What Did Jesus Mean ‘On This Rock I Will Build My Church’?

So then, who or what was Jesus referring to when He said "on this rock I will build my church?" It is the testimony that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Messiah, that Christ will build His church, not the authority of any single man.

Contributing Writer
Updated Oct 09, 2023
What Did Jesus Mean ‘On This Rock I Will Build My Church’?

Roman Catholics believe that Peter was the first pope and was given that authority directly by Jesus Christ Himself. From there, they believe an unbroken line of popes has continued to exist, all sharing in the universal jurisdiction and infallibility of Peter. But is any of this actually true?

What Did Jesus Mean by "On This Rock I Will Build My Church" (Matthew 16:18)? 

The Roman Catholic position relies substantially on this one verse in Scripture. They argue that it is clearly stated herein that Christ gave Peter the keys to the church, granting him jurisdiction over the entire church.

However, the Roman Catholic apologist must ignore the context of not just this verse, but other verses regarding apostolic authority in the church. If we back up a bit to Matthew 16:15-17, we discover that Jesus was engaging in a play on words in His use of the word “rock” in Matthew 16:18.

In Koine Greek, the original language of the gospel, Jesus refers to Peter as “petros,” which means “little stone.” But when Jesus refers to the rock upon which His church will be built, He changes the word He uses. He doesn’t use “petros,” but instead uses the word “pertra,” which as a feminine gender word can’t be used to refer to Peter.

So then, who or what was Jesus referring to when He said he would build his church upon this “petra”? Matthew 16:15-17 gives us our answer. It is the testimony that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Messiah, that Christ will build His church, not the authority of any single man.

The Church Fathers, whom Roman Catholic apologists attempt to use in support of their dogma of the papacy, actually disagree with that dogma, taking the very position I have outlined. A good example is Justin Martyr, who is a canonized saint in the Roman Catholic faith.

He wrote: “The rock upon which Christ will build His church means the faith of testimony.” “Okay, sure. You might have a point there,” the Roman Catholic apologist will say, “but what about Matthew 16:19? There is no getting around the fact that Christ made Peter the universal authority of His church. It is right here in this verse!”

Again, this is a case of the Catholic apologist ignoring other data in Scripture. If we’re going to have an honest conversation and actually come to the truth of the matter, we have to be willing to examine all of this data.

If we go to Matthew 18:18, we discover some pretty important information regarding these keys and the authority of binding and loosing mentioned in Matthew 16:19.

What we find is that Jesus is teaching all of His apostles, not just Peter, and He once again mentions these keys, giving the same exact authority to all of the apostles that He gave to Peter.

Again, no universal jurisdiction of Peter and his successors, just a shared authority granted to the twelve apostles.

Who Is the Rock Jesus Will Build the Church On?

If we study in depth the scholarly information available on the history of the church, we find that, if anyone was considered a primary authority in the early church, it was very likely James, the brother of Christ. 

For example, church historian Eusebius makes this claim very clearly when he wrote: “The brother of the Lord, James, took over leadership of the church with the apostles when control passed to them.”

Dr. David F. Wells, a research professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and author, writes:

It is, in fact, more plausible to think that the emergence of the Roman pontiff to power and prominence happened by natural circumstance rather than divine appointment. This took place in two stages. First, it was the church in Rome that emerged to prominence and only then, as part of its eminence, did its leader begin to stand out. The Catholic church has inverted these facts by suggesting that apostolic power and authority, indeed, Peter’s preeminent power and authority, established the Roman bishop whereas, in fact, the Roman bishopric’s growing ecclesiastical prestige derived, not from Peter, but from the church in Rome.

Dr. Wells goes on to explain that the church, in several councils, expressly condemned the attempts of the papacy to assert universal authority and jurisdiction.

Cyprian in North Africa argued that the words, “You are Peter …” were not a charter for the papacy but, in fact, applied to all bishops. Furthermore, at the third Council of Carthage in 256, he asserted that the Roman bishop should not attempt to be a “bishop of bishops” and exercise “tyrannical” powers.

