“Upon This Rock I Will Build My Church”
THE Roman Catholic religious organization claims that some four hundred million persons profess its faith. Outstanding among what it teaches these multitudes is that Peter was the first pope. When any of these are pressed for Scriptural proof they immediately refer to the words of Jesus to Peter: “Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church.” (Matt. 16:18, Dy) But we ask, Is that what Jesus meant by those words, that Peter is the rock on which His church is built? Was Peter the first pope? Is it certain that Peter was ever in Rome? What are the facts?
First of all let us note that the church of Christ is not a literal building of stone, for, as Paul told the Athenians, God “does not dwell in handmade temples”. (Acts 17:24, NW) The original Greek word translated “church” at Matthew 16:18 is ecclesia and does not refer to a building of stone or wood but to a congregation or assembly of people. God had a church or assembly or congregation long before the time of Christ, for Stephen, when referring to the nation of Israel in the wilderness, called it an ecclesia or church or assembly. (Acts 7:38) Nor does this word apply only to religious assemblies. Luke, in telling of the mob that gathered at Ephesus in protest to Paul’s preaching, refers to it as an ecclesia, an assembly.—Acts 19:29-41.
Note that this church or congregation is termed by Jesus “my church”. It is not the church or congregation of Paul, Apollos or Peter, for, as Paul well states, none of these died for the Christians. (1 Cor. 1:12, 13) It is Christ’s body, his bride, and consists of 144,000 members. Following in his footsteps faithfully to death, these will share in his resurrection and glory.—1 Cor. 12:12-28; Eph. 1:22, 23; Col. 1:17, 18, 24; 2 Tim. 2:11, 12; Rev. 14:1, 3.
In a larger sense, however, Christ Jesus is also a part of the Christian congregation or church, and it is God’s church or assembly. (1 Cor. 1:1, 2; Gal. 1:13; 1 Thess. 2:14) It is God who builds the church and sets the various members of it in their respective positions. (Matt. 20:23; 1 Cor. 3:9; 12:18; Eph. 2:10) As Christ Jesus co-operates with his heavenly Father in all things, he could properly say, “I will build my church”; even as we read not only that “God created the heaven and the earth”, but also that “without him [the Word or Logos] was not any thing made that was made”.—Gen. 1:1; John 1:3; 5:17.
So the church is the Christian congregation which belongs to both God and Christ Jesus, who work together in the building of it. And who or what is the rock or foundation upon which it is built? According to the construction that Roman Catholic theologians place upon Matthew 16:18, that rock or foundation is the apostle Peter. In this connection note that Jehovah God is referred to as “the Rock”. (Deut. 32:4) His kingdom is also referred to as a stone or rock. (Dan. 2:44, 45) Christ Jesus identified himself as the rock or cornerstone which the builders had rejected, and the apostle Paul bore similar testimony. (Matt. 21:42-46; Rom. 9:32, 33; 1 Cor. 10:4) And the apostle Peter shows that Christians are living stones, built, not upon himself, but upon Christ Jesus. “Coming to him as to a living stone, rejected, it is true, by men, but chosen, precious, with God, you yourselves also as living stones are being built up a spiritual house . . . For it is contained in Scripture: ‘Look! I am laying in Zion a stone, chosen, a foundation cornerstone, precious.’” (1 Pet. 2:4-6, NW) Doubtless such scriptures as the foregoing account for the fact that so many confuse the “church” with a literal building of wood or stone.
From the context of the scripture under consideration, Matthew 16:18, we learn that Peter had just given testimony that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, and Jesus told him that God had revealed this to Peter. Continuing, he then said: “And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church.” (Dy) Consulting the original Greek words (by means of Strong’s Concordance of the Bible) we find that Jesus was here using two related words but which have distinctly different meanings. “Peter” (Greek, Petros—a proper noun, in the masculine gender) means “a (piece of) rock”. But when speaking of the “rock” on which he would build his church or congregation, Jesus used a different Greek word, petra (a common noun, in the feminine gender), which means “a (mass of) rock”. So the New World Translation properly renders this text: “Also I say to you, You are Peter, and on this rock-mass I will build my congregation.” For other instances of the use of the same word see Matthew 7:24, 25; 27:51; Mark 15:46; 1 Corinthians 10:4, New World Translation. Clearly Jesus was here saying that He himself, the one identified by Peter as the Messiah, the Son of God, was the rock-mass or foundation on which he would build his church or congregation.
PETER NOT PRE-EMINENT
If the construction put upon this text by Catholic theologians were correct, then we should find the apostles and early congregation following through by according to Peter a place of pre-eminence, and thus show that in a special sense he was the foundation of the early church and took the place of Christ Jesus as his vicar. But from all the evidence at hand it is clear that the mere fact that Jesus singled out Peter to give him the keys of the knowledge concerning the Kingdom did not raise him above his fellow apostles. He was still only one of the twelve apostles of the Lamb, only one of twelve foundation stones, not a chief cornerstone: ‘Only one is your Master, and all the rest of you [including Peter] are brothers.’—Matt. 23:8; Luke 11:52; Rev. 21:14.
