What foundation lies beneath the Church of Jesus Christ?

Referring to two verses in Matthew’s gospel, the Roman Catholic Church teaches the church was built on the person of Peter, who became the first pope and from whom the Catholic papacy has since descended, and the Pope is considered to be the supreme and authoritative representative of Christ on earth. When a pope speaks ex cathedra, that is, in his official capacity as head of the church, he is said to speak with divine authority equal to that of God in Scripture. On the contrary, the New Testament makes it abundantly clear that Christ is both the foundation and the head of the church. If Christ declared Himself to be the cornerstone and the head of the church, how could Peter be the rock upon which the church was built?

The Son of Man
The narrative that Matthew has given in chapter 16 recounts for us an experience that Jesus had with his disciples. The central theme is the Messiahship of Jesus Christ. In this private conversation Jesus asks an interesting question (v13), “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Notice the question Jesus asked… He didn’t ask “Who do people say that I am?”, rather he asks “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Before he even hears the reports of how other people interprets his person, he answers the question for them. This is very significant in the text. When we look in the New Testament, in the gospel records the No. 01 title Jesus use for himself is “the Son of Man”. This is Jesus’ favourite self-designation. The common understanding is that this title implies his humanity (which it does). However, there is a more deep meaning to that title. Every time when Jesus identifies himself as the Son of Man, he uses it in light of his connection to the Old Testament literature, particularly the Book of Daniel Ch. 7. There you’ll see that the Son of Man not just a human figure but an exalted figure.

The Son of Man is a heavenly being who descended from the very presence of God for a season to carry on His ministry to which he will later ascend to be restored to the glory that he had with the Father from the beginning. If you see every time when Jesus used this title he is using it to demonstrate his divine authority -this is God who has taken the human nature. E.g. “the Son of man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:28); “you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins (Mark 2:10); “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven. (Mark 14:62). In reply to Jesus question, disciples went on and gave him different view points of people -“Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets (v14).” Then Jesus asked “But who do you say that I am? (v15)” Simon, evidently was spokesman for the group answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God (v16).” This declaration is referred as the great confession. Peter was the first ever human being to declare that Jesus is the Son of God. This is the heart of the gospel revelation. Jesus looked at Peter and pronounces a benediction, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! (v17a)”

This was the most important question Jesus has ever asked, and certainly the most important question He would have ever asked you. What is your view of Christ? Make no mistake, your honest view determine your eternal destiny. If you recognize Jesus as the savior and the Son of living God, that acknowledgement will open for you highest blessings that any human being could ever receive.

Son of Jonah
Why did Jesus called him son of Jonah (Bar is Aramaic for “son”)? Was Siman’s father’s name Johna? According to John 1:42 and 21:15-17, his name was John (and not Jonah). Also, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Andrew, Peter’s brother, was a disciple and follower of John the Baptist (John 1:35, 40), but who became a follower of Jesus after John’s testimony, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” (1:36, 37). Andrew, in turn, located his brother Peter and said, “We have found the Messiah” (1:41). When Jesus saw Peter, he said, “So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas”. It is possible that Peter’s father’s name could be Jonah (or John). However, if we stick to the context of the passage, at the beginning of the chapter we read that Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and asked for a sign from heaven. What was Jesus reply? “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah” (v4). The sign that was pointing to Jesus crucifixion, burial, and resurrection where Jesus predicted just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The people of Nineveh repented of their evil ways (Jonah 3:4–10) after hearing Jonah’s call for repentance, but the Pharisees continued in their unbelief even though they saw great miracles performed by Jesus. So, it could very well be Jesus was acknowledging here that the confession of Peter reflects the faith evident in the people of Nineveh. Jesus is saying “You are a son of Jonah, because you believe in the sign of Jonah”.

On this rock I will build my church
Upon Simon’s confession Jesus said to him, it is not your intelligence or your insight that helped you figure this out, but my Father has revealed it to you (17b). It was a divine revelation to Peter. And, Jesus said “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 (v18).” What does it mean “on this rock I build my church”? There are all sorts of interpretation of these words of Jesus and controversies about the meaning of this one sentence. Roman Catholic Church historically sees this as a foundation for the papacy. According to Rome Peter is the rock and the foundation of the church. The view of some Protestants is that what Jesus was saying here was He would build the church based on the confession that Peter made, based on the faith Peter has demonstrated. That’s not what meant here.

