Is Peter the rock of the church?

A common belief held by many is that the Apostle Peter is the rock on which the Christian church is built. This claim is based on Matthew 16:18 in which Jesus is speaking:

“And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” – Matthew 16:18 KJV

At first glance, it seems that Jesus did in fact call Peter the “rock” on which He will build His church. However, there are two interpretations of this verse:

  1. “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock (speaking of Peter) I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
  2. “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock (speaking of Himself, Jesus) I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

Are there any clues from the text that could lend credence to either view? Would the Greek text reveal details that are hidden by the English translation? Let’s take a look:

“And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter (πέτρος, petros), and upon this rock (πέτρα, petra) I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

In the Greek text, we find two words: petros and petra. Both are nouns for “rock,” but notice the change of gender between the two occurrences. What are the differences in the Greek between these two words? From Strong’s Concordance, we find the following:

Πέτρος Pétros, pet’-ros; apparently a primary word; a (piece of) rock (larger than G3037); as a name, Petrus, an apostle:—Peter, rock. Compare G2786.

πέτρα pétra, pet’-ra; feminine of the same as G4074; a (mass of) rock (literally or figuratively):—rock.

Throughout Scripture, petros is almost exclusively used to identify Peter. Let’s look at the instances that petra is used:

“Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock (petra)” – Matthew 7:24 KJV

“And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock (petra) I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” – Matthew 16:18 KJV

“As it is written, Behold, I lay in Sion a stumblingstone and rock (petra) of offence: and whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.” – Romans 9:33 KJV

“And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock (petra) that followed them: and that Rock (petra) was Christ.” – 1 Corinthians 10:4 KJV

“And a stone of stumbling, and a rock (petra) of offence, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed.” – 1 Peter 2:8 KJV

From the above verses, it appears there is a connection between the use of petra as an identity of Christ rather than of Peter. Furthermore if Peter is the rock of the church, how can it be that Peter doubted Jesus while walking on water (Matthew 14:30-31), denied Jesus three times (Luke 22:57-62), and was rebuked by Paul at Antioch (Galatians 2:11, 14)?

Other Evidence

From a strictly grammatical standpoint, is the intent of Matthew 16:18 clear? I cannot say it is. However we should be able to look at the rest of Scripture to get a clearer meaning of Jesus’ words, as all of Scripture must be consistent with itself.

If anyone in the world knew the meaning of Jesus’ words, it was Peter himself. What did Peter write?

“To whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious, Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. Wherefore also it is contained in the scripture, Behold, I lay in Sion a chief corner stone, elect, precious: and he that believeth on him shall not be confounded. Unto you therefore which believe he is precious: but unto them which be disobedient, the stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the corner, And a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed.” – 1 Peter 2:4-8 KJV

In Peter’s writings, we find nothing to indicate that Peter himself believed he was the rock of the church. In fact, we find the opposite. Peter describes Jesus as “a living stone” and a “chief corner stone.”

Are there any other Scriptures that could identify the “rock” of the church? Here are a few, and they point us to Jesus Christ:

“He is the Rock, his work is perfect: for all his ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he.” – Deuteronomy 32:4 KJV

“The LORD is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust; my buckler, and the horn of my salvation, and my high tower.” – Psalm 18:2 KJV

“As it is written, Behold, I lay in Sion a stumblingstone and rock of offence: and whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.” – Romans 9:33 KJV

“For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” – 1 Corinthians 3:11 KJV

“And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ.” – 1 Corinthians 10:4 KJV

“Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.” – Ephesians 2:19-22 KJV