Contra Rome and Protestant: A Plausible Reading Of Matthew 16:18


Expositions of Matthew 16:13-20 has led to a sorely unresolved division within the church of Christ. Rome’s Catholicism holds that it was apostle Peter, as a person alone, whom Jesus promised to build his church (16:18). He was the rock which Jesus built his church. Reformers disagreed with Romanisic view and protested that it is the person and works of Jesus, which Peter confessed, is what Jesus built his church.

Who is correct? I think both Romanisic view that Peter, as a person alone, and Protestanic view of Peter’s confession alone are equally unsatisfactory. In series of articles I attempted to show that it is the Peter of faith who is the foundation to which Christ built his Church. This, I believe, is also the unanimous consent position of the Fathers, which I defended in the next article.

I would be unfaithful to say I withheld my own biases along the way. I am persuaded that reformed tradition is more correct but I hope if you find my case unpersuasive, you would at minimum find it understandable. Our love for one another should at very least draw us to understand each other’s position even though we disagree.

Before showing that unanimous consent of the Fathers exposition on this passage favors “Peter of faith” as the foundation to which Christ built his church, I attempted to exegete Matthews 16:13-23 in its’ proper context.

The author of Matthew records Jesus asking his disciples who people think the Son of Man is (16:13). Simon Peter answered that the Son of Man is Christ, the Son of the living God (16:16).  Jesus responded that Simon son of Jonah’s answer was revealed not from man but the Father. He went on: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (16:18 ESV)

Following Peter’s confession, Matthew recorded Peter rebuking Jesus, after Jesus had explained to them that He must suffer, die and rise again on the third day. Jesus turned and said to the same Peter who had earlier made a confession; “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”(16:23)

To understand Matthew 16:18, we cannot separate Peter as a person, from what he has just confessed. Jesus address Peter after his confession.  Leo the Great would agree. He contended,

For Peter received this answer from the Lord for his confession. [Matthew 16:18-19] But he who both rejects the blessed Peter’s confession, and gainsays Christ’s Gospel, is far removed from union with this building; for he shows himself never to have had any zeal for understanding the Truth, and to have only the empty appearance of high esteem, who did not adorn the hoary hairs of old age with any ripe judgment of the heart. (Leo 1895: 47)

Given the word play of the term rock, most likely in Aramaic “kepha”, and the mirror structure of both Peter’s answer (v. 16) and Jesus’ response (v. 18), viz., “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” and “You are Kepha, and on this kepha I will build my church”, claiming Peter’s confession alone to be that which Jesus said to build his church makes no sense. We, here also, cannot separate Peter’s confession, with Peter who has confessed.

Craig Blomberg rightly contended: “The play on words in the Greek between Peter’s name (Petros) and the word “rock” (petra) makes sense only if Peter is the rock and if Jesus is about to explain the significance of this identification.”(Blomberg 1992: 252) As what followed of Peter’s confession about Jesus is true of Jesus, then it logically follows that what follows of Jesus’ response about Peter is true of Peter.

From these two observation, I concluded that the correct view is thus, “it is not Peter simply as Peter but Peter who has confessed Jesus as the Messiah who is the church’s foundation on whom the church is to be built”(Morris 1992: 423). The foundation of the Church began with Peter of faith. The Peter who has confessed the person and the works of Jesus.

From this, I would affirm with Leo the Great, that: “Since, therefore, the universal Church has become a rock (petra) through the building up of that original Rock, and the first of the Apostles, the most blessed Peter, heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock (petra) I will build My Church,”(ibid 100) since it is the Peter of faith.

As Origen, if any one joins the chief of Apostles in his confession, saying to Jesus: “You are Christ, the Son of the living God”, then “he will obtain the things that were spoken according to the letter of the Gospel to that Peter, but, as the spirit of the Gospel teaches, to every one who becomes such as that Peter was.”(Origen 1897: 456)

I closed with John Cassian question: “Do you see how the saying of Peter is the faith of the Church? He then must of course be outside the Church, who does not hold the faith of the Church.”(Cassian 1894: 570)

Next: Unanimous consent of the Fathers’ And Matthew 16:18

Question: Do you agree with my exposition of Matthew 16:18? Concisely share your reasons  dealing solely with the case I presented.  


