The turning point: Peter’s confession in Matthew 16

The reading for Trinity 12 in Year A is Matt 16.13–20, quite a short reading, but forming in Matthew, as the episode does in Mark, a pivotal moment in the gospel narrative, where, at the northernmost point of his ministry, Jesus turns from the adulation of the crowds in Galilee to the opposition of the authorities in Jerusalem. The event itself contains some highly suggestive language, and we need to work hard to distinguish what is being said from the way that it has been used in the subsequent history of its interpretation. It is hard work because it involves challenging the confirmation bias that we bring as we read this text, already having a view as to what the key phrases mean.

The organisation of their narratives with these two major focusses (adulation and opposition) in the first and second halves of their gospels must be understood as being theologically motivated by Matthew and Mark. Jesus has, in fact, already faced opposition from the authorities, and Matt 15.1 explicitly tells us that this opposition has come from Jerusalem. And the Fourth Gospel highlights that, as an observant Jew, Jesus must have been to Jerusalem numerous times before, and certainly for each of the three major pilgrim festivals in each year of his ministry. To the extent to which Matthew and Mark ‘artificially’ distinguish these two phases of Jesus’ ministry, they are making a theological point about the two paradoxical aspects of Jesus’ ministry—the power of ministry in the Spirit that draws crowds, and the opposition of others that brings suffering—and this surely is going to be a pattern for all those who follow him.

Matthew agrees with Mark in locating this episode after the feeding of the 4,000, testing by the Pharisees and Sadducees (two groups who would otherwise be at loggerheads with each other), and the dispute about bread and leaven. Mark additionally includes his unique story about the blind man who needs more than one touch from Jesus to heal him (Mark 8.22–26), offering a symbolic parallel to the disciples’ need for Jesus to keep teaching them about the true nature of his ministry. Luke approaches this episode quite differently, and it does not have the same pivotal place in his narrative, but all three follow it with Jesus’ passion prediction, teaching on the cost of discipleship, and the transfiguration. All this serves to heighten the paradox of Jesus’ suffering and glory.

The location is in the region of Philip’s Caesarea (known as such to distinguish it from Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean coast), a Roman town established on the site of previous settlements by Herod the Great’s son Philip, tetrarch of Batanea to the north-east of the country, and covering the northern part of what is now Jordan. Herod had built a marble temple to Caesar here, and it was also associated with the god Pan, giving rise to its modern name Banias. Apart from offering a physical turning point in Jesus ministry in the north (the site is still within the region of the northern tribe Dan), it also provides for Matthew another hint that the gospel which is for the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ will ultimately reach well beyond Israel’s borders. As we have seen, this is a continuous counter-thread running through the gospel narrative, and not something revealed to Jesus as a surprise by gentiles he encountered!

Reflecting on this passage, I have also been struck by the fact that we have, yet again, an account of Jesus taking time out, either on his own or with his disciples, away from the pressing needs of the crowds. Jesus is not a slave to his own popularity, and the needs of the crowd are not the only important thing to make demands on his time. The evidence of his power and lordship are made manifest in his public ministry, but the reflection that leads to understanding happens in the quiet moments away from the action.

As happens often in the gospels, the exchange is provoked by Jesus asking a question. Luke follows Mark in recording it as ‘Who do people say I am?’ but most manuscripts of Matthew offer a different form: ‘Who do you say that the Son of Man is?’ (A minority of manuscripts offer ‘Who do you say that I, the Son of Man, am?’, harmonising the two forms).

The term ‘Son of Man’ has three senses. It begins life as a simple self-description; just as ‘son of Israel’ means Israelite, so ‘son of man’, in Hebrew ben adam, simply means human being. We can see the equivalence in the parallelism of Ps 8.4: ‘What is man, that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him.’ (We need to note that ‘man’ here translates adam in Hebrew and anthropos in Greek, both of which refer to ‘human’ without any sense of sex distinction or ‘maleness’. Thus some translations render Ps 8.4 as ‘human beings…mere humans…’)

But within the biblical canon it then acquires a second sense, that of human mortality and fragility contrasted with the majesty and power of God—thus its repeated use as God’s address to Ezekiel is often translated as ‘mortal man’. This makes it an appropriate term for Jesus to use in the light of his anticipated suffering and death.

Yet thirdly, and in some contrast, it features as the centrepiece of the visionary apocalyptic narrative of Dan 7, where the ‘one like a son of man’ (that is, a human figure) is exalted, ‘coming on the clouds’ up to the throne of the Ancient of Days to inherit an eternal kingdom. Within Daniel, this figure symbolises the people of Israel, fragile and trampled by the various beasts from the sea, but ultimately exalted by God’s grace, power and faithfulness. As Jesus recapitulates the story of Israel, he experiences this victory in his resurrection and ascension. Recognising this holds the key to making sense of many of the later passages of the Synoptics such as Matthew 24 and Mark 13.