It is clear in the text that Jesus commended Simon and gave him a new name Pétros. Jesus doesn’t say, “I will build my church on you Simon”. Rather, He is saying “You are Peter (Greek name Pétros, meaning ‘stone’), and I am going to build my house upon Pétra -rock” (Pétros vs Pétra – See Notes 1). Jesus uses the metaphor of a building for New Testament church. The New Testament church is built on the apostolic foundation, and the chief cornerstone is Christ himself. “God’s house built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone (Eph 2:20)”. Peter, like other apostles and prophets, is one of the stones in this foundation. What foundation is the apostles and prophets? God’s Word revealed to them; God’s Word proclaimed by them; God’s Word inscripturated through them by the power of the Holy Spirit. So, there is a sense in which the foundation of the church is the very Word of God -the Bible! Jesus is the living Word, and he is the one who holds the rest of them together. It is not Simon Peter who is holding the house together, but Christ, the Word. The church is made up of living stones, and Peter himself uses that metaphor in his own writing (1 Peter 2:5). In fact, if you are in Christ, then you are a stone in God’s house. But, who is the chief cornerstone? Peter? Matthew? John? Paul? James?…. They all are stones knit together forming this foundation Christ being the chief cornerstone.

If you search the scripture to see who this rock is, it is Christ himself (Deuteronomy 32:4; Psalm 18:2; rock that gave water during the Exodus -1 Corinthians 10:4; a rock of offense -Rom 9:33; Isaiah 28:16; Daniel 2:34,35,45). It is not Peter’s church or Matthew’s church or John’s church; it is Christ’s church, though they are the stones of the foundation. Jesus said, “I build My Church”. What is the church that Jesus is building? It is a community of confessors. It is a community of those who stand with Peter and recognize Jesus for who He is; those who recognize Jesus and believe in him, and confess him as the Christ and the Son of the living God. “For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation” (Luke 11:30). Jesus confirmed the truth of his Messiahship, and declared him to be the Son of God with power. And, when we believe Christ and put our trust in Him for our salvation, we become living stones that are being built upon the foundation of apostles and prophets, of which Christ being the chief cornerstone, into a spiritual temple (1 Peter 2:5).

Keys of the kingdom
In v19, Jesus promises to give the keys of the kingdom of heaven to Peter at some time in the future, so that what he binds on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever he looses on earth will be loosed in heaven. Rome claims that Peter received the power to make decisions affecting others, or even the church, that God in heaven would enforce and approve no matter what. This is completely unbiblical and false teaching. FIRST, The scripture is very clear that this authority is given not to Peter alone but extended to all the apostles as well (Matthew 18:18). What are the keys of the kingdom? Keys used to lock or unlock the entrance to a place. Jesus said that the only way to enter in to the Kingdom of Heaven is to be born again (John 3:3). So it is only through the faithful preaching of the gospel one can enter in to the kingdom. It would be the means of opening the kingdom of heaven to all believers and shutting it against unbelievers. On the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-40), Peter opened the door of the kingdom for 3000 for the first time. Jesus has entrusted the order and administrative affairs of the church to all 12 apostles. They all got the “Keys” -the administrative authority of the church, to proclaim the gospel.

The expressions “bind” and “loose” were common to Jewish legal phraseology meaning to declare something forbidden or to declare it allowed. There is also a reference to the binding and loosing in the context of church discipline. Greek tense indicates that binding and loosing had already occurred (perfect tense, passive voice participles); the apostles were to concur. As the NASB Bible puts it, “Whatever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven”. SECOND, Apostles are to implement what God has already decided in His Word, they are to participate in fulfilling God’s eternal plan. God has never given any human the authority to make decrees for Him, but to Jesus. Jesus said that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him by the Father, so that ‘Go and do what I commanded’. Sadly, this is the result of the fall -assuming autonomy, deciding what’s right and wrong ourself -acting like God. We know a guy who did that and fell from heaven. Satan, known as Lucifer before he sinned, wanted to be equal with God, and he wants to be like the Most High (Isaiah 14:12-14). When Paul declared an anathema on those who pervert the gospel, then we know that anathema was already declared in heaven (Galatians 1:8–9).