Blomberg, C. (1992). Vol. 22: Matthew. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

Cassian, John (1894). The Seven Books of John Cassian on the Incarnation of the Lord, against Nestorius (E. C. S. Gibson, Trans.). New York: Christian Literature Company.

Leo the Great. (1895). Letters (C. L. Feltoe, Trans.). New York: Christian Literature Company.

Morris, L. (1992). The Gospel according to Matthew. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press.

Origen. (1897). Origen’s Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (J. Patrick, Trans.). In A. Menzies (Ed.) New York: Christian Literature Company.


14 thoughts on “Contra Rome and Protestant: A Plausible Reading Of Matthew 16:18

  1. First, i love that you offer your thoughts up for debate. Now, after reading your analysis, I have a question that will better help me understand what you mean by the “Peter of Faith.” I took this to mean that your believe the church is built not on Peter, not on his confession, but on “Christ is Lord Confessors,” especially apostolic confessors. If this is what you mean, then I’m inclined to agree. The Great Commission comes to mind, where Jesus commands the apostles to do apostolic work – teaching, baptizing – that is, to be the foundational “Christ is Lord” confessors of the new Church. Am I on your track, or did I misunderstand?

    • Yes Lon that is what I meant. Peter of faith is Peter who holds that Jesus is the Christ the son of the living God. It is one who hold to the truth of the work and person of Jesus.

  2. Pingback: Origen Contra Rome’s Matthew 16:18 Exposition | With All I Am

  3. Well, no, that’s not what the Church teaches. So you’re not “contra Rome” at all. From the Catechism:

    552. Simon Peter holds the first place in the college of the Twelve; Jesus entrusted a unique mission to him. Through a revelation from the Father, Peter had confessed: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Our Lord then declared to him: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Christ, the “living Stone”, thus assures his Church, built on Peter, of victory over the powers of death. Because of the faith he confessed Peter will remain the unshakable rock of the Church. His mission will be to keep this faith from every lapse and to strengthen his brothers in it.

    Christ is the “living Stone.” Peter is the “Rock” on which He, Christ, built His Church. Peter is the “rock” because of the faith he confessed.

    You seem to be forgetting that Leo the Great was the pope of Rome. So his interpretation is the “Romanistic” interpretation.

    • Hej Joseph. Thank you for a brilliant response. I do know that Leo the Great is on the Romanistic interpretation. What I contended is that I would agree with his exposition if we are dealing with Peter who confessed, the Peter of faith, and not Peter as a person alone.

      The view I am not in agreement with is that that separate Peter from his confession. The Church is built on Peter of confession and not Peter as Peter alone. It is in this view that Origen contended that if we join Peter’s faith, then what is said of Peter applies to all believers. Holding Peter of faith means that we are all Peters if we confess that Jesus is Christ, the Son of the living God.

      Romanism seems to disagree as they focus on Peter as a person and thus view this passage as Peter’s ordination “before the rest” (Leo 1895: 117) which I think is beyond, or boldly not, what this passage is about.

      • Um, no. The Apostles were “ordained” when Jesus sent them in Matthew 10. There is no ordination of Peter “before the rest.” I don’t know what you’re referring to with that citation (a letter of Leo’s? A sermon?), but I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard that interpretation.

        Jesus was speaking to Peter and Peter alone, and gave him three blessings: (1) That on this “Rock” (Peter) He would build His Church, and that the gates of Hades would not prevail against it. (2) That to him (Peter) he gave the keys to the kingdom of heaven. (3) That what he (Peter) bound or loosed on earth would be bound or loosed in heaven. These were three very specific and personal pronouncements to Peter, with specific implications of authority to him only. The other two are at least as important, if not more important, than the “Rock” statement. No one ever supposes elsewhere in Scripture, or anything, that “all who confess Jesus” have the “keys to the kingdom of heaven.” What makes you suppose that Jesus was speaking to “all who confess Him”? He was using singular pronouns and verbs.

