Was Peter the First Pope?

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This is one of the best known religious symbols in the world today. It’s something you’ll see quite often on your travels to many of the churches in the world. It’s the crossed keys of the Roman Catholic Church.

If you speak to a Catholic and ask them what they represent, they will tell you they are the keys which are known as St. Peter’s keys and are the keys to heaven and hell which Jesus gave to Peter so that he may control who went to heaven and who would be condemned to hell. It is also according to tradition that St. Peter became the first bishop of Rome and the first Pope and Peter then through the Papal authority was able to pass on the authority in these matters to subsequent Popes and Pope Benedict XVI has just stepped down as the 265th Pope in Roman Catholic history.

What we would like to do is examine exactly was these keys represent in light of the Bible and whether this meant that the keys were given to Peter or to various other people and what they mean for us today.

As a background to this subject we would like you to read Matthew 16. This is the account of when Jesus came into Caesarea Philippi and asked some of the people who they thought he was. Some thought he was John the Baptist, others thought he was Elijah, some Jeremiah or some other prophet of God. So Jesus turns to Simon Peter and asks him who he thought he was. Peter didn’t simply answer by calling Jesus by his name, but answers something very profound. He says, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God”. Jesus was quite astounded by his answer and we read his reply in v17-19.

And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! 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 gates of hell 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.” (Mat 16:17-19)

We have in these verses somewhat of a confusing passage for many people. On the surface reading we have this idea of somebody or something being called a rock, and an idea of binding and loosing that we want to look at carefully.

If we asked a Catholic what these verses meant he or she would attest that Jesus is saying here that the church is founded on the rock of St. Peter and he has given him the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and as such the Bishop of Rome has the authority to excommunicate you from the church and thereby exclude you from heaven.

What we want to do is analyze these verses to make sure that we are extracting the proper understanding from the Bible, as we are reminded in Proverbs…

It is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honour of kings is to search out a matter. (Pro 25:2)

We will look at the original text to see what these ideas mean and sometimes it isn’t as clear as it would first seem. Sometimes God makes things that aren’t quite as straightforward as we would like but will become clear to the serious Bible student.

Firstly we should always look at things in context, never taking a passage of scripture in isolation because it’s all too easy to come to the wrong understanding. Here we can see in Matthew 16 that Peter has declared Jesus to be the Son of God, but upon what rock is Jesus referring to when he answers Peter? Let’s look at some other scripture to see if we can get a better sense of what Jesus is talking about and we can come to a fuller appreciation of the passage if we turn back to the Old Testament and look at how this word is used elsewhere. We’ll then see that in fact Jesus is the rock of salvation and the foundation of the church and not Peter.

“Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a spring; his branches run over the wall. The archers bitterly attacked him, shot at him, and harassed him severely, yet his bow remained unmoved; his arms were made agile by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob (from there is the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel), (Gen 49:22-24)

So we have this allusion to a shepherd and a stone of Israel here. What is this prophecy telling us? Who is referred to as the shepherd and the stone of Israel? We’re going to see now that this is a clear prophecy that Jesus would come from the line of Jacob himself, pointing forward to Christ being this shepherd and this stone of Israel to come.

Next we read of the account of Moses with the children of Israel.

Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. (Exo 17:6)

We can add a little bit more to this with a passage from Numbers.

Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. (Num 20:10-11)

From the surface reading it sounds like a really fanciful story about Moses and Aaron having this rock that followed them that they struck twice and water came out of it. We can read further into this record as we can see that the command was to strike the rock once and because that rock is representative of Christ, and he would die for our sins, being smitten only once for it. If we have any trouble unravelling that we can easily turn to 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 leaving us in no doubt who the rock is.

For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. (1Co 10:1-4)

This is also the way that the Psalmist foresaw the coming of Christ, being laid as the foundation stone of the church. There are many allusions in the Old Testament that point forward to the time when Christ would come. He was to be rejected and crucified by the Jewish establishment when he came for the first time. So according to them the rock of salvation and the foundation stone of the church was to be Jesus.

In John 1:42 we have another piece to our puzzle that we can use to reveal the bigger picture.

