The Papacy

Part 1

Jesus’ Promises to Simon Peter

Matthew 16:13–23

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter (pétros), and on this rock (pétra) I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Unlike other people who thought Jesus was “John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or some other prophet”, Simon confessed: “You are the Christ1, the Son of the living God!”

This was not a fundamentally new insight. Andrew had already told his brother Simon at the very beginning: “We have found the Messiah.“2 While Andrew’s first confession was based on the testimony of John the Baptist, Simon confessed Jesus as the Messiah after he had already been with him for more than a year and had to realise that Jesus did not correspond to the political image of the Messiah that he, like most Jews, had. But everything he heard about Jesus and everything he saw of his life gave him, with God’s help, the certainty of Jesus’ Messiahship. Jesus said that this was made know to Peter not by flesh and blood, but by the Father in heaven.

In the situation described next, Simon refused to accept that Jesus would have to suffer and die. Jesus therefore sternly admonished him.3 Simon’s reaction shows how strongly he was still attached to the Jewish Messianic expectation at that time, in which people longed for a victorious Messiah, but did not want to know anything about his suffering and death.

The Rock

And I tell you, you are Peter (pétros), and on this rock (pétra) I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

Jesus responded to Simon’s confession with a statement about him. Simon had said, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus replied, “You are Peter.” He reminded him of the name he had already given him at their first meeting. The Aramaic word Kefa, which Jesus used in his mother tongue,4 has the same meaning as the Greek word pétros: stone.

The Catholic New Testament scholar Rudolf Pesch5 writes about this:

The fact that kefas-petros comes from the Aramaic word kefa, a material designation, is undisputed. Just like the Greek word pétros, there is no evidence that the name was used in pre-Christian times as a personal name, proper name or epithet. Kefa means “stone, ball, lump, boulder”; “rock” is only attested as a secondary meaning in the Targumim in translation of the Hebrew word sela’. “That an Aramaic before Easter did not associate rock/pétra but ‘stone, ball, lump, clod’ when he heard the epithet kefa’6 is taught in particular by the Greek rendering of the epithet as pétros instead of pétra. While pétra means “a rock that has grown over time, rocky mountain ranges, cliffs, isolated rocky outcrops, also grottos”, pétros means “from Homer through to LXX and Josephus up to New Testament times stone […]; from the small stone, fire and sling stone, to the larger, torn loose boulder.“7

Simon is a stone, an important stone in the edifice of the church. But he is not the rock on which the Church is built. Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God, is the lasting foundation of the church of Jesus’ disciples.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3:11:

For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.

In 1 Peter 2:4 Peter calls Jesus the

[…] living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious.

Christians are to be built on him as living stones.

In the wider context, Peter quotes in combination several Old Testament passages on the theme of stone / rock (Isaiah 28:16; Psalm 118:22 and Isaiah 8:14) and applies them to Jesus. In verse 8 he calls Jesus

[…] a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence.

Here Peter uses the Greek word pétra for the rock, which we also find in Matthew 16:18 for the rock on which the church is built. Peter calls Jesus the rock. Since this use of the word also follows from the Old Testament verse quoted, this argument is certainly not too strong. But it is interesting that in this context Peter does not mention at all that he himself is the rock on which the church is built. This suggests that Peter did not see himself in this way.

The Old Testament speaks of Yahweh as the Rock in numerous places. We offer only a selection here:

Trust in the LORD for ever, for the LORD GOD is an everlasting rock. (Isaiah 26:4)

For who is God, but the LORD? And who is a rock, except our God? (Psalm 18:31 — in the same Psalm also verses 2 and 46)

And you are my witnesses! Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any. (Isaiah 44:8b)

Other passages: Deuteronomy 32:4, 18, 30; Psalm 19:14; 28:1; 42:9; 78:35; 144;1; Isaiah 17:10 …

There is, however, a passage in which not God but a man is symbolically called the “rock”:

Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord:
look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.
Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you;
for he was but one when I called him, that I might bless him and multiply him. (Isaiah 51:1–2)

Here Abraham is “the rock from which you were hewn.” Here the rock does not have the function of the foundation on which a house is built, but of the “material” from which the people of Israel came into being. One cannot therefore see this passage as a parallel to Jesus’ word to Peter. Moreover, in the people of Israel there was never the idea of an “Abrahamic office” similar to the “Petrine office” among Catholics.

To justify that the “rock” in Matthew 16:18 meant Peter, one could cite Ephesians 2:20 and Revelation 21:14.

… built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:20–22)

And the wall of the city8 had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. (Revelation 21:14)

In Ephesians 2:20 Paul writes about the unique position of the apostles in the church. It was they who, together with the prophets, laid the foundation for the doctrine of the church, which is built on Jesus and finds in him its keystone that holds everything together. We find this teaching in the writings of the New Testament. More on this in section 5.2. There is no mention here of a permanent institution of a Petrine or apostolic ministry.

Revelation 21:14 goes in the same direction. This passage also speaks about the lasting unique importance of the apostles, not about the fact that the apostles must have successors who would later take over the function of the foundation. Neither in Ephesians nor in Revelation is Peter singled out.

Excursus: On the interpretation of Matthew 16:18 in the course of history

In the “Evangelisch-katholischen Kommentar zum Neuen Testament” Ulrich Luz distinguishes between three different interpretations of this passage:9

1. The “Eastern” interpretation: Peter’s confession or faith is the foundation rock of the Church.

According to Luz, this interpretation is

[…] already present in Origen and then characterises the whole of Greek exegesis. Peter’s confession “is not peculiar to Peter alone, but happened for all men: By calling (Jesus) his confession a rock, he made it clear that on it he would build the Church” (Theodore of Mopsuestia, similarly Eusebius, John Chrysostom and others). The interpretation is based on the context of v 18: in response to Peter’s confession of faith, Jesus had called him blessed and assured him of the promise in v 18. […] Through Ambrose, Hilarius and the Ambrosiaster it also became known in the West and was then represented in the Western interpretation throughout the Middle Ages alongside the Augustinian interpretation. […]

2. The Augustinian interpretation: Christ is the foundation rock of the Church.

This interpretation also has its roots in Origen, who first pointed to 1 Corinthians 10:4 as a parallel passage, in Tertullian and in Euseb. Its real father, however, is Augustine, who has advocated it over and over again: “For petra (rock) is not derived from Peter, but Peter from petra”. The rock which Peter confessed is Christ (1 Cor 10:4). “… and on this foundation Peter himself also built. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Christ Jesus.” (1 Cor 3:11)10 […] The Augustinian interpretation became the paramount one in the Middle Ages in the West. […]

3. The Roman interpretation: Peter, and after him the Pope, is the foundation rock of the Church.

The most important foundational texts from the 5th century are the third and fourth sermons of Leo the Great on the anniversary of his consecration as bishop. […] In Peter also rests the authority of the Pope, for all that the Pope orders is to be attributed to Peter’s present efficacy through him. Peter is therefore not primarily the “first pope”, but as “Petrus vivus” he is present in his successors. It is significant for the subsequent period that the “papal” interpretation of our text is found primarily and almost exclusively in decrees. […] The papal interpretation only found its way into Catholic exegesis with the Counter-Reformation. […]


The usual explanation in the Catholic world today, that the rock on which the Church is built is Peter and the popes, does not correspond to the interpretative tradition of antiquity and the Middle Ages. The traditional interpretation saw in the rock either (1) Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God or (2) Jesus Christ himself. These two interpretations both point to Jesus, not the Pope, and also correspond to the biblical context. The “papal” interpretation (3) was used almost exclusively to support the papacy until the Counter-Reformation, but not in exegetical texts.

The Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven

Is the primacy of jurisdiction11 meant by the keys of the kingdom of heaven? Is this only about Peter or also about his successors?

We can find events in Peter’s life in which he indeed had a key function.

  • In Acts 8:4–25 we read about the first step of the Church beyond Judaism. Peter and John laid hands on the newly converted Samaritans. They were thus fully accepted into the church of Jesus’ disciples.
  • The next “expansion” of the church, when Gentiles were also received, also took place with Peter’s significant participation, according to Acts 10–11.
  • The admission of the Gentiles also raised the question of the significance of the Old Testament law for the Gentile Christians. Peter was also significantly involved in this decision.12

So we find enough points in Peter’s life where this “key power” becomes visible. Peter unlocked, so to speak, the kingdom of heaven for the Samaritans and the Gentiles. There is no need to search for a meaning of this word for possible followers of Peter.

Luke 22:31–34

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Peter said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.”

Jesus here encourages Peter, even after the denial and the subsequent repentance, to see his responsibility towards his brothers and to strengthen them. In the first chapters of the Acts of the Apostles we can read how Peter did this. There is no mention here of a possible successor to Peter. In a broader sense, of course, every disciple of Jesus has the task of strengthening his brothers.

John 21:15–19

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”

This passage is also to be seen in connection with Peter’s denial of Jesus three times. Because Peter has denied Jesus three times, he is asked by Jesus three times whether he loves him. The threefold request, “Feed my sheep!” shows that the relationship with Jesus has been fully restored and that he is again to care for his brothers and sisters in the faith. The subsequent words in which Jesus announces Peter’s martyrdom show that this is about Peter, not about someone who is his successor. The interpretation from the bull “Unam Sanctam” quoted at the beginning of this treatise is therefore completely unfounded.

Jesus entrusted Peter with the responsibility for his brothers and sisters after Peter affirmed his love for Jesus. Loving Jesus is the unconditional prerequisite for any authority that can exist in the Church. If someone does not love Jesus, then Jesus cannot entrust that person with the care of his disciples. Love, however, is not passed on through an “office”.

Peter was not the only shepherd in the early church. He himself writes:

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. (1 Peter 5:1–4)

Peter is only a fellow elder. The chief Shepherd is Jesus Christ.

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  1. or Messiah 
  2. John 1:41 
  3. When Jesus calls Peter Satan, this does not mean that Peter was the devil or was possessed by him. We have to understand the word Satan in its original Hebrew meaning as “adversary”. Because Peter spoke against the suffering and death of Jesus, he became his adversary. 
  4. cf. John 1:42 
  5. Rudolf Pesch, Simon‐Petrus, 1980, p. 29, Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic words transcribed. 
  6. Pesch cites here: P. Lampe, Das Spiel mit dem Petrusnamen, MATT XVI. 18, in: NTS 25 (1978/79), p. 238. 
  7. Another cite from Lampe, p. 240. 
  8. The new Jerusalem 
  9. Ulrich Luz, Das Evangelium nach Matthäus, Vol. II, Mt 8–17, 4th Edition, 2007, p. 476–479 
  10. Compare: Augustine, Lectures or Tractates on the Gospel according to St. John (Tractatus in Ioannis Euangelium) Tractate CXXIV:5 —–1/versions/lectures-or-tractates-on-the-gospel-according-to-st-john/divisions/1238 
  11. This term refers to the highest legal authority in the church. 
  12. Acts 15:1–21