Why Did Jesus Change Simon's Name to Peter, The Rock? — The Exalted Christ (2023)

In all three synoptic Gospels — Matthew, Mark, & Luke — we read that Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter, or “Rock.” Many wonder why Christ did this and then seemingly said He would build His church upon Peter. I’ve heard several different explanations. Some say it was because Jesus was closest with Peter. Others say it was because Jesus knew Peter would go on to be a pillar of the faith. Yet, Jesus was close with the other disciples, too, and the other disciples faithfully testified of Christ just like Peter. To truly understand why Jesus said this to Peter, context is key.

So, why did Jesus name Peter “The Rock”? Matthew 10:2, Mark 3:16, and Luke 6:14 all record that Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter. The literal meaning of the name Peter (Petros) is stone, boulder, or rock. In Matthew 16, we get the explanation of why. Jesus asked His disciples (not just Peter) a question about who people think that Jesus is (Matthew 16:13). The disciples listed different opinions that have been circulating. Some think Jesus is a prophet. Some think Jesus is Elijah reincarnated. Jesus responds by saying, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter then says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus responds, “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” Careful analysis of the context demonstrates what Jesus is really teaching. While Peter’s name means rock, it is actually Peter’s confession about who Jesus is (Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God) that Jesus will build His church upon. Jesus Himself is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Christ declares that He will build His church upon the same confession that Peter made in Matthew 16:16 of properly identifying Jesus.

Jesus was not establishing Peter as the first pope. Despite the differing opinions you may hear on this passage, how can we know for sure that Jesus is referring to Peter’s confession and not Peter himself? And even so, isn’t Peter still considered one of the most influential persons in Christianity? Let’s examine these additional questions in greater detail.

If we’re attempting to prove a doctrinal position, we can simply collect our proof-texts and quote them without analysis. However, if we want to truly understand what the text teaches, we must pay careful attention to the details. This is certainly true for understanding the context of Matthew 16. The fruit of proof-texting is division, not unity. Such practice should, therefore, be rejected. By humbling ourselves before God’s word we can take steps toward a unified understanding, since we’ll all have to give up at least some of our preconceived ideas.

This narrative section begins with Jesus asking a question about His identity (Matthew 16:13): Who do people say that the Son of Man is?

Jesus hears the differing responses. Then He asks a follow-up question (Matthew 16:15): But who do you say that I am?

When Peter rightly identifies Jesus, Jesus then rightly identifies Peter.

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

(Video) God's Story: Peter

And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” (Matthew 16:16–18)

The entire context is about proper identification. It is the person and identity of Christ that is being lifted up here. Although many have positive views about Jesus, Peter expresses the correct view. This correct view was loftier than the other views being expressed. To think that Jesus is here exalting Peter is to insert something that is foreign and contrary to the text. The only person being lifted up here is Christ.

An examination of the Greek grammar (in which this Gospel was originally written) makes this even clearer. For some this might be boring. But it is absolutely critical to a proper understanding.

Jesus uses a word play between Peter’s name and the rock upon which He will build His church.

“I also say to you that you are Peter [Petros, masculine], and upon this rock [petra, feminine] I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” (Matthew 16:18)

These different forms in the Greek are not conclusive on their own. The difference is not without significance, however.

The masculine form is more appropriate for the name of Peter, a man. However, the masculine form of the noun is often used with the nuance of being a smaller, moveable, or isolated stone, while the feminine form is often used as a foundational rock structure (like where Christ’s tomb was cut out from in Matthew 27:60). Some deny this differing nuance, yet there is no escaping the intentional use of different forms of the same noun in this passage.

I realize the grammar is not that exciting for everyone. But stick with me here. It’s important.

The pronoun used (“this”) is feminine in form so it must relate to the foundation (petra) and not directly to Peter (Petros). Additionally, the type of pronoun used is a near demonstrative. If the person, Peter, were what this pronoun referred to, we would expect a personal or relative pronoun instead. That is, we’d expect the translation to read something like this: “I also say to you that you are Peter, upon whom (or, upon you) I will build My church.” But this is not what we read.

