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Blowing Smoke
Posted: May 11, 2005

The world was saddened, but not surprised, by the recent passing of Pope John Paul II. Whatever your views of the Roman Catholic Church, John Paul was certainly an influential world figure. As one of the three individuals most responsible for the demise of the Soviet Union, President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher being the other two, his shadow looms large across recent history.

The media had maintained a death vigil outside of the Vatican in recent weeks. People across the globe hung on every report as frequent news and updates concerning his condition flashed across the world screen. Finally, the day came when it was reported that the Pope was dead. Wailing and weeping filled St. Peter's Square. Catholics everywhere rushed to their churches for special services and prayers for the departed Pope. International leaders eulogized John Paul as the Vatican prepared for one of the largest, most elaborate funerals that the world has ever seen.

Even before the Pope was dead, people speculated wildly as to who would succeed him. When the Conclave of the Cardinals got underway another vigil began at the Vatican. Eyes and cameras were trained on a small, nondescript smokestack, waiting for a puff smoke that would tell them that a new Pope had been chosen.

An initial puff of gray smoke elated the crowds until it was realized that the smoke was actually a diffuse black. The next day, however, the chimney blew a cloud of white smoke and the world's attention immediately focused on the door where the new Pope would be introduced to the world. The relatively small crowd gathered in St. Peter's Square quickly swelled into the thousands as people dropped everything and literally ran to the square.

Now, admittedly, I was fascinated by the pomp and pageantry surrounding the death of the old Pope and the election of a new Pope. However, I couldn't help but think of Ecclesiastes 12:8: "Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity."

With that in mind, let me ask you a question: where do you think the office of the Pope came from? If you are like most people, your answer is probably the Bible. But, is that truly the case?

The great dome of St. Peter's Basilica bears the following inscription around its base: "Tu es Petrus, et super banc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam, et tibi dabo claves regni coelorum." This Latin phrase comes from Matthew 16:18-19: "…[T]hou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church ...And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven…" It forms the basis for the Catholic belief that Peter was the rock upon which Jesus founded His church and that the keys to heaven, originally given to Peter, have been passed down through an unbroken chain of Apostolic succession from Peter in the first century to Pope Benedict XVI in the twenty-first.

Unfortunately for the Roman Catholic Church, Jesus never really said that He would build His church upon Peter. A closer examination of Matthew 16:18 reveals that Jesus referred to Peter as Petros which means a stone. This is echoed by John 1:42: "And he brought him to Jesus. And when Jesus beheld him, he said, Thou art Simon the son of Jona: thou shalt be called Cephas, which is by interpretation, A stone." Cephas is the Aramaic or Syriac equivalent of petros, which is born out by the use of petros for stone at the end of the verse.

The rock, however, upon which the church is to be built is not petros but rather petra, a large rock mass. Petros is the equivalent of a stone which has broken off from a massive rock ledge (petra). Clearly Peter is the petros, or small moveable stone of the passage. Who or what, then, is the huge immovable rock upon which the church is to be built?

The answer is found in 1 Corinthians 10:4: "And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ." Both uses of "Rock" in this passage come from petra and are clearly identified as referring to Jesus Christ.

The idea that Jesus is the rock (petra) upon which the church is founded, as opposed to Peter (petros), is supported in the following passages:

  • "Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD, Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner stone, a sure foundation: he that believeth shall not make haste." (Isaiah 28:16)

  • "For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ." (1 Corinthians 3:11)

  • "And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone;" (Ephesians 2:20)

  • "Wherefore also it is contained in the scripture, Behold, I lay in Sion a chief corner stone, elect, precious: and he that believeth on him shall not be confounded." (1 Peter 2:6)

Peter, rather than being the rock (petra) that the church is built upon is merely one of the first building stones (petros) to be set upon the great foundation stone of Jesus Christ, the Rock of our salvation. And, according to Ephesians 2:19-22, we are, too, if we have trusted Jesus Christ as our Savior.

Just as the Roman Catholic Church attempts to use Matthew 16:18 to claim that the church is founded on Peter rather than Jesus Christ, it tries to construe Matthew 16:19 as the basis for the Papacy. However, a closer examination of the Bible, and a brief look at history, shows the fallacy of this claim as well.

In Matthew 16:19 we read that Jesus said to Peter, "I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven." He also told Peter that, "whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." In order to understand what Jesus means here we have to determine what the keys of the kingdom of heaven refer to, as well as what is meant by binding and loosing. The keys here refer to the preaching of the gospel. Binding and loosing has to do with prohibiting and permitting; forbidding and allowing.

Jesus gave Peter both the authority and the privilege of opening the door to the kingdom of heaven to both the Jews and the Gentiles. He turned the key in Acts chapter 2 and opened the door to the Jews on the day of Pentecost. He again turned the key and opened the door to the Gentiles when he obeyed God and went down to the house of Cornelius in Acts chapter 10. In both cases it was Peter's bold preaching of the Gospel that served as the key to open the door to the kingdom of heaven for both Jew and Gentile. In effect, Peter was given the keys to open the door to the kingdom " every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek" (Romans 1:16).

Now Jesus may have given Peter the keys in Matthew 16:19, but He did not give them to Peter exclusively. The keys belong to Jesus — not the present papal successor to Peter — and He possesses them today. In fact, they were promised to Him in Isaiah 22:22: "And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open." Furthermore, He claims in Revelation 1:8 to have them now: "I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death." And again, in His letter to the church in Philadelphia: "...These things saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth" (Revelation 3:7).

According to Matthew 19:14 and Luke 18:16, the kingdom of heaven is composed of people. Therefore, the keys to the kingdom of heaven have to do with people. The binding and loosing in Matthew 16:19, on the other hand, has to do with things instead of people. Jesus told Peter that whatsoever he bound or loosed was bound or loosed, not whosoever.

Binding and loosening, as mentioned earlier, literally refers to forbidding and allowing. Jesus gave Peter the authority to prohibit and permit certain practices and conduct in the early church. That authority was later extended to all the Apostles in Matthew 18:18: "Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." An example of this can be found in Acts 15:6-31. Still later, when the Bible was completed, the need for the office of the Apostles came to an end, as did the need for any papal successors. Today, Believers can turn to God's completed Word for guidance and direction.

Not only does the Bible not support the Roman Catholic claim that the church was founded on Peter, or that his power to bind and loose was unique to him, it does not support their historical claim that Peter was the first Pope of Rome either. If Peter, who was a married man (Matthew 8:14; Mark 1:30; Luke 4:38; 1 Corinthians 9:5), had been the first Roman Pope, then how come Paul did not mention him in his greeting to the brethren in Rome in the first chapter of Romans? For that matter, why did he mention numerous Believers by name in the last chapter of Romans but not Peter? And why did Peter not go to be with and encourage the Apostle Paul who was imprisoned in Rome (2 Timothy 4:11,16)?

No, the church was not founded upon Peter the stone (petros). It was founded upon Jesus the Rock (petra). Anyone who tries to tell you different is just blowing smoke.

—Pastor Al

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