All eyes are on the Vatican these days as the world awaits the appointment of the next pope. In light of this, we are brought again to the question of Christ’s church and its true foundation.
A decade ago Dan Brown wrote a fast-paced mystery novel, Angels and Demons, which spins to a delirious climax in the subterranean catacombs of St. Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican. A potentially explosive canister containing antimatter lies in a secret location deep within the papal tombs, threatening to destroy this revered center of the Christian faith. The camerlengo, assistant to the pope, has deciphered the location of the explosive devise:
“The Illuminati have placed their tool of destruction on the very cornerstone of this church. At the foundation.” He motioned down the stairs. “On the very rock upon which this church was built. And I know where that rock is.”[i]
As others with him reflect on what the camerlengo has just said, the significance of it all begins to dawn on them:
As Langon stood there with the others, staring down the long staircase, he realized that there was indeed a rock buried in the darkness beneath this church.
Pietro è la pietra. Peter is the rock.
Peter’s faith in God was so steadfast that Jesus called Peter “the rock”—the unwavering disciple on whose shoulders Jesus would build his church. On this very location, Langdon realized—Vatican Hill—Peter had been crucified and buried. The early Christians built a small shrine over his tomb. As Christianity spread, the shrine got bigger, layer upon layer, culminating in this colossal basilica. The entire Catholic faith had been built, quite literally, upon St. Peter. The rock.[ii]
IN THE EYES OF THE CHURCH
The Roman Catholic Church has traditionally held that Peter was the first pope, and that Jesus Christ appointed him to that task when He said, “upon this rock I will build My church” (Matt. 16:18). Now there’s no question about the fact that Jesus was talking with Peter when He made that statement. Peter had just confessed that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 16), after which Jesus said that Peter was indeed a blessed man (v. 17).
Also, tradition records for us that Peter did minister to the church in Rome and that he died a martyr’s death at the hands of the Emperor Nero, who crucified him upside down—again, in Rome. So the connections of Peter with the Roman church, as well as with the authoritative pronouncement of Jesus, are well-founded. It is easy to understand how the idea of Peter’s supremacy has entrenched itself in Roman Catholicism. Dan Brown, in his novel, has accurately portrayed the Catholic view of Pietro è la pietra— Peter is the rock.
A good case can be made for Peter’s identity as the “rock” in Jesus’ predictive statement with regard to how He would build the church. Although Peter experienced a moral failure in his three denials of Christ just prior to Jesus’ crucifixion, there appears to have been a reinstatement of Peter to a leadership role among the apostles through the forgiveness of Christ (John 21). On the beach that morning, Peter was singled out from the others for special treatment by Jesus, and three times he was told to feed the Lord’s sheep.
This leadership position becomes apparent on the Day of Pentecost when Peter emerges as the spokesperson for the assembled Christians in Jerusalem. As the Spirit of God descended upon the small group of Jesus’ followers after His ascension, the church was born and the mantle of leadership fell upon Peter. It does seem that Peter had been entrusted with the keys to this fledgling church, for it was his presence that solidified the inclusion of each new ethnic group into the Body of Christ.
First, it was the Jews on the Day of Pentecost, and Peter was the officiant (Acts 2). Then, Philip led the Samaritans to faith in Christ, but it was not until Peter came from Jerusalem to place his blessing on what had happened that the Samaritans received the Holy Spirit and became part of the unified assembly of believers (Acts 8). Finally, the Gentiles were admitted as Peter ministered in the house of Cornelius, a Roman soldier, and the same manifestation of the Spirit of God descended upon his house (Acts 10). Later, it was Paul who reached out to the Gentiles, but not before Peter had opened the door. In some measure then, it is apparent that Jesus was building His church upon the foundational leadership of Peter.
