Did Jesus Build The Church On Peter?


Urban Legends examines widely held myths from a Biblical perspective.

One of the most contended passages of scripture in human history is Matthew 16:13-20. In that passage, we see Jesus having a feedback session with his disciples. He asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” As it turns out the people thought he was a reincarnated prophet. Some said he was Elijah though Elijah had died like 800 years before Jesus was born. Some said he was Jeremiah but Jeremiah had died almost 600 years before this incident. And some said he was a reincarnation of his cousin, John the Baptizer. John had just been beheaded by Herod Antipas for accusing him of adultery. Incidentally, Herod Antipas himself thought Jesus was a reincarnation of John. (Matthew 14:1) And some people simply gave a vague answer – “He’s one of the prophets!”

As it turns out, the truth was far from all these postulations. When Jesus pointedly asked his disciples who THEY thought he was, an inspired Peter blurted out, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It was the affirmation of that inspired utterance by Jesus that has generated controversy: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah [Bar-Jonah means “son of Jonah” not that he owned a bar called Jonah]. For flesh and blood (men) have not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter (Greek, Petros – a large piece of rock), and on this rock (Greek, petra – a huge rock like Gilbratar) I will build my church, and the gates of Hades (the powers of the infernal region) shall not overpower it.” (Matthew 16:17-18 AMP) Reading this some concluded Peter is the foundation of the church. When challenged as to the difference between “Petros” and “petra” they contend there’s an obvious explanation: that petra a feminine noun has simply been modified to have a masculine ending, since one would not refer to a man (Peter) as feminine; that the change in gender is simply for stylistic reasons. Note however that the construct of the statement has been reversed in this explanation, but no matter. They also contend Jesus spoke in Aramaic not Greek, and it boils down to how Kepha or Cephas was translated. In support they adduce statements by church fathers who variously referred to Peter as the foundation of the church – Tatian the Syrian, Tertullian, Clement, Origen, Cyprian of Carthage, Firmilian, Ephraim the Syrian, Optatus, Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, Augustine, and so on. The basis of the contention of those who oppose this interpretation of scripture is that the reason Jesus changed from Petros (a large rock) to petra (a gargantuan rock) was because he was referring to himself and not Peter.

Now, without a study of the Bible it would seem that it was at this incident that Jesus named Simon, Peter; and that this was the first revelation of Jesus as Christ. But this is not true. Jesus had named Simon, Peter the very first time they met! That was way back. (John 1:42) The naming of Peter is therefore not tied to the revelation of the church. It was illustrative contrast. And concerning the revelation of the Messiah, the first disciple to identify Jesus as the Messiah was Peter’s brother, Andrew, not Peter – “He first sought out and found his own brother Simon and said to him, We have found the Messiah! – which translation is the Christ (the Anointed One).” (John 1:42) John the Baptizer had pointed Jesus out to him. (John 1:36) Andrew used to be a disciple of John. Given these facts it’s obvious what Jesus was saying was that Peter caught a private revelation of the Christ. He was not the first identifier of Christ. Indeed Simeon and Anna had identified him as Saviour at his presentation in the temple. (Luke 2:25-38) But unlike Andrew who was instructed by John, Peter was instructed directly by God: “You didn’t get that answer out of books or from teachers,” Jesus had said. (Matthew 16:17 MSG) And so the only novel revelation at this incident in Matthew 16:13-20 was the introduction of the Church.

There are issues in scripture that can easily be resolved from the testimonial of principal characters. When for example the people contended (on the basis of Malachi 3:1 and Malachi 4:5) that John the Baptizer was the reincarnation of Elijah, the issue was easily resolved by the testimonial of John himself: “They asked him, What then? Are you Elijah?” And he said, I am not! (John 1:19-23) Case closed. In the same vein, we can resolve whether Jesus indeed built the church on Peter by looking at what Peter himself said. And Peter said!

