What is meant in Matthew 16:18, “upon this rock I will build my church . . .”?


Statement of the Problem. What is meant in Matthew 16:18, “upon this rock I will build my church . . .”?

Proposed Solutions. Throughout history this passage has been “among the most controversial in all of Scripture” (W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Jr., “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew”, The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, eds. J. A. Emerton, C. E. B. Cranfield, and G. N. Stanton (1991), II, 623) and so there are many different views that have been held by scholars on what this passage means. But the three three predominate views on the meaning of this passage are as follows:

A) The view that Christ will build his church on Peter (CP) is the traditional Roman Catholic view being that seeks to prove the total “primacy” of Peter (Steinmueller and Sullivan, Catholic Biblical Encyclopedia – New Testament, pp. 503-504) but this view has also been held by Protestants without a view to Peter being commissioned by Christ as the first pope (John A. Broadus, “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew”, An American Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Alvah Hovey (1886), I, 358).

B) The view that Christ will build his church on the confession of Peter (CC) is the traditional Protestant belief that seems to have been largely motivated by an attempt to counter the Catholic usage of this passage in proving the legitimacy of the papacy (Donald A. Hagner, “Matthew 14-28”, Word Biblical Commentary, eds. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker (1995), 33b, 470) but there were some early church fathers who held to this view as well (Broadus, p. 356).

C) The view that Christ will build his church on himself (CJ) has been held by many prominent theologians including, Origen, Augustine, and Luther (W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Jr., “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew”, The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, eds. J. A. Emerton, C. E. B. Cranfield, and G. N. Stanton (1991), II, 627). This view relies heavily on various passages in the Bible that call Christ the rock and the foundation of the church (Dallas Seminary faculty, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, eds. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (1984), p. 57).

Preferred View. Solution A, CP, is the preferred view of this student. This view is believed to be correct based on the following hermeneutical principles:

A) The Principle of Word Study

The arguments used in all the proposed solutions depend heavily on the meanings of two Greek words in this passage. The first word is πετρος which is translated “Peter” and the second word is πετρα which is translated “rock”. Πετρος means a piece of rock or a rock and πετρα means a mass of rock or a rock (James Strong, “Greek Dictionary of the New Testament”, Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, p. 57). Proponents of CC and CJ use the difference of the two words to say that Jesus could not have been referring to Peter when he stated that he would build his church “on this rock” because Peter is a little rock and the rock the church is built on is a big one (John Calvin, “A Harmony of the Synoptic Gospels”, Calvin’s Commentaries, IX, 339). Those aligned with CC then draw the conclusion that Jesus must have been referring to the confession that Peter had made about Jesus for, “All who confess the same as Peter are joined to the church – therefore, the church is built on the confession” (Alfred Kuen, I Will Build My Church, p. 111). But there are some problems in making this jump based only on dictionary definitions and ignoring the Biblical usage of the words. To show this we must look at the meaning of another Greek word, λιθος, which translated into English means a “stone” (Strong, p. 45). In 1 Peter 2:8 the words πετρα and λιθος are used interchangeably to refer to Christ and being that λιθος refers to a rock smaller than πετρος (Strong, p. 57) it is not required to conclude that Jesus was not referring to Peter in this passage because of the change in words. Even if it is true that the Greek allows for a strong distinction between πετρα and πετρος as defenders of CC and CJ believe, it must be noted that such a “distinction is almost entirely confined to poetry, the common prose word instead of petros being lithos” (John A. Broadus, “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew”, An American Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Alvah Hovey (1886), I, 355).
To take this argument farther it is helpful to look at another Greek word that is used to refer to Peter throughout the New Testament, κηφας which is a rendering of the Aramaic word, כֵּיפָא meaning rock (Frederick William Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the NT and Other Christian Literature, p. 544). And if it is said that this is mere speculation, we must remember that the Apostle John supports that the word πετρος has its root in the Aramaic when he translates the Greek rendering of the Aramaic word (κηφας) into Greek (πετρος) for his readers in John 1:42. So a likely reason for the two different words in this passage is not that Jesus was trying to refer to two different types of rocks but that when the words that Jesus spoke, most likely in Aramaic, were “translated into Greek, the masculine form petros would lend itself as a more likely designation of a person (Simon), and a literary variant, the feminine petra, for an aspect of him that was to be played upon” (Joseph Fitzmyer, To Advance the Gospel, p. 119). In fact, Christ only directly refers to Simon as “πετρος” once (not including Matthew 16:18 for Jesus addresses himself to Simon first) in all the Gospels (Luke 22:34) while he directly refers to him as Simon eight times (Matt. 16:1, Matt 17:25, Mk. 14:37, Lk. 22:31, Jn. 1:42, Jn. 21:15, 16, 17). From this we can gather that Jesus specifically chose this time in Matthew 16:18 to call Simon “πετρος” for the sake of word-play in relating his nickname to the “πετρα” on which Christ would build his church.
Another aspect of word study that supports CP is that πετρος was not used as a proper name prior to its usage as a name for Simon by Christ (Fitzmyer, p. 119) and so when Christ uses it in this passage to refer to Simon the literal meaning of the word would have been what was on the minds of his hearers. The translation of κηφας into Greek as was cited before (Jn. 1:42) also “supports the view that Kephas is not a proper name, since one does not usually translate proper names.” (O. Cullmann, “Petros [Peter], Kephas [Cephas]”, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Abridged in One Volume, eds. G. Kittel and G. Bromiley (1985), pp. 835-836).