Thus it is that the term ‘Son of Man’ expresses within itself the paradoxes of Jesus’ ministry set out in the gospel narratives. No wonder that it is Jesus’ own favourite term to describe himself.

The idea that Jesus might ‘really’ be these other characters doesn’t suggest any notion of reincarnation. Herod Antipas fears that John the Baptist might have been resurrected in the person of Jesus, but for the most part this suggests a symbolic association—just as Jesus describes John as ‘Elijah, if you are willing to accept it’ (Matt 11.14).

It is striking that Matthew alone includes the mention of Jeremiah, not least as a contrast to Jesus’ own comparison of himself with the other major southern prophet Isaiah in Matt 13.13–15. Jeremiah was a prophet of doom, who spoke against both the temple itself and the trust of the people in the institution of the temple as a substitute for loving obedience to God. Jesus’ parables directed against the Jewish leadership in Matt 21.28–22.14 are followed by his denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees in chapter 23, and Matt 23.38 echoes Jer 22.5 in predicting the desolation of the temple.

Jesus then turns to the disciples themselves; his emphatic form ‘You, who do you say that I am?’ is expressed in the TNIV as ‘What about you?’ Jesus asks them a question that we must all respond to for ourselves. Matthew has already pointed to the growing understanding of the disciples, so we might expect a better answer from them—not least because ‘the secrets of the kingdom of heaven’ have been revealed to them (Matt 13.11, 16–17).

The language of ‘Messiah’ (in Greek christos) had a range of meanings in the Old Testament. Both priests and kings were anointed, but even foreign rulers like Cyrus in the second half of Isaiah could be described as ‘anointed’ for the task of rescuing God’s people and returning them from exile. By the time of the New Testament period, these diverse ideas had coalesced into a sense of expectation of God’s anointed one who would deliver the people from the oppressive foreign power that rules over them. The question that Jesus raises is who is the real oppressor: a foreign political power, or the ‘foreign’ power of sin that leads the people into disobedience to God?

Only in Matthew does Peter also declare that Jesus is ‘Son of the living God’. There is a sense in which these two declarations act as synonyms; after all, an important OT prophecy says of David’s future ‘son’ (descendant): ‘I will be a father to him, and he will be a son to me’ (2 Sam 7.14), and the messianic Ps 2.7 uses the language of sonship. Moreover, this ties in both with Matthew’s characteristic description of God as ‘Heavenly Father’ to Jesus and his followers, an emphasis that is amplified in the Fourth Gospel. And ‘Son of God’ is a particularly important title for Jesus all through this gospel; it is repeated again in Matt 17.5, and these two titles together form the accusation of the high priest in Matt 26.63. The qualifier ‘living’ might seem redundant, but it emphasises the source of Jesus’ authority.

The God with whom Jesus is here being connected is not a philosophical abstraction but the dynamic God of Israel’s faith and history. The supernatural dynamic of Jesus’ miracles derive from a God who is himself alive and active in his world. (R T France, NICNT p 619).

Jesus’ response to Peter is unique to Matthew, and his positive affirmation contrasts with the account in Mark and Luke where Jesus immediately charges the disciples to keep this secret for fear of misunderstanding. We have already seen this kind of special attention to the role of Peter in the episode of the walking on the lake two chapters earlier.

There is a curious reciprocity in this exchange: ‘You are Messiah, son of the living God’; ‘You are Peter, son of Jonah’. Elsewhere in this gospel, the apostle is mostly referred to as ‘Peter’, though Jesus will soon address him directly as ‘Simon’; only here in the gospel does he have his full title ‘Simon Peter’, and this exchange gives the explanation for the nickname that Jesus bestows on him. Using both his names gives a kind of formality to Jesus’ affirmation—but it also functions to remind Peter of his flesh-and-blood reality (it is this verse that gives us the phrase ‘flesh and blood’), not least in the emphatic ‘Simon son of Jonah’, alongside his spiritual destiny. The double name offers a kind of partially realised eschatology in personal form—what Peter was alongside what he is becoming in Jesus.

We find here some strong parallels with wording from the Fourth Gospel—the mention of Peter’s father (translated as the more common Greek name Ioannes, John 1.42), the notion that it is only the Father who reveals spiritual truths and draws people to Jesus (John 6.44) and the delegated power to ‘bind’ and ‘loose’ (parallel to John 20.23)—but the contrast between ‘flesh and blood’ and spiritual powers is also found in Paul, in Eph 6.12.

Jesus’ nickname, Petros in Greek, equivalent to Kepha in Aramaic (which we find in John 1.42, 1 Cor 1.12, 3.22 etc and Gal 1.18, 2.9 etc) appears to be a genuine neologism; the name is otherwise almost unknown in the ancient world. Peter is to be a foundational ‘rock’ for the new community, having a quite distinct role, and not merely one ‘stone’ (lithos) amongst many.

