Jesus told Peter in Matthew 16 that "upon this rock, He would build His church". What is the "rock?"
Jesus made His declaration to Peter in Matthew 16:
Matt. 16:15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Matt. 16:16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Matt. 16:17 And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.
Matt. 16:18 “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.
Matt. 16:19 “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”
In response to Jesus’ question, Peter declared that Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah. Jesus replied that Peter’s confession of faith was the result of the Father in heaven granting Peter this insight. Next, Jesus declares that Peter (which is Cephas in Aramaic) would be the rock upon which Jesus would build His church.
Jesus made a play on words as He renamed Simon. The name Peter in Greek is the word petros (in Aramaic, the word cephas), which means a stone or boulder. Later when Jesus said He would build His church on the "rock," He used a different Greek word petra, which refers to a large rock (as in a mountain cliff). Given Jesus' choice of two different Greek words for rock and the overall context of the passage, we must conclude Jesus was addressing two different aspects of building His church.
First, Peter’s declaration of faith in Christ was to be the model for how the body of Christ would grow. The church body would be a "building" consisting of men and women who followed in Peter’s footsteps repeating his declaration of faith in Jesus. Jesus is the Cornerstone of the church, and all believers are the "living stones" who place their faith in Him (see 1Peter 2:5).
Secondly, Jesus renamed Simon with the name Peter (i.e., stone) to indicate that Peter would play a unique role in the founding of the church. Jesus declared that Peter would possess the “keys” to the kingdom, and what Peter "bound" or "loosed" on earth would be confirmed in Heaven. Historically, the Catholic Church has used this verse to support the legitimacy of the papacy, while Protestants have categorically rejected the idea that Peter held special authority over the early church. The truth lies between these two extremes.
According to Matthew 16, Christ did assign Peter special authority in the early church (i.e., the "keys") to open the Gospel to three people groups so they might receive the Holy Spirit and enter the body of Christ. Peter fulfilled this commission in three steps as recorded in the book of Acts.
First, in Acts 2 Peter unlocked the Gospel for the Jewish people at Pentecost. Peter preached the Good News, and as a result the Jewish people gathered on that feast day began to receive the Gospel in Jerusalem and beyond.
The visible evidence of Peter “turning" a key of the kingdom was the arrival of the Holy Spirit followed by visible manifestations of the Spirit among a new group of humanity. At Pentecost the first group to receive the Holy Spirit were Jews, and once that key was turned by Peter, the Gospel remained forever open to Jews.
Next, Peter unlocked the Gospel for the Samaritan people in Acts 8.
Acts 8:14 Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John,
Acts 8:15 who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit.
Acts 8:16 For He had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
Acts 8:17 Then they began laying their hands on them, and they were receiving the Holy Spirit.
Faith first came to the Samaritans through Philip, but the Holy Spirit's arrival awaited Peter's "turning of the key." When Peter arrived in Samaria to confirm the acceptance of the Gospel among the Samaritan people, he laid hands on the new believers and they received the Holy Spirit. This was Peter's turning of the second key of the kingdom. Notice that Peter’s presence was required before the Lord began the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (the mark of the Church saint) among Samaritans. What Peter "loosed" on Earth was loosed in Heaven.
Finally, Peter opened the door for Gentiles to receive the Gospel in Acts 10.
Acts 10:34 Opening his mouth, Peter said: “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality,
Acts 10:35 but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.
Acts 10:36 “The word which He sent to the sons of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all) —
Acts 10:37 you yourselves know the thing which took place throughout all Judea, starting from Galilee, after the baptism which John proclaimed.
Acts 10:38 “You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him.
Acts 10:39 “We are witnesses of all the things He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They also put Him to death by hanging Him on a cross.
Acts 10:40 “God raised Him up on the third day and granted that He become visible,
Acts 10:41 not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen beforehand by God, that is, to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead.
Acts 10:42 “And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead.
Acts 10:43 “Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.”
Acts 10:44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message.
Acts 10:45 All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also.
Acts 10:46 For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered,
Acts 10:47 “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?”
Acts 10:48 And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days.
When Cornelius and his family received the Gospel, Peter was God's instrument to deliver the Holy Spirit again in keeping with the role Jesus assigned to him. After Peter “turned" this final key, the family of Cornelius received the Holy Spirit and began to manifest His presence as was seen earlier.
Once the Gentiles received the Gospel, Peter had turned his final key. No more keys exist, since the kingdom is now open to all groups of humanity (i.e., Jew, Samaritan, and Gentile). Having fulfilled his mission to open the kingdom, Peter then disappears from the record of Acts.
In summary, Peter was the “rock” upon whom Jesus built the church both by his example of faith and through his personal authority to open the Gospel to the three groups of humanity. Once Peter turned the keys, he was no longer the “rock” for he had met his purpose.
Scripture does not support the view of the Catholic Church, which holds that Jesus’ words established the papacy with Peter as the first pope. The institution of the papacy was asserted by the Catholic Church several hundred years after Christ’s death to further the church's political power in the face of a declining Roman Empire. Peter himself never assumed such a title or position nor did later church leaders during the three centuries following Peter.
Therefore, the authority of the papacy is historically and biblically illegitimate, and certainly nothing in Jesus' statement to Peter in Matthew 16 lends support to the Catholic position. Jesus was referring only to Peter's unique role in moving the Gospel outward during Peter's lifetime.
For more information on the keys of Kingdom, we encourage you to listen to our entire Acts Bible study: