Thank you for asking about one of the key questions of the Reformation! The Roman Catholic Church had determined on the basis of Matthew 16:18 that Peter, as bishop of Rome (and all his successors) was the human head (the vicar of Christ) here on earth and spoke with the authority of Christ when he spoke as Christ’s representative (so-called ex cathedra)—hence, papal infallibility. The Reformers, and those following their lead in understanding Scripture, have said rather that Christ himself is the only King and head of the church (Eph. 1:22, 2:20–21, etc.).
In Matthew 16 Jesus and his disciples have gone into a Gentile region (Caesarea Philippi), and he asks them who people say that he is (v. 13). The disciples respond with popular “guesses” (v. 14) which all miss the point that Jesus is divine. It’s at this point that Jesus asks their understanding: Is he only a human, though a great one, or is he something more? Peter’s answer (v. 16) is what sets Christianity apart from all other religions: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” No Muslim, Jew, Hindu—or Jehovah’s Witness, for that matter—can make that confession.
It is at this point that Jesus declares that Peter’s answer is divinely revealed (v. 17). Everyone who confesses Jesus Christ to be the God-man—God come to earth, Emmanuel, God with us—does so by the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3), of whom Peter is the first. Now there is debate among conservative Bible scholars about v. 18, “you are Peter; and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Jesus had already named Peter (John 1:41–42, Matt. 10:2) but now Jesus uses a Greek play-on-words: Peter is petros (rock-man in Greek—masculine), but Jesus follows this by saying, “upon this rock” (petra, which is feminine). Here is how one website summarized the possible interpretations:
Because of this change in Greek words, many conservative scholars believe that Jesus is now building His church on Himself. Others hold that the church is built on Peter and the other apostles as the building’s foundation stones (Eph. 2:20; Rev. 21:14). Still other scholars say that the church is built on Peter’s testimony. It seems best to understand that Jesus was praising Peter for his accurate statement about Him, and was introducing His work of building the church on Himself (1 Cor. 3:11).
All of those possibilities reject the Catholic interpretation. I think it is best to see a combination of things going on: Peter makes a divinely-inspired confession, and so does everyone who truly believes in Christ as Savior and Lord; but it is the apostolic proclamation of Jesus as the Son of God that will be the foundation of the church, for Peter is not alone in declaring who Jesus is and the church is only the church as long as it confesses with Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
I hope that this is helpful. The bottom line is that if we cannot say that Jesus is the God-man—God come in the flesh—we are not Christians (read 1 John 4:1–3; 2 John 7), but when we do, we rejoice in him as our God and King.
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