When I was in the Bible doctrine class at Bob Jones University, one of the verses we had to memorize was Matthew 16:18: “I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”
A Catholic student might memorize this verse to prove his beliefs about the papacy. We learned it in order to deny Catholic beliefs about the papacy. It was explained that the rock in this verse was not Peter, but his profession of faith that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. Christ’s pun on the name “Peter-petros” was not a pun at all because petros meant little stone, so Jesus could not have intended the rock to be Peter because he was speaking of a foundation stone. Only many years later did I begin to reassess the teaching I had received about this famous and important verse.
The Fundamentalists claimed that Catholics built the entire edifice of papal authority on this one verse taken out of context—a misuse of Scripture. An important doctrine, they said, should not be developed on one proof-text alone. In fact they are right, and as I began to study the Catholic faith more openly, I came to understand that the Catholic Church does not rely on this one verse alone to support papal claims but considers the whole verse in context. In addition, instead of one proof-text, there are three important biblical images that come together to support the Catholic Church’s claims to papal authority.
The three images are rock, steward, and shepherd. These three images are found not just in one verse, but are rooted in the Old Testament and affirmed in the New. Like a strong, three-strand, braided rope, these three images of rock, steward, and shepherd provide a powerful interlocking and interdependent support for the authority Christ intended to leave with his Church on earth.
God Is My Rock
A word study of the Old Testament shows the importance of the rock as an image of foundational authority and strength. In Genesis 49:24 the patriarch Jacob, blessing his sons, says that Joseph’s arm is strong in battle because it is upheld by “the shepherd, the rock of Israel.” The shepherd and the rock are symbols of God’s care and support for his people.
For Moses, the rock is a solid place to stand and a secure hiding place (Ex 33:21-22), and for the people of Israel, the rock is a miraculous source of refreshment and life (Ex 17:6). Throughout the book of Deuteronomy, the Lord is a rock who is perfect, who fathers his children, and who provides an abundant life for them (Dt 32:4,13,15,18).
The great psalmist King David refers time and again to the Lord as his rock, his fortress, and his deliverer (2 Sm 22:2; Ps 18, 19 et al). The psalmist praises God for he has lifted his feet from the miry clay and set them firm upon a rock (Ps 40:2). Throughout the Psalms the rock becomes a predominant image for the solid, secure, and trustworthy Lord of Israel.
The prophet Isaiah echoes the psalmist, and for him too the Lord is the rock. Shelter is found in the shadow of a rock in a dry and thirsty land (Is 32:2), while God is likened to the “Rock eternal” (Is 26:4), and the Lord is the rock from which the people of Israel are hewn (Is 51:1). Habakkuk reaffirms that the Lord is the rock (Hb 1:12), and at the end of the Old Testament, the prophet Zechariah says that God will make Jerusalem an immovable rock for all nations (Zec 12:3).
In the Old Testament the powerful image of the rock repeatedly refers to God himself. In the New Testament, Paul unlocks the image of the rock and says clearly that the foundation stone is Jesus Christ himself (Rom 9:33, 1 Cor 10:4). The incarnate Christ is the manifestation of the rock who is God. He therefore has the authority to name someone who will share his rock-like status.
In the context of the whole Old Testament, Jesus the rock gives his teaching about the rock. Specifically, the important passage of Isaiah 51 describes God as the “rock from which [the people of Israel] are hewn,” but they are told to “look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who gave you birth.” Stephen Ray’s masterful work Upon This Rock piles up evidence showing that the Jewish teachers repeatedly referred to Abraham as the God-appointed foundation stone of the Jewish people. God was the ultimate rock, but Abraham was his earthly presence. Just as Abram was given a new name to indicate his new foundational status, so Jesus gives Simon a new name—Rock —to indicate his foundational status in the new covenant.
The King’s Delegate
The second strand in the braided rope of Petrine authority is the image of steward. The steward in a royal household appears throughout the Old Testament record. The patriarch Joseph works with a steward in the palace in Egypt. King Saul has a steward, as does the prince Mephibosheth, but the most important image of steward in the Old Testament for understanding Matthew 16 is in Isaiah 22.
There the prophet foretells the fall of one royal steward and the succession of another. Shebna is being replaced by Eliakim, and the prophet says to the rejected Shebna, “I will clothe him with your robe and fasten your sash around him and hand your authority over to him. He will be a father to those who live in Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open” (Is 22:21-22).
The true holder of the keys to the kingdom is the king himself, and in the Book of Revelation we see that the risen and glorified Christ holds the power of the keys—the power to bind and loose. John has a vision of Christ who says, “I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades” (Rv 1:18).
So the king holds the keys of the kingdom, but he delegates his power to the steward, and the keys of the kingdom are the symbol of this delegated authority. The keys not only opened all the doors, but they provided access to the store houses and financial resources of the king. In addition, the keys of the kingdom were worn on a sash that was a ceremonial badge of office. The passage from Isaiah and the customs all reveal that the role of the royal steward was an office given by the king, and that it was a successive office—the keys being handed to the next steward as a sign of the continuing delegated authority of the king himself (See “A Successive Ministry,” above).
Isaiah 22 provides the Old Testament context that Jesus’ disciples would have understood completely as he quoted this particular passage in Matthew 16. When Jesus said to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven,” his disciples would recognize the passage from Isaiah. They would understand that not only was Jesus calling himself the King of his kingdom, but that he was appointing Peter as his royal steward. That John in Revelation sees the ascended and glorified Christ holding the eternal keys only confirms the intention of Jesus to delegate that power to Peter—the foundation stone of his Church.
