Who Is The Rock Upon Whom The Church Is Built? 

By: Mark Tabata (Evangelist) 

One of the greatest differences between Roman Catholicism and New Testament Christianity is in regards to the foundation of the church.

Our Catholic neighbors believe that the Lord Jesus promised to build His church upon the Apostle Peter; and that Peter became the first pope. As such, it is claimed that the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church has been entrusted with the authority of Jesus Christ Himself.  

In this article, we will carefully examine the primary text which our Catholic friends believe teaches that the church is built upon the Apostle Peter.  

In Matthew 16, we read:

Matthew 16:13-14-13 When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?”

14 So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

The identity of Jesus Christ always generates intense discussion, in the first century as well as today.

However, Jesus does not stop the conversation with what “everyone else” says about Him: instead, He makes it personal:

Matthew 16:15-15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

We must all deal with the question that Jesus has here raised.  

It is now that we read the confession of Peter:

Matthew 16:16-Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Peter declared what the other Apostles would not. As a result, we are told the following:

Matthew 16:17-18-17 Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.

18 And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.

It is at this place that our Catholic friends and neighbors tell us that Jesus Christ promised to build His church upon the Apostle Peter and to make him the first pope.  

You see, the word “Peter” is from a Greek word that means ‘”stone.” So, it is argued, Jesus names Peter as “stone” (cf. John 1:43) and then promises to build His church upon Peter.

Therefore, Peter (and all of the popes after him) are the foundation of the church of Christ.  

Yet is this what Jesus really says?  

Look Closer…

If we will dig a little deeper, we will see that this is not the case at all.  

In fact, if we will carefully study, we will notice that Jesus actually makes a clear distinction between “Peter” and the “Rock” upon which the church is built.  

He does this in at least two ways.  

The first indication of this distinction between “Peter” and the “Rock” is seen in the fact that Jesus switches from the second person to the third person.

In other words, He doesn’t say, “You are Peter, and UPON YOU’ I will build my church.” Instead, He says, “YOU are Peter, and upon THIS ROCK I will build My church.”

The switch from second to third person is very informative.  

Second, Jesus uses two Greek words in the original New Testament in this passage. He refers to Peter as “petros” (a small, detached stone or pebble, masculine gender). He then calls the church’s foundation the “Rock,” from the Greek “petra” (a massive rock foundation, feminine gender).  

White explains the significance of these facts:

“A number of specifics should be noted from the text itself. First, Jesus is addressing Peter personally; the pronoun used is singular. Secondly, as has been pointed out many, many times, the Greek term translated “Peter” is the masculine singular term Πέτρος; and this is distinguished from the term translated “rock” which is the feminine singular form, πέτpq. Catholic apologists are quick to assert that Jesus would have been speaking Aramaic, not Greek, and that Aramaic does not distinguish between the genders. 4 However, this is pure supposition; we simply do not know what language the Lord Jesus was speaking, whether Aramaic, Greek, or Hebrew; secondly, we do not have any Aramaic original of this Gospel, if one ever existed. 5 Hence, for anyone to claim that they know what might have been in a non- existent original is ridiculous; even if one accepts that there was an Aramaic original, whoever translated the Gospel of Matthew into Greek felt that there was some reason to differentiate between the two occurrences of the word. Theories and suppositions do not make for sound exegesis. Next, note that when Christ speaks to Peter, He does so in the second person; that is, direct address. Yet, the term “this rock” is third person (indirect address indicated by the use of ταύτη ), making the differentiation between “Peter” and “this rock” complete, even if one accepts the Catholic apologists’ contention of an Aramaic original without differentiation of the genders, masculine and feminine, of “rock.” He is speaking to Peter, about the “rock.” Hence the text differentiates between Peter and the rock in two ways: the form of the word, and the person of address. While Roman Catholics like to think that the church has always understood Matthew 16:18 as establishing Petrine primacy, the fact is just the opposite.” (James White, Answers To Catholic Claims: A Discussion Of Biblical Authority, 1542-1558 (Kindle Edition))

If Peter was not the Rock upon which the church is built, then what is?

The answer lies in verse 16, where Peter declared that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.  

It is in the identity of Jesus Christ Himself that serves as the foundation for the church.

This is made abundantly clear throughout the rest of the New Testament Scriptures:

1 Corinthians 3:11-For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 10:4-and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ.

Ephesians 2:20-having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone,

Further, that Jesus’ identity as the Christ (which was confessed by Peter) is the Rock upon which the church is built is also seen in the fact that this discussion in the parallel accounts of the other Gospels ends with the affirmation of Who Jesus is (Mark 8:27-30; Luke 9:18-20). The focus is not on Peter, but on Jesus Himself.