Roman Catholic exegesis would here point to the theological importance of the role of Peter and, by implication, his successors as Fathers (‘popes’) of the church. But that is difficult to sustain in the light of the description of Jesus himself as the foundation in 1 Cor 3.10–11 as well as 1 Peter 2.4–8 (which, if written by Peter, is rather telling!) or the slightly different configuration in Eph 2.20 of Jesus as the cornerstone to the foundation of the ‘apostles and prophets’ (compare Rev 21.14).

In fact, Peter is not the theological foundation of the community, but its narrative rock. He has already been named in first place in Matt 10.2, and is mentioned in the gospel more often than any other disciple, often taking the lead. In the first half of Acts, he appears to lead the Jerusalem group, often takes the initiative, and functions as spokesman. But, like Paul, he never works alone, and is frequently in partnership with John; leadership in the New Testament is always plural wherever it is fruitful.

The word ekklesia should not be translated by the English word ‘church’, with all its associations of buildings, institutions, establishment, and regulations. To do so would be to open the door wide, allowing us to march into the text bringing all our presuppositions with us, and march out again carrying confirmation of what we wanted to hear.

The Greek term ekklesia never denotes a physical structure in the NT [nor, I would add, an institution with regulations and structure] but always a community of people. The new temple is not a building of literal stones, but consists of ‘living stones’ (1 Peter 2.5). (R T France, NICNT, p 623)

In other parts of the NT, we need to bear in mind the Greek civic meaning of ekklesia as the ‘assembly’ of people to gather for decision-making, primarily the citizens of a polis making decisions about its governance, but also used for social and religious groups. But here its primary background is from the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint, LXX) for the ‘congregation’ of the people of Israel, the people of God. That Jesus can, emphatically according to the Greek word order, talk of ‘my ekklesia‘ thus has strong Christological and theological implications; this new community is the Israel of God, a people who are constituted around neither ethnic identity nor the torah of God, but around the Messiah that Peter has just recognised. This is a (re)new(ed), international, Jesus-centred Israel.

The keys that Jesus metaphorically hands to Peter are not the keys to the front door that control admission, as depicted in the common idea of Peter standing at the pearly gates of heaven in the afterlife. Rather, they make use of the image of the new steward of the House of Israel in Is 22.20, explicitly referred to in Rev 3.7. Peter is to be chief steward in the household, bearing the keys of the storehouses which give appropriate provisions for the people of God.

Binding’ and ‘loosing’ are rabbinic terms denoting ‘forbidding’ and ‘permitting’ respectively, as we have seen already in Matt 5.19. This language therefore continues the idea of Peter as steward of the household, and we see him taking this role in Acts 10.1–11.18 in arguing that Gentiles should be permitted to join the community without converting to Judaism—as well as rendering judgement on those who have erred (Acts 5.1–11). But we must also note that this is explicitly a role of the whole community in Matt 18.18; whatever Peter’s distinctive historical role as a person, he remains first among equals in both the group of apostles and in the ekklesia as a whole. And Dick France highlights how the unusual grammar qualifies the authority Peter has:

The heavenly ‘endorsement’ of Peter’s decisions is expressed (both here and in Matt 18.18, twice in each verse) in the unusual syntax of future perfect passive verbs, ‘will have been tied up’, ‘will have been untied’…With simple futures, Peter would take the initiative and heaven would follow. But with future perfects the impression is that when Peter makes his decision it will be found to have been already made in heaven, making him not the initiator of new directions for the church, but the faithful steward of God’s prior decisions. [T]he saying becomes a promise not of divine endorsement, but of divine guidance to enable Peter to decide in accordance with God’s already determined purpose. (R T France, NICNT, p 626–7).

The recognition of Jesus as Messiah around whom the new Israel will be constituted will be set in striking contrast with his role as suffering servant in the following verses. But his authority is expressed in reciprocal partnership with Peter and the other disciples, as they are given real importance and trust in the formation of this new community.

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32 thoughts on “The turning point: Peter’s confession in Matthew 16”

  1. Hi Ian,

    Thanks for this. As a 40 something Anglican toying with crossing the Tiber I am interested in this passage and your interpretation of it, along with the RCC exegesis too. It seems to me that there is reasonable plausibility (though not to my mind rational irrefutability) for the idea of Papacy in the idea of the keys given to Peter and the primacy of Peter within the Jerusalem group. Do you see as possible the idea of the Papacy, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Jesus as the foundation? If not, why not?

    As a related point the pressing on unity with New Testament scripture and the fragmentation of the Protestant movement seems to be a key data point that we need to have certainty around. If the Protestant movement simply increasingly fragments does that not in some sense show the need for a ‘Holy Tradition’ capable of setting doctrine, and keeping doctrine that Christians can be sure of and follow? Again, interested in your thoughts and thank you for your good work.

    Kind regards,

    • Hi Chris! Having made the journey the other way, definitely not!

      ‘Do you see as possible the idea of the Papacy, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Jesus as the foundation? If not, why not?’

      The main reason, apart from the exegesis above, is that the teaching of Jesus and the whole New Testament sets its face against monarchical leadership. Leadership is always plural, since it is the leadership of God which is given to us by the Spirit of God, who is poured out on the whole people of God.

