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‘On this rock’ (1)

January 2016 | by Nick Needham

An individual rock, petrosThe question of the church’s foundation is a crucial one. On what is the church of Jesus Christ built? What forms her basis, giving her stability and security?

Biblically, there is, in fact, more than one answer to this question about the foundation of the church. But one particular answer that has attracted much controversy lies in Jesus’ words to Peter in Matthew 16:18: ‘And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’.

Word play

So in some sense, it would seem, Peter is the foundation of the church. But in what sense? Perhaps the first thing to say is that there is here a play on words in the original Greek that does not come across in the English.

In Greek, ‘Peter’ is petros, which means ‘a rock’. But when Jesus says ‘on this rock, I will build my church’, the word used here for ‘rock’ is petra: ‘Thou art petros, and on this petra I will build my church’. The difference between petros and petra is the difference between the individual and the general. Petros means an individual rock or stone; petra means rock in general, an undifferentiated mass of rock.

So there is this close relationship between petros and petra: between Peter, the individual rock, and that rock on which the church is built. They clearly belong together.

Next we should consider the important statement, ‘Thou art Peter’. When Jesus said this, was he merely telling Peter his name? ‘Peter, you are Peter’? Hardly! Peter’s birth-name was not actually Peter at all. His birth-name was Simon; ‘Simon Bar-Jonah’, Simon the son of Jonah. It is Jesus who then renames him Peter, ‘the rock’. This is a new name bestowed by the Lord on Simon.

We have this foreshadowed in John’s Gospel: ‘He [that is, Andrew] first findeth his own brother Simon, and saith unto him, We have found the Messiah, which is, being interpreted, the Christ. And he brought him to Jesus. And when Jesus beheld him, he said, Thou art Simon the son of Jona: thou shalt be called Cephas, which is by interpretation, A stone’ (John 1:41-42).

‘Cephas’ is the Aramaic form of Peter; it too means a rock or a stone. So Simon is the man’s birth-name; Cephas (Aramaic) or Peter (Greek), the rock, is a new name given to Simon by the Saviour.

The renaming of persons is found elsewhere in Scripture. There are famous instances in the Old Testament. ‘Abram’ was renamed ‘Abraham’; ‘Abram’ means ‘exalted father’; ‘Abraham’ means ‘father of a multitude’. ‘Jacob’ was renamed ‘Israel’; ‘Jacob’ means ‘heel-grasper’; ‘Israel’ means ‘a prince with God’. ‘Hoshea’ was renamed ‘Joshua’; ‘Hoshea’ means ‘salvation’; Joshua means ‘the Lord is salvation’.

Renaming Simon

So the renaming of Simon as Peter is not a mysterious isolated irregularity; it is part of a biblical pattern. When a person is renamed in Scripture, it signifies something important. When ‘Abram’ was renamed ‘Abraham’, ‘father of a multitude’, it was to signify that, despite his childless condition in old age, God would make him fruitful by divine power, and give him descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.

A mass of rock, petra

When ‘Jacob’ was renamed ‘Israel’, ‘a prince with God’, it signified that his old life was over — the life of fleshly wisdom and self-seeking — and a new life was beginning, characterised by a close and true relationship with God and enjoying the favour of God.

When ‘Hoshea’ was renamed ‘Joshua’, ‘the Lord is salvation’, it signified that the man would be the instrument of a salvation, whose true origin was not the man himself but the God he worshipped.

So what did it signify when the Lord renamed Simon and called him petros, the rock? It must obviously have something to do with the church’s foundation. That is the whole point of this imagery of rock: ‘You are the rock, petros, and on this rock, petra, I will build my church’.

There is something about Simon in this place, in this context in Matthew’s Gospel, that manifests the foundation of his Master’s church. So there must be some quality in this man Simon Bar-Jonah that involves the basis on which the church is built. Can we discern what that quality in Simon is?

Roman Catholic view

One view, held by Roman Catholics, is that Simon Peter himself, in his capacity as an apostle, was the official foundation-rock of the church. In other words, they say that Jesus gave to Peter officially a unique authority to build the church; he was the prince of the apostles, the universal bishop of all Christians everywhere, invested with spiritual sovereignty to teach the truth and preserve it. That is, Peter was the first pope.

Roman Catholics believe that Peter was also appointed bishop of one particular church, the church in Rome; as pope, he was the first bishop of Rome. And Peter then transmitted his God-given authority to a successor, the next bishop of Rome — traditionally a man named Linus — and Linus again to a successor, right down to the present day.

In that sense, then, the church is built on Peter the rock. We must submit to his present-day successor, the present pope, in order to belong to the church that Christ founded. Such is the Roman Catholic view.

Many, however, have not found this interpretation convincing. The entire Eastern Orthodox Church and all Protestants have historically rejected the Roman Catholic understanding. Let me briefly suggest four reasons for not taking the Roman Catholic view of Peter in Matthew 16.


First, we have the relationship between ‘Thou art Peter’ and Simon’s confession of faith. Any sound interpretation must take that confession into account. So perhaps Jesus is saying, ‘Simon, you have confessed your faith in me as the Messiah, God’s Son. Therefore, I appoint you as the supreme bishop, the pope’.

But did the other apostles not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, God’s Son? Simon’s brother Andrew knew Jesus before Simon did. Andrew and John were originally disciples of John the Baptist and then followed Jesus; Simon was not and did not.

Andrew went and said to his brother Simon, ‘We have found the Messiah, which is, being interpreted, the Christ’ (John 1:41). So the apostle Andrew confessed to Simon that Jesus was the Christ before Simon himself knew or understood it.

After Jesus had called Andrew and John into his service and spoken to Simon, he next called Philip. Philip then went to his brother Nathaniel and said to him, ‘We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph’ (John 1:45).

So the apostle Philip confessed to Nathaniel that Jesus was the promised Messiah. And then, when Nathaniel met Jesus, he confessed, ‘Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel’ (John 1:49).

So we must not think that Simon was either alone or first in believing or confessing that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. Others did, even before Simon. It makes little sense, then, to say that Jesus appoints Simon as the supreme bishop because he believed and confessed. That would only make sense if Simon had been first or alone in believing and confessing.

Paul’s role

This brings us to a second reason for not accepting the Roman Catholic view: Simon Peter does not function as a pope in the rest of the New Testament. If he was the church’s supreme teacher of truth, why is the bulk of the New Testament dominated by the writings of Paul?

Again, when the church was shaken by the Judaising controversy, it was Paul, not Peter, who stood forth as the teacher and champion of truth.

Peter gave way to the Judaisers in Antioch; Paul had to rebuke him: ‘When Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed’ (Galatians 2:11). Where is Peter’s papal authority here? It looks rather more like Pope Paul than Pope Peter!

Even in the two epistles that Peter wrote, he refers to no special authority. He simply calls himself an apostle of Christ, alongside the other apostles of Christ (1 Peter 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1). There is no mention of any other position or authority in the church than ‘apostle’.

A third reason for not taking the Roman Catholic view is the absence in Matthew 16, or indeed anywhere else in the New Testament, of Jesus appointing Peter as the first bishop of Rome. That is integral to the Roman Catholic view, but Scripture says nothing about it. There is certainly nothing about it in Paul’s epistle to the Romans, nor in the Acts of the Apostles. The only church Peter is especially connected with is the church in Jerusalem.

Nor does Scripture say anything about Peter transmitting any special authority to a successor (the next pope). We search the New Testament in vain for any evidence of this.

To be concluded

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

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