Difficult Texts

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.


The father had revealed one truth (v. 17); Jesus now adds to it another. These words have been variously interpreted: (1) that Peter is “this rock,” (2) that Peter's faith in Jesus as the Christ is “this rock,” (3) that Christ Himself is “this rock.” Persuasive reasons have been set forth in favour of each of the three explanations. The best way to determine what Christ meant by these cryptic words is to inquire of the Scriptures themselves what this figure of speech meant to Jewish listeners, particularly to those who heard Jesus use it upon this occasion. The testimony of the writings of the disciples themselves is obviously superior to what men have since thought Jesus meant. Fortunately, some of those who were eyewitnesses upon this occasion (see 2 Peter 1:16; 1 John 1:1-3) have left a record that is clear and unequivocal.

For this part, Peter, to whom the words were addressed, emphatically disclaims, by his teachings, that the “rock” of which Jesus spoke referred to him (see Acts 4:8-12; 1 Peter 2:4-8). Matthew records the fact that Jesus again used the same figure of speech, under circumstances that clearly call for the term to be understood of Himself (see on Matt. 21:42; cf. Luke 20:17, 18). From very early times the figure of a rock was used by the Hebrew people as a specific term for God (see on Deut. 32:4; Ps. 18:2; etc.). The prophet Isaiah speaks of Christ as “a great rock in a weary land” (see on ch. 32:2), and as “a precious corner stone, a sure foundation” (see on ch. 28:16). Paul affirms that Christ was the “Rock” that went with His people in ancient times (see 1 Cor. 10:4; cf. Deut. 32:4; 2 Sam. 22:32; Ps. 18:31). In a secondary sense the truths Jesus spoke are also a “rock” on which men may build safely and securely (see on Matt. 7:24, 25), for He Himself is the living “Word” “made flesh” (see John 1:1, 14; cf. Mark 8:38; John 3:34; 6:63, 68; 17:8).

Jesus Christ is the “rock of our salvation” (Ps. 95:1; cf. Deut. 32:4, 15, 18). He alone is the foundation of the church, for “other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11), “neither is there salvation in any other” (Acts 4:12). Closely associated with Jesus Christ as “the chief corner stone” in the foundation of the church are “the apostles and prophets” (Eph. 2:20). In the same sense that Christ is the Rock, “a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God,” all who believe in Him, “as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:4, 5), “fitly framed together … an holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:21). But Jesus is ever and only the “Rock” on which the entire structure rests, for without Him there would be no church at all. Faith in Him as the Son of God makes it possible for us also to become sons of God (see John 1:12; 1 John 3:1, 2). The realisation that Jesus Christ is indeed the Son of God, as Peter emphatically affirmed upon this occasion (see Matt. 16:16), is the key to the door of salvation. But it is incidental, not fundamental, that Peter was the first to recognise and declare his faith, which, upon this occasion, he did as spokesman for all the disciples (see on v. 16).

Augustine (c. a.d. 400), the greatest of Catholic theologians of the early Christian centuries, leaves it for his readers to decide whether Christ here designated Himself or Peter as “the rock” (Retractiones i. 21. 1). Chrysostom, the “golden-tongued” preacher, another Father of the early centuries, says that Jesus promised to lay the foundation of the church upon Peter's confession [not on Peter], but elsewhere calls Christ Himself truly our foundation (Commentary on Galatians, ch. 1:1-3; Homilies on 1 Timothy, No. xviii, ch. 6:21). Eusebius, the early church historian, quotes Clement of Alexandria as declaring that Peter and James and John did not strive for supremacy in the church at Jerusalem, but chose James the Just as leader (Church History ii. 1). Other early Fathers of the church, such as Hilary of Arles, taught the same.