Peter and the papacy
The pope claims to hold apostolic authority (Successor of Peter) and continue the mission Jesus supposedly entrusted to Peter. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered” (882). The catechism presents the papacy as a divinely appointed institution (937). This claim is either right or wrong. There is no middle ground here: either Christ has established Peter as the head of the church or He is not. The scripture gives ample evidence that there is no connection between what Jesus says of Peter in Matthew 16:18 and the function of the papacy, and Jesus makes no reference to such a succession.

Jesus tells us a folly of a man who builds his house upon an unsettled ground, where when the winds and storms come it washed away because it doesn’t have a firm foundation. But a wise man builds his foundation upon a solid rock. Peter didn’t act like a rock, and he was a very shaky foundation. Suddenly, Peter went from ‘rock’ to ‘Satan’. Jesus rebukes him in about three versus and called him, ‘Satan’. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God”. It is the same old guy again, the same old Peter. That’s the same Peter that stood up and said “I confess the deity of Christ, Thou are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” and then turns right around and disclaims Jesus. He’s the same Peter who would die for Christ, but when he gets a chance to speak for Christ, he denies Him. He’s the same Peter who is called to preach and later on goes back to fishing. Paul rebukes him for his hypocrisy (Gal 2:13). The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, does not recognize his primacy or his authority. The leader of the Jerusalem Counsel turned out to be James, and not Peter. The leader to the gentile mission turned out to be Paul, not Peter. Peter was a married man (1 Cor. 9:5; Matthew 8:14). Peter wasn’t always right, and there’s no hint of infallibility to Peter in the New Testament. Beyond the New Testament, church history also testifies against Rome on this point. No pope claimed that he was the successor of Peter, as far as the historical record exists, before AD 250. No ecumenical council of the church, down to AD 550, recognized a connection between the Pope and Peter. Not in all the New Testament is there the vestige of any authority either claimed or exercised by Peter, or conceded to him, above the rest of the apostles.

“And he (Christ) is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy (Colossians 1:18)”. So, who has the supremacy? Does the scripture say Simon Peter? No, it is Christ who has the supremacy. Jesus is the one who purchased the church by His blood, He redeemed it for a price, not the Pope.

“Christ did not redeem His church with His blood so the pope could come in and steal away the glory. He never came from heaven to earth and poured out His very heart that He might purchase His people so that a poor sinner, a mere man, should be set upon high to be admired by all the nations and to call himself God’s representative on earth! Christ has always been the head of His church.”
– C.H. Spurgeon Sermon 3436, “Christ Glorified”

The Roman Catholic faith has shown a willingness to raise the pope above Jesus Christ and the Bible by giving him the right to nullify Scripture through papal decrees. Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2:4 described the coming Antichrist “who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God”. Westminster Confession of Faith, which says, “There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin and son of perdition, that exalts himself in the church against Christ and all that is called God” (25.6).

Notes:

(1) Pétros vs Pétra (Ref: Strong’s Greek Concordance)

In the Greek text the word ‘Peter’ and the word ‘Rock on which Christ was to build His church’ are two separate and distinct words, and they have two different meanings. The word Peter in Greek is Pétros (#4074 -a masculine noun), which means “a pebble, a small rock, piece of rock, stone used by warriors”. The word rock is Pétra (#4073 -a feminine noun), which means “a mass rock, a cliff, a projecting rock, boulder, solid formation, fixed and firm, immovable, enduring.” The Greek rendering (of Kepha -Aramaic) indicates a distinction between the ‘You Kepha’ and ‘This Kepha’ Jesus will build on. The translation takes account of the difference between the meaning of Kepha and Kepha in the Aramaic. There is no evidence at all that Jesus did speak in Aramaic on that occasion, and Matthew’s gospel was written in Greek and not in Aramaic.

Reference:

Various teachings: Dr. R.C. Sproul, Dr. Al Mohler, Dr. John MacArthur, Dr. Robert Godfrey, Dr. Alistair Begg

Additional Resources:

Jan Huss, The Church (Huss’s most famous work for which he was burnt at the stake for claiming that Christ was the founder of the Church not Peter).
Christopher Catherwood, Church History: A Crash Course for the Curious
Edmund P. Clowney, The Church
A Christian’s Pocket Guide to Papacy by Leonardo De Chirico
Brittany Burnette , An exegetical and patristic examination of Matthew 16:18, Dallas Theological Seminary (https://bible.org/seriespage/1-exegetical-examination-matthew-1618)