No Rocks Required
The biblical case for the papacy does not rest solely on Matthew 16:18-19
For Catholics, the role of St. Peter and his successors is made clear in Matthew 16:18-19 and the surrounding context:
And I tell you, you are Peter (Gk. petros, “rock”), and on this rock (Gk. petra, “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 shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Jesus here promises infallible authority to Peter that empowers him to speak in the place of Christ, or as his vicar on earth. Catholics believe just what the text says: When St. Peter (and his successors) “binds” something on earth, it is “bound” in heaven. That’s infallible authority with the power of heaven to back it up! However, some Protestants will respond, “That’s just one verse of Scripture. You can’t make a doctrine out of that!”
A good Catholic rejoinder might be, “How many times does God have to tell you something before you will believe and obey it?” After all, Jesus only gave us the proper form for baptism once, in Matthew 28:19, and yet all Christians still believe it to be the proper form. Nevertheless, a valid question for Catholics is: Is Matthew 16 the only text that demonstrates the truth of the papacy in Scripture?
Following is a list of biblical texts all related to the primacy of Peter and the papacy: You’ll notice there is not a single rock to be found among any of these verses.
1. Matthew 14:23-33
Peter is uniquely empowered by Jesus to walk on water, and when his faith begins to falter, our Lord does not allow him to go under. This is a prelude to Jesus promising to give his authority that can never fail to Peter in Matthew 16. The gift of the papacy is here assured not to depend upon the person of Peter or of his successors, but on the promise and power of Christ.
2. Matthew 17:24-27
After receiving the promise of authority in Matthew 16, Peter is once again given supernatural power to provide for both himself and Jesus when the first-century equivalent of the IRS comes calling. Peter acts as Christ’s “vicar” (or in the place of Jesus) in miraculous fashion, guaranteed by Jesus not to fail.
3. Luke 4:16-5:10
Luke gives us another example of Peter’s unique and supernatural authority to act as Christ’s “vicar.” Jesus declares he is the Messiah (cf. 4:16-21), then goes out and demonstrates it by performing miracles (cf. 4:35-39). The multitudes that gather to hear him at the shore of Lake Gennesaret press in on him so that he has to step off shore into one of two boats docked there. The boat he steps into just happens to be Peter’s boat. Jesus proclaims the gospel from the barque of Peter (5:1-3). Then, Jesus steps out of the boat and tells Peter to step into that same boat and go fishing. Can you imagine the people present? They must have been thinking that Jesus was nuts! Multitudes have to stand there and watch Peter fish? Peter then says, “We have toiled all night and caught nothing” (v. 5), yet he lets down the nets at the command of Jesus. When they catch so many fish they need to bring out the other boat to haul in the load, Peter realizes that Jesus is calling him to more than catching catfish. Fish are a metaphor for Christians. Peter says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man” (v. 8). Jesus responds, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.” Peter receives a unique and singular calling from Christ to be the fisher of men. And once again, Peter receives supernatural power that cannot fail to fulfill his unique calling.
4. Luke 22:24-32
In this text, Jesus teaches the apostles the true nature of authority, especially in verses 24-28. True authority in the New Covenant is commanded to be servant of all. He will speak with infallible authority just as Christ did, but he must also wash the feet of his brothers just as Christ did. In this context, Jesus said to the apostles:
[A]s my Father appointed a kingdom for me, so do I appoint for you that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you (Gk. humas, “you all” [plural]), that he might sift you (Gk. plural again) like wheat, but I have prayed for you (Gk. sou, singular—Peter alone) that your faith (Gk. singular again) may not fail; and when you (Gk. singular) have turned again, strengthen your brethren.
In the context of committing his kingdom’s authority to the apostles to govern the Church (the “Israel of God”; see Gal 6:16), Jesus especially prays for Peter so that he may be the source of strength and unity for the rest of the apostles. If the apostles want to be protected from the devil’s attempts to divide and destroy them and the Church, they must be in communion with Peter. This is precisely what the Catholic Church has been teaching for 2,000 years.
5. John 10:16
Jesus prophesied: “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.” Who is this prophetic shepherd? The answer seems simple. And on one level it is. Jesus declared himself to be “the good shepherd” (Gk. poimein, “shepherd” or “pastor”) in John 10:14. Jesus is the Shepherd. Yet, if we dig deeper into the text we discover another meaning as well. In the context of prophesying about this “one flock” and “one shepherd,” Jesus says he must gather “other sheep,” referring to the Gentiles. Who does our Lord use as the shepherd to bring this prophecy to pass? The answer is found in two texts, which we’ll look at next.
