St. Peter, the Rock… and the Stumbling Block

Nicolas Poussin, The Sacrament of Ordination (Christ presenting the Keys to Saint Peter) (1630s)
Nicolas Poussin, The Sacrament of Ordination (Christ presenting the Keys to Saint Peter) (1630s)

This is a post about Jesus, but with a little bit about St. Peter and the papacy. But let’s start with Peter. There are two scenes in Matthew 16 that get brought up in reference to the papacy: (1) St. Peter’s confession of faith in Matthew 16:13-20, and (2) Jesus’ rebuke of St. Peter (“Get behind me, Satan!”) in Mt. 16:21-23. On face, the first of these seems to support the Catholic position, while the second seems to contradict (or at least complicate) it. It seems as if the two passages are saying contradictory things about Peter’s role. What makes this even more striking is that the two passages happen back to back. Here’s the full text of Matthew 16:13, all the way to 23:

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesare′a Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do men say that the Son of man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Eli′jah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. 19 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.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.

21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.”

Perhaps one reason that these two accounts seem contradictory is precisely that we are reading them as two separate accounts: one in which Peter speaks well, and is praised, and one in which Peter speaks poorly, and is rebuked. Certainly, the way that most modern Bibles present it, and the way people tend to read it. For example, the RSV:CE  has vv. 13-20 under the header “Peter’s Declaration about Jesus,” and vv. 21-23 under the header “Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection” (several other versions do something equivalent). Several other Bibles do the same. Biblical commentators also tend to treat these two events as distinct: Aquinas does, so does Matthew Henry, so does John Calvin, so do the IVP New Testament Commentaries, etc.

But what if, instead of two separate accounts, we read them as a single account? There are several reasons to read them that way. First, that’s how they appear in the parallel accounts. Here’s Mark 8:27-33,

And Jesus went on with his disciples, to the villages of Caesare′a Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Eli′jah; and others one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.And he charged them to tell no one about him. And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter, and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men.”

Perhaps that could still be read as two separate accounts (in fact, it is divided into two accounts in the RSV:CE), but there’s no getting around the narrative unity of the third Gospel’s account, Luke 9:18-21,

Now it happened that as he was praying alone the disciples were with him; and he asked them, “Who do the people say that I am?” And they answered, “John the Baptist; but others say, Eli′jah; and others, that one of the old prophets has risen.” And he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.” But he charged and commanded them to tell this to no one, saying, “The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

To separate this into two accounts, you’d have to split the last sentence in half: the first half about Peter’s declaration of Christ as the Messiah, and the second about the Son of Man’s need to suffer.

The second reason to read it as a single account is the remarkable similarity between the three Synoptics. Each one presents the following details in the following order:

  1. Jesus asks the Disciples who men say that He is;
  2. The Disciples report the people’s inadequate understanding of Him;
  3. Jesus asks the Disciples who they say that He is;
  4. Peter, answering on behalf of the Twelve, proclaims Jesus as the Christ;
  5. Jesus orders them not to reveal this to anyone; and
  6. Jesus then reveals that He will have to suffer, die, and rise again.

The fact that each accounts emphasizes these details, and in this order is remarkable. In particular, it’s striking that each of the Synoptics shows Christ’s response to Peter’s confession of faith as including (a) a charge to the Apostles to keep silent about this, and (b) a prophecy of His Passion. Reading this as two accounts would put this response (or at least (b)) as detached from Peter’s confession of faith.

Fr. John M. Cunningham, O.P. (Prior of San Clemente, and my Christology professor at the Angelicum), has offered some good reasons to read Jesus’ reaction as being a reaction to the title of Christ: that Jesus accepts the title “Christ” but with certain caveats to make sure that it’s not misunderstood. That reading makes sense of why #1-6 appear in that order: Jesus is aware that the people’s idea of Him is flawed and needs correction and purification, but is also aware that even the Apostles’ faith is imperfect and needs fortifying.

This reading also matches up with several other places in the New Testament. There are two striking moments when Jesus is directly asked if He’s the Christ. In Matthew 26:63-64, the high priest said to Him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” So the high priest calls Him the Christ and the Son of God, and He responds by calling Himself the Son of Man. This, by the way, is exactly how He responds to St. Peter in Matthew 16 (go back and re-read it if you didn’t catch it the first time).

The second encounter like this is a similar one a chapter later, in Matthew 27:11. The governor asks him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus says in response, “You have said so.” So what’s going on? Cunningham argues (I think correctly) that all of the people speaking to Jesus are using Messianic title that are true, but which they don’t understand, so Jesus avoids giving a simplistic yes or no answer in response.

