“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death 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 16:18-19)
Steve Ray comments in his book “Upon This Rock” that perhaps more ink has been spilled over Matthew 16:18 than any other verse in the Bible. Catholics have long looked to this verse to support our view of the papacy – Christ renamed Simon to be “Peter,” meaning “rock,” and stated he would build his Church on this rock. This claim has been challenged by Protestants and Orthodox alike, and over these few words volumes have been penned to challenge the Catholic claim and present competing viewpoints.
These other viewpoints can vary. Some claim Christ is not speaking to the person of St. Peter, but rather to his faith. Christ had just asked the question of his apostles – “Who do men say that the Son of man is?’ The apostles responded with “Some say John the Baptist, others say Eli′jah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Christ then specifically asked them “But who do you say that I am?’ As is most often the case, it is Peter who replied for the apostles, and his response is “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus responded to his profession of faith with “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 16:13-17)
Catholics don’t disagree Christ intended to build his Church on Peter’s confession of faith. The Catechism says this – CCC424 “Moved by the grace of the Holy Spirit and drawn by the Father, we believe in Jesus and confess: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ On the rock of this faith confessed by St. Peter, Christ built his Church.” However, we do not think it’s possible to separate Peter’s confession of faith from the person of St. Peter. It is important to remember Peter’s confession of faith is not what prompted Christ to change his name to mean “rock.” Christ changed his name from Simon to Peter the first time he laid eyes on him (John 1:42).
So the Catechism also expresses this about Peter: CCC552 “Simon Peter holds the first place in the college of the Twelve; Jesus entrusted a unique mission to him. Through a revelation from the Father, Peter had confessed: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Our Lord then declared to him: ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.’ Christ, the ‘living Stone’, thus assures his Church, built on Peter, of victory over the powers of death. Because of the faith he confessed Peter will remain the unshakable rock of the Church. His mission will be to keep this faith from every lapse and to strengthen his brothers in it.”
What seems to be a more recent objection to the Catholic view of Matthew 16:18 is when Christ says “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,” the “rock” he intends to build his church upon is not referring to Peter at all, but rather to Christ himself. In general there are two primary arguments used to make this case, and I will address the first in this post. In 1 Corinthians 3:11, Scripture refers to Christ as being the “foundation” so there is a view it would be contradictory to think Peter is the “rock” upon which the Church is built. Scripture also has an abundance of Old Testament references God is our rock (Genesis 49:24, Deuteronomy 32:4, 32:15, 32:18, 1 Samuel 2:2, 2 Samuel 22:2-3, 32, 47, 23:3, Psalm 18:2, 18:31, 19:14, 31:2-3, 42:9, 62:2-7, 71:3, 78:35, 89:26, 92:15, 94:22, 95:1, 144:1-2, Isaiah 17:10, 26:4, 30:29, 44:8).
This becomes a problem of “mixing metaphors.” From the Catholic perspective, in Matthew 16:18 when Christ tells Peter he is the “rock,” Christ says he will build his Church on that rock. So Peter is the “rock” and Christ is the “builder.” In the 1 Corinthians 3:11 passage where St. Paul says there is no “foundation” other than Christ, the previous verse indicates St. Paul is the builder (1 Corinthians 3:10-11). Does St. Paul’s reference to himself as the “builder” contradict Christ when he says he is the builder in Matthew 16:18? And in Ephesians 2:20 St. Paul says the Church is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone,” and Revelation 21:14 says “And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” Do these verses contradict 1 Corinthians 3:11 that says the only foundation is Christ? Mixing metaphors is never a good idea – each is conveying something specific.
Each of these metaphors portrays a somewhat different image of the deeper reality. Jesus IS indeed the rock, the foundation and the builder. The way he manifests that to us is through Peter and the apostles. The only image that does not seem to be “shared” in some way with the apostles is that of Christ being the “cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20) – the Church belongs to Christ alone.
Often in class to bring home this point I will do an exercise where I give two groups a different passage of Scripture from the same chapter. One is Ezekiel 34:11-16 where God says “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when some of his sheep have been scattered abroad, so will I seek out my sheep; and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness… I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep…”
To the second group I give Ezekiel 34:23-24 which says “And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.” I will ask the question “Who is the shepherd” in the Bible based on Ezekiel 34? Depending of course on which passage they read, they answer either God, or David. Does God contradict Himself by saying He will shepherd His people and then saying David would be their shepherd? Of course not. The real question is not whether God or David is the shepherd. The real question is how God will manifest His being shepherd to His people, and that is through David. Likewise, the real question is not whether Christ or Peter is the rock. The question is how Christ will manifest his being “rock” to his people, and that is through the person of St. Peter.
It’s also noteworthy that along with all the Old Testament passages that refer to God as being “rock,” there is one individual who is also said to be “rock,” and that is Abraham (Isaiah 51:1-2). That is not a coincidence. One thing Abraham and Peter have in common is God changed both of their names, and this is a rare occurrence in Scripture. God changed Abram’s name to Abraham (and Sarai to Sarah), and the reason God gave is because he made Abraham “the father of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:5). He also changed Israel’s name to Jacob, and he became the father of the nation of Israel (Genesis 35:10-11).
We only see God change the name of one apostle, and that is when Christ changed Simon’s name to Peter. Some will try to argue this point. They will point to when Jesus calls James and John “sons of thunder” in Mark 3:17. This seems to be more of a “nickname” given to them, and this name is never again used in Scripture for them – they are always referred to as James and John, so there was no true name change. People will also point to Matthew, who the Gospel’s initially refer to as “Levi” when he is called by Christ. It’s not really clear if Levi is a surname or how he becomes referred to as Matthew. What is clear is nowhere in the Gospels does Christ change his name. In contrast, Christ changed Simon’s name to Peter the moment he laid eyes on him (John 1:42).
The other example often given is how Saul becomes St. Paul. But again, there is not anything in Scripture that indicates God ever changed his name. Paul left his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus and begins his ministry as Saul of Tarsus. In the book of Acts, it simply says “But Saul, who is also called Paul” (Acts 13:9), and from that moment forward he is referred to as Paul. The “also called” is significant. Most scholars seem to agree Paul had two names – “Saul” as a Jewish rabbi, and “Paul” as a Roman citizen. His choice to become known moving forward as “Paul” accomplished two things. First, it distanced him from the “Saul of Tarsus” who had been known for persecuting Christians. Second, it allowed him to better leverage his status as a Roman citizen, which he does on multiple occasions (Acts 16:37-38, Acts 22:25-29).
The fact Christ changed only Peter’s name again sets him apart from the rest of the apostles. It aligns him with Abraham, who was also referred to as “rock” and received a name change. And while we can certainly agree “On the rock of this faith confessed by St. Peter, Christ built his Church” (CCC424), this profession of faith can’t be separated from the person of St. Peter. It’s important to note Christ did not change Simon’s name to Peter as a result of his profession of faith. He changed his name the first moment he laid eyes on him (John 1:42). With his confession of faith, we find out why he is to be the “rock” on which the Church is built.
I mentioned above there are generally two primary arguments used to try to make the case that in Matthew 16:18 when Jesus refers to the “rock” on which he will build his Church is referring to himself, not St. Peter. I’ve covered the first. In my next post I’ll look at the second.