6. John 21:1-17
Here, we find another example of Jesus aiding the fishing of the apostles who “caught nothing” all night long (v. 3). At the command of Jesus they let down their nets and catch an astonishing 153 “large fish” (v. 11). When Jesus commands the net to be hauled ashore, Peter heaves the entire net of fish to shore by himself. No man can lift that size of a catch out of the water and on to the shore by himself, but Peter was given supernatural strength to do just that. Fish are symbols representing the faithful (recall Lk 5:8-10). And the symbol of “the net” is used elsewhere in the New Testament for the Church (see Mt 13:47). Not only is Peter’s ability to carry these fish (all the faithful) a miracle, but the fact that the “net” is not broken is also a miracle. The Church that holds all the faithful with Peter holding the power will never be destroyed.
In this context Jesus then asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” When Peter responds in the affirmative the second time, Jesus responds by commanding Peter to “tend (Gk. poimaine, “shepherd”) my sheep” (v. 16). Jesus the Shepherd here commissions Peter to be the prophetic shepherd of John 10:16 to shepherd the entire people of God.
7. Acts 10:1-48
In this chapter from the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus personally sees to the fulfillment of the prophecy of John 10:16. He appears to Peter and commands him to bring the gospel to the Gentiles by way of Cornelius, the centurion. When Peter then “commanded [Cornelius and his household] to be baptized” in Acts 10:48, the prophecy of John 10:16 was fulfilled. There was now one fold and one shepherd for Jews and Gentiles. That ministry has continued to this day in the successors of Peter, the bishops of Rome.
8. Acts 1:15-26
As a matter of historical record, Peter takes the helm of the Church and gives an infallible interpretation of Psalm 69:26 and 109:8 in choosing a successor for Judas.
9. Acts 15
The ministry of Peter as “the shepherd” of the universal Church continues. When a heresy was spreading in the church at Antioch that was so widespread and problematic that Paul and Barnabas could not quell the resulting confusion, the church there decided to “go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question” (15:1-2). The question concerned salvation and the Old Covenant law in relation to the gospel. Some among “believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up, and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise . . . and . . . to keep the law of Moses’” (v. 5) or else you “cannot be saved” (v. 1). In particular, they spoke of the Gentiles who were converting to Christ, but the same would apply to all. The real question was: Are Christians saved by the grace of Christ in the New Covenant, or must they obey the Old Covenant as well for salvation? The first Church Council (of Jerusalem) was convened and the theological question was put to rest by Peter’s pronouncement in Acts 15. When everyone was arguing, Peter arose and declared the truth on the matter, and then (to translate the following text in modern parlance) told everyone to shut up. The matter was settled by the “one shepherd” given to the Church as a source of unity and authority:
The apostles and elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter rose and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice . . . that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe . . . we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” And all the assembly kept silence . . . (Acts 15:6-12)
10. Matthew 10:2
In the context of Jesus saying to his disciples, “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (9:37-38), Jesus calls the apostles to be those “laborers” (see Mt 9:35-10:1). Notice, Peter is then called first in the list of apostles. We know this word would not mean “first” chronologically here because Peter was not the first called by Christ in time—Andrew was (see Jn 1:40-41). The Greek word protos, “first,” often denotes a primacy in authority, not necessarily in time. It can be translated as “chief.” For example, Paul says of himself: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost (protos) of sinners” (1 Tm 1:15).
Christ is referred to as prototokos, or “first-begotten” in Colossians 1:15. Here Paul teaches us about Christ’s eternal generation, which has been accomplished outside of time. He is, therefore, the Creator and the one who has authority over all things, according to the text. Colossians 1:15-18 reads:
[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the first-born (Gk. prototokos) of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth . . . He is before all things . . . He is the head of the body, the Church . . . that in everything he might be pre-eminent. (Gk. proteuon, a verb with the same root as protos and prototokos)
In a notably direct and overt manner, by referring to Peter as the “first” apostle, Matthew presents the first Bishop of Rome just as we see him represented in the rest of the New Testament; he is revealed to have a primacy of authority over all the apostles and, indeed, over the entire Church.