Pope Peter, Part V: Upon This Rock

This is the fifth and final post in the “Pope Peter” series which set out to establish  Peter’s primacy from Scripture.  Monday looked at the ministry Jesus assigned Peter to, in caring for the Twelve, in Luke 22; Tuesday showed that Peter was the shepherd Jesus promised in John 10; Wednesday showed Jesus tethering Himself to Peter, referring to Peter (and only, ever, Peter) and Himself as “We”; and yesterday’s post showed the way that Peter was spoken of as somehow more than an Apostle by the crowds of believers, the other Apostles, the writers of the New Testament (including Paul), and even by an angel at the Empty Tomb. For this final post, I’ve saved perhaps the best for last.  The single clearest demonstration of Peter’s primacy from Scripture is Jesus’ blessing of Peter in Matthew 16:17-19.

I. What Scripture Says

A. The Critical Blessing

Matthew 16:13-19 says,

13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

15 “But what about you?” He asked. “Who do you say I am?”

16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

17 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. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome It. 19 I will give you the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven; whatever you bind on Earth will be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on Earth will be loosed in Heaven.”

There’s a lot to unpack, so let’s take it one part at a time.

B.From Abram and Simon to Abraham and Peter

Specifically, let’s look at v. 17-18 first.  To understand what’s going in this passage, compare it to Genesis 17:3-8,

3 Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is My covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. 5 No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. 6 I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. 8 The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”

What do we see? First, we see God blessing Abram personally, and creating a covenant people (the Jews) with him. God promises a whole litany of things to Abram, out of His sheer Graciousness (that is, Abram doesn’t earn these promises, they’re just given to him).  And finally, in the midst of these promises, God changes Abram’s name to Abraham, to signify the promises He’s just made.

Look at how neatly that parallels what’s happening between Jesus and Peter.  First, we see Jesus blessing Peter personally, and creating a covenant people (the Church) with him.  Second, there’s a whole litany of promises again.  Jesus announces (1) the blessing that Peter has already received (Divine revelation that Jesus is the Christ), and then blesses him further, promising (2) to build the Church upon him, (3) to give him the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, and (4) to give him the power to bind and loosen sins on Earth and in Heaven.  Like Abram/Abraham, Simon/Peter doesn’t earn the blessings – the one thing he does right (declaring Jesus the Christ) is because the Father chose to reveal it, not his own intelligence or wisdom.  And finally, in the midst of this, between blessings (1) and (2), Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter.  With Abram to Abraham, it was because he was to be the father of many nations, and that’s what Abraham means.  With Simon to Peter, it was because he was to be the Rock upon which Jesus built His Church, and that’s what Peter means.

The significance of this shouldn’t be missed: Jesus creates the name Peter.  That is, it’s one of only a handful of names (others include Adam, Abraham, and Israel) which are created by God Himself.  And in each of those times, it’s for a very specific purpose: the creation of mankind, the creation of the Jewish people, the creation of the Jewish nation, and now the creation of the Church.

C. The Keys

Now let’s move on to the next part of this blessing, the giving of the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven in v. 19. There are three things to note.  First, this blessing is never given to any of the other Apostles, or anyone else. Second, the power Peter possesses is parallel to the power that Jesus Christ Himself holds in Heaven (Revelation 1:18; Revelation 3:7).  And finally, the giving of the Keys has some serious implications.  Look at Isaiah 22:20-24, in which God says:

20 “In that day I will summon my servant, Eliakim son of Hilkiah. 21 I will clothe him with your robe and fasten your sash around him and hand your authority over to him. He will be a father to those who live in Jerusalem and to the people of Judah. 22 I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. 23 I will drive him like a peg into a firm place; he will become a seat of honor for the house of his father. 24 All the glory of his family will hang on him: its offspring and offshoots—all its lesser vessels, from the bowls to all the jars.

In giving Eliakim the Keys to the House of David, God is making him palace administrator (something like prime minister), and giving him the ability to speak and act on behalf of the House of David. We see this in 2 Kings 18:18, for example, when the Assyrians arrive: “They called for the king; and Eliakim son of Hilkiah the palace administrator, Shebna the secretary, and Joah son of Asaph the recorder went out to them.”  So they call for the King (Hezekiah), and Eliakim shows up with his secretary and recorder.  When Peter receives the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, then, he’s got the ability to speak and act on behalf of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Church.

