One of the most hotly-contested passages in Catholic-Protestant dialogues is the “Upon This Rock” passage in Matthew 16:18. After the Apostle Simon confesses faith in Jesus as the Messiah (the Christ), Jesus says to him “And I tell you, you are Peter, [Petros] and on this rock [petra] I will build my church, and the powers of death [Hades] shall not prevail against it.” A lot has been written on the Catholic interpretation of this passage, to the point that we often overlook that the alternative, the Protestant explanation of the passage, doesn’t work, as it’s built upon assumptions denied elsewhere in Scripture. (For a good primer on this explanation, see the following Protestant website)
In the Standard Protestant view, the “Rock” Jesus builds His Church upon is the faith of Saint Peter … and the faith of all Christians. I’ve previously presented the case for the Catholic interpretation before, but that’s not what I’m going to do today. In this post, I want to show why the popular Protestant interpretation doesn’t work.
First, let’s examine the Scriptural passage in context. Jesus asks the Twelve, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mt. 16:15). Peter, speaking on behalf of the Twelve, declares, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus then says to him (Matthew 16:17-19):
And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 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.”
In the span of just those three verses, Jesus addresses Peter personally ten times. Yet under the Protestant interpretation, we’re supposed to believe that this passage wasn’t meant to apply to Peter personally. It’s allegedly addressed to any Christian making such a profession like the one that Peter makes: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
There are a couple of glaring problems with this theory. First, we hear Martha making this exact declaration in John 11:27, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.” And you know what Christ doesn’t do? Change her name to Petra, and promise to build the Church upon her. Nor do we see any of the other Christians in the New Testament renamed Peter. The only person in Scripture ever referred to as “Peter” is the Apostle Simon. This looks a lot like Jesus meant to build the Church upon Peter, and not just anyone willing to declare Him the Messiah.
Some will say that we don’t know whether Martha or Peter’s confession of faith came first. So maybe Jesus addresses Matthew 16:18 to Peter because Peter got there first? Well, this raises the other, even more-glaring problem: Peter didn’t get there first. John 1:32-49 eliminates any room for the Protestant interpretation of the “Upon This Rock” passage. It’s a fantastic passage, containing four different people’s professions of faith in Christ:
- First, John the Baptist proclaims Jesus as the Son of God (John 1:34) and the Lamb of God (John 1:36).
- The Apostle Andrew, Simon’s brother, proclaims Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ (John 1:41).
- The Apostle Philip proclaims Jesus as “him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote,” which is to say, the Messiah (John 1:45).
- The Apostle Nathaniel proclaims Jesus as “the Son of God” and “the King of Israel” (John 1:49).
And right in the midst of all of this, Jesus does something remarkable (John 1:40-42):
One of the two who heard John speak, and followed him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon, and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him, and said, “So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter).
Bear in mind that Peter is literally the only named in this passage who doesn’t profess faith in Christ is Simon Peter. He’s not recorded as saying anything. Yet right in the midst of this flurry of Messianic proclamations, Jesus turns to Simon, and as if He has been waiting for him, says “So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas.” And notice that Jesus calls Simon by name, including his family name (so to speak). He does the exact same thing in Matthew 16:18. This is as personal as it gets.
Basically: (1) everyone but Simon proclaimed that Jesus is the Messiah; (2) Jesus then announced that Simon, Son of John, was the one He would choose as the Rock; and (3) Protestants are left spending five hundred years trying to explain why this passage doesn’t mean that Simon is really the Rock, or is personally the Rock, etc.
Bear in mind, this event happens at the very start of Jesus’ public ministry, long before the events of Matthew 16. This eliminates any chance that Simon is named Peter because he’s the first to declare Jesus the Christ. Jesus was being declared as Messiah before Peter had even met Him. Instead, Jesus has made it abundantly clear that He, the Sovereign God, specifically chose Peter as the Rock.
Peter is hand-picked from among the crowd, even when he is surrounded by men who seem like they would be better candidates. It is another reminder that “the LORD sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). And Peter alone is renamed. We may all be rocks (Peter calls us “living stones” in 1 Peter 2:5) but Jesus (the “Living Stone” in the fullest sense, 1 Peter 2:4) chose one from among of us, the Apostle Peter, to be the Rock upon which He built the Church.
*This Article originally appeared at the blog Shameless Popery and has been reposted with the permission of the author.