized that his name meant rock, a term with much favorable Biblical connotation. The term was applied by the rabbis to Abraham, and the Bible applies it most significantly to God Himself (cf. Deut. 32:4, 31; 1 Sam. 2:2; 2 Sam. 22:2; Psa. 18:31). To call anyone a rock was a great compliment, and Peter shall always have the remarkable distinction that Jesus called him a rock.

The Interrogation

The general question (16:13-14) . The opening question of the paragraph is one addressed to the disciples, but one that asks for the evaluation that men in general have placed upon the identity of the Lord Jesus. It is, “Who do MEN say that I, the Son of man, am?”

The answers are probably to be understood as “three specimen answers,”3 typical of the kinds of answers that were being given by those who, unlike the leaders, were trying to put Him in the context of the Biblical revelation in a serious way.

The first was the view that He was John the Baptist, risen from the dead, a view that Herod had also espoused. There were important similarities between John and Jesus, for both had official positions in the Messianic program, but there the likeness fades, and the superiority of the Son becomes evident. And that superiority was recognized most definitely by John himself. John was the ambassador, but Jesus was the King. John could prepare men, but only He could really enable them to come to repentance and faith.

The second suggestion also points to certain similarities between the great prophet Elijah and Jesus. He was a prophet, too, as a matter of fact the greatest of a great line of messengers for God. They were both men of prayer, men of miracles, and warriors for the truth in conflict with false prophets. Elijah, however, wavered in his faith, but Jesus never did. Elijah won many of his victories by shedding the blood of others, but Jesus won His by shedding His own blood.

The third suggestion is not surprising, and it is the opinion of more than one that Jeremiah, of all the Old Testament prophets, was most like the Lord Jesus. He was a living example of patient endurance and of suffering for the truth that he proclaimed. And he came to be known as “the weeping prophet.” The picture he presented reminds one of the Suffering Servant of Jehovah, the Lord Jesus, of whom Isaiah speaks in this way, “He is despised and rejected of men, A MAN OF SORROWS, and ACQUAINTED WITH GRIEF” (53:3). A true likeness existed between them, but there it ends, with a likeness. For, while Jeremiah has prophesied of a New Covenant to come, it was the Man of Sorrows who inaugurated that New Covenant in His blood, obtaining the forgiveness of sins for His people.

The individual question (16:15-16). General answers do not suffice for Him, and so He replies, “But who say YE (the word is emphatic in the Greek text) that I am?”

Peter gives the only adequate answer to the question, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 16). Peter knew that He was not just another of the prophets, important though they were. He sensed that He was the Messiah, and that that Messiahship was grounded in an even deeper relationship to Jehovah. He was the Son of the living God, who knew the inmost thoughts and purposes of the Father and possessed His essential nature.

This insight probably did not come to Peter like a bolt from the blue, it would seem. Tasker puts it this way, “Jesus was well aware that this great confession was not made by Peter on the spur of the moment as if he had been ‘stung by the splendour of a sudden thought.’ Nor was he voicing a second-hand opinion learned from some other creature of flesh and blood. On the contrary, ever since the day when he stood before Jesus and felt compelled to say ‘Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord’, and yet in spite of that reluctance had found himself irresistibly led to respond to Jesus’ call and leave his nets and follow Him, during all the time that he had witnessed his Master’s mighty works and listened to the words of eternal life that fell daily from his lips, the living God, the God who acts and intervenes in the affairs of men, had been leading him to see that Jesus was indeed His Son. Jesus therefore pronounced him highly favoured, addressed him directly as Peter, the man of rock, and made it clear that the faith that was expressed by him was the rock upon which he would build His Church, the Church of the living God, which the forces of death would never be able to overcome.”4

The Revelation Regarding the Church

The foundation of the church (16:17-18). At this point we come to the important part of the statement of our Lord, one in which He unfolds new truth concerning the church, following His commendation of Peter and the tracing of the apostle’s words of confession to the revelation of the Father in heaven.

As we have said above, this passage is basic to the position of the Roman Church. They have affirmed three things. First, Christ founded a church. That is true (cf. 1 Cor. 3:11; Eph. 2:19-22). Second, that church has been given power to govern and teach all mankind. That is a half-truth (cf. Rom. 13:1-7). Finally, the Roman Catholic Church is that church. This we shall see is false. The importance of this to the Roman Church is illustrated by the fact that the 18th verse is found written around the interior of the dome of the basilica of St. Peter’s Church in Rome.

The problem of the passage centres around the question, “Who or what is ‘this rock’?” The answers have been many, although the following are the principal ones.

(1) First, many Romanists, although not all, regard this as an open and shut case. Peter is the rock. It is difficult, however, to imagine the church of Jesus Christ being built upon a man, particularly in the light of our Lord’s statements concerning man (cf. John 2:24-25).

