Christ is the Rock—not Peter. Isn’t it wrong to say that Jesus is saying Peter is the Rock? “Rock of Ages” is about Christ, not Peter. Right?
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.
"Questions and Answers" is a weekly feature of the OPC website. The answers come from individual ministers in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church expressing their own convictions and do not necessarily represent an "official" position of the Church, especially in areas where the Standards of the Church (the Scriptures and the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms) are silent.
The questions come from individuals like yourself. If you have questions about biblical and theological matters, you are invited to send them by e-mail by using the "Pose a Question" link on the OPC home page or by clicking here.
At least one new question is posted each week, so there should always be something new here for you to read. (For those people who would like to look at previous questions and answers, they will continue to be available as well.)
The purpose of the OPC website's "Questions and Answers" is to respond to biblical and theological questions. Matters of church discipline, disputes, or debates go beyond the scope of our work. We recommend that you present your concerns in these areas to the appropriate judicatory. In most cases this will be to a local pastor, elder, or session. We do not want the website to replace personal involvement in, or commitment to, the local, visible church.
While we will respond to every serious questioner, we are not bound to give a substantive answer to every question, should we deem the question to be beyond the scope of our purpose or our own ability to answer.
You will receive an answer by e-mail. Please be patient as many of our respondents are busy pastors. The response to your question may take up to two (2) weeks. Some of the questions submitted will be chosen to be posted here, along with the corresponding answers.
Note that the "Questions and Answers" posted on the site have been editedall personal references are removed, Scripture references or from some source may be added, and sometimes portions are expandedto make the questions and answers more useful to a larger audience.