FEW PASSAGES IN THE Synoptic Gospels have been more disputed in the history of the church than Peter’s confession that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and its aftermath (Matt. 16:13-28). Here we may venture only three reflections:
(1) Judging by his response, Jesus sees this confession as a significant advance, achieved by revelation from the Father (16:17). But that does not mean that before this point Peter had no inkling that Jesus is the Messiah. Nor does it mean that he understood “Messiah” in the full-fledged, Christian sense associated with the word after Jesus’ death and resurrection. At this point, quite clearly, Peter was prepared to accept Jesus as Israel’s King, the Anointed One from the Davidic line, but he had no idea that he must be simultaneously Davidic king and suffering Servant, as the ensuing verses show. Both Peter’s understanding and his faith were maturing, but still painfully lacking. Part of Peter’s coming to full Christian faith on these matters depended absolutely on waiting for the next major redemptive-historical appointment: the cross and the resurrection.
(2) Jesus’ words, “[Y]ou are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (16:18), have been taken to be the foundation of the Roman Catholic papacy. Even on the most sympathetic reading, however, it is difficult to see how this passage says anything about passing on a Petrine precedence, still less about gradually developing and enhancing the papacy until in 1870 the doctrine of papal infallibility was promulgated. Offended by such extravagant claims, many Protestants have offered exegeses equally unbelievable. Perhaps Jesus said, “You are Peter” (pointing to Peter) “and on this rock I will build my church” (pointing to himself). Or perhaps the “rock” on which the church is built is not Peter, but Peter’s confession—which scarcely accounts for the pun in Greek: “you are petros and on this petra.”
(3) It is better to see that Peter really does have a certain primacy—what has been called “a salvation-historical primacy.” He was the first to see certain things, the leader gifted by God in the first steps of organization and evangelism after the resurrection (as Acts makes clear). But not only was this leadership bound up with Peter’s unique role in redemptive history (so unique that it could not, in the nature of the case, be passed on), but the gospel authority extended to him (16:18-19) is extended to all the apostles (18:18). This is what we should expect: elsewhere we are told that the church is built on the foundation of prophets and apostles (Eph. 2:20, italics added). As the ancient formula puts it, Peter was primus inter pares—first among equals.