D. The Binding and Loosening of Sins

This power to bind and loosen sins is a disciplinary power.  We can tell this from the other time it’s granted, in Matthew 18:15-18,

15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

We can tell from this that the power to bind and loosen is connected to the power to excommunicate.  All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and there’s a lot of wisdom necessary to know when someone’s marriage to sin is so grave that the best thing you can do for them to ostracize them from the Church, and treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.  You don’t want some sort of “three sins, you’re out” rule, but you also can’t have people trampling on God’s Commandments without any sort of rebuke.  Knowing when to bind and loosen is a challenge for Christian leadership, and God promises to respect these judgments (an alternative translation of the passage says that whatever you bind and loosen “will have been” bound and loosened in Heaven, suggesting that the Church’s binding and loosening is dictated by God). Whatever the case, we know that the binding and loosening power granted to the Church is enormous. Regardless of whether it’s God responding to the Church’s rulings, or the Church’s rulings derived from God acting first, we know that the Church’s judgments on Earth have the full weight of Heaven behind them.

So it’s remarkable that this enormous power is given not only to the Church acting as a whole (Matthew 18:17-18), but also to Peter, acting as head of the Church (Matthew 16:19).  When Jesus says to Peter, “whatever you bind on Earth will be bound in Heaven,” He’s speaking in the singular.  Catholicism retains this distinction and recognizes the two recipients of this binding/loosening power.  So, for example, only Church Councils and the pope are capable of speaking infallibly.

All of this, in my opinion, lays out Peter’s authority in the Church in clear terms. He’s called to be the Rock upon which Jesus will build His Eternal Church (which will never be overcome by Hell), he’s given the ability to speak on behalf of the Kingdom of God, and to individually bind and loosen sins in the way that the Church collectively can.  No one else anywhere in Scripture is given this level of authority by Christ.  So Peter not only is the leader (as we’ve shown from the previous posts), and not only was called to minister to the others, but was clearly called to serve as God’s chief representative (His “vicar,” if you will) on Earth.

II. The Protestant Response

Obviously, there are plenty of Protestants who disagree with the above interpretation of the passage.  Let’s briefly look at a few of their major reasons.

A. Petros v. Petra

First, is the famous “Petros / Petra” distinction in Matthew 16:18.  Peter’s name in Greek is Petros, while Jesus says upon this Petra I will build My Church.  Joseph Raymond argues that this means that Peter isn’t the Rock Jesus will build upon:

At this point Jesus uses the Greek word for a small rock (Petros) and for a large rock (petra) instead of the Aramaic based Cephas (a stone). This was by design. It is the Petros (the man) declaring the petra (the foundational belief of the Christian Church). It is this belief that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of the living God that will stand against hell and gain salvation. Everything rests on these two points.

This line of argumentation doesn’t work for a number of reasons. First, Jesus spoke to Peter in Aramaic, not Greek.  We know this from John 1:42, in which John clarifies that he’s translating the Aramaic Kepha (or Cephas) to the Greek Petros.  Paul repeatedly refers to Peter as Cephas .  This is significant, since as Brent Kercheville admits in the Christian Monthly Standard, “the Aramaic kepa , which underlies the Greek, means ‘(massive) rock’.

So Jesus spoke in Aramaic, and Matthew translated into Greek (as he did with everything Jesus said).  Why does Matthew use “Petros” instead of “Petra“?  Because they meant the same thing, and Petros is the masculine version of the word for rock, Petra.  That is, Matthew didn’t want to give Peter a girl’s name.  And bear in mind that contrary to what Raymond claims above, in the Greek of Jesus; day it’s not true that Petros meant “small rock,” and Petra meant “large rock.”  Even John Calvin, while denying that Peter was the Rock on which the Church was built, conceded that “There is no difference of meaning, I acknowledge, between the two Greek words Πέτρος (Peter) and πέτρα, (petra, a stone or rock,).

