As contentious passages of Scripture go, few have been contested as much as Matthew 16:18. Some have sought to argue that the ‘rock’ refers to Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ. It is argued that Jesus was referring to the confession of all believers that he is the Christ therefore building his church on such confessions. Others have sought to argue that the ‘rock’ is a reference to Jesus himself (see Isa 28:16 and 1 Pet 2:8). Jesus is referred to in Scripture as a rock and it is argued that Jesus was stating that he would build his church on himself. Whilst both these interpretations are plausible they do not take a natural reading of the passage. A natural understanding of the passage would suggest that Jesus was actually referring to Peter.
If the ‘rock’ Jesus refers to is Peter himself, and a natural reading of the passage makes this impossible to escape, what are we to say this means for the church Jesus says he will build? The Catholic Church have interpreted these verses as the inception of the the papal office. In reality, the interpretations that see the ‘rock’ as referring to something other than Peter really came into existence in reaction to the Catholic understanding of these verses. As a way of distancing themselves from this teaching a misinterpretation of the passage was adopted. However, given that these verses clearly refer to Peter, can we establish that they were intended to create the office of Pope?
Where we look elsewhere in Scripture it becomes clear that Peter was in no way given an office above the other apostles. In Acts 15 we see, although Peter is present, the advice of James is followed and not that of Peter. We also note in Galatians 2:11-14 that Paul rebuked Peter openly because he “stood condemned.” In rebuking him openly, Paul was showing that he had equal apostolic authority as Peter. Such a situation could not arise if Christ had appointed Peter as Pope as he would have been absolute and infallible (as is the teaching of the Catholic Church). However, we note here Paul rebuking Peter openly and this being correct. We also see Peter in 1 Peter 5:1 refer to himself as “a fellow elder” rather than one appointed to a higher office. We see no part of Scripture suggesting Peter was in a higher office than the other apostles. In fact, we see some verses which show Peter to be rebuked for error and others where he places himself on the same level as other elders in the church. As such, we must conclude that Peter was not instituted into some higher office.
Given this, if Peter is intended to be the ‘rock’ to which Jesus refers, but he is not being appointed to papal office, what is Peter being singled out for? Peter had shown himself to be firm and suitable for laying the foundations of the church. Does this mean that Peter was somehow raised above the other apostles? Of course not! Instead, Matthew 16:19 tells us exactly how Christ was to use Peter. Jesus states:
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 (ESV).
What are the keys to the kingdom of heaven? We know this to be the good news of the gospel. Peter then was to be given the gospel to take to the Jew and the Gentile.
Peter was not given any office or power above and beyond the other apostles. We must note that the second half of this verse is repeated in Matthew 18:18 as an instruction to the rest of the apostles. Given that the other apostles have the same authority as Peter and were clearly instructed to take the gospel to the world how is Peter singled out in any way here? Ultimately, Peter was to be the first to open the door of faith to the world, to both Jew and Gentile alike. We see this happen in Acts 2:14-36 where, on the day of Pentecost, Peter is the first to stand up and address the crowds with the gospel. In this way, Peter is laying the foundations for the church. He was the first to share the gospel with the world and all future work would build upon this.
As such, the ‘rock’ in Matthew 16:18 is clearly speaking of Peter himself. However, this was not a statement to set Peter apart from the other apostles in a special office or with greater authority. Rather, Peter was being given the honour of being the first to take the gospel to the world. Upon the foundation he was to lay Christ would build his church.