      Apostolic authority resides in the content of the message—which we now have in the bounded diversity of the New Testament documents—and not in particular people. For me, the checkered history of the papacity is enough to demonstrate that!

      In Rev 21, the city is the people of God founded on the shared foundation of the apostles inasmuch as they are faithful witnesses to the good news of the kingdom in the teaching and ministry of Jesus.

      Protestants might look institutionally fissiparous, but that is not a big deal, since we don’t really believe in the importance of institutions. The ekklesia of God is not an institution, but a people. I am at one with Christians across the whole range of churches in my city, not because we are part of one organisational institution, but because (even if we disagree on some details) share a commitment to the same essential gospel.

      Does that help at all?

      • Ian, as you point out, the church is people. However, as you also point out ekklēsia is used in the LXX for the occasions when all the poeple of Israel assembled together, particularly for teaching and worship.

        Am I one with other Christians in my are if I am not meeting together with them?

      • Hi Ian,

        Thanks for the reply. I didn’t really know that you had crossed in the other direction. That’s interesting. What was the main push?

        The chequered history of the Papacy does indeed bother me, along with the growth that palpably comes from outside the RCC at the moment. That said, some of the comments from HJ below and general RCC podcasts also seem imminently reasonable (re: impeccability and infallibility under limited conditions etc…). I guess listening to the RCC podcasts I was struck by how similar the speakers were to the Protestants that I came to faith through, caring about similar issues and clearing holding a very high view of scripture. The various Marian dogmas and icon veneration seem more problematic – surely unnecessary accretions – but I am here to listen primarily.

        With respect to listening the issue of Protestant institutional fissiparity is unsettling. If the ekklesia is solely a people, surely the function of the institution would be to express the beliefs of that collective effectively? And enable us, from there, to witness through that institutional presence to the world at large?

        If the institution is unimportant, at least relatively, why do we care when it errs on doctrine (as we all do)? – in the sense of reducing to the absurd – surely we can’t just be a debating society where we all hold to a personal understanding of scripture expressed in concordance with our own conscience? – though it looks to me that sometimes that is where we are heading.

        May be what I am feeling is that a weak and fragmentary institution, such as might be currently expressed, neuters our witness and exposes us as individuals in ways that a united institution would not – and is there therefore anyway to recover the integrity of a (Protestant) institution?

        Kind regards,

    • Christopher, what evidence is there that the bishops of Rome (popes) were successors to Peter? Do you have evidence that Peter was ever a leader of any of the churches of Rome? Judging from Rom 16, many or most of the church leaders in Rome were female.

      • Hi Richard,

        The only evidence I would note is the primacy of his role within Acts, as Ian notes in his analysis above and HJ too, and therefore by extension the early Church. Beyond that I am not presenting evidence that he was leader in Rome. I am not a convinced protagonist for the Papacy – but it does seem to me to be reasonable to believe in the Papacy as such, even if one doesn’t then end up a RC due to other dogmas that seem much harder to justify.

        And yes, noted on Romans 16 and the semi-independent and primary role that Paul plays in the establishment of the early Church communities.

        Kind regards,

  2. Matthew 16 is a great encouragement to the chaps on the Number 48 Omnibus. We are so glad that Jesus chose 12 working men and not 12 Theologians! The theologians of that day got it completely wrong, probably counting their leaves / tithe of mint and anise and cummin, [fernseeds?] and missing the bleeding obvious.However as you point out it requires a God given revelation. Without the clutter of theological suppositions’there was room for Revelation to operate. Excellent study IP thanks.

  3. @ Ian and Christopher B

    When Jesus gave the name “Peter” (Rock) to Simon it signified far more than a simple “nickname.” When God revealed to certain people a new and radical calling, He sometimes changed their names. In the calling of the Patriarchs Abram (“exalted father” in Hebrew) was changed to Abraham (“father of the multitudes”), Jacob (“supplanter”) to Israel (“One who prevails with God”).

    In fact, there is a parallel here between Abraham and Peter. In Isaiah 51:1-2, we read, ”Hearken to me, you who pursue deliverance, you who seek the Lord; look to the rock from which you were hewn. . . . Look to Abraham your father.”

    Jesus here makes Peter a true “father” over the household/assembly of faith, just as God made Abraham our true “father” in the Faith (see Rom. 4:1-18; James 2:21). So, it is fitting that Peter’s successors are called “papa,” as was Abraham (see Luke 16:24).

    Christ is the true “son of David” who came to restore the prophetic kingdom of David. Christ in Matthew 16, like the king of Israel, was establishing a “prime minister” among his “ministers” – the apostles – in the kingdom. Isaiah 22:15-22 gives us insight into the ministry of the “prime minister” in ancient Israel: ”Thus says the Lord God of hosts, “Come, go to this steward, to Shebna, who is over the household, and say to him . . . behold the Lord will hurl you away violently. . . . I will thrust you from your office, and you will be cast down from your station. In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your girdle on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the House of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.”

