A Refutation of the MacArthur Bible Commentary’s Assertion that the Rock in Matthew 16:18 is a “Boulder-Like Truth”

The rejection of papal authority by Protestant revolters of the 16th century has been transmitted to this day and influences how contemporary Protestant communities interpret Peter’s status in Matthew 16:17–19. The MacArthur Bible Commentary, by John MacArthur, is a popular resource containing arguments used by some Protestants to deny Peter any special role in Matthew 16:18. In the biblical text, Jesus asks His disciples what they think about Him and Peter confesses that Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus responds,

Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matt 16:17–19 RSVCE)

The MacArthur commentary gives the following interpretation of the word “rock” in this passage:

The word for “Peter,” Petros, means a small stone (John 1:42). Jesus uses a play on words here with petra, which means a foundation boulder (cf. 7:24, 25). Since the NT makes it abundantly clear that Christ is both the foundation (Acts 4:11, 12; 1 Cor. 3:11) and the head (Eph. 5:23) of the church, it is a mistake to think that here He is giving either of those roles to Peter. There is a sense in which the apostles played a foundational role in the building of the church (Eph. 2:20), but the role of primacy is reserved for Christ alone, not assigned to Peter. So Jesus’ words here are best interpreted as a simple play on words in that a boulder-like truth came from the mouth of one who was called a small stone [i.e. Peter].

This explanation that “Peter” (Petros) cannot be the referent for “rock” (petra) is contrary to a straightforward reading of the text, especially in the Greek. The reason the MacArthur commentary does not see petra as referring to Peter is that it assumes Jesus’s foundational relationship to the Church precludes Peter from also having a similar role. However, such an assumption leads one to interpret Matthew 16:18 incorrectly because Jesus did have the authority to give Peter a special role in the Church. Before disproving the underlying assumption, it will first be demonstrated that the MacArthur interpretation of petra is incorrect in two ways.

First, the MacArthur commentary interprets petra apart from its meaning in ancient Greek. Petra in ancient Greek and within biblical literature means a physical rock that happens to be large in size.1 In other words, a petra is a rock and the large size is a characteristic of this rock much like mountains are distinguished from hills. It does not mean something large like a giant, a tree, a boulder, or any other thing; the Greek adjective megas means “large.”2 The MacArthur explanation incorrectly defines petra as “large” or “something large like a boulder.” Petra occurs 15 times in 14 Bible verses and in ten of these occurrences it simply means a large rock used for a foundation or cave (Matt 7:24, 25; 27:51, 60; Mark 15:46; Luke 6:48; 8:6, 13; Rev 6:15, 16).

In four other instances of the word petra, it is used allegorically to refer to Christ. Paul quotes Isaiah 8:14 with the word petra for the rock of scandal and he uses this word twice in one verse to refer to Christ as the spiritual rock giving drink to the Hebrews in the wilderness (Rom 9:33; 1 Cor 10:4 [2x]). Peter also quotes Isaiah 8:14 with the word petra to argue that those who do not believe in Jesus encounter Him as a stumbling rock (1 Pet 2:8).

The last biblical verse to use petra is Matthew 16:18 and it will be examined below but, for now, it is clear from all the other biblical citations as well as ancient Greek that the definition of petra is not something large. Petra means “rock” and it can be used to refer to Christ in an allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament.

The second problem with the MacArthur commentary’s explanation is that it disregards the textual setting. The other biblical verses with the word petra suggest that it could be interpreted as a physical “rock” or allegorically as “Christ” in Matthew 16:18 but both of these possibilities do not fit the context. It is unlikely Jesus is talking about a literal physical rock because He founded a Church to transcend geographical and national boundaries.3 It is also not likely Jesus is referring to Himself as the “rock” because Jesus is not allegorically interpreting an Old Testament passage, like Paul and Peter, and the context of Jesus’s response clearly has Peter as the subject. Peter reveals Jesus’s identity in Matthew 16:16 when he says Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” In turn, Jesus discloses Peter’s identity in verses 17–19 and addresses the apostle using the second person pronoun multiple times.4

Interpreting petra as “Christ” also ignores conventional ancient Greek syntax. Matthew 16:18 is comprised of three independent clauses: 1) And I tell you, you are Peter, 2) and on this rock I will build my Church, 3) and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. If the second clause has Jesus as its subject, this would make the first clause superfluous except to insult Peter by stressing his diminutiveness compared to Jesus’s greatness and it would contradict how the word “and,” kai, is typically used in ancient Greek. Kai, is a connecting conjunction and can be understood as a connector of equals, though the clause after kai often clarifies or heightens the clause before it.5 This conjunction is not typically used to separate ideas or act as a disjunctive.6 Just as the third clause of Matthew 16:18 further explains the word “Church” in the second clause, so the first clause in that same verse is connected to the second one by the word kai to explain Peter’s identity just as Jesus was confessed to be the Christ in Matthew 16:16.