It was only when scriptural support was sought in behalf of the claims of the bishop of Rome to the primacy of the church (see Vol. IV, p. 836) that the words of Christ upon this occasion were taken from their original context and interpreted to mean that Peter was “this rock.” Leo I was the first Roman pontiff to claim (about a.d. 445) that his authority came from Christ through Peter. Of him, Kenneth Scott Latourette, a leading church historian, says: “He insisted that by Christ's decree Peter was the rock, the foundation, the door-keeper of the kingdom of heaven, set to bind and loose, whose judgements retained their validity in heaven, and that through the Pope, as his successor, Peter continued to perform the assignment which had been entrusted to him” (A History of Christianity [1953], p. 186). Strange indeed it is, that if this is really what Christ meant, neither Peter nor any other of the disciples, nor other Christians for four centuries thereafter, discovered the fact! How extraordinary that no Roman bishop discovered this meaning in Christ's words until a fifth-century bishop considered it necessary to find some Biblical support for papal primacy. The significance attributed to Christ's words, by which they are made to confer primacy upon the so-called successors of Peter, the bishops of Rome, is completely at variance with all the teachings Christ gave to His followers (see ch. 23:8, 10).

Perhaps the best evidence that Christ did not appoint Peter as the “rock” on which He would build His church is the fact that none of those who heard Christ upon this occasion—not even Peter—so construed His words, either during the time that Christ was on earth or later. Had Christ made Peter chief among the disciples, they would not thereafter have been involved in repeated arguments about which of them “should be accounted the greatest” (Luke 22:24; see Matt. 18:1; Mark 9:33-35; etc.).

The name Peter is derived from the Gr. petros, a “stone,” generally a small slab of stone. The word “rock” is the Gr. petra, the large mass of rock itself, a “ledge” or “shelf of rock,” a “rocky peak.” A petra is a large, fixed, immovable “rock,” whereas a petros is a small “stone.” To what extent Christ may have had this distinction in mind, however, or may have explained it as He spoke, is a matter that cannot be determined from these words themselves, because Christ certainly spoke Aramaic—the common language of Palestine at that time. The Gr. petros undoubtedly represents the word kepha (cephas) in Aramaic (see on ch. 4:18). And, very likely, petra also represents the Aramaic word kepha though there is a possibility that Christ used some other synonym or expression in Aramaic, which would agree with the distinction between petros and petra that is made by the gospel writers in Greek. It seems probable that Christ must have intended to make such a distinction, however, or Matthew, writing in Greek and guided by the Holy Spirit, would not have made one.

Obviously a petros, or small stone, would make an impossible foundation for any edifice, and Jesus here affirms that nothing less than a petra, or “rock,” could suffice. This fact is made even more sure by the words of Christ in ch. 7:24: “Whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them” is like “a wise man, which built his house upon a rock [Gr. petra].” Any edifice built upon Peter, petros, a weak, erring human being, as the Gospel record makes plain, has a foundation little better than shifting sand (see on ch. 7:27).

Gates. In ancient cities the gate was the meeting place of the city fathers and the key place in the defence of the city against an attacking army (see on Gen. 19:1; Joshua 8:29). Hence to capture the gate would make possible the capturing of the entire city.

Christ's triumph over death and the grave is the central truth of Christianity. It was not possible for Satan to hold Christ with the cords of death (see Acts 2:24), nor will it be possible for him to hold any of those who believe in Christ (see John 3:16; Rom. 6:23). Figuratively speaking, Satan holds the “gates of hell,” but Christ, by His death, entered Satan's stronghold and bound the adversary (see on Matt. 12:29). Upon this sublime fact rests the Christian's hope of deliverance from the wiles of Satan in this life, from his power over the grave, and from his presence in the life to come. “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:26). Death and the grave will eventually be “cast into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:14).

To make Christ's words mean that the “gates of hell” are not to prevail against Peter is to deny Christ's own explanation in Matt. 16:21 (to which vs. 13-20 are introductory), and to make Peter's reaction meaningless (see vs. 22, 23) -- Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, [Matthew 16:18].