On What Foundation Is the True Church Built?
What the Scriptures say will surprise many. The answer is vital to you.
PRIESTS of the Roman Catholic Church like to point to Matthew 16:18 when questions arise about identifying the true church. This scripture simply says: “You are Peter, and on this rock-mass I will build my congregation, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” The Catholic Douay version Bible phrases this text this way: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church. And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” From those few words of Jesus, the Roman Catholic Church has concluded that there Jesus made Peter the rock foundation on which the church of God and Christ is built, that Peter became the first pope and successor of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that there the Roman Catholic Church had its beginning, making it the first church and the only true church.
Cardinal Gibbons in his book The Faith of Our Fathers, page 100, makes this statement: “Jesus, our Lord, founded but one Church, which He was pleased to build on Peter. Therefore, any church that does not recognize Peter as its foundation stone is not the Church of Christ, and therefore cannot stand, for it is not the work of God. This is plain.” A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, published by Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1953, says: “By this revelation the Father had singled out Peter as the natural foundation for his Son’s society.”
But is that what Jesus meant by the words “upon this rock I will build my church”? Was he referring to Peter when he spoke those words? Was Peter to head the congregation of God?
First note, the word “church” appearing in many Bible translations does not have reference to a literal building of stone. The Bible tells us that God “does not dwell in handmade temples.” (Acts 17:24) The original Greek word translated “church” at Matthew 16:18 is ecclésia. It has reference to a congregation or an assembly of people and not to a building of wood or stone made by men’s hands. A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, page 881, makes this comment: “The ‘church’ (ἐκκλησία, the customary LXX rendering of the Hebrew qahál, i.e. religious assembly, congregation) is the new society of Christ’s faithful answering to, and supplanting, the OT qahál. Simon is to be the ultimate authority on earth of this society.”
From this Catholic authority it is evident that God had a church or an assembly or a congregation long before the time of Christ. That assembly was the Jewish nation. The martyr Stephen referred to the nation of Israel in the wilderness as an ecclesia or church or an assembly of God. Nor does this word apply strictly to religious assemblies. It can apply to any assembly duly summoned. Luke, in telling of the mob that gathered at Ephesus in protest to Paul’s preaching, refers to it as no regular ecclesia or assembly. (Acts 7:38; 19:29-41) At Romans 16:5 (AV) Paul says: “Likewise greet the church that is in their house.” Again at 1 Corinthians 16:19 (Dy) he writes: “The churches of Asia salute you.” It would be ridiculous to conclude that Paul was speaking of greeting a building inside another building, or that certain religious edifices were saluting these of Corinth. Rather, Paul is indisputably speaking about gatherings of Christians, an assembly or congregation of people.
Now, with this in mind, of whom was Jesus speaking when he said: “On this rock-mass I will build my congregation,” or “my church”? Note carefully, Jesus does not say “Peter’s church,” or “Paul’s church,” but “my church.” Jesus is here speaking about his footstep followers. The Catholic Commentary makes this point clear when it refers to them as “the new society of Christ’s faithful.” These faithful footstep followers Jesus calls his body, his bride, his congregation or church, and he has prepared a place for them with him in heaven. Revelation gives the number of them as 144,000.—Matt. 16:18; 1 Cor. 12:12-28; Eph. 1:22, 23; Rev. 14:1, 3.
THE ROCK OR ROCK-MASS
Who or what is the rock or rock-mass or foundation upon which the Christian congregation is built? As previously noted, Roman Catholic theologians say that the foundation is the apostle Peter. Thus The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. XI, page 746, says: “By the word ‘rock’ the Saviour cannot have meant Himself, but only Peter.” Are these Catholic theologians correct in their conclusion?
Bible scholars will note that Jehovah the Almighty God is often referred to in the Scriptures as “the Rock,” because he is the eternal foundation of his holy universal organization. At Deuteronomy 32:3, 4 we read: “Do you attribute greatness to our God! The Rock, perfect is his activity.” Jehovah God Almighty is a foundation that can never be moved. Samuel’s mother Hannah in prayer said: “There is no rock like our God.”—1 Sam. 2:2.
Jesus Christ is also identified in the Scriptures as a rock. In fact, Jesus identifies himself as the rock or cornerstone that the builders rejected. (Matt. 21:42) In his writings the apostle Peter testifies to this fact, saying: “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 the purpose of a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it is contained in Scripture: ‘Look! I am laying in Zion a stone, chosen, a foundation cornerstone, precious; and no one exercising faith in it will by any means come to disappointment.’ It is to you, therefore, that he is precious, because you are believers; but to those not believing, ‘the identical stone that the builders rejected has become the head of the corner,’ and ‘a stone of stumbling and a rock-mass of offense.’” (1 Pet. 2:4-8) Thus stones or rocks are used in an illustrative sense, representing individual faithful members who become a part of the Christian congregation built on the foundation cornerstone Jesus Christ.
Note how this view is also supported by the apostle Paul. He writes: Israel “stumbled on the ‘stone of stumbling’; as it is written: ‘Look! I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock-mass of offense, but he that rests his faith on it will not come to disappointment.’” (Rom. 9:32, 33) Now over whom did ancient Israel stumble? Was it over Peter or over Jesus Christ? Paul shows the stone of stumbling and foundation to be Jesus Christ, not Peter.—1 Cor. 10:4.
