The text of 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”—appears inside the Archbasilica of St. Peter in a marvelous mosaic right where the pope exercises his office, because this biblical text is considered the cornerstone of the papacy. It is difficult, however, to see the connection between it and the papacy with its succession of the Petrine ministry to subsequent generations (which Jesus does not teach here), the fundamental importance attributed to the See of Rome (which is not mentioned here), and the imperial form that the papacy took (which is not implied in the text).
As Jesus was approaching His death, He asked His disciples who they believed Him to be. At this point, Peter famously replied: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 16). These words, however, did not originate with Peter himself. Jesus promptly replied that they came from a revelation of God (v. 17). There is nothing inherently Petrine in Peter’s confession. It was God who revealed it, and Peter spoke it.
The church, the community of Jesus’ disciples, would be built on the truth (the rock) that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus underlined the fact that His church would be built in such a way. It is not the Petrine church; it is the church of Jesus, founded by Jesus the Messiah. “I will build my church,” Jesus said. Jesus is the Founder and the Builder of the church, whereas Peter was a witness, a special spokesman of this divine truth that was revealed to him by God. Moreover, there is no indication that Peter would have successors who would take his place.
In amplifying Peter’s confession, Jesus said that He would give Peter the keys of the kingdom (v. 19). In referring to the “keys,” Jesus was quoting Isaiah 22:22, wherein Shebna, King Hezekiah’s steward, was about to be replaced by Eliakim, into whose hands the keys of the house of David would be placed. Opening and closing doors with keys was the subordinate role of the steward on behalf of his king. It was not a self-referential, absolute power in and of itself. It was not something that the steward could do as if he were the king. So, by receiving the keys of the kingdom, Peter would be a servant of God the King, who would use him as a steward of the church that Jesus would build. “Binding and loosing” is another expression that Jesus used to define what Peter would be called to do (Matt. 16:19). It is a Jewish saying that implies the exercise of discernment (forbidding and permitting) that leads to decision. In fact, Peter would be part of various decision-making processes in the church’s development that would affect the life of the community of Jesus.
Matthew 16 can be seen as the biblical basis for the papacy only if the doctrine of the papacy has already been established apart from Scripture and then subsequently and retrospectively read into it.