        Also, the Church from the very earliest days interpreted this passage by the “Romanistic” interpretation. It’s not a “Romanistic” interpretation, but a view held universally by all Christians. Even the Orthodox churches, to this day, accept the apostolic primacy of Peter in the abstract.

        (Also, you know, I’m not sure if you are meaning them this way on purpose, but the words “Romanist” and “Romanism” aren’t very nice and are disparaging and hurtful.)

      • Hej Joseph. Thank you again for a wonderful response. I did not know that Romanism is a hurtful word. I used these terms to disguise from catholic(universal which includes both Rome, Orthodox etc). I am dearly sorry for my ignorance. Which term is respectable? If given, I will edit my whole post so that it does not carry what is deemed hurtful terms.

        The citation is from Leo’s sermon. At a greater length, he contended: “For he was ordained before the rest in such a way that from his being called the Rock, from his being pronounced the Foundation, from his being constituted the Doorkeeper of the kingdom of heaven, from his being set as the Umpire to bind and to loose, whose judgments shall retain their validity in heaven, from all these mystical titles we might know the nature of his association with Christ. (Leo 1895: 117)

        Joseph, the understand of Matthew 16:13-23 to which you contended is the one I am not in agreement with. It is the “giving of authority to him only” that I am contra and do not think that this passage does say that.

        According to John 20:23: “If you[plural] forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” which I believe echoes Matthew 16:18, was given to all the disciples of Jesus. Thus the saying that the authority to bind and loose is given to Peter alone is not Biblically true.

        Matthew 23:13: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” echoing Luke 11:52 “Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.” and Isaiah 22:18 helps us to understand the key imaginary.

        Though I will agree that these three blessings were given to the Peter who confessed, what I called the Peter of faith, I do not think a case could be made, from Scripture, that they were given to Peter alone. In my next article I went through almost all places before Leo the Great where the Fathers spoke about this passage, or Peter being rock etc to show that they, almost all, also did understand this the way I exposited.

        – PD

      • Well, I’ve got tough enough skin not to be offended by “Romanism” and similar words, but historically they have been used disparagingly. It’s along the lines of “Papism.” So no offense taken, but I still don’t really like those words. I think “Catholic” or “Roman Catholic” is to be preferred, or just “Roman” is okay, speaking of “Roman doctrine” and the like.

        In the context of that citation from Leo, it sounds as if he’s saying Peter was ordained before the rest (ante), not necessarily before in time but before in prominence and authority.

        There’s no doubt that Christ gave the authority of “binding and loosing” to all the Apostles. See also Matthew 18:18. But He gave the bit about the “keys” and “on this Rock I will found my Church” to Peter alone.

        Yes, of course the “keys” are symbolic and not literal, physical keys. To cite Isaiah 22:22, Matthew 16:18 is widely interpreted as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, that Peter was the “steward” on whose shoulder Christ put the “key of David,” and “committed authority” into his hand, and gave him “a throne of honor” in his father’s house. Isaiah 22:22 is given as a cross-reference to Matthew 16:18 even in my very evangelical ESV Study Bible.

        Speaking of “almost all the Fathers” before Leo: that bit you quoted from Origen is the only thing I’ve ever read that could even be construed to have a different interpretation of this passage. Saints Irenaeus, Cyprian, Optatus of Mileve, Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and many others before Leo fully affirm Peter as the “Rock” and primary of his succesors.

      • Thank you Joseph. I did not know about those terminologies. I have avoided them in all my other posts.

        I have read the works of Saints Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Optatus of Mileve, Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, Chrysostom as I prepared my exposition of Matthew 16:13-23. I also read some of Catholic apologists’ works to see how they interact with these works. Contrary to what they say, I found out that most, if not all, of this Saints either are quoted out of context or misunderstood. True they attributed Peter the primacy of honor, but sadly not of jurisdiction.

        It is my aim to go through each Saints, bringing out the entire context, so as to show that they do not say what Roman apologists claim they said and let my readers do their own research, read and judge for themselves.

        Joseph, I hope you know that my aim is to present the historical facts, not simply to be accepted, but to stir a passion for both Catholics and non-Catholics to read or reread these Saints view on Matthew 16:13-23.


