Was The Church Built on Peter?

by Tom Wacaster

A misunderstanding of the role Peter would play in the establishment of the church has led to innumerable false doctrines, not the least of which is the entire system of so-called ‘Papal Authority.’ We pick up in Matthew 16 where I left off with the previous article. (click here to read previous article in this series).

What is the “it” (Matthew 16:17) that Simon Peter had received by revelation, if not the fact that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Establishing what the “it” is in this passage, helps in understanding the force of Jesus promise in the next verse. “It” is a pronoun referring back to something (1) previous to this verse, (2) something that was “revealed” unto Peter, and (3) something that was either incapable of being received by “flesh and blood,” or that in some way did not derive from natural observation. The only thing that can possibly fit is the statement that Peter had made, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” of the previous verse.   Consider the following:

It should be noted in Matthew 16:17 that Peter’s acknowledgement that Jesus was the “Son of the living God” was NOT derived from “flesh and blood.” The fact that Jesus uses the word “revealed,” implies that Peter was not taught this by human wisdom or observation. The words “flesh and blood” are used in the New Testament to represent men (Gal. 1:16, Eph. 6:12, Heb. 2:14, etc). It should also be noted that this knowledge that Peter possessed WAS revealed by the “Father who is in heaven.” Peter had received the knowledge, and the conviction of what he had just stated, by divine revelation. The question remains, therefore, as to exactly WHEN or by what MEANS that revelation was made known. The only conclusion we can draw is that Jesus, by His actions and His words, told Peter, and the other apostles, this truth. Boles noted that “God had revealed this knowledge to them, not by any unusual or extraordinary communication, nor by any partial or arbitrary favor to them, but as a result of their faith and obedience” (Boles, Commentary on Matthew, page 344). God revealed it to them through Jesus Christ Himself. The very fact that Jesus came to this earth and walked among men, is incapable of being disputed. Critics attempt to discredit the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But the historical fact is beyond dispute. As Foster noted:It is a historic fact that Christ left heaven, came to earth, was born of a virgin, revealed Himself to men as the incarnate Son of God, and died and was raised from the dead for man’s redemption. It is a historic fact that the leaders of the Jewish nation understood immediately that Jesus was claiming to be God as well as man, charged Him repeatedly with blasphemy, and condemned Him to death on this charge because He claimed to be the Son of God.  It is a historic fact that the disciples of Jesus accepted the teaching of Jesus, believed His claims, and repeatedly declared they believed Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God; that Peter at Caesarea Philippi gave a decisive, dramatic declaration of the faith of the disciples; that the predictions of the death of Christ became a hard obstacle to the maintenance of their faith, and that the actual death on the cross dealt a deadly blow to their faith, but that the resurrection of Christ brought them to fullness of faith in His deity.  It is a historic fact that the disciples repeatedly worshiped Jesus and He accepted their worship…The gospel of Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God, is not based on current messianic ideas but upon historic facts established by the testimony of reliable eyewitnesses (Foster, 707-708).

Now we are ready to take a closer look at Matthew 16:18 – “And I also say unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” There are diverse opinions as to what, or to whom, Jesus referred when He said, “upon this rock I will build my church.” There are only three opinions that have been set forth that are even worthy of examination, namely whether the “rock” is (1) Peter, (2) Christ, or (3) the truth that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus sets forth an imagery of a city, a builder, and a gatekeeper, who has the keys to the city. Even a casual look at the image portrays a city of Whom Jesus is the Builder and Peter the gatekeeper. McGarvey points out that “it is impossible, without throwing this imagery into confusion, to make either Jesus or Peter the rock; for Jesus assigns to himself the position of the builder, or chief architect, and he assigns to Peter that of gatekeeper, or holder of the keys” (McGarvey, 144).  The “rock” then must represent something other than either the builder or the gate keeper. The only thing that is left is the truth expressed by Peter that Jesus is the Son of God—the “it” of verse 17.

This conclusion is supported by carefully noting the nouns and pronouns in verses 17 and 18. Jesus had plainly said in verse 17 that something was revealed to Peter, that something being “it.” But that which was revealed to Peter was the truth that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. In verse 18 Jesus says that upon “this rock,” which if we allow grammatical rules to be fairly applied, can only refer to the “it” of the previous verse, and thusly the stated truth by Peter that Jesus is the “Son of the living God.”

It might be objected, however, that the name Peter in the Greek means a “stone,” and that when Jesus called Simon “Peter,” He was identifying Peter as that “rock” upon which He would build the church. This argument equates “stone” and “rock.” But there are at least two obstacles to this line of reasoning. First of all, there is the choice of words which our Lord uses. To Peter, He says, “Thou art petros, a masculine word which means stone, or pebble. But the word “rock” is petra, a feminine gender, which means an immovable slab, a bed rock foundation. Second, had Jesus intended to refer to Peter as the “rock,” He would likely have said, “Thou art Peter, and upon ‘thee’ I will build my church.”

But the question is raised, Why did Jesus say “Thou art Peter,” unless He had intended that Peter be the “rock” upon which the church was to be built. Keep in mind that Peter had addressed the Lord, “Thou art the Christ,” referring to the Lord’s official title (“Christ”), and His deity (“Son of the living God”). As Peter had used the words, “Thou art,” it was only natural that Jesus would respond, “Thou art Peter.” So, Jesus answers, ‘Simon, son of Jonah…Thou art Peter’ – the symbolical name which had long since been given him (John 1:42), and which referred to the solidity of character he was yet to acquire though he showed very little promise of it at present.

Occasionally it is argued that the ‘average man’ would not see these truths. While that may be said of the ‘average man’ who neither studies nor are concerned, it is true that he may not see these things. But to the man who searches out the truth of God’s word, the truth is quite obvious and easily understood.

I had occasion many years ago to study this very passage with a woman who was a member of the Russian Orthodox Church in Barnaul, Russia. Upon realizing the truth regarding Peter, she immediately arose from her desk, rushed into the hall of the school where we were studying, and grabbed the arm of one of her fellow students, and told her to come learn what she had now realized was the truth. Then she commented to me (through an interpreter), “That is so simple, why did I not see that before?” It was, no doubt, because the veil of false doctrine had clouded her vision. The truth of the matter is that Peter played no more prominent a role in the establishment of the church than any of the other apostles. It is the divine nature of our Lord, and the fact that He is the “Christ” upon which the church was built. Any other position is simply false!

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