The Church Fathers On The Passage

The early second and third century Christians often discussed the “Rock” upon which the church is built.

One Catholic authority listed the following interpretations of the church fathers: 

“Did the ancient religious Fathers, so-called, agree as to the meaning of Matthew 16:18? Dr. Kendrick, Catholic archbishop of St. Louis, grouped together the various interpretations of these Fathers as follows: 1. Seventeen Fathers designed Peter as the rock upon which the church is built. 2. Eight Fathers, including Origen, Cyprian, and Jerome, taught that the whole apostolic college is the rock. 3. Forty-four Fathers, including Gregory of Nyssa, Chrysostom, Hilary, and Ambrose, designated Peter’s confession of Christ’s divine Sonship as the Rock. 4. Sixteen Fathers that the Christ Himself was the rock. From this information, we conclude that even the religious leaders upon whose teaching the Roman Catholic Church extensively relies were not in agreement as to the meaning of the supposed magna charta of the papacy, Matthew 16:18, which proves false the statement of Bellarmine that the interpretation of this passage which designates Peter as the rock upon which the church is built had “the consent of the entire church, both Greek and Latin Fathers.” (James Tolle, Was The Apostle Peter A Pope? I8; Pasadena, TX; Haun Publishing Company)  

To give you an idea of how the church fathers understood the passage to be referring to Christ as the Rock, please notice some specific references:

“Next, the Father’s utterance, This is My Son, had revealed to Peter that he must confess You are the Son of God, for in the words This is, God the Revealer points Him out, and the response, You are, is the believer’s welcome to the truth. And this is the rock of confession whereon the Church is built.” (Hilary Of Poitiers, On The Trinity: Book VI).

“Else it were superfluous to   say, “Thou art Son of Jonas;” but since he had said, “Son of God,” to   point out that He is so Son of God, as the other son of Jonas, of the   same substance with Him that begat Him, therefore He added this, “And I   say unto thee, Thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build my   Church;” [2092] that is, on the faith of his confession.” (Philip Schaff, The Complete Works Of John Chrysostom, 39623-39631 (Kindle Edition))

“For, as regards his proper personality, he was by nature one man, by grace one Christian, by still more abounding grace one, and yet also, the first apostle; but when it was said to him, I will give unto you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatsoever you shall bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven, he represented the universal Church, which in this world is shaken by various temptations, that come upon it like torrents of rain, floods and tempests, and falls not, because it is founded upon a rock (petra), from which Peter received his name. For petra (rock) is not derived from Peter, but Peter from petra; just as Christ is not called so from the Christian, but the Christian from Christ. For on this very account the Lord said, On this rock will I build my Church, because Peter had said, You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. [Matthew 16:16-19] On this rock, therefore, He said, which you have confessed, I will build my Church. For the Rock (Petra) was Christ; [1 Corinthians 10:4] and on this foundation was Peter himself also built. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Christ Jesus. [1 Corinthians 3:11] The Church, therefore, which is founded in Christ received from Him the keys of the kingdom of heaven in the person of Peter, that is to say, the power of binding and loosing sins. For what the Church is essentially in Christ, such representatively is Peter in the rock (petra); and in this representation Christ is to be understood as the Rock, Peter as the Church.” (Augustine, The Complete Works Of Augustine, 118927-118398 (Kindle Edition); Toronto, Canada)

“See what praises follow this faith. You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church. What means, Upon this rock I will build my Church? Upon this faith; upon this that has been said, You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Upon this rock, says He, I will build my Church.” (Augustine, The Complete Works Of Augustine, 120966-120971 (Kindle Edition); Toronto, Canada)

It is also important to realize that when the early Christians interpreted the passage as referring to Peter, they understood this as Peter symbolizing all the Apostles and, in some cases, every Christian!  

“If we, too, have said like Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”—not as if flesh and blood had revealed it to us, but by light from the Father in heaven having shone in our heart—we become a Peter. So to us there might be said by the Word, “You are Peter, etc.” For every disciple of Christ is a rock. . . . And upon every such rock is built every word of the church and the polity in accordance with it. For in each of the perfect—who have the combination of words, deeds, and thoughts that fill up the blessedness—the church is built by God.” (Origen (c. 245, E), 9.456.) 

“But if you suppose that upon only that one Peter the whole church is built by God, what would you say about John, the son of thunder, or about each one of the apostles? Shall we dare to say that the gates of Hades will not prevail against Peter in particular, but that they will prevail against the other apostles and the perfect? Does not the saying previously made, “The gates of Hades will not prevail against it,” apply in regard to all? . . . Are the keys of the kingdom of heaven given by the Lord to Peter only and will none other of the blessed receive them?” (Origen (c. 245, E), 9.456.)

