Was the Apostle Peter the first Pope and are all of the subsequent Popes now following in the succession of Peter? Did Jesus give Peter the keys to the kingdom? This is a foundational teaching in the Roman Catholic church and the big question is: Is it biblical? Here’s what the official teaching is in the church. “The bishop of Rome has a right to the primacy above the universal church since he is the successor of St Peter who received such prerogative from Jesus Christ. If anyone shall say that the Roman Pontiff is not the successor of the Blessed Peter in his primacy let him be anathema (i.e. be declared a heretic.” (First Vatican Council 1870). To the millions of Catholics around the world, this is a binding teaching. However the question that needs to be asked is: Is it a Biblical teaching?
I remember I had an uncle and he wasn’t very religious most of his life, sort of surprised everybody when near the end of his life, he said that he wanted to be confirmed and baptized as a Catholic. And I thought “Uncle, I would love to have studied with you. Let’s study the Bible together.” He said “No, I can’t study your religion. Only the Catholic church can trace its heritage back unbroken to the Apostle Peter.” He’d been taught this doctrine and he thought all these other churches popped up through history but the only church that has unbroken succession back to the beginning is the Catholic church. Is that true?
A lot of this misunderstanding is based upon a passage that you find in Matthew 16:13-18.
13 When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?”
14 So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.
18 And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.
This is the passage where they’re saying “Jesus said right there ‘You’re Peter and on this rock of Peter, I’m going to build my church.’” Is that what Jesus is saying? Did Jesus really build his church on the Apostle Peter? If you ask which of the Apostles was the loosest cannon of them all, you’d say Peter. Which is the apostle who opened his mouth and inserted his foot over and over again? Peter. If you look in the very same passage Matthew 16:21-23…
21 From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day.
22 Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!”
23 But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”
It’s mind-boggling to me that the Catholic Church would teach that here in one passage Jesus is saying “I’m going to build my Church on the Rock of Peter”. You read a few verses and Jesus is calling Peter “Satan”. No. What was Christ saying? Jesus was saying “Who do you say that I am?” Peter said “You are the Christ, you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Christ then said “Simon bar-jonah, blessed are you for flesh-and-blood did not reveal that to you…You are Peter (Greek word “Petros” which means a chip off the old block) and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. Two very different words are being used. He says you are Peter (Greek word “Petros” which means a chip off the old block, a piece of a rock, a rolling stone, a rock that you can throw from one place to another, a rock that can be rolled in the waves, it’s a small rock) but then he says “upon this rock (Greek word “Petra” which means a rock of immense proportions, you’re talking there about Half Dome, Prudential Rock, Straits of Gibraltar, the gates of Hercules, a rock of immense proportions). Jesus said “On this declaration that you’ve made, Peter, I am going to build my church.” Jesus is not building the church on the Apostle Peter. How do we know this? There are several ways we know this.
First of all, Peter did not interpret it that way. If you look in Peter’s writings, he said “Christ alone is the rock upon which we build the church”. (1 Peter 2:4-8) He never said “I am the rock upon which we build the church.” The other apostles were present that day. They all heard it. How did they interpret that statement? Did they interpret that statement that from now on, we’re going to bow down to Peter, he is going to be the rock upon which Jesus builds the church? No, right up to the very end, you see Matthew 24:28, Matthew 9:33, Luke 22:24-26, the disciples were all arguing among themselves which of them was the greatest. If Jesus had said Peter was going to be the greatest, then why would that happen? How did the Apostle Paul view it? Did he think that Peter was to be the new head of the church? No, Paul makes it pretty clear that the church actually had several pillars. He said Peter is a pillar and James is a pillar and John is a pillar and he said Jesus is the Cornerstone for the church. And Paul rebukes Peter for his hypocritical behavior when he was hanging out with the Jews in Asia. If you thought that Peter was a pillar upon which the church is resting, and Peter has been flawless and he doesn’t make a mistake (the Catholic Church believe because he retains the succession and authority of Peter, that when the Pope speaks “ex cathedra” that means “on the throne”, these are like the words of God and he can even overrule scripture), Peter didn’t do that. Paul didn’t view it that way. Even most of the early church fathers, even Augustine, whom the Catholics view as one of the great church fathers, viewed that word “Petra” upon which the church was built as talking about Christ, not Peter.
It’s only more recently in Catholic history that they began to adopt that position. Jesus actually said that Peter was unstable. He wouldn’t have built the church upon him. He said “Peter, your faith is on the verge of failing but I prayed for you that you are converted and your faith does not fail.” Will Jesus build his church on one of the Apostles he said was not even thoroughly converted until after the crucifixion?
If the Popes are the succession of the example of Peter, why don’t they marry? Peter was married. 1 Corinthians 9:5 “Do not we have a right to take along a believing wife as do the other Apostles, the brothers of the Lord and Peter?” Matthew 8:14 “When Jesus had come into Peter’s house, he saw his wife’s mother lying sick.” How can the Popes say they are following the example of Peter.
If you really want to know if there was one of the early Apostles that you would call the head of the church, it wasn’t Peter, it was not John, it was not Matthew, it was not Paul, it was probably James. Not James the brother of John but James the brother of Jesus. Acts 12:17 “And he said ‘Go, tell these things to James and the brethren.” James was often referred to as sort of the “chairman of the board” because of his age. He was Jesus’ brother. He was the patriarch in the church when it was still there in Jerusalem. Acts 15:13 “And after they had been silent, James answered, saying, ‘Men and brethren, listen to me’”. Acts 21:18 “On the following day, Paul went in with us to James and the elders were present.” Galatians 2:9 “And when James, Cephas (that was another term for Peter) and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given to me…” Always mentions James first.
I don’t think James is the one that the church is built on. The Bible is pretty clear the church is built on Jesus Christ. He is the foundation stone, not any man. Christ is the head of the church. In fact, the title of Pope was unknown to the Apostle Peter. It’s a term that has been rarely applied as the official title until the late 11th century. Moreover, no early Christians taught that the primacy supposedly had been given to Peter and then transmitted to successors. Hence, the German scholar Martin Handlier concluded that there is “No demonstrable historical and theological way to arrive at what later became papal primacy.”
Jesus unquestionably did build his church, his true congregation upon himself. (Ephesians 2:20) There’s a little evolution of how this papal primacy developed. 55 – 64 AD: The apostles and Peter write throughout the New Testament that the only foundation of the Christian congregation is Jesus. Stephen, the bishop of Rome, is one of the first ones who said that the Bishops of Rome are the successors of Peter but that was rejected by the other bishops during the same time. 296-304 AD: The first known inscription using the word “Papa” or “Pope”. T didn’t even appear until nearly 300 years after Christ. So there is not an unbroken succession for the Catholic church back to Jesus and the apostles. 1075 AD: Pope Gregory the 7th declared that the Pope is an exclusive title for the Bishop of Rome. By 1870, at the first Vatican Council, they declare that “the Roman pontiff is the successor of the Blessed Peter” and part of this was to combat the growing Protestant movement. They were saying “You don’t have to be a Catholic to be connected with the original primitive Church.” Catholics were saying “No, we hold the keys to the kingdom.”
Was Peter the first Pope? Categorically, you can say no. According to history, according to their own teachings, according to the Bible, Peter is not the first Pope. Neither is there a succession of Popes from Peter on to the present day. It’s not taught anywhere in the Bible. 1 Corinthians 3:9-11 “For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building. According to the grace of God which was given me, as a wise master builder, I have laid the foundation and others build on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” Christ is the Petra upon which the church is built. He is the Messiah that Peter the Petros has talked about and that’s what Jesus was saying.