Further, when Paul mentions “apostles and prophets,” which certainly would have included Peter, he, nevertheless, refers to Christ as “the foundation cornerstone.” (Eph. 2:20) Why this if Peter headed the church? Again, at Revelation 21:14 all twelve apostles of Christ are designated as twelve foundation stones. Peter is not singled out. But it says that these twelve apostles are of “the Lamb,” who is the chief foundation and precious cornerstone.
THE BIG QUESTION
With the foregoing in mind, picture what took place on this occasion. The prophets had foretold the coming of the Messiah or Christ. Jesus’ disciples were familiar with these prophecies. In the district of Caesarea Philippi Jesus asked them: “Who are men saying the Son of man is?” They said: “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Then Jesus put the question directly to them: “You, though, who do you say I am?” Peter, with his usual promptitude, replied: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”—Matt. 16:13-16.
When Peter declared Jesus “the Christ,” Jesus immediately pronounced him “happy” or “blessed,” because this knowledge and faith were not the result of natural sagacity, or human instruction, but a revelation from the Father. (Matt. 16:17) Others of Israel had enjoyed the same instruction but had not yet come to believe in Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Peter had accepted what God made known. His faith and knowledge were of a spiritual and saving quality. That is why Jesus called him happy.
Peter, however, at this time, was greatly ignorant of many other spiritual truths. He did not understand the need for Christ to die so that a ransom might be paid for believing mankind. (Matt. 16:21-23) Peter was but little acquainted with his own heart. He had certain wrong expectations. He afterward made some gross mistakes, yes, even committing sins and incurring rebukes and chastenings. (Matt. 26:31-35; Acts 1:6; Gal. 2:11-14) He had many persecutions to endure, but he died faithful. Despite his trials, Peter was “happy,” because he was an earnest believer in Christ. Because he so believed, everlasting happiness was open to him.
This confession of Peter’s that ‘Jesus is the Christ’ gave Jesus an occasion, with reference to the name Peter (Greek: Petros), which he had before given the apostle, to declare that “on this rock-mass” (petra) he would build his church.—John 1:42.
Peter’s statement or confession contains a fundamental truth that all who desire life must come to acknowledge, namely, this: that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. So in effect Jesus said to Peter: ‘Upon this one whom you have confessed, upon myself as a rock-mass (petra) will I build my church, my assembly, my congregation, of persons who are sharers of this precious faith.’
The expression “this rock-mass” has no reference to Peter, but applies exclusively to Christ, God’s anointed One, whom Jehovah has laid as a sure and everlasting foundation for His kingdom organization. On this foundation, namely, on Jesus Christ, the church would stand so sure that no machinations or efforts, demonic or human, could ever subvert it. Not even the power of death could destroy the hope of those who put faith in it. The whole congregation, the 144,000, would be made more than conquerors through him who loved them.
In further proof that Jesus was here fixing in the minds of his disciples that he is the Christ, note his words after this discussion: “Then he sternly charged the disciples not to say to anybody that he was the Christ.” (Matt. 16:20) So in concluding that discussion he makes no mention of Peter nor does he speak of any primacy given to Peter.
All the Scripture proof is conclusive that the building of the church or the congregation was to be, not upon the apostle Peter, but upon Jesus Christ, the “foundation” or “precious cornerstone.” And Augustine admits as much. In Haydock’s Catholic Bible, it says with reference to Augustine, whom the Roman Catholic Church made a “saint”: “It is true S. Augustine, in one or two places, thus expounds these words, and upon this rock, (i.e. upon myself) or upon this rock, which Peter hath confessed”—not upon Peter himself, but upon Jesus whom Peter confessed to be the Christ. This shows Augustine understood it right. Archbishop Kenrick in his book Inside the Vatican Council says that the great majority of the “church fathers” did not apply Matthew 16:18 to Peter. Of eighty-five leading ones only seventeen held that Peter was the rock on which Christ built his church, whereas forty-four held that it was the truth that Peter spoke, while sixteen believed the rock to be Jesus himself. So not only does the Roman Catholic Church disagree with the apostle Peter, who, as shown by his words at 1 Peter 2:4-7, taught that Christ is the foundation stone, but it also disagrees with the man whom it “sainted” and reveres as “St. Augustine” and with others of its “church fathers.”
If Peter were the head of the early church or congregation, then we should find the apostles and others ascribing to Peter a place of preeminence such as the pope of Rome has today. But we find no such honor accorded to Peter by either the apostles or the other disciples. Peter never makes mention of himself as pope. Neither Paul nor any others of the Bible writers refer to any primacy of Peter. When the apostles and other older men 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. (Acts 15:12-21) Surely had Peter been the chief and in Christ’s place he would have done so. But he did not.
Clearly, Peter was not the head of the Christian congregation. It is not built on him as its foundation cornerstone. It is built on Jesus Christ himself, the sinless Son of God.—Heb. 7:26.
Neither the early Christian congregation nor the early “church fathers” held that Peter was the rock-mass on which the church was built. For the rock-mass is none other than Jesus Christ himself. And woe be to him who even tries to lay any other foundation: “For no man can lay any other foundation than what is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”—1 Cor. 3:11.