Prelude, Purpose, Plan
Protestants, Orthodox and Catholics largely agree on perhaps 95% of the most important teachings of Christianity. Why do we drift from the message that Jesus taught into partisanship and graceless rivalry? For instance, how do we deal with the claim by Rome of exclusive church authority descended from the Apostle Peter? A common proof-text is Matthew 16:13-20. What does this passage actually say and not say to us?
1. Matthew 16:13 Caesarea Philippi
In Matthew 16:13 we read, “When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’” Caesarea Philippi was a city built on a rock to honor Caesar Augustus who called himself the son of a god. The imagery and the contrast with brutal human leadership were evident. In contrast to Caesar, the leaders of the Church of God were not to elevate themselves above their fellows, but become servants of all. The authority of deciding church matters was given to Peter but not to him alone. Jesus later explained that the other Apostles also carried decision-making authority (Matthew 18:18). The rock we build Christian ministry on is Jesus Christ not people.
2. Matthew 16:15-17 Who do We Say He Is
In Matthew 16:15 Jesus asked his disciples, “But who do you say I am?” The answer to that question defines us. Peter answered it and he was named after the Rock of our Salvation. Are we like Peter, rock of the Rock? Some things about God are revealed to us by God alone. What a shame that this passage is overshadowed by those who wish to promote their own flesh and blood church leadership. Yet, when we understand who Jesus is, when that is revealed to us from our Father in heaven, then we too are Rock of the Rock and we receive the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
3. Matthew 16:16 Origen’s View of the Rock
Origen commented on Matthew 16:16 writing, ‘if we too have said like Peter, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God," not as if flesh and blood had revealed it unto us, but by light from the Father in heaven having shone in our heart, we become a Peter, and to us there might be said by the Word, "Thou art Peter," etc. For a rock is every disciple of Christ of whom those drank who drank of the spiritual rock which followed them, and upon every such rock is built every word of the church… all bear the surname of "rock" who are the imitators of Christ...’
reference: ANTE-NICENE FATHERS, VOLUME 9, BOOK XII, 10
4. Matthew 16:18 Peter was Rocky not Pope
We are called Christians because we believe in Christ. We could also be called Rocks of the Rock of our salvation, Jesus. That’s how many early Church fathers saw Peter’s faith in Jesus who is the cornerstone in the Church’s foundation of prophets and apostles (Ephesians 2:20). Jesus nicknamed Cephas as Rock (Peter) just as followers of Christ are named Christian. There is nothing in Matthew 16:18 declaring Peter as first in succession of men carrying sole authority over the entire Church. Nothing in the Bible or in early church writings universally supports the dogma of a Roman papacy as the sole Christian authority throughout the rest of Church history.
Reference: Saint Augustine, Retractions (20.1) and Sermons (vol 6, sermon 229)
5. Matthew 16:18 You are Peter
In Matthew 16:18 we read, “I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church.” Peter is “Petros” and rock is a feminine “Petra” in Greek. Rome says that the rock in Matthew 16:18 was the same word as Peter in Aramaic. Where is the evidence that this conversation was in Aramaic? People from Galilee commonly spoke Greek as well. Does internal linguistic evidence show Matthew was written in Greek and that Jesus most likely spoke in Greek? Are linguistic markers of a translation from an Aramaic conversation absent? Many early church Fathers did not agree with Rome’s interpretation of this.
6. Matthew 16:18 Upon THIS Rock
Does the word “this” make Jesus’ statement “on this rock I will build My church” point away from Peter? It is a feminine Greek pronoun. If Rome’s argument about translating from Aramaic were correct, shouldn’t the meaning be made clearer not ambiguous? Why wouldn’t Jesus say, “upon you I will build my church”? Does the Greek grammar of the word “this” contradict Catholic dogma by directing our attention away from Peter as its intended meaning? What did it point to? Many early church Fathers said that “this rock” was Peter’s confession of faith, while others said it was Christ Himself. Is the grammar then clear that Peter was not the rock?
