Why doesn’t Reformed theology support the idea that Peter was the first Pope? – Matthew 16:18


Thank you for your question. Based on Matthew 16:18, the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) asserts that Peter is the first in a long successive line of popes ordered by Christ himself. On the other hand, the Reformers looked not to just one verse but to all of Scripture. They observed that Jesus is fully human and fully divine and therefore the human and divine head of his own church (“my church,” Matt. 16:18) on earth. Also, Paul wrote in Ephesians 1:22 that “he put all things under his [Christ’s] feet and gave him as head over all things to the church”. A few verses later Paul says the household of God [church] is, “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” (Eph. 2:20-21).

Since all Scripture is true and is profitable for learning (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:20-21) then what is meant by Matthew 16:18?

Let’s look at the context. In Matthew 16, we observe that Jesus and the disciples had gone to Caesarea Philippi (Matt. 16:13). Jesus asked all his disciples [plural], “Who do people [plural] say that the Son of Man is?” As a group, the disciples [plural] suggested some guesses: “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (Matt. 16:14). Then Jesus changes the question just slightly and asks, “But who do you [plural] say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15). Then Peter, speaking for all the disciples by the Spirit, stated, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). Jesus then states that Peter’s confession is a divinely inspired answer (Matt. 16:17). Jesus follows with the passage in question:

Matthew 16:18 And 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.

What? All of a sudden Jesus is talking about rocks. What is he doing here? Recall that Jesus had already given Peter his name – petros or little rock (John 1:41-42). So, Jesus is making a play on words. He says, “You are Peter (petros, masculine), and on this rock (petra, feminine) I will build my church …” (Matt. 16:18), so we need to ask, does petra (feminine) refer to Peter or something or someone else? When we examine Scripture, we observe that the Greek word petra is used three other times in the Bible. Matthew 27:60 refers to a very large stone out of which Jesus’ tomb is carved. In 1 Corinthians 10:4 Paul says “the rock [petra] was Christ.” And in 1 Peter 2:8 the petra is Jesus! So, the little rock, Peter, made a huge confession concerning the Rock, Jesus Christ!

So then, on whom or what is God building his church? Is Jesus building the church only upon Peter and those that follow him as Pope? (the RCC interpretation). Or is he building it upon Peter and the other apostles as the foundational stones of the church? (cf. Eph. 2:20; Rev. 21:14) Or is Jesus praising Peter for his Spirit-inspired testimony and introducing his work of building the church upon himself? (cf. 1 Cor. 3:11).

Since, we are obligated to consult all of Scripture on this and every issue that confronts Christianity, it seems more accurate to combine the last two previous questions which essentially reject the RCC view. What we know from the Bible is instructive here:

(1) Jesus, not Peter, is the human and divine head of the church (Eph. 1:22; 2:20-21; 4:15; 5:23, 24).

(2) Jesus, not Peter, is the chief cornerstone of the church (Psa. 118:22; Isa. 28:16; Luke 20:17; Eph. 2:20; 1 Pet. 2:6).

(3) In the disputed passage, Jesus says the church is his, not Peter’s and the Popes; “I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18).

(4) Peter is not some unmovable rock: (a) he began to sink like a rock when he became afraid walking upon the water (Matt. 14:29-30); (b) he denied Christ three times (Luke 22:54-62); and (c) he had to be rebuked by Paul for his sin (Gal. 2:11, 14).

(5) Jesus is the unmovable Rock (Deut. 32:4; 2 Sam. 22:2-3; Psa. 18:31; Isa. 44:8; Rom. 9:33).

(6) All the disciples, not just Peter, are the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20; Rev. 21:14; cf. 1 Cor. 12:28).

(7) Peter by the Holy Spirit made a divinely inspired confession (Matt. 16:16-17).

(8) The gender change from masculine to feminine in Matthew 16:18 is important, as petra (feminine) isn’t referring to the person of Peter (petros, masculine), but rather to Peter’s confession of Jesus – the Rock – by the Spirit.

(9) Everyone who genuinely confesses Christ as Lord is making a divine profession and upon this faith the church is being built and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Rom. 10:9-10; 1 Cor. 12:3; cf. Psa. 42:2; John 11:27; 1 Tim. 4:10; cf. Heb. 11:1-40).

God the Son is the head of his own church and Jesus its chief cornerstone. Peter is not alone in proclaiming that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Didn’t Andrew, James (the son of Zebedee), John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James (the son of Alphaeus), Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot all genuinely confess Christ as Lord as well? Peter’s declaration by the Spirit of God is the cry and confession of all who truly know Christ.

So, to use Matthew 16:18 to declare that Peter should be the first Pope and there should be a succession of others that would follow him is unscriptural. It actually unseats Christ from his own church!

In closing, while the RCC agrees that the church of the Living God existed in the Old Testament (cf. Acts 7:38; Rom. 3:1-2; Gal. 6:16), isn’t it surprising that the RCC has no succession of Popes for this longest period of the history of redemption!

“For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11).

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Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).