WHAT DID JESUS MEAN CALLING PETER A ROCK? Part 1: A Study in 1 Peter

WHAT DID JESUS MEAN CALLING PETER A ROCK? Part 1: A Study in 1 Peter

For high-profile leaders, there is likely at least one public controversy that follows them for their entire life. For Peter, his high- profile controversy regarding his commission from Jesus has followed him to this very day and has resulted in the family feud between Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians.

Matthew 16:16–19 records Jesus’ commission of Peter:

Simon Peter replied [to Jesus], “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. 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.” 

This section is one of the most debated passages of the entire New Testament, and in many ways a dividing line between Protestant and Catholic Christians. This old family feud has two main interpretations, with many variations. Raised Catholic, attending a Catholic school for a few years, and serving as an altar boy assisting the priest with mass, I was taught that this verse was the establishing of Peter as the first bishop of the church, leading to apostolic succession and the papacy where men, starting with Peter, had the power to forgive sins, and exercise the authority of heaven on earth. Once I started attending a Protestant church in college, I was told that the church was not founded on any man but Jesus Christ, including Peter, and the rock of our salvation is faith that confesses Jesus as the Christ and Son of God, as Peter did.

One Bible commentator summarizes the debate surrounding who or what the rock is, saying, “Maybe excessive heat has dimmed light on this matter. Peter is the spokesman of the Twelve, for good or ill. Nowhere is it clearer than here. At one moment he is commended as the recipient of divine revelation (17): the next sees him rebuked as the dupe of Satan (23). The Catholics have the more natural interpretation of the passage, up to a point. It is more probable that Peter (Petros in Greek) is the rock (petra in Greek) on which the church is to be built than that anything else, such as his faith, is given that role. The word-play is irresistible. The rock is not just Peter, however, but Peter in his confessional capacity. Peter, full of trust in the Son of God, is the one who will become the rock-man for the early church. He did become just that, as the early chapters of Acts reveal. It is Peter who preaches the first evangelistic sermon, but Peter as representative of the Twelve. And if the Catholics are right in thinking it is primarily Peter, albeit the believing Peter, who becomes the church’s rock-man, the Protestants are surely right in pointing out that the passage contains no hint that this role should devolve on any successors in Rome or anywhere else. It affords no grounds for the claims preferred by the papacy; in fact, this verse was not attached to those claims until long after they were first put forward. The point is this: Jesus had found in Peter a real believer, and on that foundation he could build his church.” (1)

Delving into the Greek language in which the New Testament was first written, a scholarly New Testament reference library resource adds further insight saying, “the name Peter means ‘rock.’ In the Greek text this word is masculine (spelled petros), and describes a small piece of rock (something like a pebble). The word used in the phrase on this rock is feminine (spelled petra) and describes a large boulder or a mass of rock such as that found at the cliffs along the seacoast. Although some have proposed that Peter was to become the rock on which the church would be built, it appears that Jesus was using a play on words that, in effect, made the very opposite point. We might paraphrase Jesus’ words as follows: “You’re a small rock, Peter, but upon the greater rock that you have confessed, the truth of who I am, I will build my church.” (2)

(1) Michael Green, The Message of Matthew: The Kingdom of Heaven, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 179–180.

(2) Doug Redford, The Life and Ministry of Jesus: The Gospels, vol. 1, Standard Reference Library: New Testament (Cincinnati, OH: Standard Pub., 2007), 183.

To download the free e-book ODD LIFE: Good God which is a study in 1 Peter for individuals, groups, and families from Pastor Mark click HERE. To listen to Pastor Mark’s 9 sermons on 1 Peter preached in the summer of 2020, click HERE. These and other resources are made possible by our ministry partners who support Real Faith as a Bible teaching ministry of Mark Driscoll Ministries to whom we say THANK YOU! 

Mark Driscoll
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