He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter). (Joh 1:42)

Jesus calls on a fisherman known locally as Simon to be one of his disciples, he then gives him another name which in Greek is petros, which is translated as Cephas in the KJV. The name actually means a small stone or pebble, it’s different to a similar word that we can look up in our lexicons, petra, which gives us more of the sense of a rock, an unmovable foundation stone, a boulder. So with this in mind let’s go back to Matthew 16:18

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Mat 16:18)

Jesus is saying here, you are Peter (a small pebble or petros) but on this rock (petra) I will build my church, and that rock is Christ, that’s where Christ’s church will be founded, not Peter’s church and that’s why the grave cannot prevail against it for Christ will be raised from the dead. So why do we also read that the church is based on the truth that salvation can come to the world through the work of the Son of God? Jesus outlines his commission, the commission that he was giving to Peter, and so during his ministry Jesus taught Peter (and of course the other disciples) what the key elements were in God’s plan, whereby man would have the opportunity to participate in the coming kingdom of heaven on earth. So these keys as we are going to see now will be a commissioning of this foundation verse we are looking at here in Matthew 16.

What we learn is that a knowledge of God’s purpose with man and an obedient response to it is required. It is this knowledge that has been both perverted by many religious establishments and prevented from reaching the ordinary people and this isn’t just in our days. Remember the words from Jesus in Luke 11:52, where he says…

Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.” (Luk 11:52)

So we have a problem back in Christ’s day, with those that were going round distorting the word of God and Christ condemns that and he says you are taking away the key of knowledge from those trying to grasp it and preventing them from learning it, you are hindering the rock and the truth, and so he’s going to condemn them now but the way is going to be open for those that are truly seeking as we shall see now.

So we have some problems with some of the people of the day, not only the lawyers, but the Pharisees and the Sadducees and it was the Sadducees who were of the sect that did not believe in the resurrection from the dead and Christ goes on to say in Matthew 22:29

But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. (Mat 22:29)

So there is much condemnation of many of the ruling powers of the day, and so Christ in his ministry had the job of also putting down a lot those with false beliefs. What we’re going to look at now is the what these two keys are that are spoken of, that Peter was supposedly given here in the Matthew 16 account, and what they represent to us.

For those of you familiar with Acts 2, you’ll remember that in v22-38, Peter delivered his Pentecost address to the people of Israel, providing them with essential knowledge that gave them the key to unlocking the grave of eternal death and enabling faithful believers to rise from the dead. So there were two keys here. Why are there two keys? Why not one, why not five? Specifically there are things shown in the numbers of the Bible and here we have two keys. The first key was used in giving the knowledge of salvation to the Jews, and this is in accordance with the principle that Peter had outlined earlier and Peter specifically says to the Jew first and then to the Gentile. It is suggested that there was a seven year gap before Peter turned his attention to the Gentiles, so we appreciate to the Jews first, and second to the Gentiles. So then for a second time he uses the key knowledge of how to obtain salvation to preach to them. First he speaks to an important Italian official, and then we remember in Acts 10 he tells how all those other Gentiles who were present there, the hope of the gospel.

Well, of course what we might ask about these keys is, was Peter the only apostle who had the key knowledge to preach salvation? Was he the only person who had this? That’s a fundamental understanding that we need to have, was he the first Pope and the only person who had this opportunity? Let’s look at John 20 to start with and we’ll see some verses that answer this for us and we’ll see that many apostles had the keys as well.

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (Joh 20:19-23)

That idea of giving and withholding forgiveness is in the same phraseology as the binding and the loosing that we saw in Matthew 16. We see here how Jesus appears to his disciples and gives them great power to preach the gospel of salvation. Peter would start sharing his knowledge with the elders of many other churches.

And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. (Act 14:27)

We hear of these others that had the opening of the doors to the Gentiles.

Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written, “‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, (Act 15:14-16)

So how appropriate that Peter and the other apostles have been given two keys, one for the Jews and one for the Gentiles, whom he also refers to as the residue of men.

Let’s go back to our chapter in Matthew 16 and pick up some other points regarding the binding and the loosing that’s shown in v19. What is this binding and loosing? And what does it mean to be bound or loosed?

If we look into some historical records, particularly with some of the early church fathers, that binding and loosing has been interpreted in many different ways. Some of the early church figures had the authority of the church to excommunicate individuals from the church or reinstate individuals as a form of disciplinary action. This is known as the sacramentalism, those who hold to certain sacraments in their church such as baptism, communion, last rites, etc. They had the authority of the church to administer the sacraments, or withhold them from professing believers. This in their minds either gives the person forgiveness of sins or bars them from forgiveness, since they believe the sacraments have the power to transfer the grace of God.

Martin Luther taught that binding and loosing had to do with the churches authority of the forgiving or retaining of sins. We see a common element in the churches today, but we see quite a difference in them too. The Catholic Church believes much the same things, but believe only the priests and bishops have the authority, whereas Luther believed that all Christians had the authority. We see quite a variation of ideas in many of the religions.

