“And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” –Matthew 16:18
It’s the classic Catholic verse in defense of the papacy, but that’s not what I will be defending here. There’s a belief among some Non-Catholic Christians that the “rock” referred to by Christ here is not pertaining to Peter himself, but rather to the declaration of Faith made by Peter which can be made by any Christian; or rather Christ referring to Himself as the “rock” which the Church will be built upon. Though the former and the latter are beautiful interpretations, and though there may be truth to the statements outside of this context (Christ being the cornerstone), it is not a fair reading of this passage of Scripture.
Along with this interpretation there usually follows a de-emphasis of Peter in the New Testament, and the denial of his being set apart from the rest of the Twelve. I will not be arguing for the papacy itself, but rather Peter’s position among the Apostles, and pointing towards him having a special significance in the New Testament; and if these arguments help in the understanding the Catholic position of Peter being the first pope (Vicar of Christ) then praise be to God.
So allow me to start with Luke 22. After the Lord and the Apostles had eaten of the Passover meal, there was a dispute among the Twelve of which of them was the greatest. This dispute has been going on for centuries it seems, dividing Christian against Christian, and we all still fall into the same mistakes the Apostles made in the inception of the Church. Christ observed this dispute among them and He corrected them saying:
“The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves. You are those who have continued with me in my trials; and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” Luke 22:25-30
We see here that Christ did not say there wasn’t a greatest, nor that there was not a leader among them, even though he draws a comparison to their bickering on “the greatest” to that of the Gentile kings, He makes a contrast to what the leadership of “the greatest among them” is to look like, saying that it is one of service. He also still refers to their thrones in His Kingdom and passing this assignment on to them, so He is not refuting the position of leadership in His Church. So from this we know that the Apostles are set apart from other Believers by their office, and that there is a leader among the Apostles on top of that, and it is the one who serves. But who?
Directly following after the above mentioned passage, starting right in Luke 22:31-32 he immediately addresses Peter:
“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you all, that he might sift you all like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.”
Peter is being set apart yet again in the presence of the Twelve. There was not a dispute on the greatest among them ever again in Scripture. Even the Gospel writers, when they list the Apostles, Peter is listed first each time (Matt 10:1-4, Mark 3:13-19, Luke 6:12-16, Acts 1:18). In the account recorded in Matthew, there is a point made to say “First” before beginning with Simon Peter in the list. Beyond replication of putting Peter at the top, we can see there is significance in the order because Judas is always placed at the bottle of each list. But I will not stop there. Let us return to Matthew 16.
In Scripture, when a name is changed, it is not lacking significance. When Abram’s name was changed to Abraham, a covenant was established with him and he was to be the father of nations. It is the New and Final Covenant to whom Peter was bestowed the prime responsibility to lead the Apostles in carrying on the Gospel and spreading it to the Nations after the Passion of Christ.
If Christ is not referring to Peter with “upon this rock” then to whom does He refer? Did Christ change his name for no reason? Doesn’t seem like a thing that God does nonchalantly. Why call him the Rock and then refer to a completely different rock right afterwards? There isn’t clear reference to anything else. Peter’s faith isn’t referred to in this verse. Christ does not refer to Himself by any explicit manner, though some interpret this passage by inserting that Christ motions to Himself, though this is not in Scripture whatsoever and so is a grand disservice. Peter wasn’t even the first person in the Gospels to declare Jesus as the Messiah, so to say the rock is just Peter’s faith is not accurate either. Even if it is his faith, one’s faith is not apart from one’s person, so to refer to an attribute of a person, you are still connecting it to said person. What is referred to is “rock”, and Simon's name was JUST changed to “rock”.
Though Peter was not the first in the Gospels accounts to declare Jesus as the Messiah, when the Apostles were questioned on who they themselves say He is, Peter is the only one to speak up. Thus he receives his new name and the blessings bestowed on him, namely the Keys to Heaven, and the power to bind and loose. Peter names Jesus the Christ, and Christ in turn names Simon the Rock
Now this may venture into a case for the papacy, but it is not intentional, it just happens to be that in defending Peter’s place among the Apostles it is inevitable as a Catholic to not draw the conclusion. That being said, let us look at this section of Matthew 16 from a wider perspective, in particular Matthew 16:13-19 rather than just the 18th verse:
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do men 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-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death 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.”
The Apostles would have heard this and known the reference to Isaiah 22 and the supremacy of the office of Eliakim, who was given the key to the kingdom of David, and who was the representative of the king himself, On top of that, it is appealing to the custom of admitting a Rabbi to his office whereby a key would be placed on his shoulder in initiation, and then bestowed into his hand. Jesus is the King of kings, the Rabbi and the Messiah, and he has chosen his representative (vicar), and the one who is to lead in the continuance of His work after His death: Peter. And upon Peter He was to build His Church, and to Peter the Keys to the Kingdom were bestowed and to no other Apostle.
Now with this all in mind, let us finally look to John 21. Simon Peter says “I am going fishing” and the Apostles with him respond with “We will go with you” (John 21:3). They caught nothing until Christ appears on the shore and tells them where to cast their net; the net being a symbol for the Kingdom through the Gospels (Matt 13:47). Upon following the guidance of the Man on the shore, they receive in their net a multitude of fish which made it impossible to haul all the way back to shore, even with all those present pulling at the net (John 21:6). Once John recognizes it is the Risen Lord, Peter swims to Him. Jesus then asks for the fish to be brought to shore, and Peter alone answers this request. What Peter could not do with a group of Apostles before, he was able to do now at the command of Christ, and “the net was not torn” (John 21:11). Peter then in particular is asked if he loves the Lord, and subsequently told “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep” after each declaration of Love. (John 21:15-17). The Shepherd is asking Peter alone to be the shepherd to His flock.
Peter has been given the Keys to Christ’s kingdom to act as representative, he has been called to be a fisher of men, he has been prayed for by the Lord for his faith to not fail and for him to strengthen his brethren, and he has been commissioned to tend to and feed the Good Shepherd’s flock. I could continue into Acts of the Apostles for more examples of Christ’s blessings manifesting in Peter, though I may venture into his role coming into full play after the Ascension in another post. After all of this I would like to say, you may still reject the papacy, but I hope I have made it clear in some sense that to say Peter was not set apart in the Gospels and that the "rock" referred to in Matthew 16 is something other than Peter himself is a mental gymnastics performance reading of Scripture.