“In this place [Matt. 16: 18, 19], these words seem to be addressed to only Peter—” Whatever you will bind on earth will be bound in heaven.” However, in the Gospel of John, the Savior gave the Holy Spirit to the disciples by breathing upon them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit, etc.” Many then will say to the Savior, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” . . . And if anyone says this to Him . . . through the Father in heaven, he will obtain the things that were spoken according to the language of the gospel to Peter. . . . For all who are the imitators of Christ bear the surname of “rock.” . . . Furthermore, as members of Christ, they derive their surname from Him, being called “Christians.” And from the rock, they are called “Peters.” (Origen (c. 245, E), 9.456.)

That Peter understood every Christian to be a “stone” is clear from his own statement:

1 Peter 2:5-you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

Interestingly enough, in this same passage, Peter refers to Christ as the Rock (Petra) upon which the entire church is built and named from (1 Peter 2:8). 

One very candid Catholic authority summed up the evidence from the early Christians’ interpretation of Matthew 16:18 with the following statement: 

“All this is intelligible enough, if we look at the patristic interpretation of the words of Christ to St. Peter. Of all the Fathers who have exegetically explained these passages in the Gospels (Matt. xvi. 18, John xxi. 17), not a single one applies them to the Roman bishops as Peter’s successors. How many Fathers have busied themselves with these texts, yet not one of them whose commentaries we possess—Origen, Chrysostom, Hilary, Augustine, Cyril, Theodoret, and those whose interpretations are collected in catenas,—has dropped the faintest hint that the primacy of Rome is the consequence of the commission and promise to Peter! Not one of them has explained the rock or foundation on which Christ would build His Church of the office given to Peter to be transmitted to his successors, but they understood by it either Christ Himself, or Peter’s confession of faith in Christ; often both together. Or else they thought Peter was the foundation equally with all the other Apostles, the Twelve being together the foundation-stones of the Church (Apoc. xxi. 14).” ((Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger, Janus, The Pope And The Council: Authorized Translation From The German, 90-91 (Kindle Edition); London, Oxford, and Cambridge; Rivingtoms; Pneuma Press)

Did The First Century Church Regard Peter As The First Pope?

Please notice also that the early church did not treat the Apostle Peter as the pope.

Several passages of Scripture illustrate this truth.  

We could consider, for example, the events of Acts 15.

Here the Bible tells us that the Apostles gathered together with the elders of the church in Jerusalem to deal with a serious situation which had arisen. Several false teachers were propagating the notion that in order for a person to be saved, they must be circumcised and keep the Old Testament Law (Acts 15:5). The Bible records for us that Peter was present and spoke to the assembly (Acts 15:7-11).  

Yet what is truly fascinating for our present study is what takes place after Peter speaks:

Acts 15:13-22-13 And after they had become silent, James answered, saying, “Men and brethren, listen to me:

14 Simon has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name.

15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written:



18 “Known to God from eternity are all His works.

19 Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God,

20 but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood.

21 For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”

22 Then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, namely, Judas who was also named Barsabas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren.

This passage teaches us that Peter did not have the first or the last word about the matter. We are told that Peter did not speak until there had been much dispute (Acts 15:7).  

Isn’t that strange if Peter had been the first pope?  

Yet even more revealing is the fact that it was James who clearly presided over the council (cf. Acts 15:13, 19-20).  
Clearly, the church did not view Peter as the pope, nor did Peter regard himself as such. Several other passages bear out these facts, and demonstrate also that all of the Apostles of Christ were on equal footing in regards to their authority and position in the church (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:10-13; 12:27-31; 2 Corinthians 11:5; 12:11-12; Galatians 2:7-21; Ephesians 2:20).  

When we turn to the writings of the second century Christians, we see that they understood Peter as being equal with the other Apostles. For example:

“I do not, as Peter and Paul, issue commandments to you. They were apostles.” (Ignatius (c. 105, E), 1.75.)

“The universally known church was founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul.” (Irenaeus (c. 180, E/ W), 1.415.)

“[Clement of Alexandria] says that Peter, James, and John (after the Savior’s ascension), although preeminently honored by the Lord, did not contend for glory. Rather, they appointed James the Just as bishop of Jerusalem. Eusebius, citing Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.579.)