If we look at the word cardinal, and this is a word we see and hear all the time, we’ll see that this comes from the Latin, the language of the Roman Catholic Church, which the Pope still uses in his addresses. The word comes from the Latin word ‘cargo’, and means ‘hinge’. The adjective cardinal means pertaining to the hinge, so it’s upon the hinge the opening and the closing of these doors depend, and so in the Catholic Church therefore the cardinals are the key hinges upon which the opening and closing of the doors to membership of the church and therefore heaven and hell depend. The idea of the hinge is also to be found in the construction of ancient Roman cities. The main street was known as the ‘cargo’, the hinge round which the life in the city was centred and dependent upon. With the birth of the Roman Catholic power in the middle ages, there came a growth in the number of cardinals. In AD 1193 there were six cardinals, in 1963 Pope John XXIII had the support of no fewer than 23 cardinals. Today there are no fewer than 160 cardinals.

These cardinals can elect the next Pope and acting as the ecclesiastical hinges they control the doorway of God for the ordinary man. This idea is also borrowed from a pagan source, and in the Roman empire we may ask ourselves who was the god of the doorway? The answer is Janus. This Janus was the Roman god who was supposed to keep the gate of heaven, the guardian of the gates and the doors. The crossed keys were originally a symbol of Janus. Janus is also represented by two faces, the old and the young, one facing forwards, the other facing backwards. Many symbols in Christianity have been borrowed from paganism.

The words translated as bind and loose are from the Greek words ‘deo’ and ‘luo’. This was the Jewish formula for excommunication and reinstatement. Peter was therefore given authority to bind and deny, or loose and allow entrance based on someone’s confession of faith.

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (Act 2:38-41)

We can go further into Acts and see Cornelius’ household, and because of their faith we see a similar scenario as we do here.

The Jewish leaders in Acts 3 and Simon the Sorcerer in Acts 8 were barred access because of their unbelief and impure hearts. Look at the example of unbelief in Acts 8.

Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! (Act 8:18-20)

This is the occasion when the apostles were giving out the Holy Spirit and Simon thought he would be able to buy it from the apostles. So we see Peter laying down the law, as it were, and what we are to understand is that being bound or loosed did not begin with Peter, or anyone else for that matter, they are an initiative of heaven. It comes from God and Peter is reinstating that initiative.

As we look at Matthew 18 we see that the authority was not given to Peter alone. Jesus wasn’t giving Peter and the church of the day authority to arbitrarily allow some into the kingdom of heaven and forbid others, what Peter was doing was pronouncing those who were already admitted because of their faith in Jesus, and denouncing those the Father had already barred because of their unbelief. Matthew 18:18 has a similar meaning to Matthew 16:19.

Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Mat 18:18)

So we have this phraseology again. Here it has to do with the disciplinary action of this sinning brother as the context shows us in Matt 18:15-17. The brother is forced to repent after going through the correct preliminary procedures by the church binding him, and if he is repentant the church is to loose him again. This practice of excommunication happens in churches today. However, God would not consider a person excommunicated just because they were excommunicated by the church. That power has not been given to the individual in that way. Neither will God reinstate the non-repentant believer just because the church has decided to reinstate him.

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (Joh 20:23)

This speaks of remitting and retaining instead of the binding and the loosing, but we see that forgiveness of sins is a prerogative of which man has no part and there are plenty of other verses that show this principle too.

If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared. (Psa 130:3-4)

It is not man’s prerogative to forgive or condemn, it is the prerogative of the divine. Jesus was given the authority to pronounce forgiven those who had already been forgiven by the Father in heaven because of their faith in Christ and their repentance, and to retain the sins of those the Father had retained because of unbelief and lack of repentance. It was pronouncing a divine initiative that had already been settled previously.

So to summarise…

There is no Biblical evidence to any of the claims that Peter was the first Pope.

The Church was to be built upon the foundation of Christ, not Peter.

The key is the knowledge of salvation and was not unique to Peter as others shared it as well.

The knowledge of salvation is the key which opens the door of faith.

The two keys represent the preaching, first to the Jews and secondly to the Gentiles.

We hope that you have been encouraged to look deeper into this subject for yourself. What we have spoken of offers great hope to the Jews and the Gentiles, a great hope of salvation. It is a saving truth for all those willing to learn of God’s plan and purpose for this earth and mankind.

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