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‘On this rock’ (2)

February 2016 | by Nick Needham

A fourth reason (continued from ET, January 2016) for not taking the Roman Catholic view that Peter was the first pope of Rome, is the rejection of this idea by a majority of the early Church Fathers.

It is demonstrably not the case that everyone used to believe in the Roman view of Peter and the papacy, until those mischievous Reformers came along in the 16th century and upset the ancient apple cart.

That would be a problem if it were true. Did Christ allow believers to be utterly deceived for 1500 years, and then up popped Martin Luther and the light finally shone? No sane person can honestly believe this.

Did Christ not promise in Matthew 28 to be with his people to the end of the world? Would the ever-present Saviour allow his entire people to be in darkness for 1500 years about who was the head of his church?

Minority view

In fact, the position is very different. The Roman doctrine of Peter and the papacy was a distinctly minority view among the early Church Fathers. Most of the Fathers believed and taught that the rock of Matthew16 on which the church is built is not Peter himself, but the faith he confessed; namely, Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God.

To give a taster of the Fathers, here is John Chrysostom’s exposition in his sermons on Matthew: ‘“And I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church”, that is, on the faith of Peter’s confession. By this, Jesus indicates that many people were now on the point of believing, and elevates Peter’s spirit, making him a shepherd’.

To Chrysostom, the rock is ‘the faith of Peter’s confession’, the faith he confessed. Others too would confess this faith, sharing with Peter the rock-like quality that forms the basis of the church. In this church Peter is a shepherd (but not a pope).

Chrysostom was perhaps the greatest preacher among the early Church Fathers. We find most of the others taking a similar view. My point is not that the Fathers were necessarily right in what they affirmed, but that they were clear about what they denied. So let’s not be taken in by any notion that every Christian used to believe in Peter as the first pope, until the Reformers wickedly broke ranks!

True meaning

Now let’s move on to a positive exposition of Jesus’ words to Peter, ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church’.

The context is all-important. Jesus says this in response to Peter’s confession of faith, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God’. It is this confession that makes him the rock.

So I would suggest that what Jesus means is this: ‘You, Simon, have just confessed me as the promised Messiah, the Son of God. This is the very rock, the living foundation, on which I will build my church: namely, the rock of the confessing believer’.

As Augustine said, Peter here signifies and represents all Christian people. A Christian is one who confesses Christ. True faith cannot remain a secret in the heart; it will and must show itself in the life. ‘If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation’ (Romans 10:9-10).

Simon here, by confessing Christ, becomes the embodiment of all true believers. He is a symbol, type and representative of all those from every age who, in heart and life, acknowledge Jesus as the promised Messiah foretold in Hebrew prophecy, and the Son of God who is the perfect image of the Father.

On this rock, the rock of the confessing believer embodied in Simon Peter, the New Testament church is founded.


There is of course a connection between confessing faith and the One in whom faith is confessed. Christ himself is the true personal Rock on which his church is ultimately founded. We recollect the Messianic prophecy in Isaiah 28:16, ‘Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner stone, a sure foundation’.

If we confess the Messiah-Rock, we become rocks in him; we are named after him. Simon is called petros,the rock, because he confesses Christ the Rock. Martin Luther expressed it well, I think, when he said that Jesus’ words to Simon mean, ‘You have confessed me as the Christ. Therefore you are a Christian, a man of Christ, and on a Christian I will build my church’.

The great Greek theologian of the third century, Origen of Alexandria, put it like this: ‘If we have joined Peter in saying, You are the Christ, the Son of the living God; not because flesh and blood revealed it to us, but by the light of the heavenly Father shining in our hearts, then we each become a Peter. Jesus might then say to us, You are Peter, and so on. For every disciple of Christ is a rock, since we drink from the spiritual rock that follows us (1 Corinthians 10:4); and all the teaching and organisation of the church are built on such rocks’.

The church is founded on the confessing believer. The man or woman of faith joining Simon in confessing Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, is the rock on which Christ builds his community.