In 1 Peter 2:2:4-8 Peter wrote: “Welcome to the living Stone, the source of life. The workmen took one look and threw it out; God set it in the place of honor. Present yourselves as building stones for the construction of a sanctuary vibrant with life, in which you’ll serve as holy priests offering Christ-approved lives up to God. The scriptures provide precedent: Look! I’m setting a stone in Zion, a cornerstone in the place of honor. Whoever trusts in this stone as a foundation will never have cause to regret it. To you who trust him, he’s a Stone to be proud of, but to those who refuse to trust in him, The stone the workmen threw out is now the chief foundation stone. For the untrusting it’s a stone to trip over, a boulder blocking the way. They trip and fall because they refuse to obey, just as predicted.” (MSG) In this writing Peter stringed three prophetic passages together to make the point that Jesus is the foundation of the church. Jesus is the stone laid in Zion (Isaiah 28:16), the stone exalted and placed at the “head of the corner” – eis kephalen gonias (Psalm 118:22), and the rock of offence against which the unbelieving stumble. (Isaiah 8:4)

Peter stringed three prophetic passages together to make the point that Jesus is the foundation of the church. Click To Tweet

In ancient architecture, the chief cornerstone was the foundational stone from which all measurements began so every stone was laid in relationship to the cornerstone. This “rock of offence” is the same rock in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, the one not cut with hands. It smashes kingdoms into nothingness and it will stand forever. (Daniel 2:44) It will therefore be highly presumptuous of us, and even Peter to assume Peter is this rock. Testifying about his work in Corinth Paul wrote, “Because of God’s grace to me, I have laid the foundation like an expert builder. Now others are building on it. But whoever is building on this foundation must be careful. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one we already have – Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 3:10-11 NLT)

However, there’s the secondary implication of the statement made by Peter. He was saying in effect that every Christian is a stone, not just him. Every Christian is a living stone. We are all Petros. Paul would pick up on this theme in Ephesians 2:20, but then on the surface he seemed to contradict what he wrote in 1 Corinthians 3:10-11. This is what he wrote in Ephesians 2:20: “Together, we’re his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Jesus himself. We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord.” (NLT) What does he mean by “built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets”? Seems contradictory given the fact that he says in the same sentence that Jesus is the cornerstone.

Every Christian is a living stone. We are all Petros. Click To Tweet

Even if we interpret this passage to mean the apostles and prophets are the foundation of the Church, the implication is that Peter is not the exclusive foundation of the Church. Yet the Bible cannot contradict itself. Both Jesus and the apostles cannot be the foundation of the Church. So what was Paul saying? What Paul was saying was that the apostles and the prophets were the first course of stones laid, being that they preceded everyone in calling and revelation of the Church. (Ephesians 3:1-6) In modern parlance we’d probably say they’re the “foundation members” of the Church. But the foundation of the Church itself is Jesus the chief cornerstone.

Now, we don’t have a video recording of the session Jesus had with his disciples (obviously!), and so we don’t know whether it was Peter or all the disciples he addressed when he said, “I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.” “Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven” refers to power and authority. (Cf Isaiah 22:22, Revelation 1:18) This is why he made the following statement: “Whatever you forbid, bind or lock on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19 NLT) It turns out this promise is actually not exclusive to Peter or the twelve disciples. It’s for every follower of Christ. Just down the line in scriptures Jesus made exactly the same promise to the generality of the people. Teaching the people in Matthew 18:18 he said, “I tell you the truth, whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.” (NLT)

Bottom line, the Church wasn’t built on Peter. Jesus is the foundation. Neither were the keys of the Kingdom given exclusively to Peter. The keys were given everyone. You and I.

If you will like to give your life to Christ, please pray this prayer: Father I acknowledge that I am a sinner, that Jesus Christ died for me, that you raised him from the dead. Please forgive me. I accept Jesus today as my Lord and my Saviour. Amen

© #Illuminare Leke Alder | talk2me@lekealder.com