The connection between the first and second clauses of Matthew 16:18 is confirmed by the wordplay between Petros (Peter) and petra (rock). The MacArthur commentary dismisses the wordplay in Matthew 16:18 but this literary technique is often used by ancient writers to convey meaning. For example, the word Adam, sometimes rendered as “man” in English translations, is in a wordplay relationship with adamah, which means “ground.” This wordplay in Genesis is used to signify the earthly origin of humans. A similar wordplay technique is involved in Matthew 16:18; just as the words “Adam” and “adamah” signify a relationship between them, so too does Petros and petra. In the case of Adam, the first man is related to a word denoting his origin while Peter is placed in relationship with a word prefiguring his future. If Matthew intended for petra to refer to Jesus, he is using a literary technique that goes against this interpretation and one must answer why Matthew chose to use a wordplay that would be meaningless in a world where writing was expensive.7

In sum, the context and syntax of Matthew 16:18 do not support understanding petra as a physical rock or Jesus but the underlying assumption that Jesus and Peter cannot both have foundational roles needs to be addressed. This assumption is often the basis of several Protestant arguments against Peter as the “rock” in Matthew 16:18. The MacArthur commentary denies Peter the important role of being the “rock” of the Church in Matthew 16:18 but admits Peter is given authority in the following verse. In its comment on the keys given to Peter in Matthew 16:19, the commentary explains, ”

These represent authority, and here Christ gives Peter (and by extension all other believers) authority to declare what is bound or loosed in heaven. This echoes the promise of John 20:23, where Christ gives the disciples authority to forgive or retain the sins of people. All these actions must be understood in the context of 18:15–17, in which Christ lays out specific instructions for dealing with sin in the church.

The MacArthur commentary unwittingly shows that Peter and the disciples can exercise an authority that does not challenge Jesus’s own role. This same understanding of authority can be applied to Matthew 16:18 when Jesus tells Peter that the apostle will be the rock of the Church. Both Jesus and Peter have foundation-like roles but in different respects; Jesus is the absolute foundation of the Church as His institution and Peter is not the foundation of the Church in relation to Jesus but the apostle does exercise a foundational role in relation to other Church members. The best way to illustrate this point is from two Old Testament examples.

Giving the keys of the kingdom to Peter may be an allusion to Isaiah 22:22 where Eliakim replaces Shebna as steward of the royal household and receives the key of David. The office of royal household steward exercised great responsibility to manage the affairs and resources of the king. The king entrusted the steward with authority over the royal house to make decisions in the king’s name so that the steward acted on behalf of his lord. Although the steward was given such responsibility, the king was ultimately in charge and could replace a steward if they managed the king’s house irresponsibly. A second example of two people exercising important roles over a society is when Joseph is made second in command over Egypt. It was Joseph who was responsible for getting Egypt and its neighbors through the seven years of famine. Although Joseph played the foundational role to save Egypt, the Pharaoh was the absolute power in Egypt and Joseph served at Pharaoh’s request. In like manner, Jesus is the absolute ruler of His Church but this does not preclude Him from using others to manage His household, the Church. Peter has an important role to exercise as manager of the household of God so he can be said to have a foundational role relative to other members of the Church even though the apostle serves according to Jesus’s will.

  1. LSJ, s.v. πέτρα
  2. LSJ, s.v. μέγας
  3. See Jesus’s discourse with the Samaritan woman where He says worship of God will not be limited to a certain mountain. “Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…But the hour is coming, and now is, when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.'” John 4:21, 23. 
  4. In these verses, Jesus says, “Blessed are you Simon,” “revealed this to you,” “and I tell you, you are Peter,” “I will give you,” “whatever you bind,” and “whatever you loose.” There is no indication that Jesus is switching topics when He says the word “rock.” 
  5. Herbert Weir Smyth, A Greek Grammar for Colleges (Harvard University Press, 1956) nos. 2868–70
  6. Kai can be used for two opposing clauses but this form is not used in Matt 16:18. See Ibid., no. 2871
  7. On the question of whether petra, a feminine noun, can refer to the masculine noun Petros, see my post, “A Refutation of Matt Slick’s Exegesis of Matt 16:18.” 

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