November 22, 2017

Upon This Rock • A Study of Matthew 16:13–20

Layton Talbert

This famous theological battleground invites, deserves and rewards close and independent exegetical scrutiny.

Interpretational Options

The first option, perhaps the most popular view among non-Romanists, is that the “rock” is Christ Himself. This view is defended by the New Scofield Reference Bible, Barbieri (Bible Knowledge Commentary), and somewhat tentatively by Matthew Henry.

The second option, that the “rock” is Peter, has a number of variations: (a) Peter personally; (b) Peter positionally (as a chief apostle); (c) Peter representatively (as representative of all the apostles); and (d) Peter as confessor (as the mouthpiece of the apostolic faith). A surprising variety of men take this view. For example, the renowned Baptist Greek scholar John Broadus, arguing that the rock is Peter, insists: “No other explanation would probably at the present day be attempted, but for the fact that the obvious meaning has been abused by Papists to the support of their theory. But we must not allow the abuse of the truth to turn us away from its use; nor must the convenience of religious controversy determine our interpretation of Scripture teaching.” Hendrickson and Carson agree with Broadus here; Bengel, Meyer, and Alford also argue for Peter.

A third option views the “rock” as neither Christ nor Peter himself, but Peter’s words, his confession of the Christ. The MacArthur Study Bible, A. B. Bruce, and Alfred Edersheim all defend this view. Ryrie combines Peter and his confession as the rock. A few revert to the convenient but exegetically dubious assertion that the “rock” refers simultaneously to Christ and Peter and Peter’s confession (Pentecost, Words and Works of Jesus Christ).

Other Passages?

Though 1 Corinthians 3:11 is often adduced to identify Christ as the foundation and, therefore, the “rock” in Matthew 16, the parallels between the two passages collapse under examination. The builder in Matthew 16 is Christ. The builder(s) in 1 Corinthians 3 are Paul and individual believers (v. 10, 12). This passage does not address laying the foundation of the Church, but laying the foundation of a life. The only foundation for any life is Christ; then we build on that foundation either positively or negatively. So this passage really has no bearing on the discussion—similar terminology but different subject.

Ephesians 2:20 is different: “You (the church) are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone.” Grammatically the genitive (“the foundation of the apostles and prophets”) could mean either (1) the foundation which is the apostles and prophets, or (2) the foundation laid by the apostles and prophets. Interestingly, Jesus Christ Himself is here depicted not as the foundation, per se, but as the chief cornerstone—the keystone from which the rest of the building took its angles. Let’s carry that with us back to Matthew 16.

Matthew 16—The Context

Verse 13 begins the context and sets the stage with a key question: “Whom do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” Verse 14 records all favorable and flattering opinions, but all clearly inadequate ones. In verse 15, Christ turns the key question back to them. Predictably, in verse 16 Peter pipes up, “Thou art the Christ (su ei ho Christos), the Son of the Living God.” Verse 17 identifies the divine nature and source of that revelation to Peter—proof that Peter has, despite all his faults, been the recipient of God the Father’s special working and revelation. In that connection, Christ proceeds in verse 18, “And I also say to you that thou art Peter (su ei Petros, clearly parallel and in answer to Peter’s confession of Him), and on this rock (petra) I will build My Church.”

If Christ had meant Himself as the rock in contrast to Peter, a “but” would have been most helpful and appropriate here; instead, He uses kai which, while it can be used as an adversative (“but”), most commonly bears the continuative sense of “and.” It is true that petra (“rock”) means a massive slab or shelf of rock, as opposed to petros (“Peter”), which means a stone. But petra is also feminine; arguably, then, Christ could not very well have given Simon the feminine name Petra, even if He had wanted to. Neither would it have been appropriate to say, “Thou art a stone, and on this stone I will build my church”—not a very impressive or substantial foundation for so monumental a superstructure. That is why some argue that Christ named Simon Petros (“Rocky”) in the first place—the only appropriate form of the name He could give him, specifically in anticipation of this day. Moreover, when Christ says, “I will build my church,” Broadus argues that it nonsensically confuses the imagery to think of Christ as both the builder and the foundation. And if Christ had meant that Peter himself would be the foundation, the most unambiguous way to say that would have been, “upon you I will build my church.” The carefully chosen terminology, then, seems to suggest something else. Does the continuing context give any further clues?

Christ continues to focus on Peter in verse 19, “And I will give thee (singular, Peter) the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou (singular, Peter) shalt bind on earth . . . and whatsoever thou (singular, Peter) shalt loose on earth. . . .” This is a significant part of the context of this disputed passage. This is no small privilege and responsibility that Christ directs explicitly to Peter. Peter obviously figures quite prominently in these plans.

What is the significance of keys? Keys symbolize access and authority (Luke 11:52; Rev. 1:18, 3:7, 9:1, 20:1). The possessor of these keys is Peter and, through him, the Church (cf. Matt. 16:19 and 18:18; note context of 18:15 and the plural “ye”). The authority of the keys does not reside in the Church itself. Note the terminology carefully—heaven does not ratify what we say or proclaim, but vice versa. The construction in 16:19 and 18:18 is a future perfect passive periphrastic (“will have been bound” and “will have been loosed”). It is the Church on earth carrying out and declaring heaven’s decisions, not heaven ratifying the Church’s decisions. The use of the keys involves our defining for people, on the authority of God’s words, the conditions of entrance to and exclusion from the kingdom, warning of consequences for failing to meet the conditions, and excommunication from fellowship (Matt. 18). Finally, the actual initial employment of the keys was, in fact, exercised by Peter—opening the kingdom to the Jews (Acts 2:38) and to the Gentiles (Acts 10:42–43).

Verse 20 is a strange command. Christ commends Peter for his confession, then commands them not to publicize that confession. Why? Because He is not going to build a kingdom on earth in the Jewish conception, but a kingdom of heaven, a church. So He pulls the disciples back from publicizing His identity as the Christ, but only until His work is accomplished. What, then, does Peter begin publicizing after the resurrection at Pentecost? His confession that Jesus is Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36)! Then out come the keys—repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus the Christ and your sins will be remitted (2:38)! And suddenly, we are confronted again with Peter’s confession and its practical ramifications.

So What Is “The Rock”?

Of the interpretative alternatives for identifying the “rock,” the most popular view (Christ) is probably the least likely option—grammatically and contextually. While none of the above views is inherently heretical, Peter’s confession seems to have the best exegetical and contextual support. The identity of Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, the promised Messiah, is the heart of the gospel and the bedrock truth of the Church. To reverse the metaphor, the Church is itself the “pillar and ground” of this truth of the identity and work of Christ (1 Tim. 3:15–16). It does not get any more basic than that. The Person of Jesus Christ is the cardinal doctrine and glory of the Church and the hope of mankind.


Dr. Layton Talbert teaches theology and apologetics at Bob Jones Seminary, Greenville, SC and is a Frontline Contributing Editor.


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