“To James the Just, John, and Peter, the Lord imparted knowledge after His resurrection. These imparted it to the rest of the apostles. And the rest of the apostles imparted it to the Seventy, of whom Barnabas was one. Eusebius, citing Clement of Alexandria.” (Clement of Alexandria, (c. 195, E), 2.579.)

The church fathers had a great deal of respect for Peter due to his courage in the face of persecution and hardship, as well as his humility.

Yet even with this respect clearly before them, they never hint at the idea that the church was founded on Peter, or that he was the first pope.  

Where Did The Idea That Peter Was The First Pope Come From?

In order to understand where the papacy originated, we need to look at church history.  

In the New Testament church, God has designed each congregation to be autonomous (or self-governing-see 1 Peter 5:1-4, and notice especially the phrase “among you”).

In each congregation, where men are qualified (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9) special officers are appointed (Titus 1:5; Acts 14:23) to lead the local congregation (1 Timothy 5:17). These men were referred to in the New Testament by the titles pastor, elder, bishop, presbyter, and overseer. All of these phrases are used interchangeably in the New Testament Scriptures (cf. Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5-7; 1 Peter 5:1-4; Ephesians 4:11), showing that all of these titles referred to the same position in the local church.

The second century Christians understood and adhered to this pattern, at least for a time.

For example:

“Appoint, therefore, for yourselves, bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord: men who are meek, not lovers of money, truthful, and tested; for they also render to you the service of prophets and teachers. Do not despise them, therefore, for they are your honored ones, together with the prophets and teachers.” (Didache (c. 80–140, E), 7.381)

“Preaching through countries and cities, the apostles appointed the first- fruits of their labors to be bishops and deacons of those who would believe afterwards. However, they first tested them by the Spirit.” (Clement of Rome (c. 96, W), 1.16.)

However, near the middle of the second century, some in the churches started elevating one man over the rest of the eldership. They made him “the bishop” over all the elders(and remember that this was a departure from the New Testament order implemented under the Apostolic authority). This one man then began to assume control of other local congregations. As time went on, five huge churches developed and claimed preeminence over the rest of the churches.  

Calvin Fields provides a fascinating historical description of these events:

“CHANGES: As the city churches began to evangelize those in the country, the city bishops began to assume authority over the country bishops. These were called the Metropolitans. Thus began the avenue by which the organizational structure eventually evolved into the hierarchical form of church government that exists today in the Catholic and some Protestant churches. BISHOPS over elders (beginning in the second century). METROPOLITANS (city bishops over country bishops). PATRIARCHS in five cities (Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Rome). PATRIARCHS IN TWO CITIES: CONSTANTINOPLE (Orthodox Catholic Church in the East). ROME (Roman Catholic Church in the West). POPE (Roman Catholic Church). NOTE: There are other men designated as popes but none over the number of people as that of the Roman Pope. ARCADIUS (377-395) and HONORIUS (384-423) became co-emperors when their father, Theodosius, died. He had designated Arcadius as ruler over the Western half and Honorius over the Eastern half. This set the stage for later separation into the Roman and Orthodox churches. The churches at this time were under control of five Patriarchs in Antioch, Alexandria, Ephesus, Constantinople and Rome. Each had equal authority. With the division of the empire, the three Patriarchs of Antioch, Ephesus, and Alexandria gave their authority to the Patriarch of Constantinople. LEO I (400?-461), as Bishop of Rome, was formally acknowledged as having authority over all the churches of the Western empire by Valentinian, then emperor of the West. It was a political move by the emperor to solidify control over his empire. About the same time, “Pope” became the exclusive title of the Bishop of Rome. Leo justified his position on the basis of Peter being the first bishop of Rome and that such authority was vested in all future bishops of that city. The idea of succession was not from God but from Leo, who seized the opportunity to assume a title he knew would please the Roman emperor. Leo also issued a decree forbidding priests to marry. The idea that Peter was the first Pope, having all authority, is nowhere suggested by the Scriptures or church history. The ability to produce a listing that purportedly shows a continuous line of succession for the Bishop of Rome is no proof that Peter was the first Pope. Although Peter was given the privilege of preaching the first sermon to both Jews and Gentiles, the New Testament makes it clear that he did not have any more power to bind and loose the words of the Holy Spirit, by which we are judged, than any other apostle:…Although some early church fathers of the 2nd century believed that Peter was crucified and buried at Rome, he was never referred to as the Pope or acknowledged as having power over the universal (Catholic) church. Although Iraneus did refer to Peter as the “preeminent disciple,” this would only be as to his privilege of being the first to preach to the Jews and Gentiles.” (Calvin Fields, 10, 000 Faces of Christianity: Which Face Have You Seen? 5567-5594 (Kindle Edition); Xulon Press)

The formation of the Roman Catholic papacy was the result of a departure from the Word of God. This departure had long been foretold by the inspired Prophets and Apostles of Jesus Christ (Daniel 7:1-25; Acts 20:28-31; 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12; 1 Timothy 4:1-5).  