Finally, Raymond’s interpretation just doesn’t work. As a stand-alone theological concept, sure: we can all affirm that Jesus is Rock. But in this passage, Jesus isn’t the Rock He’s referring to, just as He wasn’t the shepherd He was referring to in John 10:3. Go back to the passage. Peter is blessed because (1) God the Father revealed to him that Jesus is Christ; (2) he is Peter, Rock; (3) upon this Rock Jesus will build His Church; (4) Peter has the Keys to the Kingdom; and (5) Peter has the power to bind and loosen sins. To say that # 1, 2, 4, and 5 are about Peter, but that 3 isn’t because it refers to some other Rock (Jesus Himself, faith, etc.) leads to an interpretation which borders on incoherent.  It would be as if God began to bless Abraham in Genesis 17 and then, without any way for a reader to know what was going on, started blessing a different Abraham, before coming back to the Abraham we know and love.  So even though it’s true that Christ is elsewhere described as Rock, in this passage, the Rock has to be Peter, or the passage stops making sense.  Even D.A. Carson concedes that “If it were not for Protestant reactions against extremes of Roman Catholic interpretations, it is doubtful whether many would have taken ‘rock’ to be anything or anyone other than Peter.

B. Did Jesus Change Peter’s Name in Matthew 16?

This is one of the strangest arguments.  To try and break the parallel with Abram/Abraham, Keith Mathison cites R.T. France to claim that “the name Peter ‘is not now given for the first time, for Matthew has used it throughout in preference to ‘Simon’ (which never occurs without ‘Peter’ until v. 17), and Mark 3:16 and John 1:42 indicate that it was given at an earlier stage’” (Shape of Sola Scriptura, p. 188).  Look at those examples. Matthew, in narrating the Gospel, calls Simon “Peter,” even before his name is changed by Christ. And Mark 3:16., in a list of Apostles, starts with “Simon (to whom He gave the name Peter).”  In both cases, it’s a narrative technique to make sure the reader knows that Simon and Peter are the same guy.  Likewise, if you say something like “when Bob Dylan was a child…” you’re not saying he was called Bob Dylan then; you’re just using the name everyone now knows him by (saying “when Robert Allen Zimmerman was a child” will just get you confused looks).

John 1:42 is even more extreme: Jesus looked at Simon and said, “‘You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas’ (which, when translated, is Peter).” Jesus depicts the changing of Simon’s name as a future event in John 1:42.  In Matthew 16:18, that prophesy comes true, when He says “you are Peter.”  And John makes clear the point from A., that the name given by Christ is Cephas, not Petros, and that Petros is what Peter’s name is “when translated.”

C. Did This Authority Die with Peter?

Many of the Protestant authors I’ve looked at tacitly concede that Matthew 16:17-19 probably is about Peter, and then tried to argue that it still doesn’t matter:  Mathison is, unsurprisingly, the most extreme version of this trend:

