Is Peter the Rock of the Church?

The Roman Catholic church teaches the following:

“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 unshakeable rock of the Church. His mission will be to keep this faith from every lapse and to strengthen his brothers in it.” – Catechism of the Catholic Churh, para. 552

“The Lord made St. Peter the visible foundation of his Church. He entrusted the keys of the Church to him. the bishop of the Church of Rome, successor to St. Peter, is ‘head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ and Pastor of the universal Church on earth’. The Pope enjoys, by divine institution, ‘supreme, full, immediate, and universal power in the care of souls.'” – Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 936-937

The belief held by the Roman Catholic church is that the Apostle Peter is the rock on which the Christian church is built, and the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” were given to Peter therefore providing the power to “bind” and “loose.” Rome also teaches that the pope is his successor:

“The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, ‘is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful.’ ‘For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.'” – Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 882

These claims are based on Matthew 16:18-19 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. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” – Matthew 16:18-19 KJV

Let’s examine both verses beginning with the issue of the rock of the church.

The Rock of the Church

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 was called “satan” by Jesus (Matthew 16:23), 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 Biblical 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

St. Augustine of Hippo

St. Augustine of Hippo (354 AD – 430 AD) gave several sermons on the New Testament. Consider what he wrote:

“For Peter in the order of Apostles first, and in the love of Christ most forward, answers oftentimes alone for all the rest. Again, when the Lord Jesus Christ asked, whom men said that He was, and when the disciples gave the various opinions of men, and the Lord asked again and said, But whom say ye that I am? Peter answered, You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. One for many gave the answer, Unity in many. Then said the Lord to Him, Blessed are you, Simon Barjonas: for flesh and blood has not revealed it unto you, but My Father which is in heaven. Then He added, and I say unto you. As if He had said, Because you have said unto Me, ‘You are the Christ the Son of the living God;’ I also say unto you, ‘You are Peter.’ For before he was called Simon. Now this name of Peter was given him by the Lord, and that in a figure, that he should signify the Church. For seeing that 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 says, You are Peter; and upon this Rock which you have confessed, upon this Rock which you have acknowledged, saying, You are 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 you upon Myself, not Myself upon you.” – Sermon 26 on the New Testament, para. 1

“For men who wished to be built upon men, said, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas, who is Peter. But others who did not wish to be built upon Peter, but upon the Rock, said, But I am of Christ. And when the Apostle Paul ascertained that he was chosen, and Christ despised, he said, Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were ye baptized in the name of Paul? And, as not in the name of Paul, so neither in the name of Peter; but in the name of Christ: that Peter might be built upon the Rock, not the Rock upon Peter.” – Sermon 26 on the New Testament, para. 2

Contrary to the teachings of Rome today, St. Augustine of Hippo clearly taught the Rock was Christ, and Peter, being a type of the church, was built upon the Rock.

The Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven

In verse 19, Jesus tells Peter:

“And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” – Matthew 16:19 KJV

Rome claims that because Peter was given the keys of the kingdom of heaven to bind and loose, this substantiates their claim of papal authority. However two chapters later in Matthew, we find Jesus giving all of the disciples the power to bind and loose:

“Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” – Matthew 18:18 KJV

If Peter was exclusively given the keys of the kingdom of heaven to bind and loose in Matthew 16, then why did Jesus also give this authority to the rest of the disciples?