In this moment, Peter’s name was changed from Simon to Petros. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that Peter himself is the rock, or petros, on which their church was established.
But can Peter be the rock to which Jesus is referring? The name Jesus gives to Peter is Petros, which in the Greek refers to a stone, of a size that could be picked up and thrown. Peter is a pebble.
What then is this petra, this boulder, this huge mass of rock, on which Christ established his ecclesia (his assembly of called-out ones)?
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Matthew 16:13-15
This is the most important question one can ever be asked, and it is asked of each of us: Who do you say that Jesus is? Jesus Himself gives us the answer to this question. He declares that He is the ONLY way to the Father:
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6
Jesus also declares that it is through our faith in Him and His resurrection that we are saved to eternal life:
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies;and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” John 11:25-26
So, if our salvation rests on Him, it is imperative that we answer correctly the question of who He is. To pick up where we left off in Matthew 16, Jesus asks Peter that all important question:
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Matthew 16:15-17
That’s it! Go Peter! He has put his faith in Jesus as God and Messiah (Saviour) It is this profession of faith in Christ which earns Peter his name:
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, (petros) and on this rock (petra) I will build my church (ecclesia), and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. Matthew 16:18
Lest we be tempted to elevate Peter too high in our congratulations to him at his answering this question correctly, Jesus reminds us that it was not Peter’s own flesh and blood self that came to this answer, but the Father in heaven who revealed this to him, just as it is only God who can reveal the Truth to us.
Peter’s declaration of faith can be our declaration of faith, too. Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God. Jesus is the petra, the large boulder, on which his ecclesia will be built.
Remember the man who builds his house upon a rock? That can be you, if you place your faith in Christ:
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock (petra). And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” Matthew 7:24-27 (emphasis mine).
So not just Peter, special, infallible Pope Peter, but everyone who hears Jesus’ Word and obeys it is building his house upon that Rock of Salvation. I want to build my house upon the Rock of Ages, the Lord Himself, and certainly not upon Peter, who is merely a little pebble in the ecclesia, as am I myself.
If Peter (petros) is a pebble, then apostolic succession must be a tower of pebbles. I would rather build my house upon the petra (great Rock) than upon the pile of petros (pebbles).
My interpretation is certainly not a new one. Augustine, considered by Christians and Catholics alike to be one of the most important fathers of the church, clarified his belief in Christ as the Rock:
In a passage in this book, I said about the Apostle Peter: ‘On him as on a rock the Church was built’…But … I so explained what the Lord said: ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church,’ that it be understood as built upon Him whom Peter confessed saying: ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,’ and so Peter, called after this rock, represented the person of the Church which is built upon this rock, and has received ‘the keys of the kingdom of heaven.’ For, ‘Thou art Peter’ and not ‘Thou art the rock’ was said to him. But ‘the rock was Christ,’ in confessing whom, as also the whole Church confesses, Simon was called Peter. But let the reader decide which of these two opinions is the more probable (The Fathers of the Church (Washington D.C., Catholic University, 1968), Saint Augustine, The Retractations Chapter 20.1).
Augustine, by the way, is not only considered a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, but also a Doctor of the Church. This is a special title conferred by the Catholic Church upon those who are considered particularly orthodox in their understanding of doctrine, and whose writings are declared useful as instruction for all Catholics throughout the ages. St. Augustine himself teaches that the Rock refers not to Peter, nor to the papacy, nor to the Catholic Church, but only to Christ Himself, as the One on whom our faith rests.
Now, back to our text:
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:19a)
The Catholic Church declares itself to be the keeper of these keys to heaven. I believe the keys to belong to the believer, through his faith in Jesus to bestow them. Peter was granted access to the same keys that each believer has received through his or her faith. Matthew 7:7-8:
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. “For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.
Notice that everyone who asks, receives. Not just Peter, or the Apostolic succession. You can have the keys to heaven, too, if only you place your faith in the Rock, Jesus Christ.
“Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19b)
The Catholic Church believes that this refers to the power of the Church, through the papacy, to forgive and absolve sins, and to declare infallible doctrine. But we can see that Peter did not have this power, for Paul, an apostle who was outside this Apostolic Succession (see Galatians 1:1) rebuked Peter for his belief that Gentiles had to follow Jewish law in order to be saved, (see Galatians 2:11) and Peter was convinced enough to later speak on Paul’s side of the debate. (Acts 15:7-11)
If you need further proof that Jesus was not referring to Peter as the Rock but to Christ, let’s go back to that passage in Matthew 16, and see what came directly after, for it goes on to show Jesus referring to Peter as Satan!
From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Matthew 16:21-23
Clearly, we cannot derive a doctrine of Peter’s papal infallibility from Matthew 16:18, when he was so obviously fallible in Matthew 16:21, just three verses later.
But don’t take my interpretation of Scripture. Don’t even take Augustine’s. Instead, let Scripture itself show you exactly who is the Rock:
For who is God besides the LORD? And who is the Rock except our God? Psalm 18:31
He is the Rock, his work is perfect: for all his ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he. Deuteronomy 32:4
…then he forsook God who made him and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation. Deuteronomy 32:15
There is no one holy like the LORD; there is no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. 1 Sam 2:2
My God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge, my savior; you save me from violence. 2 Samuel 22:3
The LORD lives! Praise be to my Rock! Exalted be my God, the Rock, my Savior! 2 Samuel 22:47
The God of Israel has spoken; the Rock of Israel has said to me: When one rules justly over men, ruling in the fear of God 2 Samuel 23:3
The LORD is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust; my buckler, and the horn of my salvation, and my high tower. Psalm 18:2
To you, LORD, I call; you are my Rock, do not turn a deaf ear to me. For if you remain silent, I will be like those who go down to the pit. Psalm 28:1
For you are my rock and my fortress; and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me. Psalm 31:3
On God rests my salvation and my glory; my mighty rock, my refuge is God. Psalm 62:7
Be my rock of refuge, to which I can always go; give the command to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress. Psalm 71:3
They remembered that God was their Rock, that God Most High was their Redeemer. Psalm 78:35
But the LORD is my defence; and my God is the rock of my refuge. Psalm 94:22
Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Psalm 95:1
For you have forgotten the God of your salvation and have not remembered the Rock of your refuge. Isaiah 17:10
Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea;And did all eat the same spiritual meat; And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ.
1 Corinthians 10:1-4
That Rock was Christ.