Catholic scholars are not alone in interpreting Matthew 16:17-19 as a direct quotation of Isaiah 22. Stephen Ray, in Upon This Rock, cites numerous Protestant biblical scholars who support this understanding and affirm that Jesus is delegating his authority over life and death, heaven and hell, to the founder of his Church on earth.
The Good Shepherd
The third strand in the strong rope of scriptural support for papal authority is the image of the Good Shepherd. This powerful image is so abundant in the Old Testament that this short article cannot begin to recount all the references. Suffice it to say that the Hebrews were a nomadic-shepherd people, and the images of the lamb and the shepherd are woven in and through their story at every glance. From the beginning God himself is seen to be the shepherd of his people.
In Genesis 48 the old man Jacob, before blessing his sons, says that the Lord God of his fathers has been his shepherd his whole life long. The prophet Micah sees the people of Israel as “sheep without a shepherd,” and the shepherd King David calls the Lord his shepherd (Ps 23 et al). The prophet Isaiah says that the sovereign Lord will “tend his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms, and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young” (Is 40:11).
The theme of the Lord being the Good Shepherd reaches its Old Testament climax in the Book of Ezekiel. Earlier, Jeremiah the prophet had raged against the corrupt leadership of the people of Israel. They were wicked and abusive shepherds, but in the Book of Ezekiel God himself promises to be the shepherd of his people Israel.
So the Lord says,
As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness . . . I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice. (Ez 34:12,16)
Finally, the Lord’s servant, the Son of David, will come and be the shepherd of the lost flock.
I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another. I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. (Ez 34:22-24)
One of the clearest signs, therefore, of Christ’s self-knowledge as the Son of God is when he calls himself the Good Shepherd. In story after story Jesus uses the image of the Good Shepherd to refer to his own ministry. He explicitly calls himself the Good Shepherd (Jn 10:11,14) who has come to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Mt 15:24). He tells the story of the lost sheep, placing himself in the story as the divine Shepherd who fulfills Ezekiel’s prophecy (Lk 15). The author of the Letter to the Hebrews calls Christ the Great Shepherd of the Sheep (Heb 13:20). Peter calls Jesus the Shepherd and overseer of souls (1 Pt 2:25), and in the Book of Revelation, the Lamb on the throne is also the Shepherd of the lost souls (Rv 7:17).
When Jesus Christ, after his Resurrection, then solemnly instructs Peter to “feed my lambs, watch over my sheep, feed my sheep” (Jn 21:15-17), the ramifications are enormous. Throughout the Old Testament, God himself is understood to be the Good Shepherd. He promises to come and be the shepherd of his people through his servant David. When Jesus Christ, the Son of David, fulfills this prophecy, God’s promise is kept. Then before Jesus returns to heaven, he commands Peter to take charge of his pastoral ministry. Now Peter will undertake the role of Good Shepherd in Christ’s place.
The Vicar of Christ
When I was an Anglican priest in England, I held the title of vicar of the parish. The term derives from the fact that the vicar is a priest appointed to do a job in the stead of the official parish priest. One priest might oversee various parishes, and so he appoints vicars to do the job when he can’t be there.
Many non-Catholic Christians object to the pope being called the Vicar of Christ. But the word vicar simply stands for one who vicariously stands in for another person. A vicar is someone to whom a job is delegated. The three strands of biblical imagery—rock, steward, and shepherd—show in three different ways that Jesus intended Peter to exercise his ministry and authority here on earth—in other words, to act as his vicar.
The fact that there are three images is important because the authors of Scripture believed the number three to be one of the perfect numbers. A statement was most authoritative when it was expressed three times in three different ways.
We see this in the passage in John 21. Jesus gives his pastoral authority to Peter with three solemn commands: “Feed my lambs, take care of my sheep, feed my sheep.” Here Jesus delegates his authority three times in three different ways, using imagery found throughout the Old Testament. In so doing he clearly reveals his delegation of authority to Peter.
History shows that from the earliest days Christians considered Peter to be the very rock, steward, and shepherd that Jesus proclaimed him to be. Furthermore, from the earliest days they considered his successor to be the Bishop of Rome, and that Bishop of Rome endures today as rock, steward, and shepherd—just a few hundred yards from the site of Peter’s death and burial.
Does the Catholic Church build the claims to papal authority on one verse taken out of context? Hardly. The three strands of rock, steward, and shepherd are woven in and through the whole of Scripture, coming into focus in the life of Jesus Christ who is the true Rock, the King of the Kingdom and Good Shepherd, and who hands his authority on earth to Peter until he comes again.
A Successive Ministry
The non-Catholic protests, “There is no evidence that Peter’s ministry will be successive.” However, the whole context and meaning of the imagery from the beginning to the end show it to be a ministry that must be successive.
First of all, the image of the rock is, by its very nature, a timeless and everlasting image. That’s why the image of the rock was chosen. That’s how rocks are. They’re there to stay. Then in Matthew 16 Jesus himself says that the steward’s ministry will have an eternal dimension. He holds the keys to the Kingdom of God and the gates of hell will never prevail against it. Finally, the image of the shepherd, as we have seen, is an eternal one because God himself is the ultimate Good Shepherd. If the rock, the steward, and the shepherd are eternal ministries, then for it to last that long, the ministry must be successive. How could this eternal ministry have died out with Peter himself and still have been eternal?