    This is a significant authority – given to Peter as Christ’s “vicar”.

    In Revelation 1:18, Jesus declares, “I have the keys of Death and Hades.” He then quotes this very text from Isaiah in Revelation 3:7: ”And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: “The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens.” No Christian would deny Jesus is the king who possesses the keys. To whom does He give the keys to – to Peter.

    All 12 apostles were present, yet Jesus promised to give to Peter alone the keys of the kingdom, symbolizing the authority of Christ – the authority of heaven – over the kingdom of heaven on Earth, the Church. Jesus uses the second-person personal pronoun seven times in just three verses. The context is clearly one of Jesus communicating a unique authority to Peter.

    Jesus is portrayed as the builder of the Church, not the building. He says, “I will build my church.” Jesus is “the wise man who built his house upon the rock” (7:24) in Matthew’s Gospel, is Jesus building the Church upon Himself or is He Is building it upon Peter?

    Matthew 16:18 says the “powers of death” (in other translations “the gates of hell”) will never prevail against the Church, so it makes sense that the pastor of Christ’s Church will never steer it into hell by teaching heresy. Luke 22:31-32 records Jesus telling Peter, “Satan has demanded to sift you all like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.” The original Greek in the passage shows that Satan demanded to sift “you all,” all the apostles, but Jesus prayed only for Peter and his faith not to fail as the earthly head of the Church.

    “Binding and loosing” is a phrase which comes from the rabbis. It refers to the authority to make decisions binding on the people of God. This authority includes interpreting and applying the Word of God and admitting people to and excommunicating them from the community of faith. For the Jews this meant the community of Israel. For Christians this means the Church.

    In Matthew 16:19 Jesus gives this authority over his Church to Peter: “Whatever you bind on Earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on Earth shall be loosed in heaven.” In Matthew 18:18, he gives the power to all the apostles: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on Earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on Earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

    This singling out of Peter to bestow on him an authority which is later to be given to all the apostles shows Peter’s pre-eminence within the apostolic college. What the apostles as a whole possessed as leaders of the Church, Peter possessed as an individual.

    • HC,
      Peter was opposed by Saul/Paul and submitted to him. And the Epistle to Romans was not penned by Peter.
      Peter’s declaration or confession of who Jesus is is the “Rock”on which the church is built, not on the person of Peter. Indeed, as you point out it is Jesus who is the Rock of scripture, the Rock in the desert, struck by Moses who is immovable, unbreakable unshakeable. He is the *rock* of the Sermon on the Mount, on whom his house is built, he is the rock of temple mount, the Rock on which his church is built.
      It is that confession of who Jesus is, that is key, as other scriptures corroborate.
      There are not two Rocks.

      Abraham stood in the line of the history of redemption which coheres and coalesces on Jesus as God’s Son Saviour, in a way Peter never has nor could.

      This episode in Matthew was never about Peter, but is all about Jesus it is submitted.

      • @ Geogg

        Paul is recounting an incident in which Peter visited the Church in Antioch (Acts 2:11-17). Remember, Peter had been the one who first admitted Gentiles to the Church (Acts 10), though doing so subjected him to criticism (Acts 11). When Peter visited Antioch, he kept his usual practice of holding table fellowship with Gentile Christians, but drew back when some Jewish Christians arrived (2:12). Paul rebuked Peter since this action could be misunderstood as implying that Jews should not sit at table with Gentiles and that the Mosaic Law is binding (2:14-16). (Note too that Paul himself later did something similar, and it led to his arrest [Acts 21:17-33]).

        Peter knew that keeping the Mosaic Law was not necessary, and Paul reminded him of this fact (Acts 2:15-16). Peter’s understanding of the gospel was correct. The problem was with his behaviour, not his teaching.

        This makes it irrelevant to the issues of Peter’s primacy and papal infallibility, since Peter was not trying to define a dogma of the faith. Nor did Paul’s rebuke impugn Peter’s authority. If a pope’s behaviour causes scandal, he should be rebuked by someone.

        As HJ wrote: “Jesus is portrayed as the builder of the Church, not the building. He says, “I will build my church.” Jesus is “the wise man who built his house upon the rock” (Matthew: 7:24).

        Is Jesus building the Church upon Himself or is He Is building it upon Peter as the earthly head of the Church? Or is it both/and?

        Our Lord says to Peter in Matthew 16:17-19: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. 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.”

        Jesus uses the second-person personal pronoun seven times (emphasised) in just three verses. (Seven is an important number in Scripture). The context is clearly one of Jesus communicating a unique authority to Peter and the assurance of heavenly protection in “loosening” and “binding”.

