Peter: Rock or Stumbling Block?

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
18th February 2012

Tagged: church papacy peter preaching

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Last week when preaching on Matthew 16, I made no mention of the erroneous claims of the Papacy. Several congregation members raised concerns with me about the way this passage is commonly misunderstood. So let me address this misunderstanding and in the process offer some insights into the challenges of preaching.  

The preacher’s task is an endlessly fascinating and difficult joy. There is no embarrassment about people pointing out the weakness in your effort as there is no preacher who can ultimately succeed in the task. All sermons fail. All preachers can improve. The questions that people ask help the preacher to think out more carefully how to preach the next passage to the people who are committed to his care.

The primary aim of the preacher is to say what the text is saying. Yet, communicating what it is saying, often requires pointing out common misunderstandings that prevent people from hearing it properly. Without negative preaching, positive preaching lacks clarity.

If you believe that Matthew 16 is about Jesus’ commission to Peter to hold the keys of the Church and shepherd the whole flock, then of course you would mention it when preaching this passage. If on the other hand you believe that Jesus was not even thinking about Peter, let alone the bishop of Rome, being the shepherd of a worldwide church, then there is no reason to mention it - unless the congregation’s misunderstanding prevented them from hearing the word.

Sometimes, negative preaching can get in the way of the message. The tribalism that leads to ranting preachers or reactionary people does not edify the church, the preacher or the hearer. More significantly, negative preaching can let the misunderstanding of the passage set the agenda, so that more time and emotional energy is expended on what the passage is not saying than what it is saying. So the main focus, let alone the subtleties of the passage, is lost in the mire of correcting error.

Sometimes the preacher, in order to preserve theological truth, finds the particular wording of a controversial passage uncomfortable. His temptation is to explain away the difficulty that the text holds for his system, rather than expound faithfully what the text says. Integrating everything neatly into a system has the danger of making the system supreme over Scripture. True exposition may lead a preacher to change or modify his system, or require more time to show how to integrate the text into his system than a sermon will allow. Furthermore, the desire for theological neatness has the problem of gutting the Scriptures’ challenge to the sinful conscience. In the end balanced Christianity is neither balanced nor Christian. We are called to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus – hardly an expression of a balanced, respectable middle classed life-style! And preachers who qualify Jesus’ confrontation with the rich young ruler into ‘having Jesus as your first priority’ hardly challenge the hearer about the place of their wealth in their life.

So what of the Papacy and the claims that this passage is the basis for its foundation?

Protestants point to discussions going back to the early church fathers about the precise meaning of the text. What is the rock? Is it Peter? Or is it Christ? Or is it Peter’s confession? Or is it his faith? What is the significance of the difference between his name (Petros) and the word ‘rock’ (petra) upon which Jesus is to build? Does the preposition mean ‘on’ this rock or ‘at’ this rock? It’s not so much that these questions or observations are wrong, as that often the motivation for asking them is to defend a position against the ‘opposition’ – and that is not a right way to read the Bible.

Jesus was punning on the word Peter/rock. Puns by their nature are not precise, legal formulations. Let’s assume that Jesus was saying that Peter himself is the rock upon whom he is going to build his church. What does that mean? It’s not saying that Peter will be the head of His church. It’s not saying that Peter is the shepherd or leader of the congregation or the other apostles. It is saying that he is the foundation stone or the first stone of the church. We should draw no further inference until its meaning is spelt out. Much more important than Peter’s place is Jesus action: “I will build my church”. Jesus, not Peter, is doing something.

But what about the next verse where Peter is given the keys to the church? He isn’t. He is promised “the keys of the Kingdom of heaven”. The Church is the gathering of Christ’s people – the Kingdom is the reign of God. They may overlap but they are not the same. Entry into and exclusion from the kingdom is by loosing and binding – and they are the keys promised to Peter in this passage. Yet, they are not promised to Peter exclusively - two chapters later the same loosing and binding ministry is given to others (Matthew 18:18). Indeed this is the ministry of the Holy Spirit given to all the disciples by the risen Jesus in John 20:19f.

And just as there is nothing in the passage that gives Peter any unique or exclusive authority, there is also nothing indicating he would have successors to such authority. He and he alone may be the first rock upon which Jesus was building his church but other contemporaries equally hold the keys to the kingdom. There is nothing in this passage that states, indicates or even implies that a unique role of authority (let alone infallibility) was promised to Peter - let alone would or could be passed to successors in an ecclesiastical office in the city of Rome.

The rest of the New Testament gives no indication of a unique authoritative leadership role of Peter. And in Matthew 16 if Peter is the rock he is also the stumbling block who speaks not only the words of the Father but also the words of Satan (vs 23).

This passage isn’t about Peter – the rock or the stumbling block - it’s about Jesus – the Christ - building his Church and bringing the Kingdom of heaven by his death and resurrection.