B) The Principle of Literal Interpretation

Even though Jesus was speaking in a figurative sense (the Church is not built on a real literal “rock”) it does not mean that this passage cannot be literally interpreted based on the normal and customary usage of language (Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation, p. 147-148). The natural understanding of what Jesus states in this passage brings us to see a clear word-play with the name “πετρος” and the word “πετρα”. There is no reason for Christ to bring up the fact that Simon’s nickname is “πετρος” other than Christ’s desire to relate Simon’s nickname to the word πετρα.
In addition, when Jesus says, “this rock” which rock is he referring to? Proponents of CC and CJ say that the word “this” proves their respective views, but that “the word THIS makes reference to anything else than the immediately preceding petros is very unnatural. In the sentence, ‘You are Margaret [meaning pearl] and on this pearl I am about to bestow a favor,’ it would be very difficult to interpret ‘this pearl’ in any other sense than as referring to Margaret.” (William Hendriksen, New Testament commentary : exposition of the Gospel according to Matthew, p. 647). Those who defend CC and CJ have to force their view on the text and “depend on bringing in another ‘rock’ and ignoring the ‘rock’ that is already there” (T. W. Manson, The Sayings of Jesus, p. 204). This parallelism between the two words cannot be ignored – the text must be literally interpreted (Cullmann , p. 836). We must not conjure up words that are not there but rather use the words provided in the inspired text in order understand the natural meaning.
Defenders of CJ additionally fail in their interpretation in that they make Christ both the rock and the builder, and this is a very confusing image that goes against the grain of normal literal interpretation (Broadus, p. 356). “As Peter means rock, the natural interpretation is that ‘upon this rock’ means upon thee. No other explanation would probably at the present day be attempted, but for the fact that the obvious meaning has been abused by Papists to the support of their theory. But we must not allow the abuse of truth to turn us away from its use” (Broadus, p. 355).

C) The Principle of Cross-Reference (Scripture Interprets Scripture)

One of the main reasons defenders of CC and CJ believe that Peter could not be the rock that Christ referred to is because of other scriptures that state that Christ is the rock (1 Pet. 2:8) or that he is the foundation that the church is built on (1 Cor. 3:11) and therefore this verse could only be referring to Peter’s confession about Christ or about Christ himself. But this can be countered by the fact that the apostles and the prophets are said to be the foundation of the church in Ephesians 2:20 and in Revelation 21:14 they are the “foundation stones”. Christ is called “a living stone” as are believers in 1 Peter 2:4-5 and therefore we see that it is possible for there to be multiple meanings behind these words in that they do not all refer to one specific person or one specific meaning at all times throughout Scripture. Also in regards the argument that the word “rock” other places in Scripture is normally applied only to God and never to a mere man, it is clear that this name was given to a man by our Lord and so all complaints must be ignored (Broadus, p. 355).
Another verse that is commonly used by commentators of CC bent is 1 Peter 2:5 which refers to all Christians as “living stones” to prove that Peter is not the rock on which the church is built (Calvin, p. 337). But we must notice the difficulty in using this passage to interpret the passage in Matthew because the word “stones” referred to here by Peter is translated from the Greek word λιθος not πετρος. Peter could have easily related all believers to the name that Christ gave to him but he did not. “The apostles are the foundation (Eph. 1:20; Rev. 21:14) because they bear witness to Christ’s death and resurrection. Among the apostles Peter is the first and chief eyewitness.” (Cullmann, p. 836). Peter’s name is unique throughout Scripture and along with it, the special place given to him by Christ as the rock on which he would build his church.