        Peter proclaims Jesus as the “cornerstone”, without which there could be no Church (Acts 4:11, 1 Pet. 2:6-7). The reference to Jesus as the cornerstone comes from Old Testament passages like Psalm 118:22 and Isaiah 8:4, and refers to the sanctuary or Temple of God where the Israelite people worshipped. Jesus is the new Temple of a New Covenant form of worship (John 2:18-22). There could be no Church without Jesus as the cornerstone of the New Covenant. And yet Jesus chooses Peter as the rock upon which to build His Church.

        It’s a both/and, with Jesus as the cornerstone of the New Covenant fulfilment of Israel, and Peter as the rock upon which He builds His Church.

        • Indeed HC,
          It is a revelation of God the Father, nothing more or less. It is not built on Peter. It is built on God’s revelation to any believer of who Jesus is. It is not revealed by flesh and blood…. to any of us.

          Certainly Jesus is the Cornerstone, the fulfilment of all types, shadows, figures, allusion, patterns, festivals, sacrifices, substitutes.

          Jesus is the Rock, to whom scripture points. He is the “Rock who is higher than I.” Psalm 62

          Here are 59 verses describing God as the Rock:

          Paul’s was an open rebuke to Peter. He was not living according to the gospel, thereby *teaching ,*denying it. (Galatians).

          Peter also found Paul difficult to understand in his depth of learning of scripture, so he was hardly first amongst equals.

          And while at Pentecost Peter was mightily used of God to those of the then gathered disapora it was only after the work of revelation of God the Holy Spirit, revealing who Jesus is. That is, it was not by flesh and blood.

          It is not both/and, so far as can be seen from the full sweep of Biblical theology from the Biblical canon, Genesis- Revelation, is concerned.
          Peter is not known as the author of what is generally known as the Pastorals, either. Nor is he the most prominent author of the general letters.
          Jesus is God-the -Rock to whom all scripture points. So no, it is not accepted that this passage of scripture stands alone in contradicting in pointing to Peter as the rock on which Christ’s church as living stones is built; it is not accepted that it is both/and.
          Is it truly credible that Jesus who knew the scriptures as being self-referential would now be saying that Peter is the rock to whom all the scriptures point? By no means, methinks.

          • @ Geoff

            Then you have to show what Christ’s words actually meant!

            He appointed Peter as His chief steward – His vicar – on earth and gave him this responsibility assuring the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

            As HJ pointed out, Abraham is referred to as the rock on which God had built Israel: “Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth. When I called him he was only one man, and I blessed him and made him many.”

            Also consider Isaiah 22:22. Kings in the Old Testament appointed a chief steward to serve under them in a position of great authority to rule over the inhabitants of the kingdom. Jesus quotes from this passage in Isaiah, and so it is clear what he has in mind. He is raising Peter up as a father figure to the household of faith (Isa. 22:21), to lead them and guide the flock (John 21:15-17). This authority under the king was passed on from one man to another down through the ages by the giving of the keys, which were worn on the shoulder as a sign of authority.

            It’s pretty clear what Jesus was saying and doing.

            Peter affirms that Jesus is the cornerstone (Acts: 4:11), and Jesus affirms the same about Himself elsewhere (Matt. 21:42). Jesus is God and the founder of the Church and the one without whom the Church could not exist.

            Yet, Jesus Himself calls Peter “this rock” on which he builds his Church, and thus the chief apostle who alone possesses “the keys of the kingdom of heaven”.

    • Thanks HJ,

      I am familiar with some of the typological references to Isaiah and appreciate the more detailed cross references. With respect to the ministry of Paul, I tend to follow with Geoff below that the pastoral letters of Paul, and the epistle to the Romans in particular suggest something more nuanced in the development of the Church as an institution.

      Equally, if I had to, I could perhaps agree to the Papacy, but find in the Marian dogmas and ideas around icon veneration accretions that place too high a burden on Christians, who may believe the essentials but have to remain separate on the basis of these peripherals, precisely because they have been defined as necessary dogmas.

      Kind regards,

      • @ Christopher

        It might be helpful for you to consider the Eastern Orthodox Church’s position on Mary as a bridge to better understanding the Catholic Church dogmas. This also applies to the pope and bishops. You’ll find they are not so far apart as one is led to believe and the history of their differences helps explain this. As you’ll know already, both Churches have a radically different understanding to Anglicans/Protestants about Scripture, sacred Tradition, original sin, grace and the sacraments – especially the Eucharist. The Church’s teachings come as a ‘package’, so to appreciate one aspect of her teaching necessitates some appreciation of the whole.

        In this day and age, it’s also necessary to be cautious about what one listens to and reads on the internet. A go-to website for understanding Catholic teaching is ‘Catholic Answers’ (Google it). Start with the “essentials” of our shared Christian faith and take it from there. Also worth reading are Gavin Ashenden (on YouTube and his blog) and Dwight Longenecker – both Anglican clergy who “swam the Tiber.”

        Pray and let the Holy Spirit lead you.

        Yours in Christ


    • Even if all that is true, which I dont think it is, why would the successors of Peter continue to hold such authority, above that of the other 11 who were chosen by Jesus as His disciples?

