Did Jesus actually promise to build His church upon lowly Peter?

In its efforts to bolster its claims regarding the alleged supremacy of the bishop of Rome, the pope, Roman Catholicism had to scour Scripture looking for validating proof texts. They found their primary “evidence” in Matthew 16:

“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! 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 gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’” – Matthew 16:13-18

Catholic apologists argue that the passage teaches that Jesus promised to build his church upon the apostle, Peter, who they claim was the first bishop of Rome, but Protestants disagree. In the original Greek text, the word used for Peter is “petros,” which means a small stone or pebble, while the word used for rock is “petra,” which means a massive rock formation. Jesus was using a play on words to indicate that while Simon was an insecure, rolling pebble, the truth that he had proclaimed, that Jesus was the long-promised Messiah and Savior, would be the massive, unmoveable truth that would be the bedrock foundation of the church.

But Protestants are not the only ones who correctly exegete this passage. Church “fathers,” Augustine, Chrysostom, Hilary, Ambrose, Jerome, Gregory of Nyssa, and Cyril also interpreted Matthew 16:18 to mean that Jesus was going to build His church upon the truth proclaimed by Peter, that He was the long-awaited Messiah and Savior.

“Christ, you see, built his Church not on a man but on Peter’s confession. What is Peter’s confession? ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ There’s the rock for you, there’s the foundation, there’s where the Church has been built, which the gates of the underworld cannot conquer.” – Augustine from “The Works of Saint Augustine” (New Rochelle: New City Press, 1993), Sermons, Vol. 6, Sermon 229P.1, p. 327.

But an even more convincing case against Catholicism’s self-serving misinterpretation is Scripture itself. As in most cases with God’s Word, one passage of Scripture clarifies another and that is the case for Matthew 16. Just four chapters after chapter 16 we find:

“Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Matthew 20:20-28

If Jesus had already granted apostolic primacy to Peter in Matthew 16 as Catholics claim, then why would James and John have requested apostolic primacy in Matthew 20? Does not compute. If Catholics are right, James and John would not have bothered to request apostolic primacy as they had. We see in the passage that Jesus gently rebukes James and John for their ambition and also forbids the Catholic notions of apostolic primacy and an ecclesiastical hierarchy.

Further, in the apostle Paul’s epistles, not only is there NO mention of Peter’s alleged primacy – zero, zip, zilch, nada – but he deliberately contradicts the notion:

“And from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me.” – Galatians 2:6

Peter was certainly a leader of the apostles and was used by God to spread the Gospel, but he was not the pope or the foundation of Jesus’ church.

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17 thoughts on “Did Jesus actually promise to build His church upon lowly Peter?

  1. Excellent explanation of this, brother! Thank you so much for this post. It’s so important that we take God at His Word, so many false teachings begin with take a verse out of context. May the Lord bless you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, sister! Yes, as the bishops of Rome garnered increasing power and advantage, they needed Scriptural legitimacy and twisted a few verses to suit their needs. Thank you and Lord bless you, too!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi I have heard that too but the Church is built on Jesus not Peter agree? If Peter is supposedly the first pope of Rome why wouldn’t Paul talk about him in the Book of Romans? Doesn’t Paul talk about people ine Rome but never once does he mention Peter agree?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Good question. In 1 Peter, Peter says he’s writing from Babylon and historians say the city was extant and had a Christian community into the 600s at the time of the Muslim conquest. Of course, the RCC church says Peter used “Babylon” as a code word for Rome.

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      2. RE: Doesn’t the Book of Revelation use the same word Babylon for Rome?

        Yes, it does. But was Peter using “Babylon” in the same sense in 1 Peter? No evidence either way.

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  3. Good post Tom; I especially like the quote from Augustine that identified the rock as Peter’s confession and not Peter himself; it shows that in church history there is not this unanimous belief that Peter is the Pope (which is an unfounded assumption) who is the foundation for the church in a Papist understanding and a papist interpretation of this verse.

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    1. Thank you! Evangelical theologian, D.A. Carson, caused a bit of a stir in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (1984) when he agreed that Peter WAS the rock that Jesus was referring to, but only in a limited capacity. Catholic apologists love to refer to Carson. When you take the entire New Testament into account, it’s clear Peter was not THE rock in the Catholic sense, but was foundational along with the other apostles and the prophets, with Christ being the cornerstone, as cited in Ephesians 2:20.

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      1. Because he’s so respected, his dismissal of the petros-petra argument, the classic view held by many “fathers” and then by all Protestants, has had an impact on evangelical academicians.

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  4. There is a problem with your commentary on the translation on the historical facts of the manuscripts of Matthew’s Gospel. Many claims that the Gospel of Matthew was written in Aramaic, which is historically recorded in The History of the Church by Eusebius. As such, in the original language–Aramaic–Jesus said Kepha, not Petros or Petra; furthermore, the only distinction of wordplay would occur in Attic Greek, Gospel Greek is Koine dialect, which makes no distinctions between Petros and Petra. Those who have studied Classical languages at university, like myself, will also assert that the difference is rendered in Greek because the Classical languages have gendered nouns, whereas Aramaic does not.

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