Ironically many Protestant commentators readily concede that Jesus may very well have been referring to Peter when He said, ‘Upon this rock.’  Rome’s argument is not helped by this concession, because regardless of whether the ‘rock’ refers to Peter, to Peter’s faith or to Christ, Rome has read much more into the text than can be found there.  While many Protestants have not allowed for the possibility that the ‘rock’ is Peter because they believed that this would entail accepting the entire Roman Catholic argument, many Roman Catholics have assumed that if they can demonstrate the ‘rock’ is a reference to Peter then they have somehow proven that Christ established the Roman Catholic papacy in Matthew 16. The leap from ‘this rock’ being a reference to Peter to the doctrine of the papacy, however, is textually groundless. 
Let us assume that the ‘rock’ does refer to Peter. What have we lost (if we are Protestant) or gained (if we are Roman Catholic)? Nothing. Because even if the passage is speaking of Peter, it says absolutely nothing about succession, infallibility, supreme jurisdiction or any other fundamental elements of the modern papacy. (Shape of Sola Scripture, p. 185-186).
The answer Mathison provides to his own question (in bold) is obviously untrue. To say that the Catholic position is “not helped by this concession” is likewise untrue.  Instead, Mathison is doing what all too many Protestant apologists do in this position: namely, demand that every verse supporting the papacy support every single aspect of the papacy that they find questionable.  And if a single passage doesn’t prove, in explicit terms, “succession, infallibility, supreme jurisdiction,” etc., they act as if proves nothing.  There has to be some sort of middle ground.  Just as the Trinity isn’t proved by a single verse, but by looking at the interrelation of numerous passages, the papacy is the same way.
That said, many of the things Mathison claims aren’t in this passage are.  If this passage means what it appears to, papal succession has to be true.  “Hades” literally means the grave, although it’s often a metaphor for Hell.  If the Church’s authority dies with Peter, then Hades has literally won.  The grave triumphs over Peter’s authority, and his authority is quenched. This interpretation is, of course, supported by times when we see Apostolic succession in practice, like Acts 1, in which Matthias is chosen to replace Judas; and in Acts 14:23, in which Paul and Barnabas ordain presbyters (“elders,” priests) for the flock; or in Acts 6:1-6, when the Apostles ordain deacons by laying on hands. So from Matthew 16, we can see that the Church will overcome death (including, of course, Peter’s death). And in Acts (as well as early Church history), we see how this was done: the Apostles ordained   And it doesn’t stop with the Apostles ordaining successors: in Titus 1:5 and 2 Timothy 2:2, we see Paul instructing the men he’s ordained to ordain others and pass the Gospel along through them.
Likewise, papal infallibility is testified to in at least two different manners, perhaps three. First, the binding/loosening power (Matthew 16:19) establishes explicitly that nothing Peter binds or loosen contradicts what God has bound or loosened.  The debate over whether Peter or God binds and loosens first is irrelevant to this point: the fact is that whatever Peter declares bound or loosened he declares with the full authority of God behind him. Second, the Church built upon Peter will never be overcome by Hades.  If Peter or his successors can make declarations binding upon the whole Church that are wrong (as Protestants claim not only can happen, but has), then Hades prevails over the Church established by Christ.  The Petrine Church ceases to be reliable.  And finally, there’s at least a hint of a third promise of infallibility. Look at the way that Peter is protected in Matthew 16:17.  He knows Jesus is Christ because of the Father revealing it, not his own merits.  If everything depended on Peter, the Church would collapse. But if it’s God working through Peter, we know He’s trustworthy.  And v. 17 shows God working through Peter quite plainly.
As for “supreme jurisdiction,” that’s entailed in the binding/loosening as well.  In Matthew 18:17-18, the Church has the binding/loosening authority because She’s the last stop.  If you refuse to listen “even to the Church,” you’re out.  Peter’s got the same authority, for the same reason. He’s the last resort in a theological dispute: when Rome speaks, the matter is settled. In other words, everything Mathison says isn’t in the passage is.  And even if some of the elements weren’t, proving any of the elements of the papacy goes miles towards establishing the Catholic claim, since Protestantism denies all of these elements.

I saved this passage for last on purpose, because it’s the one that most clearly contains all of the elements of the doctrine of the papacy.  By itself, it might look like Catholics are proof-texting.  But if you’ve been reading all week, you already know that even without this passage, the papacy would be the clearly correct answer from Scripture.  This passage is just incredible icing on the cake, eliminating any risk that we were reading too much into all of those times that Peter was set apart and treated differently from the other Apostles. No, Peter was clearly chosen to head the global Church.  And this Church lasts forever (Matthew 16:18; Mt. 28:20; John 14:16) and possesses all Truth (John 14:28; Jn. 16:13; 1 Timothy 3:15). The full weight of the evidence provides overwhelming support for the conclusion that Peter was the first  head of an eternal and infallible Church, and that he had successors.  That’s the papacy in a nutshell, my friends.  I truly hope that this week’s journey through Scripture has been as enriching for you as it has been for me, and feel free to raise any comments or concerns in the comments section below.


  1. Thanks Joe for these wonderful entries. I’ve looked forward to them each day and none has disappointed. God bless and I hope you’ve had a nice birthday (whenever it was this week).

  2. Happy Birthday Joe!

    Yes, God made covenants with a man, family, nation and finally with the world, from Adam, Abraham, David to Peter. It all fits in quite nicely.

    I really cannot understand how people cannot get this.

  3. Thanks Joe. I enjoyed all 5 essays on the papacy. I believe you are helping me strengthen my assurance in the “One, Holy, and Apostolic Church.”

  4. But even Augustine holds that Christ was referring to Peter’s confession as the rock, not his person. And this is obviously the only reasonable interpretation because Christ calls Peter Satan later in the same chapter. Obviously, what he calls him refers to something he has done and not something he is. Agreed?

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