7. Matthew 16:18 Augustine’s View of Peter
Augustine of Hippo wrote, ‘Christ is the rock (Petra), Peter is the Christian people. For the rock (Petra) is the original name. Therefore Peter is so called from the rock; not the rock from Peter; as Christ is not called Christ from the Christian, but the Christian from Christ. "Therefore," he saith, "Thou art Peter; and upon this Rock" which thou hast confessed, upon this Rock which thou hast acknowledged, saying, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God, will I build My Church;" that is upon Myself, the Son of the living God, "will I build My Church." I will build thee upon Myself, not Myself upon thee.’
8. Matthew 16:18 Chrysostom’s View of Peter
Chrysostom did not believe Matthew 16:18 supported Papal succession. ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build my Church;" that is, on the faith of his confession… He that has built His church upon Peter's confession...’ (1) Peter’s authority over all the world did not continue beyond his grave other than through those who confessed the same faith. "For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ....I have preached Christ, I have delivered unto you the foundation. Take heed how you build thereon, lest haply it be in vainglory, lest haply so as to draw away the disciples unto men." (2)
References: (1) St. Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew
9. Matthew 16:18 The Gates of Hades
In Matthew 16:18 Jesus spoke of the church that “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” In Greek mythology, Hades is pictured as a place with strong gates that do not permit escape. In this context, Jesus most likely used the term as a metaphor for the grave. That which overthrows all other societies will not overthrow the church. Many have tried. Roman Emperors, Zoroastrians, Jews, Persians, Middle Eastern Muslims, Chinese, Indians, Japanese, Bhutanese Buddhists, Russian Communists, Mexican governments, Madagascans, Fascists, Nazis, and North Korean despots all failed to destroy the church. The grave has no power over those who know that they will rise from the dead.
10. Matthew 16:19 Pope Impossible
The Apostles of Jesus Christ were scattered far and wide. How reliable was communication between the Christians of India, Ethiopia, Turkey and Spain? Is it unrealistic to claim Peter’s authority over all these lands in a time when it would have been a matter of practical impossibility? Early church fathers did not interpret Matthew 16:19 as Rome later came to. Could it simply be that wherever the right faith is to be found, there are the keys to the kingdom? How can any one person have a monopoly on that faith? Is that why Paul wrote that no other foundation than Jesus Christ can be laid (1 Corinthians 3:11)?
11. Matthew 16:19 Tertullian’s View of the Keys
In Matthew 16:19 Jesus said, “I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.” Tertullian taught that the whole Christian faith is built upon Peter being the first to confess Christ. What about the keys? Tertullian believed that, ‘(Peter) himself, therefore, was the first to unbar, in Christ's baptism, the entrance to the heavenly kingdom...’ He reasoned that Peter’s confession gave him and any others who showed this same faith, the key to the kingdom, not human politics and a succession of popes in an exclusive church. Indeed, ‘from that time forward, every number (of persons) who may have combined together into this faith is accounted "a Church"’.
reference: ANTE-NICENE FATHERS, VOLUME 4, Chapter XXI
12. Matthew 16:19 Whatever You Forbid/Permit
In Matthew 16:19 we read, “Whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.” As Peter opened the kingdom of heaven by his declaration of faith, so do the descendants of the faith of Peter “declare the terms under which God forgives sin and allows entrance to the kingdom.”1 This is shared by all the Apostles in Matthew 18:18. Their decisions “will have been tied up” and “will have been untied.”2 This is not divine endorsement of mere human decisions but divine guidance, enabling each to be “the faithful steward of God’s prior decisions.”3
1Michael J. Wilkins. The NIV Application Commentary. Zondervan. 2004. 578.
2R. T. France. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. The Gospel of Matthew. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2007. 626.
Rivalry between Christian denominations only damages the message of Christ. Are we not all on the same team? When the Church was truly catholic, long before its many schisms, early church Fathers had no consensus of opinion on Peter’s role. Focusing on things that Matthew 16:18 does not say instead of what it does say dishonors the words of Christ. The passage neither states that Peter was the first pope, nor that he would head an apostolic succession of popes.
Are not all of us (Protestants, Orthodox and Catholics) Christians of Christ, rocks of the Rock when we, with Peter, openly declare that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God”? Because of our confession, are we not also then His “church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it”?
Saint Augustine, Retractions (20.1) and Sermons (vol 6, sermon 229)
Michael J. Wilkins. The NIV Application Commentary. Zondervan. 2004. 578.
R. T. France. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. The Gospel of Matthew. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2007. 626.