And the gates of ‘hell’ — literally of Hades, the realm of death — shall not prevail against this community. It will never die. There will always be a living body of confessing believers on the earth. Other kingdoms are devoured by death, but not the Messiah’s kingdom.

Keys of the kingdom

Before we apply this, let us briefly glance at the second thing Jesus says to Simon 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).

What are the keys of the kingdom? In Judaism, they were understood to be the knowledge of the law of Moses and its practical application, as held and taught by the rabbis.

Jesus endorsed this understanding of the keys: ‘Woe unto you lawyers [religious experts in the law of Moses]! For ye took away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered’ (Luke 11:52).

By the keys of knowledge, the rabbis could open and close the gates of the kingdom. Jesus charges them with abusing the keys, by closing the gates against those who genuinely wished to enter the kingdom. The rabbis closed the gates by setting up false conditions for entry: something other than, or additional to, the faith by which Abraham had been justified.

To whom did Christ entrust the keys of knowledge that would open the gates of his kingdom? Here in Matthew 16 the keys are promised specifically to Peter: ‘I will give unto thee [you singular, Peter] the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou [you singular again, Peter] shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou [you singular, Peter] shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven’.

But, a little further on in Matthew’s Gospel, the keys are given to all the apostles: ‘Whatsoever ye [you plural, all the apostles] shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever ye [you plural, all the apostles] shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven’ (Matthew 18:18).

So the keys were not entrusted to Peter alone, but to all the apostles. They were all jointly given the authority to bind and loose. ‘Binding and loosing’ probably comes from Judaism again. Jewish rabbis used this language to mean declaring things to be lawful or unlawful, allowed or forbidden.

Confessing believers

Jesus is giving to the whole body of his apostles a special prerogative to determine what is lawful and allowed, and what is unlawful and forbidden, in his new gospel kingdom.

Wherever Jesus himself had not clearly spoken on a subject, the apostles were to decide. They exercised this God-given authority in the life of the early church. The earliest church was governed, not by a monarchy (Peter as pope), but by a body of apostles in which all members of the body were equal.

We conclude with some application to ourselves. If Christ builds his church on the rock of the confessing believer, let me suggest two practical consequences. First, we ourselves must be confessing believers if we would belong to Christ’s church, the community of salvation. We join the body of the saved by a confessing faith.

Our minds and hearts must therefore be illuminated, as Simon Peter’s were, by the God-given conviction that Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Redeemer of Old Testament prophecy; the Son of God, in whom God is fully and uniquely present and manifest.

Our faith must also be confessed. When Simon was illuminated, he did not refuse to speak and act. He acknowledged Christ in word and deed. True faith is confessing faith: ‘Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven’ (Matthew 10:32-33).

Confessing Christ does not mean continually blurting out his name to all and sundry. It means being unembarrassed by him; living unashamedly as his people; being ready to defy society if it asks us to deny Him who is the way, the truth and the life; and, of course, obeying 1 Peter 3:15, ‘Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear’. If speech can sometimes be foolish, silence can be treason.

Confessing community

The second practical consequence is that, if Christ builds his church on the rock of the confessing believer, we must join with other confessing believers. Christ does not say, ‘On this rock I will build the solitary individual’. He says, ‘On this rock I will build my church’.

The confessing believer is a stone in the edifice of the church. How can Christ build his church on us, if we go it alone? ‘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’ (1 Peter 2:4-5).

By coming to Christ the Living Stone, we become lively stones whom he builds up into a spiritual house. The confessing believer belongs in the confessing community. It is not an optional extra. It is part and parcel of what it means to have living faith in Christ. ‘On this rock of confessing faith I will build my church’.

Is Christ building his church through us? To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, ‘Ask not what your church can do for you; ask what you can do for your church’.

Dr Needham is a lecturer in church history at Highland Theological College, Dingwall, and minister of Inverness Reformed Baptist Church.

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