It is also important to realize that the early “bishops” of the ancient world did not consider the bishop of Rome the pope (or universal head) of the church on Earth.

Notice some samples of evidence which support this claim:

“For neither does any of us set himself up as a bishop of bishops, nor by tyrannical terror does any compel his colleague to the necessity of obedience; since every bishop, according to the allowance of his liberty and power, has his own proper right of judgment, and can no more be judged by another than he himself can judge another.” (Cyprian, “The Seventh Council of Carthage under Cyprian” in The Ante- Nicene Fathers, 5:565]). 

“Neither can it rescind an ordination rightly perfected, that Basilides, after the detection of his crimes, and the baring of his conscience even by his own confession, went to Rome and deceived Stephen our colleague, placed at a distance, and ignorant of what had been done, and of the truth, to canvass that he might be replaced unjustly in the episcopate from which he had been righteously deposed.” (Cyprian, Epistle 67, in The Ante- Nicene Fathers, 5:371)

“The bishops of every country ought to know who is the chief among them, and to esteem him as their head, and not to do any great thing without his consent; but every one to manage only the affairs that belong to his own parish, and the places subject to it. But let him not do anything without the consent of all; for it is by this means there will be unanimity, and God will be glorified by Christ, in the Holy Spirit.” (Constitutions of the Holy Apostles in The Ante- Nicene Fathers, 7:502.)

““Let the ancient customs in Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis prevail, that the Bishop of Alexandria have jurisdiction in all these, since the like is customary for the Bishop of Rome also. Likewise in Antioch and the other provinces, let the Churches retain their privileges. And this is to be universally understood, that if any one be made bishop without the consent of the Metropolitan, the great Synod has declared that such a man ought not to be a bishop.”” (Canons of the Council of Nicea, VI, in The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Series II, 14:15.)

“Wherever a bishop may be, whether at Rome or at Eugubium, at Constantinople or at Rhegtum, at Alexandria or at Thanis, he is of the same worth, and of the same priesthood; the force of wealth and lowness of poverty do not render a bishop higher or lower; for all of them are the successors of the apostles.” (Jerome Epistle 85, ad Evag., vol i. p. 259, as cited by Cathcart in The Papal System , pg. 67.

Gregory The First (540-604 A.D.) Bishop Of Rome-“Now I confidently say that whosoever calls himself, or desires to be called, Universal Priest, is in his elation the precursor of Antichrist, because he proudly puts himself above all others.” (Gregory I, Book VII, Epistle XXXIII, in The Nicene and Post- Nicene Fathers, Series II, 12:226. 9

The Need To Return To Christ Jesus And His Pattern For The Church

God has placed His blessing upon those who abide in His Word (John 6:63; Hebrews 4:12; Romans 1:16; 2 Timothy 3:14-17), and has likewise placed His curse on those who depart from it (Deuteronomy 4:1-2; Proverbs 30:6; 1 Corinthians 4:6; Galatians 1:6-9; 2 John 9-11; Revelation 22:18-19).

Today in our religious world, the most pressing need is for believers from every denomination to return to the pattern for the church (2 Timothy 1:13; Jeremiah 6:16) that is set forth in God’s Word, the Bible (1 Corinthians 14:37; Colossians 2:6-7; Jeremiah 6:16).  

The central message of the Word of God is the Gospel, or “Good News,” that God’s Son (Jesus Christ) came to this world to die for the sins of mankind (1 Timothy 2:6; Isaiah 53).

Jesus died to pay for the price for each person’s sins because God desires for all people to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). He was buried, and arose from the dead on the third day (1 Corinthians 15:1-8). It is upon Jesus Christ and His Word that we can safely build our lives; only He is the solid foundation upon which His church is built (Matthew 7:24-27).  

Why not today place your faith in Jesus Christ, repent of your sins, confess Him as the Son of God, and be buried with Him in baptism (Acts 2:37-38; 8:35-38)?

When you obey God’s plan of salvation, He will add you to His church (Acts 2:47), and He promises to walk with you and to build you up through His Holy Spirit (Romans 8:12-13).

When we fall short and sin as Christians (1 John 1:8), He will forgive us when we repent of that sin and confess it to Him in prayer (1 John 1:9).  

If I can assist you in any way, please contact me.  

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.  

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