The Significance of Peter
“I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (v. 18).- Matthew 16:13–20
In our study of John’s gospel this month, we have read much about the Apostle Peter, his role as one of the first witnesses to the resurrection, and his restoration to ministry after denying the Lord. Peter would go on to serve as one of the key leaders in the early church, and God inspired him to write the epistles of 1 and 2 Peter. We will now devote some time to considering the Apostle Peter, particularly his teaching in his first epistle. Dr. R.C. Sproul’s teaching series First Peter will serve as the basis for our studies.
Peter’s significance in the history of the church can hardly be overestimated. He was the first of the disciples to confess that Jesus is the Christ, the promised Jewish Messiah, as we read in today’s passage (Matt. 16:13–20). In response to this confession, Jesus told Peter that Christ would build His church on the “rock” such that it would overcome hell itself (v. 18). Over the centuries, Roman Catholicism has identified the rock as Peter himself and has used this passage to justify its institution of the papacy and the pope as the lead bishop in the Roman church. While there is a play on Peter’s other name, Cephas (John 1:42), which means “rock,” and while the name Peter in Greek means “rock,” Roman Catholicism’s use of today’s passage as a basis for the papal office is unjustified. The text cannot bear the weight that Rome has placed on it. Protestantism has tended to say that the “rock” that Jesus means is Peter’s confession, meaning that the church is built on Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God.
Certainly, we do not want to dispute the foundational nature of Peter’s confession, but we need not reject a special significance for Peter himself in our rejection of the papacy. Peter did have a key role in the church as the first Apostle to confess the faith, the first Apostle to preach to the Jews on Pentecost (Acts 2), and the first Apostle to preach the gospel to the gentiles (chap. 10). Peter had a key role even if Jesus was not establishing a perpetual office for his “successors” with its own special responsibilities.
Peter also gave us part of God’s Word, as we have noted already. But he is responsible not only for 1 and 2 Peter, for we know from church history that his teaching was the basis for Mark’s gospel. Peter preached the gospel, and he has provided essential information about Jesus’ life and ministry to the church.
Ephesians 2:20 tells us that the church is built on the foundation of the prophets and Apostles, a reference ultimately to the teaching of these men as given in the Scriptures. We should be thankful to the Lord for figures such as Peter, through whom God gave us His Word. We honor them and the Lord who inspired them by holding fast to their teaching.
Passages for Further Study