      Peter got it wrong a number of times, both whilst with Jesus and after, yet we’re supposed to believe his successors should have such error-prone authority?

      No thanks.

  4. Although Peter is the principle actor in the early chapters of Acts, it is interesting that by the time of the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 we find that it is not Peter but James the brother of Jesus who has the presiding role. It is also of note that James refers to Peter as ‘Simon’ (v14).

    Also, it is generally agreed, I think, that in the 1st century the roles of ‘overseer’ (aka bishop) and ‘elder’ (aka presbyter) were equivalent, and there was more than one in each congregation. The development of the mono-episcopate, where one became primus inter pares, occured at different times in different places. So Peter might have been one of the bishops in Rome, but not the bishop. It is also not clear to me why, even if Peter was the only bishop in Rome, that his primacy should be inherited by his successors.

    It certainly was not accepted by the other patriarchates that Rome was preeminent.

    • I should add that in the first century the role of ‘bishop’ was a local office while the role of ‘apostle’ was an itinerant one, with precedence over the local officials. Peter was clearly an apostle.

    • @ David B W

      It is Peter who speaks first and it is Peter who settles the substance of the debate. Notice how much weight James places on Peter’s judgment in his ruling. And notice too that Peter’s speech had such a profound impact on the assembly that James uses it as the blueprint for his local decision.

      Luke sets up Peter’s speech by highlighting the tension among the apostles and presbyters in verse 6: “There was much debate.” And subsequent verses reveal that it is Peter’s speech that settles the debate:
      Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God who knows the heart bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us; and he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith . . . we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will(Acts 15:7-11).

      This all happens before James rises and requests the assembly to listen to his words (v.13). James does direct the council proceedings after Peter’s speech, but it’s Peter who speaks first and settles the debate. And in verse 14 James recognises as much: “Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name.” If James had just as much authority over the group as Peter (or more), he would have been the one to take the initiative and settle the substance of the debate, not Peter.

      James’s speech is a pastoral proposall, whereas Peter’s speech is a doctrinal declaration. The content of Peter’s speech was a matter of divine revelation. It was God who chose to reveal that the Gentiles could be saved, for he had given them the Holy Spirit just as he did the apostles, cleansing their hearts by faith and making no distinction between the circumcised and the uncircumcised (Acts 15:8-9). Based on that revelation, Peter makes a doctrinal statement that is more than mere opinion: “We believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they [the Gentiles] will” (v.11). Peter doesn’t offer this view as what he thinks should be believed. He offers it as what is believed.
      James’s speech stands in stark contrast with Peter’s. First, it was for the most part pastoral in nature, intended to address the problem of how to unify Jewish and Gentile Christians (Acts 15:1-5). It’s a practical problem that only arises because of the theological issue settled by Peter.

      James’s speech also stands in contrast to Peter’s because unlike Peter, who stated what is the case, James offers his ideas for consideration: “Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them” (Acts 15:19-20). [In fact, the Greek word translated “judgment” in verse 19 (krinō) means “to hold a view or have an opinion with regard to something—‘to hold a view, to have an opinion, to consider, to regard.’”]

      James is the bishop of Jerusalem. The pope doesn’t micromanage other dioceses, especially when the bishops agree with his judgment.

      Anglican scholar JND Kelly writes, “The first half of Acts discloses that after the Ascension, though his relationship to James, the Lord’s brother, remains unclear, Peter was the undisputed leader of the youthful Church. It was he who presided over the choice of a successor to Judas (1:15-26), who explained to the crowd the meaning of Pentecost (2:14-40), who healed the lame beggar the Temple (3:1-10), who pronounced sentence on Ananias and Sapphira (5:1-11), and who opened the church to Gentiles by having Cornelius baptized without undergoing circumcision (10:9-48).”

      New Testament scholar Ajith Fernando notes that by Acts 12:17, however, Peter had become a missionary after his miraculous escape from prison, leaving James in charge in Jerusalem. By then, Jerusalem was no longer the entire Church, and Peter had left to continue shepherding God’s people. In Acts 15, however, he returns to remind his brothers of his divinely appointed ministry and then speaks on behalf of the entire Church.

      Acts 15 is therefore an illustration of the papacy. Although Peter is the chief steward of Christ’s Church, at the Council of Jerusalem, he urges his brother bishops to grasp the gospel and shepherd accordingly. He invites them to open the Church with the keys he received from Christ. Peter desires that the bishopric grow into maturity. This does not negate or equalise Peter’s authority. Instead, it highlights Peter’s prudence over the Church placed in his care.

        • @ Geoff

          Then you’ll have to be clearer about just what point you are making.

          This passage of Scripture does not “stand alone” and neither does it “contradict” Christ as the “keystone” of a church with living stones.

          So what was Christ saying to Peter?