D) The Principle of Context

One of the arguments against CP is that if this view were true, Peter must have exercised an authoritative role over the church but that in Scripture no such role is seen and even the reverse is true in passages like Acts 2:2ff and Galatians 2:11 (Manson, p. 203). But in reality, this argument only does away with the traditional Roman Catholic view in which Catholics add meaning to the Biblical text, giving Peter sovereign authority over all Christians and supposing this authority to be transmissible to their many popes (Broadus, p. 357). Scripture does not back the Catholic view of Peter’s primacy but Scripture does tell us that Peter was of great influence and had a special place among the other apostles and in the church. Peter is always listed first in lists given of the apostles in the New Testament (Matt. 10:2, Lk. 6:14, Acts 1:14), he was the leader of Jesus’s disciples and was spokesman for the apostles (Matt. 18:21; 19:27; Mk. 8:27ff; Lk. 12:41; 18:28), he was one of the three closest disciples to Jesus (Mk. 9:5), he was seen as a leader even by those on the outside (Matt. 17:24), he was specifically prayed for by Christ so that his faith would not fail (Lk. 22:32), Christ gives him special care as he restored him into service after having denied Christ and is called to shepherd Christ’s sheep (John 21:15-17), he preached the sermon on Pentecost and about three-thousand believed (Acts 2:14ff), Peter took a leading role in the choosing of Matthias to take the place of Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:15-22), and again, mainly through the testimony of Peter two thousand more believed after Peter performed a miracle near the temple (Acts 3-4), he was considered one of the pillars of the early church (Gal 2:9), and the Apostle Paul went to Jerusalem to “become acquainted” with Peter (Gal 1:18).
Many of the CC and CJ persuasion cite two passages after Matthew 16:18 where the disciples asked a question about who would be greatest in the kingdom (Matt. 18:1) and where James and John’s mother asked that her two sons might have the seats on the right and left of Christ in his kingdom (Matt. 20:21) as proof that Christ had not given any type of primacy to Peter (John MacArthur Jr., “Matthew 16-23”, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, ed. (1988), 29). But the position that the disciples wanted, was not the position that Christ gave to Peter, for they wanted to lord their position over others as is seen in the response that Christ gives after the request made by James and John’s mother (Matt. 20:25). The position that Christ gave to Peter in Matthew 16:18 is not such that he could lord it over others, for that is against Christ’s explicit teaching (Matt. 20:25). But rather, Peter is “the first among equals” (Broadus, p. 358). Christ’s words about Peter do not mean that Peter was made sovereign over his fellows, but rather that, “because of his significant name, appropriate character, spokemanship on this occasion, and recognized leadership in general” (Broadus, p. 358), the church was built on him by Christ.

E) The Checking Principle

While it is true that throughout history there have been many godly men on all three sides of this issue, checking Biblical scholarly resources confirm that many of these men have held and do hold to the CP solution as does this student. Included in the many who hold to the CP solution are: Broadus (pp. 355-360), France (pp. 254-256), Hendriksen (pp. 645-650), Davies-Allison (pp. 623-634), Manson (pp. 204-205), Cullmann (pp. 835-836), and Hagner (pp. 469-472).

One Response to What is meant in Matthew 16:18, “upon this rock I will build my church . . .”?

  1. Ben says:

    Good work … sounds to me like a thorough, unbiased evaluation. But disagreeing with John MacArthur’s interpretation? I bet you get marked down for that. :)

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