What did Jesus mean when he said to Peter, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church”? There are three main interpretations:
First, Peter is the rock. The Roman Catholic Church concludes from this verse that Jesus appointed Peter and his successors to be head of the church, the popes. But it is possible to believe that “rock” refers to Peter without the implications Catholics draw from it. Quite a few Protestant interpreters are willing to think of Peter as the rock but only in the sense that he was the first to make this confession and thus became, along with the other apostles, a foundation on which the church would eventually be built. Paul described the church as “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” The text says nothing about Peter’s successors, infallibility, or exclusive authority.
Second interpretation, Peter’s confession is the rock. This has been the majority view among Protestants. “The faith that was expressed by him was the rock upon which he would build his church.” Surprisingly, this was also the view of a large number of the early Catholic fathers. Chrysostom said, “On this rock; that is, on the faith of his confession.… He did not say upon Peter, for it was not upon man, but upon his faith.” Gregory of Nyssa, Isidore of Pelusium, Hilary, Theodoret, Theophanes, Theophylact, and John of Damascus also held this interpretation.
Third, Christ is the rock. This is a minority view among evangelicals, usually explained by saying that Jesus was making a pun on Peter’s name. Peter’s name is petros, a masculine noun meaning “rock” or “stone.” (Peter’s Hebrew name, Cephas, also means “rock.”) But when Jesus referred to “this rock,” he used the feminine form of the same word, petra, which this view says means “bed rock” or “foundation rock.” The idea is that Peter was only a little stone, perhaps only a pebble, but that Jesus is the foundation on which the Church is built.
This view has some weaknesses. One is that Jesus spoke in Aramaic, not Greek, and that even the Greek words do not necessarily have these different connotations. On the other hand, Jesus and His teaching have already been described as a foundation rock in Matthew at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus called the man who builds his house on the rock wise. Later Jesus will also speak of Himself as “the stone the builders rejected” but which “has become the capstone,” quoting Ps.118.22 (Mt.21.42). Nowhere does Matthew even hint that Peter is the rock.
Peter? Vacillating Peter? A mere man? It must have been considerations such as these that impressed St. Augustine, the greatest theologian of the early Catholic Church, for in his “Retractions,” written late in life, Augustine acknowledged that in an early work against the Donatists he referred to Peter as the rock but that he had since come to believe that the rock could only be Christ.
How did Peter understand Jesus’ words? First Peter 2.4–8 provides a definitive answer to that question, because there, as in his great sermon before the Jewish Sanhedrin (Acts 4,8–12), Peter does not suggest even for a moment that he is the rock on which the Church is built. Rather, he insists that the foundation stone is actually Jesus Christ. Peter refers to Jesus as “the living Stone” on which those who believe are, “like living stones,” being built into a spiritual house or temple. Therefore, if others, like Peter himself, are to be called stones in any sense, it is only because they have been built on Jesus, who is the actual foundation.
Peter proves his point by three Old Testament quotations.
First, Isaiah 28.16 provides the clearest of the three verses identifying Jesus as the “precious cornerstone” of God’s temple. Peter introduced the subject by referring to Jesus as one who had been “rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him.” Jesus was “chosen by God,” and He was “precious” to God. It is by faith, we are to “trust in Him.” By believing on Jesus we are built into the Church God is constructing.
Second, in Psalm 118.22 Jesus has become “precious” to those who believe. Yet that is not the only possible response to Jesus. It is also possible to reject Him.
Jesus told a parable about farmers to whom the owner of a vineyard had leased a field. They were to care for it and give the owner his share of the profit when the time came. The owner sent servants to collect his profit, but the tenants beat, stoned, and killed them.
“Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” Mt.21.42.
There can be no question as to how Jesus understood these verses. God is the owner of the vineyard. The leaders of Israel are the evil tenant farmers. The servants are the prophets, and the son who was killed was Jesus Himself, the Son of God. Therefore, He is also the stone rejected by the builders who was to become the cornerstone of revealed religion.
Lastly, in Isaiah 8.14, Peter returned to Isaiah again, using v.14 to add the thought of stumbling to the prior thought of rejecting Jesus. He meant that rejecting Him is no small matter. It has a serious consequence, which is to fall down spiritually or be lost forever.
Clearly, Peter seems to have understood that the Church was to be built on Jesus and nowhere claims or even suggests it could be otherwise. He would be the last of all people to suggest that he was the foundation.
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org