Q: Can you explain to me our understanding of Matthew 18:16? I have a Catholic friend who insists that this verse establishes the relationship between Peter and the Pope. “
A: This verse has been the chief one used by the Roman Catholic Church to support its doctrine of the supremacy and infallibility of the Pope. Lutherans and other Protestant church bodies maintain that this fallacious and manufactured doctrine of Rome is–at least in part–based on an incorrect understanding of Jesus’ words to Peter: “. . . on this rock I will build My Church.” When examining the original Greek of these words, one can more easily recognize that Jesus is not claiming to build his church on Peter’s personage in any way.
Jesus had given Simon the nickname PETROS, the Greek for the Aramaic form of “Cephas,” meaning “rock, stone, or pebble.” This was fitting in view of this disciple’s personality of zeal and firmness. But in verse 18 we see that Jesus says he will build his Church on “this PETRA,” a feminine noun which means “a large outcropping of rock, an immovable boulder, or a portion of the earth’s crust.”
What was Jesus referring to? Because of the word change, it should be obvious that he is not referring to Peter himself. If this were the case, Jesus could have said, “Upon you,” or “Upon PETROS” that he would build his Church. But he didn’t. He said PETRA, no doubt indicating the boulder-like confession of faith which Peter had just made about Jesus: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Christ’s ministry of having his Word and Sacraments proclaimed and used does not continue, or start, or prosper as a result of any individual, but only because of Christ and his own command. So when we sing “Built on the Rock the Church Doth Stand,” we are referring to this beautiful “rock of confession” which Peter had made. Only faith in Jesus Christ and him alone is the foundation of the Church (I Cor. 3:11).