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By Spencer D Gear PhD
‘And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’ (Matt 16:18 ESV).
This verse has caused controversy for 2,000 years. It shouldn’t if we knew the context and the Greek language used.
1. Roman Catholic teaching
The Roman Catholic interpretation is that the apostle Peter is the foundation of the Catholic Church. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 concluded:
Wherefore the most holy and blessed Leo, archbishop of the great and elder Rome, through us, and through this present most holy synod, together with the thrice blessed and all-glorious Peter the apostle, who is the rock and foundation of the Catholic Church, and the foundation of the orthodox faith, has stripped him [Dioscorus] of the episcopate (Extracts from the Acts of the Council, Session III, emphasis added).
Catholic Straight Answers leaves no doubt: ‘Without question, St. Peter was the first pope of the Catholic Church’.
2. Greek and Peter the Pope
Does the NT Greek text confirm Peter as the first Pope, according to this verse?
‘You are Peter’. Here, Peter is the Greek, petros (masculine), which was a proper name for the Aramaic, Cephas.
Then there is a pun, a play on words. This pun has caused theological heart-burn down through the centuries.
‘on this rock’ uses petra (feminine) for rock and not petros – and a different gender. What could Jesus be referring to?
Some interpreters have tried to see Peter as a rock on which Jesus builds his church but Jesus is the foundation.
A play on words is common in Scripture (e.g. Ex 3:14) and should not be minimised because of this. It is still God-breathed Scripture.
It is true petros and petra mean ‘stone’ and ‘rock’ respectively in earlier Greek than the NT. However, in this passage, Jesus probably means in the underlying Aramaic, ‘You are kepha and on this kepha’ since the word was used both for a name and a ‘rock’ (Carson 1984:368).
If Jesus wanted to say (through Matthew’s Gospel) that Peter was a stone in contrast to Jesus, the Rock, he could have used lithos for ‘stone’ but there would be no pun used and that would defeat Jesus’ purpose.
The objection that Peter considers Jesus the rock is insubstantial because metaphors are commonly used variously, till they become stereotyped, and sometimes even then. Here Jesus builds his church; in 1 Corinthians 3:10, Paul is “an expert builder.” In 1 Corinthians 3:11, Jesus is the church’s foundation; in Ephesians 2:19-20, the apostles and prophets are the foundation (cf. also Rev 21:14), and Jesus is the “cornerstone.” Here Peter has the keys; in Revelation 1:18; 3:7, Jesus has the keys. In John 9:5, Jesus is “the light of the world”; in Matthew 5:14, his disciples are. None of these pairs threatens Jesus’ uniqueness. They simply show how metaphors must be interpreted primarily with reference to their immediate contexts (Carson 1984:368).
‘On this rock’ refers to a ledge or cliff of rock as in Matt 7:24 where the wise man built his house on the rock. Petros is usually a smaller piece of rock. However, we shouldn’t make too much of this distinction as Jesus probably spoke Aramaic and the pun was used regularly.
The point is that Jesus is speaking of the building of the ekklesia (church). In the NT ekklesia is used of both a local congregation and in the general sense of ‘the church’. Usually, the word referred to a local assembly (e.g. Acts 19:39) but became associated with an unassembled group that was persecuted (Acts 8:3).
A T Robertson’s conclusion is sound:
The wealth of imagery in Matthew 16:18 makes it difficult to decide each detail, but the main point is clear. The ekklesia which consists of those confessing Christ as Peter has just done will not cease. The gates of Hades or bars of Sheol will not close down on it. Christ will rise and will keep his church alive (Robertson 1930:131-132).
3. Peter not first Pope
Peter could not have been the first Pope for a number of reasons (based on Geisler & Howe 1992:347-348):
Popes and RC priests are celibate but Peter was married (Matt 8:14).
We know from Gal 2:14, Paul had to rebuke Peter for his hypocrisy because ‘they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel’. Peter was not infallible in his teachings and practice.
The Roman Catholic Church clearly contradicts Scripture by making the Pope the foundation of the Church. The RCC website states:
Jesus spoke Aramaic, and, as John 1:42 tells us, in everyday life he [Jesus] actually referred to Peter as Kepha or Cephas (depending on how it is transliterated). It is that term which is then translated into Greek as petros. Thus, what Jesus actually said to Peter in Aramaic was: “You are Kepha and on this very kepha I will build my Church” (What the Early Church Believed: Peter as Pope).
This article then provides examples from the Early Church Fathers that ‘Jesus promised to build the Church on Peter’ – the first Pope.
However, this clashes with 1 Corinthians 3:11 (NIV) which states, ‘For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ’.
The church is ‘built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone’ (Eph. 2:20 NIV). It is not built on Peter, the first Pope. What did the early church do? ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer’ (Acts 2:42). It was not a devotion to the apostle Peter’s teaching.
Peter was not head of the first church council in Jerusalem.
There is no indication that Peter was the head of the early church. When the first council was held at Jerusalem, Peter played only an introductory role (Acts 15:6–11). James seems to have a more significant position, summing up the conference and making the final pronouncement (cf. Acts 15:13–21). In any event, Peter is never referred to as the “pillar” in the church. Rather, Paul speaks of “pillars” (plural), such as, “James, Cephas, and John” (Gal. 2:9). Peter (Cephas) is not even listed first among the pillars (Geisler & Howe 1992:348)
Some Protestant interpreters want to make ‘this rock’ refer to Peter who gave the solid (rock-like) testimony that Jesus was ‘the Christ, the son of the living God’ (Matt 16:16).
However, a significant difficulty with this view is that Peter was a rock and not the rock. And he was not ‘the only apostolic rock. Peter affirmed this in his own writing:
So the honour is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone” (1 Peter 2:7 ESV)
There is nothing in this passage about Peter’s and his successors’ infallibility, exclusive authority when speaking ex cathedra. It creates overwhelming exegetical and historical problems for this position, especially after Peter’s death and the appointment of another apostle to replace him.
What the NT does show is that Peter is the first to make this formal confession and that his prominence continues in the earliest years of the church (Acts 1-12). But he, along with John, can be sent by other apostles (Acts 8:14); and he is held accountable for his actions by the Jerusalem church (Acts 11:1-18) and rebuked by Paul (Gal 2:11-14). He is, in short, primus inter pares (“first among equals”); and on the foundation of such men (Eph 2:20), Jesus built his church (Carson 1984:368).
4. ‘The gates of hell shall not prevail against it’
‘Hell’ is Hades in this text. Some interpreters consider this indicates Satan’s strength with his legion of followers because ‘gates’ in other biblical and non-biblical literature points to defence (5:22; 11:23). They see the church, being built by God, as not being defeated by the hosts of darkness (Gen 22:17; Ps 127:5).
Other interpreters focus on Hades and Rev 1:18, claiming that ‘death will not prevent Messiah’s people from rising at the last day…. But
“Gates of Hades” … seems to refer to death and dying…. Because the church is the assembly of people Jesus Messiah is building, it cannot die. This claim is ridiculous if Jesus is nothing above an overconfident popular preacher in an unimportant vassal state of first-century Rome. It is the basis of all hope for those who see Jesus as the Messiah who builds his church (Carson1984:370).
That seems to be the most reasonable conclusion I’ve encountered.
So, that leads to these Bible translations: the powers of death will not overcome the church (RSV), will not have any power over it (CEV), will not prevail against it (ESV, NRSV), will not overpower it (CSB, NIV), ‘will not be able to defeat my church’ (ERV), will not conquer it (NLT), and will not be strong enough to destroy it’ (NIRV).
These verses contain other controversial issues. See my article on Matthew 16:19 – binding and loosing.
5. Works consulted
Büchsel, F 1964. Dew, luw. In Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, G. Kittel (ed.), G W Bromiley (transl. & ed.), vol 2, 60-61. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Carson, D. A. 1984. Matthew. In F. A. Gaebelein (Gen. Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Vol. 8), (pp. 1-599). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Regency Reference Library (Zondervan Publishing House).
Edersheim, A 1953. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans. Christian Classics Ethereal Library, public domain. Available at: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edersheim/lifetimes.html (Accessed 28 January 2020).
Geisler, N & Howe, T 1992. When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books.
MacArthur, J 1969. Does the Bible teach that Christians can bind Satan and demons? Grace to You (online). Available at: https://www.gty.org/library/questions/QA150/does-the-bible-teach-that-christians-can-bind-satan-and-demons (Accessed 28 January 2020).
Robertson, A T 1930. Word Pictures in the New Testament (vol. 1, Matthew and Mark). Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press.
Copyright © 2020 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 05 January 2020.