          • HC,
            It is the confession, the recognition of who Jesus is, which is the rock, on whom the Rock, that is Jesus himself will build his church.
            And that confession is by revelation, of the Father not by flesh and blood.
            All the scriptures listed (God as the Rock) in the link point to Jesus as fulfillment. Not Peter.
            Jesus is “the Rock of Salvation”, not Peter.
            See the link for more of the same scriptural corroboration of who the Person of the Rock is…and it’s not Peter.

  5. HC,
    There is only one true Rock-God- according to scripture. Agreed?
    And it is not Peter. Unless Peter is to be attributed the
    heresy of name of God.
    That is improbable in the extreme, as Jesus was aware of the self-referential nature of scripture. (As Ian’s article draws out one aspect and the road to Emmaus episode draws out in broad brush strokes the whole of scripture reference to Jesus).

    It is a play on words. (A *pun* D.A Carson,)
    It is the confession, recognition of who Jesus is on which the church (called-out ones) of Jesus is built.
    Romans 10:9
    In the context of Romans 10:9-14.

    Slightly as an aside, a further, non scholars thought, Peter is son of Jonah who is first to recognise Jesus as Son of the living God. It may be little wonder Jesus didn’t want Peter to be associated with the Jonah of scripture.
    Peter’s confession of the Person of Jesus, was to be his sent ministry, unlike and in contrast to Jonah’s ending.

  6. ‘Son of man’, in Hebrew ben adam, simply means human being? Yes, but only by virtue of Adam being a human being and progenitor of the whole human race. In saying ‘son of’, Hebrew is indicating descent from. Hebrew thought was always genealogical with respect to identity. Peter, ‘son of Jonah,’ is an example in point.
    Similarly, ‘son of God’ means ‘descended from God’ – necessarily, direct descent. That is the plain meaning, and plainly Peter’s meaning. Whether or not he was aware of the virgin birth – the implication of Jesus’s question is that none of the disciples were – he was aware that Jesus had been sent from God and that the Messiah was prophesied to have a filial relationship with him (Heb 1:5, citing OT scriptures).
    Peter was clearly not using the word ‘son’ in some indefinable metaphorical sense.
    Jesus is and was literally the son of God, and therefore not ‘co-eternal’ with him as per the dogma now deeply rooted in most of the Church. All the gospels emphasise that Jesus was subordinate to his Father. Denial of this undermines the way Jesus is presented to us in the gospels and drives a coach and horses through the NT message, which is that if you believe in Jesus the Son of God, you too will become a child of God, born not of the flesh but of imperishable seed. Denial of the Son of God is of the Antichrist (I John 2:22). It’s what characterises Islam.
    After his resurrection, Jesus rose to sit on the throne of God at the right hand of God.
    Jesus was with God before the foundation of the world. That does not mean that he was ‘co-eternal’ with God. John says explicitly that he was born of God (John 1, I John 5:18). We were chosen in him before the foundation of the world. Again, that does not mean that we are ‘co-eternal’ with God. Nor does it mean that the Son was always in existence and then at some point in time, by some act of will not otherwise manifest, deemed to be in him. We were in him from the beginning. When Jesus was begotten, we were also begotten – because we were in him. When he rose from the dead, we rose from the dead – because we were in him. That is the basis of our sonship. To rise from the dead (in him) is to be born again (Acts 13:33).
    That is our destiny, and that is why he calls us his brothers. The whole creation waits for the revealing of the sons of God.

  7. I agree with the commentary concerning ‘You are Peter, and on this rock …’. In addition the parallel with John 20:23 shows that ‘you’ is singular in Matt 16:19 only because Jesus is speaking to Peter as the leader of the Jewish church. (NB not the Gentile church, as per the RCC.) In John the word is plural. Jesus has given all who believe in his name delegated power to forgive the sins of those who trespass against us. John confirms this himself in I John 5:16.

  8. Is there no merit in the argument that in terms of the text, the object of address is not Peter, be that either the person or the office he held, but rather his confession: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” ?

    • Sorry, that’s unclear. Obviously the object of the address is Peter! 😉 what I meant is to ask is whether the ‘rock’ (on which the church is built) is the confession rather than the person, and if there’s any linguistic merit in reading it that way.

    • Some have read it that way. If you were to refer to the revelation rather than the confession, I would agree.

      Launoy, an RC scholar of the 17th century, compiled a list of various early Church interpretations. Seventeen of the Fathers believed that the rock was Peter. Forty-four considered that the rock was Peter’s faith, as expressed in his confession. Sixteen said that the rock was Christ. Eight maintained that the rock was all the apostles!

      (Source: H.M. Carson, Dawn or Twilight?)

  9. When Christ tells Peter that he will build his church and the ‘gates of hell will not prevail against it’, the word is Hades, as it is when Paul quotes Hosea: ‘O death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?’ There is no sense that the place of the dead before the resurrection is one of torment, and there is no implicit reference to Satan.

    The words are often misunderstood. Christ is saying that death will not be able to hold his people in captivity (rather than, for example, that no amount of persecution will be able to stop the Church’s growth). They will rise to eternal life in the kingdom of heaven.


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