CHIP OFF THE OL’ BLOCK
It is also important to note, however, that when Jesus spoke with Peter that day in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus used a play on words to establish His point. Peter’s name literally means “rock” in the Greek language, so when Jesus said “you are Peter [petros], and upon this rock [petra] I will build my church,” He was playing off Peter’s name as a word picture. Yet, the name Peter (petros) and the word “rock” (petra) are not exactly the same thing. R. C. H. Lenski explains the difference between these two forms of the same word.
It is essential to note that the masculine [petros] denotes a detached rock or boulder, and that the feminine [petra] signifies a rocky cliff.[iii]
Now catch the significance of our Lord’s play on words. It’s as if He said to Peter, “Peter, you’re a chip off the ol’ block and upon this block I will build my church.” In other words, Peter was not the block (or solid rock) upon which the church would be built. Peter was simply a chip off the block (a detached stone). As a disciple of Jesus, Peter was emulating his Master. He was following Jesus to become like Jesus, but he was not the “rock.” Jesus was the rock, and Peter was simply a small likeness of that rock.
NO OTHER FOUNDATION
The writers of the New Testament had no doubt as to who was the foundation of the church. According to them, it was more than just Peter because all of the apostles, as well as the prophets, were included as foundational elements. The Apostle Paul explained it clearly to the Ephesian church when he said, “having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets…” (Eph. 2:20). You see, all of the apostles and prophets were considered foundational to the church—not just Peter.
Paul went on in this verse, however, to conclude “. . . Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone.” The focus of a foundation is the corner stone, and Jesus is that stone. Paul is crystal-clear—the rock upon which the church is built is Christ. The apostles and prophets were participants in laying the foundation, but the focus was definitely upon Christ as the cornerstone.
On another occasion Paul gave a similar instruction to the Corinthian church. This time he specifically included himself as an apostolic contributor to the foundation of the church. Yet, he was careful to delineate the true foundation as Jesus Christ.
According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But let each man be careful how he builds upon it. For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:10-11).
The foundation of the church, the rock upon which it is built, is Jesus Christ. It is not Peter. Paul would have us get that straight.
A PIECE OF THE ROCK
So, how did Peter understand what Jesus said to him that day in Caesarea Philippi? Well, Peter understood it the same way that Paul wrote about it. He knew that Christ was the foundation of the church and not him. Look at Peter’s own words:
And coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected by men, but choice and precious in the sight of God,
you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
For this is contained in Scripture:
“BEHOLD I LAY IN ZION A CHOICE STONE, A PRECIOUS CORNER stone,
AND HE WHO BELIEVES IN HIM SHALL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED.”
This precious value, then, is for you who believe, but for those who disbelieve,
THE STONE WHICH THE BUILDERS REJECTED,
THIS BECAME THE VERY CORNER stone,”
“A STONE OF STUMBLING AND A ROCK OF OFFENSE” (1 Peter 2:4-8).
Peter knew that Jesus Christ was the “rock (petra) of offense” upon which the church was built. Notice that Jesus is not a “petros” (a detached rock), but a “petra” (a rocky cliff). Jesus is the “choice stone” and the “precious corner stone.” Peter and Paul may have been a chip off the ol’ block, but Scripture is clear that Jesus is the “block,” the rock that undergirds the church.
So, is Peter the rock? Well, no—he’s only a stone. The Master is the rock. But, as stones are a piece of the rock, so every believer as a living stone, is a piece of Christ, for He dwells in us by His Spirit (Col. 1:27).
THE TRUE ROCK
Dan Brown may think that there is a rock called Peter in the catacombs of the Vatican basilica, but the real rock is in heaven at the right hand of the Father. The rock upon which the church is built is not a subterranean piece of granite surrounded by the dusty bones of an ancient apostle, but a celestial rock surrounded by the effulgent glory of the God of the universe. The rock upon which the church is built is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Peter understood that—and so should we.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the New American Standard Bible, study edition.
[i] Dan Brown, Angels and Demons (New York, NY: Washington Square Press, 2000), p. 405.
[iii] R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Augsburg Publishing House, 1964), p. 625.