Wells explains the gradual development of the false claims of the bishop of Rome, and the forces that gave them the power to be asserted. Not surprisingly, much of this comes from the church’s all too close relationship with secular government.

Emperor Constantine, prior to a pivotal battle, saw a vision and turned to Christianity. The church, which had lived a lonely existence on the “outside” up to this time, now enjoyed an unexpected imperial embrace. As a result, from this point on, the distinction between appropriate ecclesiastical demeanor and worldly pretensions to pomp and power were increasingly lost. In the Middle Ages, the distinction disappeared entirely. In the sixth century, Pope Gregory brazenly exploited this by asserting that the “care of the whole church” had been placed in the hands of Peter and his successors in Rome.

What Is the Church?

The truth of the matter is Scripture and the history of the church in no way indicate that Peter held a specific position among the twelve. That of a “coryphaeus” in Mark 16:17, which simply means he was their spokesman, not that he held any special authority.

The twelve apostles shared authority in the church as equals and passed that authority down to the bishops they laid hands on. In this, most Christians are in agreement with the Orthodox churches, which teach much the same.


A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, 1998, Hendrickson Publishers 

David Wells, The Rise of the Papacy, article, 2005, Lingonier

(Article published on Christianity.com on June 15, 2021)

What Else Can We Learn from Jesus Calling Peter the Rock He Would Build a Church On?

Ray Pritchard takes a look at how calling Peter a rock says something crucial about Peter's calling.

First, when Jesus said "Upon this rock I will build my church," he was referring to Peter. I say that because the two Greek words - petros and petra - basically mean the same thing. They are different forms of the same word. One is masculine and the other is feminine. That's the only real difference. Jesus was saying, "Peter, you are a rock-man."

Second, when Jesus said, "Upon this rock I will build my church," he said it after Peter made his great confession of faith. The timing is crucial. It's not as if Jesus looks around and says, "Well, you're the best I've got so you'll have be the one." No, Jesus wasn't looking for some fall guy on which to build his church. Peter could not have been the rock until he made the great confession. That is, the rock is not Peter the doubter or Peter the denier. The rock is Peter the believer and Peter the confesser. The rock is Peter as he publicly confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Upon that rock Jesus will build his church.

Third, when Jesus said, "Upon this rock I will build my church," he said it to Peter as representing all the apostles. Remember I mentioned that the question was in the plural - "Who do you (plural) say that I am?" Jesus wasn't asking Peter alone; he was asking all of them. When Peter answered, he wasn't answering only for himself; he was answering for all of them. And when Jesus said, "You are the rock," he wasn't speaking of Peter alone. He was speaking of all the apostles.

I think Jesus was saying, "Peter, you are a rock. And upon you, and men like you, I will build my church." Now, to say that is not to agree with everything else that other people may say about Peter being the rock. But it is to say that Peter is the foundation of the church in the sense that, when he made that confession - and all the apostles with him - he was the rock - and they were the rocks upon which the church is built.

(Excerpted from "Upon This Rock" by Keep Believing Ministries (used by permission).

For further reading:

What Does it Mean That God Is the Rock of Salvation?

Why Did Jesus Ask Peter if He Loved Him?

Should Every Christian Strive to be Like the Apostles?

What Did Jesus Mean When He Said, ‘Take Care of My Sheep’?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/dashtik

J. Davila-Ashcraft is an Anglican priest, Theologian, and Apologist, and holds a B.A. in Biblical Studies and Theology from God’s Bible College in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is a recognized authority on the topic of exorcism, and in that capacity has contributed to and/or appeared on programming for The National Geographic Channel, Discovery Channel, and CNN. He is the host of Expedition Truth, a one-hour apologetics radio talk show.

This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.

No Rest for the Wicked
Fight the Good Fight
Wait on the Lord
With Contrite Heart and Spirit
Faith Can Move Mountains


Christianity / Church / What Did Jesus Mean ‘On This Rock I Will Build My Church’?