    • Greetings All,

      I believe you are right Prayson, that the rock is faith and the faithful is the Church.

      But what of this word “church”? How did this word get into our Bible?

      The word Jesus used for “church” is ekklesia (Strong’s #1577), and it is so translated in the King James Version 115 times. This Greek word means “an assembly” or “a group of people called together for a purpose.” It contains no implication at all of sacredness or holiness.

      In practical usage, it commonly identified people called by a magistrate for a public service of some sort. This is how it is used in Acts 19:32, 39, and 41.

      Each time, ekklesia is translated as “assembly” and names what could easily be described as a mob of excited and confused people. However, the writers of the New Testament clearly agreed this was the word that best fit the groups of Christians called of God for service to Him. How did it come to be translated as “church” when the word “assembly” fits more accurately?

      This change apparently has its beginning in another, far different Greek word, kuriakos (Strong’s #2960). Kurios, the Greek word for “Lord,” is easily recognizable as the root of kuriakos, which means “belonging to the Lord.” Curiously, according to Joseph T. Shipley, author of The Origins of English Words, pp. 183-184, the root of kurios and kuriakos literally means “to bend or curve.”

      In the course of time, kuriakos was picked up by the Scots as kirk. Shipley shows that kirk and kuriakos share the same root. In the Scottish language, kirk indicates a place or a location, as in a building belonging to the Lord. The kirk became the place where the assembly bent before God in reverence, as in prayer, appealing to Him; or bent looking upward in praise of God; or where God bent in extending mercy.

      As more time passed, the English pronunciation of kirk changed to “church.” Thus “church,” which indicates a building, a place where God is worshiped, gradually evolved to include, not just the place, but also the people who worshiped there and the worship services too. The modern English Reader’s Digest Great Encyclopedic Dictionary reflects this in its definitions for church: “1. A building for Christian worship. 2. Regular religious services. 3. A local congregation of Christians.” We regularly use all three in our everyday speech and writing, allowing the context to indicate which is intended.

      However, in the Bible the word “church” never refers to a building, to worship services held within the building, or to one religious denomination formed and controlled by men, and who alone have the task of interpretation for all. It always refers to the assembly, group, or congregation of called-out ones who belong to the Lord, worship Him, and fellowship with others of the same mind.

      I’d have to search my notes, but I’m pretty sure Peter was not the first to declare faith in Jesus as the Messiah foretold by the Prophets.


      • “Church” is the word that, for better or worse, has become the name of a body of Christians in western, Germanic languages. Nobody supposes that “Church” (ἐκκλησία) in the Bible refers to a building, but to the assembly of believers and the institution of Christ.

        That’s a rather odd derivation. This is what the OED has to say:

        Cognate with Old Frisian tzerke, tzerk, tzierke, tzark, tziurke, kerke (West Frisian tsjerke), Old Dutch kirika, kerk (only recorded in a place name and a derivative; Middle Dutch kirke, kerke, keerke, kerk, Dutch kerk), Old Saxon kerika, kirika (Middle Low German kerke, karke), Old High German kirihha, khirihha, chiricha, also (with dissimilation) chilihha, chīlihha (Middle High German kirche, also kilche, German Kirche), probably < a variant of Byzantine Greek κυριακόν (4th cent. a.d.), use as noun (probably short for κυριακὸν δῶμα, lit. ‘house of the Lord’) of κυριακόν, neuter of Hellenistic Greek κυριακός (adjective) ‘of the Lord, dominical’ < ancient Greek κύριος lord (see Kyrie eleison n.) + -ακός -ac suffix.

        So the word entered the English language through its Germanic roots, and is first attested to in English around A.D. 900.

  4. A couple of comments for discussion:
    1) I find the question of what did Jesus mean by His use of the word “church” in this passage to be more interesting that that of the “upon this rock.”
    2) In the context of the entire Gospel I see this as a pivot. Up until this point Jesus’ mission is to produce un-demanded faith within one person. Once that faith has been shown to be within one person, who happens to be Peter, Jesus is now free to go to the cross. And the Gospels after Peter’s confession typically are a direct descent into Jerusalem and the passion.

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