Remember that “Christ” means “Messiah” or “Anointed One” and that this was closely tied with notions of political authority (that’s all the more true of the title “King of the Jews”). So Jesus is the Christ, and He’s Christ the King, but He’s not Christ or King in the way that they might be imagining. Jesus challenges our notions of glory by tying them directly to the Cross. That’s why John 12:30-33 says:

Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” He said this to show by what death he was to die.

In saying this, Jesus is both tying the Crucifixion with His Ascension and presenting it as a sort of Exaltation (which it literally was). But the crowd is just confused by this (Jn. 12:34), responding “We have heard from the law that the Christ remains for ever. How can you say that the Son of man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of man?”

All of this is brought to an incredible crescendo in the Crucifixion. In a masterful stroke of Divine irony, Pilate is ultimately swayed to execute Christ when the people cry out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend; every one who makes himself a king sets himself against Caesar” (John 19:12). That is, after spending three years showing that the people’s view of Jesus as Christ and King was incomplete without the Cross, they respond by rejecting Him (still thinking of Christ and King in grossly political terms) and deliver Him to the Cross. Even there, upon the Cross, the people don’t grasp His message, mocking Him by saying, “Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe” (Mark 15;32).

So that’s what seems to be going on in Matthew 16: Peter, guided by the Father, has correctly proclaimed Jesus as the Christ. And Jesus confirms that yes, this is true. But He quickly cautions them not to spread this around (since it would, and did, lead to misunderstandings), and then begins to show them what it means to say that He is the Christ. Peter, still envisioning Jesus’ being the Christ as something glorious in the worldly sense, wants to reject the Cross. He wants Jesus to embrace the sort of worldly glory that the devil tried to get Jesus to settle for in Luke 4:5-6, and Jesus responds by saying, “Get behind me, Satan!”

So what does all of this have to do with Peter and the papacy? There’s one final reason to read these two parts of Matthew 16 as a single account, and it relates directly to the question of who the “Rock” is of Matthew 16. Jesus refers to St. Peter as a “hindrance” to Himself. The Greek word there is skandalon (the root of our word “scandal”), and it literally means something that you trip over, like a “trap-stick” or a “stumbling stone.” So there’s a sort of play on words here: Peter at his best is a rock; at his worst, he’s a stone that we can trip over. It’s showing the two dimensions to the papacy: it’s an important locus for the Church, but can also be scandalous. In one of his earliest works on ecclesiology, Fr. Joseph Ratzinger (later, Pope Benedict XVI) would ask, “Has it not remained this way throughout all church history, that the pope, the successor of Peter, has been petra and skandalon, rock of God and stumbling stone all in one? ”

In a fascinating turn, the same Peter who Jesus names Petros and who He calls both a petra and a scandalon in Matthew 16 will return the favor. In 1 Peter 2:8, Peter refers to Jesus as both a petra and scandalon: “A stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make them fall.” But here, the connotation is different. He’s not rebuking Christ. Rather, Jesus is a scandal because of the scandal of the Cross. In doing so, he echoes Jesus’ words to himself, but with a new dimension: he’s grasped the connection between Jesus’ Messiahship and the scandal of the Cross. Finally, he’s letting us know that Jesus really is God. Why? Because 1 Peter 2:8 is also a quotation of Isaiah 8:13-14:

But the Lord of hosts, him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary, and a stone of offense, and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.

So in Matthew 16, Jesus is clearly referring to Peter as both a rock and a scandal, but in saying this, we’re not denying that Jesus is Himself both a Rock and a Scandal (albeit in a very different way).

(By the way, if you want more on these themes, I’ve written both about why Peter is the Rock of Matthew 16, rather than just his confession of faith, as well as about how so many were repulsed by Jesus.)


  1. Do you think Peter tempted Christ like satan in the desert?
    And he brought him to Jerusalem, and set him on a pinnacle of the temple, and he said to him: If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself from hence. For it is written, that He hath given his angels charge over thee, that they keep thee. And that in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest perhaps thou dash thy foot against a stone. And Jesus answering, said to him: It is said: Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.”
    St Luke 4:9-12 DRC1752

    1. Jeff,

      I don’t think that Peter is intentionally tempting Christ in a Satanic way, but the nature of his objection (be a worldly king! avoid the Cross!) is very much what’s at hand in the devil’s temptation in the desert.

  2. Joe,

    This is a great article. It has deepened my understanding of Matthew 16, making me see things I never saw there before. Thanks…

  3. Very enlightening article Joe. What a picture of our own dichotomous reality we see in Peter and what a blessing it is to see how God used him for His divine purposes in both halves of this single event!

  4. Joe,
    How should we understand the number 424 from the Church’s catechism? Does it contradict the vision that Peter is the rock?

  5. “That is, after spending three years showing that the people’s view of Jesus as Christ and King was incomplete without the Cross, they respond by rejecting Him … and deliver Him to the Cross. ”

    Wow! What a tremendous insight. Divine irony, indeed.

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