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Jesus’ words to the Apostle Peter in the Gospel according to Matthew are very familiar:

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.

Many Protestants run away from understanding Peter as the “rock” in Matthew 16:18, largely because another prominent Christian church has used this interpretation as an illegitimate claim of spurious authority and so-called “apostolic succession.” But we must be fair with the text, even if it is sprawled across the dome of an important basilica in Rome.

This is going to be brief, but there three reasons why I became convinced some time ago that “rock” refers to Peter.

  1. The striking pun on the words πετρος and πετρα. This is quite difficult to ignore. Jesus is equating the Greek moniker of Simon and the rock upon which the church is built. On this point, to quibble at case endings shows a misunderstanding of the way language works.
  2. If Paul and John taught a strikingly similar version of this doctrine, then why should we object? 
    1. Ephesians 2:19-21: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.”
    2. Revelation 21:14: “And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.”
  3. If Jesus is the rock, then the passage’s metaphor becomes non-sensical. The image drawn is Jesus building upon himself. In this metaphor, Jesus is the builder, and certainly not the foundation as well.

I think what is meant here is that Peter the rock, as a kind of chief of all the apostles. The New Testament, especially the Gospels and Acts, portray Peter as the leader among the apostles. It is no accident that Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 that Jesus first appeared to Peter–there called “Cephas” (just as it is significant that Jesus appeared last to Paul). As the leader of the apostles, Peter is the representative of them upon whom Christ says he will build his church. He was the first to make this great confession of the greatness of Christ’s person, and this witness to Christ will be foundational in the church Christ will build after Pentecost.

I have one more observation on this. That Peter is the “rock” does not in any way establish apostolic succession. In fact, on the contrary, it argues against it. The inference of an apostolic succession is that the authoritative ministry of the apostles continues. The meaning of the rock, similar to Paul’s metaphor in Ephesians 2:20, is one of a foundation for a building. This foundation, this base, the rock upon which the church is built, is only laid once. The rock or foundation does not continue to be laid as the structure is built. The rock is foundational, and then the church is built upon it. The apostles confessed Christ and were witnesses to his resurrection. Their unique ministry in the church is now over (cf. 1 Cor 15:8-10), as their peculiar revelatory ministry has provided a great foundation for the church and its faith, culminating in the inspiration and writing of the New Testament canon.