Could it be possible that Peter was the first pope and did not know it himself? He certainly makes no mention of it! If the Christian congregation was being built upon Peter, and Peter was the vicar of Christ, then certainly Paul would have been behind Peter. Paul contended for his status as an apostle, and we may be sure that if Jesus had intended that Peter should be chief, Peter would have had occasion to remind the others of that fact. On the contrary, it was necessary for Paul to rebuke Peter and bring him (the supposed pope, the vicar of Christ, the infallible one!) into line doctrinally for fearfully compromising in his dealing with Gentile converts.—1 Cor. 9:1, 2; Gal. 2:11-14.
Further, when the elders and apostles gathered in Jerusalem to discuss the question of circumcision, we find that it was not Peter but the disciple James who summed up the matter. Surely had Peter been the chief and in Christ’s place he would have done so. Had Christ Jesus been present, could we imagine him letting James thus sum up the matter?—Acts 15:13-21.
EARLY “CHURCH FATHERS” DID NOT CONSIDER PETER THE ROCK
Neither the early Christian congregation nor the early “church fathers” held that Peter was the rock on which the church was built. This is clearly seen from the facts brought to our attention by one Bishop Strossmayer of Bosnia, in his speech made before the college of cardinals in 1870, at the time that the dogma of the infallibility of the pope was discussed. Among other things this bishop told that august assembly:
“I come now to speak of the great argument—which you mentioned before—to establish the primacy of the Bishop of Rome by the rock (petra). If this were true, the dispute would be at an end; but our forefathers—and they certainly knew something—did not think of it as we do. St. Cyril, in his fourth book on the Trinity, says, ‘I believe that by the rock you must understand the unshaken faith of the apostles.’ St. Hilary, Bishop of Poitiers, in his second book on the Trinity, says, ‘The rock (petra) is the blessed and only rock of the faith confessed by the mouth of St. Peter;’ and in the sixth book of the Trinity, he says, ‘It is on this rock of the confession of faith that the church is built.’ ‘God,’ says St. Jerome in the sixth book on St. Matthew, ‘has founded His church on this rock, and it is from this rock that the apostle Peter has been named.’ After him St. Chrysostom says in his fifty-third homily on St. Matthew, ‘On this rock I will build my church—that is, on the faith of the confession.’ Now, what was the confession of the apostle? Here it is—’Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Ambrose, the holy Archbishop of Milan (on the second chapter of the Ephesians), St. Basil of Seleucia, and the fathers of the Council of Chalcedon, teach exactly the same thing. Of all the doctors of Christian antiquity St. Augustine occupies one of the first places for knowledge and holiness. Listen then to what he writes in his second treatise on the first epistle of St. John: ‘What do the words mean, I will build my church on this rock? On this faith, on that which said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ In his treatise on St. John we find this most significant phrase ‘On this rock which thou hast confessed I will build my church, since Christ was the rock.’ The great bishop believed so little that the church was built on St. Peter that he said to the people in his thirteenth sermon, ‘Thou art Peter, and on this rock (petra) which thou hast confessed, on this rock which thou hast known, saying, Thou art Christ the Son of the living God, I will build my church—upon Myself, who am the son of the living God: I will build it on Me, and not Me on thee.’ That which St. Augustine thought upon this celebrated passage was the opinion of all Christendom in his time.” (Augustine died A.D. 430, or about 400 years after Jesus spoke those words to Peter.)
NO BISHOP OF ROME
Nor was Peter the first bishop of Rome, any more than he was the “rock” or the first pope. Many scriptures show that Paul was in Rome. Why should Paul find it necessary to give the Roman Christians so much counsel if Peter were there and were superior to Paul? In his letter to the Romans Paul mentions 35 Christians by name and sends greetings to 26 of them, but no mention of Peter, no greetings for him. If Peter had been in Rome and there as the pope or bishop, could we imagine Paul so completely ignoring him? Further, Paul wrote a number of his letters from Rome, and in these he made reference to other Christians in Rome who were with him or who also sent greetings, but never a word regarding Peter. Why the great silence if Peter actually were there at the time? And had Peter established himself as bishop of Rome could he still have been termed the apostle to the circumcision? To claim that Peter’s reference to Babylon in his first epistle (1Pe 5:13) refers to Rome merely is to admit how weak the case is for Peter’s having been in Rome.
According to Bishop Strossmayer, one Scaliger (termed by the Encyclopedia Americana “the founder of the science of chronology” and therefore no mean authority) did not hesitate to say that “St. Peter’s episcopate and residence at Rome ought to be classed with ridiculous legends”.
Thus we see that both the Scriptures and historical facts unite to testify that the Christian congregation is built on Christ Jesus and not on the apostle Peter, that Peter was not the first pope, and that there is no proof that he was ever in Rome. Truly, “the truth will set you free.”—John 8:32, NW.