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Please explain: Does Jesus build his church on Peter and his successors?

It had been another busy stretch for Jesus. With his disciples in tow, he had been traveling all around Galilee preaching, teaching, healing, and amazing large crowds of people. He had just fed the five thousand with five loaves of bread and two fish. Later that night he walked on water. One after another, people came to Jesus with their burdens. Many brought loved ones who were sick, begging for the chance to just reach out and touch the edge of his cloak. All who touched him were healed (Matthew 14:36). Nothing is impossible for the Son of God. Imagine the Twelve watching, marveling, and praising God as Jesus brought healing from heaven both for body and for soul.

Building the church

Next, Jesus and his disciples made their way to Caesarea Philippi. When they arrived, Jesus gave them a pop quiz: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16:13). What’s the word on the street about me? Jesus didn’t ask for his own benefit, of course. He knows all things. But this would be a teachable moment for the Twelve.

They said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (Matthew 16:14). For any other traveling rabbi, those answers probably would have brought a warm blush. Not bad, ranking up there with the most prolific prophets ever to have lived. Jesus, though, wasn’t flattered. All of those responses fell short of the truth of who he really was and is.

So Jesus made it personal. He looked at his disciples and asked them point blank, “But you, who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). This time Jesus wasn’t asking about the word on the street; he was asking about the conviction in their hearts. Peter, courtesy of knowledge granted him from his heavenly Father, piped up for the rest of the group and gave an answer that hit it out of the park: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). You, Jesus, are not just some terrific teacher. You are far more than just an engaging speaker or even a showstopping miracle worker. You are the Christ, the Anointed One, the promised Messiah sent from heaven. You are the Son of God made flesh to be the world’s Savior.

The church of the living God could never be built on Peter or on any sinful mortal for that matter. Nor does it ever need to be. It is built on Christ Jesus.

Jesus’ response to Peter’s statement has been debated for much of the last two thousand years. “Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overpower it’ ” (Matthew 16:17,18).

What is this “rock” that Jesus was referring to? Was it Peter? Was Jesus here appointing Peter to be the first pope and assuring him that the church would be built on Peter and a line of his successors? Or was it Peter’s confession of faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God? Was Jesus saying that the church of all ages would be built upon the substance of Peter’s grand confession of faith?

Not on man

To answer that question, we go back to the words of Jesus and give them careful consideration. What we find is that Jesus is using a play on words. Peter’s name in Greek is petros. It’s a masculine noun. A petros is a loose rock, a boulder. But after identifying Peter as a petros, a rock, Jesus went on to say that he would build his church on this petra. In Greek, a petra is a rocky cliff or ledge, the kind of rock that Jesus said the wise man built his house upon in Matthew 7:25, the kind of rock in which they would hew a tomb (Matthew 27:60). The word petra is a feminine noun. It’s not referring to Peter, but to the content of the confession that Peter had just spoken. If Jesus had meant that his church would be built upon Peter himself, then he could have said, “on you” or “on you, Peter” (on you, Petros, not, as Jesus said, on this petra). Jesus spoke of building his church not on a person but on the truth that he is the Christ, the Son of God, the promised Savior from sin.

In the very next verse, still part of his response to Peter’s confession of faith, Jesus went on to say, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). The key that unlocks heaven to sinners is the gospel. Later Jesus gave the ministry of the keys not only to Simon Peter but to all of the apostles when he appeared to them on Easter evening (John 20:23). Jesus gave the keys to his church on earth, to forgive the sins of penitent sinners but to refuse forgiveness to the impenitent as long as they do not repent, as Luther’s Small Catechism teaches us.

Furthermore, just two chapters later we find the disciples asking Jesus, “Who then is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1). Why would they have asked that question if they already had heard Jesus saying that he would build his church on Peter and his successors? If that were the case, they would have known that Peter clearly was the greatest.

But on Christ

The church is built on Christ alone. In 1 Corinthians 3:11, Paul writes, “In fact, no one can lay any other foundation than the one that has been laid, which is Jesus Christ.” Ephesians 2:20 teaches us that God’s people are built “on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the Cornerstone.” The firm foundation of the Christian church is the doctrine that Christ has given through the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles, written for our learning on the pages of the Bible, the very Scriptures that testify about Christ (John 5:39).

Unarguably, the Lord graciously accomplished some great things through Simon Peter. But still, the brash, outspoken disciple-turned-apostle knew himself well. He was, like all of us, a sinner who did not deserve to be in the presence of the perfect Savior (Luke 5:8). He was, like all of us, a man with weaknesses and failures. The church of the living God could never be built on Peter or on any sinful mortal for that matter. Nor does it ever need to be. It is built on Christ Jesus, the cornerstone, the Son of the living God, the very one who lived and died and rose again to win our forgiveness so that we could build our every hope for time and for eternity on him.

That’s the truth that God, by grace, has enabled us to confess right along with Simon Peter. Keep building on Jesus. He is the most solid foundation that ever was and ever will be. “On Christ, the solid rock, I stand; all other ground is sinking sand” (Christian Worship 382).

The Scripture references used in this article are from the Evangelical Heritage Version.

Author: Mark Voss
Volume 107, Number 09
Issue: September 2020

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Mark Voss

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