Aside from this, however, there are other objections to this view. If the words referred to Peter, it would be more natural for the Lord to say, “thou art Peter, and upon thee I will build my church.” Further, there is an interesting change in the words of the Greek text, which cannot be reconciled very easily with this interpretation. In the original text the word for “Peter” is the Greek word Petros, while the word for “rock” is petra, a related word but not an identical one. Why the change if Peter is the rock? Finally, the word petra, an Old Testament word, too, is never used of men in the Old Testament.5

It might be thought that, since so much for the Roman Church hinges on this text, their interpreters would be agreed on this interpretation. Such is not the case, even though they have traditionally told us that the Bible ought to be interpreted according to the unanimous tradition of the Church Fathers. Of course, the first thing we learn when we study the Fathers is that they were hardly ever, if ever, unanimous on any thing! A Roman Catholic scholar some years ago counted the interpretations of this verse in the Fathers and discovered that 17 believed Peter was the rock, 8 believed the apostles were meant, 44 believed Peter’s statement was the rock, and 16 believed that Christ was the rock! For example, Chrysostom, one of the greatest of the Fathers, wrote, “on this Stone, that is to say on the faith of this confession I will build my church.” He identifies the confession as, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Fifty-fifth Homily on Matthew 16). And Augustine, the greatest of the early Fathers, wrote, “What is the meaning of this saying of Jesus Christ? It is this: I will build My church on this faith, on what has just been said, to wit, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God’” (on the First Epistle of John). Jerome, the greatest scholar among the Fathers, said simply, “The rock is Christ” (commentary on St. Matthew).

Even if the Roman view were correct, the Romanists would still have to demonstrate that Peter’s authority was transmissible. That contention is a dogmatic castle in the air. Further, it would have to be shown that Peter’s authority was transmitted to the bishops of the Roman Church, another impossibility. Of course, if the church really was built upon Peter, that might explain it all — her blunders and failures through the centuries!

(2) Second, a number of leading Protestants have also taken the view of the Romanists in measure, at least to the extent that “this rock” is said to be Peter. It is their contention that Peter was the first believer in the Messiahship and Sonship of Christ and, therefore, he became the first member and the foremost member of the church.6 These scholars have not followed the Roman Church in its views of the transmission of that authoritative place to the Roman bishops, however. The leading exponent of the view is the renowned Oscar Cullman, a Swiss scholar.7 The objections mentioned above still obtain.

(3) Third, others have contended that the apostles are referred to, Peter supposedly acting as their representative in his confession and in his reward from the Lord. Why, then, did He not say clearly, “You (plu.) are Peter, and upon you (plu.) I will build my church”? He did use the plural in verse fifteen, and plural here would be understood easily.

(4) Fourth, still others see the great confession of verse sixteen as the rock. As a rule, however, the word rock refers to persons, rather than to things. The view, however, is not far from the truth, providing we remember that the confession is a statement about a person.

(5) Fifth, it seems best to take the rock to be Christ Himself as revealed in the confession of Peter. It has the advantage of preserving the distinction in the Greek words, for petros refers to the pebble, the loose rock, while petra is a mass of live rock, a cliff, or a cave.8 The latter would be a vivid way of distinguishing the little pebble, Peter, from the massive Rock, the Lord, Jehovah-Jesus Himself (cf. Deut. 32:4). Further, this appears to have been the view of Peter (1 Pet. 2:4-8) and the apostles (cf. Rom. 9:33; Eph. 2:19-22). Finally, as we noted above, it is the view of the leading Catholic interpreters, too, including Chrysostom, Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome.

As for the objection sometimes raised, namely, that our Lord spoke in Aramaic, and such a distinction in words for rocks does not exist in that tongue, we reply that we have to do with inspired words here, not conjecture. There is no proof that our Lord spoke in Aramaic alone; in fact, the trend of present scholarship is the other way. Further, there is no proof that He could not engage in some Grecising when desirable, nor is there any absolute proof that Aramaic could not make this distinction. Why is Peter mentioned by the Lord in the statement? He would indicate, by a play on words, the way in which he may truly become what his name proclaimed he was, a rock (cf. Luke 5:6).

The identification of the church (16:18). The “church” is that which came into existence on the Day of Pentecost (cf. 18:17 / the only other time the word is found in the gospels / Acts 5:11; Eph. 1:22-23; 1 Cor. 12:13).

The exaltation of the church (16:18, “prevail”). The momentous statement concludes with a prophecy and assurance of the ultimate victory of the church. There are different ways of interpreting the last clause, but the most likely is that He is promising that the powers of evil and death shall never overcome the Church of Jesus Christ. As our Lord said elsewhere, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, if a man keep my saying HE SHALL NEVER SEE DEATH” (John 8:51). The government of Hades is powerless before the one who has overcome death in resurrection and conveys that same overcoming life to others who trust in Him as their divinely appointed representative.

May God enable us, if we never have, to pray with the psalmist, “From the end of the earth will I cry unto thee, when my heart is overwhelmed; LEAD ME TO THE ROCK THAT IS HIGHER THAN I” (Psa. 61:2).

1 Tasker, p. 159.

2 Barclay, 11 153.

3 Tasker, p. 157.

4 Ibid., p. 158.

5 Morison, p. 281.

6 Barclay, II, 155.

7 Oscar Cullman, Peter: Disciple —Apostle — Martyr, trans. Floyd V. Filson (Philadelphia, 1953), pp. 155-238.

8 Cf. Abbott-Smith, p. 359.