For Catholics, Matthew 16:18 is a key passage when establishing a biblical basis for the papacy: “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.”
Catholics argue that because Jesus makes Peter, the first pope, the rock of his Church, his papal successors, as Peter, remain head of the Christian Church on earth. For wherever the foundation is, there is the true Church of Jesus.
But Protestants offer a series of counter arguments. One that some find compelling is the fact that Jesus begins with a personal address directed to Peter using the second personal pronoun you, “And I tell you, you are Peter,” but then switches to the demonstrative adjective this, “and upon this rock.”
It’s argued that because of this switch Jesus must have been referring to something other than Peter, like his declaration of faith in verse sixteen (“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”). For if Jesus intended “this rock” to refer to Peter, he would have continued to use the second personal pronoun and said, “You are Peter, and upon you, Peter, I will build my church.”
Does this argument prove that Catholics are wrong about Peter being the rock upon which Jesus established his church? Here are few reasons why the answer is no.
First, just because the pronoun “this” is used rather than the personal pronoun it doesn’t follow that it must be referring to something other than the person who was being addressed in the preceding statement. To use an example from apologist David Palm, a prime minister might speak of a famous humanitarian saying, “You are a Beacon of Hope, and to this beacon all Europe will look as a source of comfort in these dark days.”
When we hear this solemn pronouncement, we don’t think “this” refers to some separate thing besides the person who is addressed. To suggest otherwise would be to undermine both the plain meaning of the statement and its rhetorical force.
We see elsewhere in Scripture where “this” is used in reference to a person. For example, in Matthew 21:44, Jesus says, “And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” What does “this stone” refer to? The answer is Jesus, who is “the very stone which the builders rejected” and “has become the head of the corner” (v.42).
Notice Jesus doesn’t say, “And he who falls on me, the stone, will be broken to pieces”? According to the logic of the objection, this is what he’d say if he intended “this stone” to refer to himself. But he doesn’t.
Must we conclude, therefore, that the demonstrative “this” in verse forty-four can’t refer to the person of Jesus? Of course not!
Since “this” can be used to refer to the person who is addressed in the preceding phrase, the argument that says Jesus can’t be referring to Peter as the rock because he uses “this” fails.
A second response is that Peter’s declaration of faith is two verses removed from the pronoun “this.” So, when we read “this rock,” it’s natural to think the pronoun refers to Peter because he is the nearest thing for the pronoun to refer to.
In his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, reformed theologian J. Knox Chamblin argues along the same lines:
The demonstrative this, whether denoting what is physically close to Jesus or what is literally close in Matthew, more naturally refers to Peter (v.18) than to the more remote confession (v.16).
The idea that “this” refers to Peter becomes even clearer when we consider that Peter’s name literally means rock. This serves as a third response.
If we translate Peter’s name (Petros) literally in Matthew 16:18 it reads, “You are rock, and upon this rock I will build my church.” This makes Peter a prime candidate for being that to which “this” refers to.
Once again, in Matthew 21:42-44 Jesus says,
The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner . . .And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but when it falls on any one, it will crush him.
No Protestant would argue that “this stone” in verse forty-four doesn’t refer to the stone spoken of in verse forty-two. If Jesus speaks of a stone in verse forty-two, and then speaks of “this stone” in verse forty-four, it’s natural to conclude that “this stone” in verse forty-four refers to the stone in verse forty-two.
The same line of reasoning applies to Peter and the rock in Matthew 16:18. If Jesus speaks of a rock in the first part of the sentence in this verse, and then speaks of “this rock” in the second part of that same sentence, then it’s reasonable to conclude that “this rock” in the second part of the sentence refers to the rock spoken of in the first part of the sentence, namely, Peter.
One last response is taken from apologist Jimmy Akin. If we look at the context in which verse eighteen is embedded, we notice a structure of three essential declarations that Jesus makes concerning Peter, each of which is followed by a longer explanation that unpacks the declaration made:
1. Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona (v.15)
1a. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you (v.17a)
1b. By my Father who is in heaven (v.17b).
2. And I tell you, you are Peter (v.18a)
2a. And on this rock I will build my Church (v.18b)
2b. And the gates of hades shall not prevail against it (v.18c).
3. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven (v.19a)
3a. And whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven (v.19b)
3b. And whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (v.19c).
Given this structure, it becomes clear that the phrase “and on this rock” must refer to Peter. Why would every other statement that Jesus makes explain his main declarations to Peter except that one? To suggest that it doesn’t is to introduce something into the context that doesn’t fit, which is not good exegesis.
As was mentioned at the beginning, there are other counter arguments that Protestants give to our interpretation of Matthew 16:18. But we know the switch from the personal pronoun to the demonstrative “this” is not one that proves Catholics wrong for interpreting Peter as the rock of Jesus’ Church.