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The near demonstrative is not pointing to a person but to something else in the immediate context. The petra foundation is not Petros. Instead, the petra foundation is the confession that Peter made of Jesus being the Christ, the Son of the living God.

As an Apostle, Peter had a very distinct role in the church. But what is the church? (Click here to read our related article: Why Did Jesus Establish the Church?)

If you ask people what the church is, many will respond by saying it’s the building where people gather on Sunday mornings. However, that is not how the church is defined in the Bible. The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians provides a deep look into the church. As the Apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 1, the church is the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:22–23). It is not the physical building. It is the people of God who have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation through belief in Christ.

Merely sitting in the church building does not make one a Christian. You must be redeemed through repentance and faith. You must be in Christ, part of His body. Otherwise, you are just an outsider who gathers with the church but is not part of the church.

Paul goes on regarding the church in Ephesians:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household,having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone,in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord,in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19–22)

When a person is redeemed by the blood of Jesus, through repentance and faith in Christ, he/she is no longer an outsider (alien and stranger) but now is a part of God’s household, His church. His church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. Those are both plurals. That is, it wasn’t just Peter.

The prophets were messengers of God speaking His Word and proclaiming that God was going to put forth His Messiah, Jesus, so that all who believe in Him would receive forgiveness of sins and be reconciled to the Father through Christ. Christ came, fulfilling God’s word spoken by the prophets concerning Him as proof that He is the Messiah.

The Apostles, also part of the foundation, proclaimed the excellencies of Jesus Christ as they bore witness to the ends of the earth that Jesus is the Promised Messiah. Their faithful testimony resulted in many repenting and putting their faith in Jesus. But, the very corner stone, the rock on which the church is being built is Jesus Christ. All who believe this testimony in truth — not just believing something about Jesus, but truly believing in Him as He has revealed Himself — become part of His church.

(Video) Pastor Jon Bitner - Simon Peter the Rock - 230129SU-L1 | Old Time Baptist Church

The prophets spoke of the coming Messiah. The Apostles spoke of the Messiah who has come. Both were pointing people to repent and follow the same One: Jesus Christ, the corner stone on which the church is being built, the Son of the living God.

In Ephesians 4, the Apostle Paul writes:

And He [Christ] gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11–13)

Jesus has provided all that is necessary for His church to be built. He, as the corner stone, gave the apostles and prophets as the foundation. And, He has also given some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers for building upon the foundation. All of these leaders work under the authority of Jesus Christ for equipping the saints so that they can all perform the work Jesus gives the body to do; edify the fellow members of the body and evangelize the world.

(For more on the purpose of the church and the leadership Christ gave, check out our books!)

Pay careful attention, though. This is ongoing work that has a purpose: maturity. The members of Christ’s church are expected to grow in their knowledge of who Jesus Christ is. They are expected to grow in their ability to edify one another and faithfully live as His witnesses with the purpose of actively participating in the evangelization of the world. Christians are not merely spectators, they are participants. The gathering of the church isn’t for entertainment; it is for worship, for edification, and for preparation.

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It is true that the Apostle Peter was one of the most influential persons in Christianity. We must never forget that or try to diminish his importance. He had a distinct role in the church. He faithfully carried out that role. He wasn’t perfect. Nonetheless, he was part of the foundation.

However, Peter wasn’t the rock. Jesus Christ Himself is the corner stone. Christ is building His church through all who rightly confess that Jesus is the Christ. He has provided everything necessary for His church to carry out His purposes for it. And, it is because Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

What is your role in the church? Are you equipped to edify the fellow members of the body and proclaim the Gospel to the lost?

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Get equipped. Obey your King. Glorify your God.

Was Peter at the crucifixion? We read of Peter denying Christ during His trial. Afterward, Peter leaves weeping, deeply grieved. We do not read of Peter again until after Christ is risen. While Scripture is not explicit on whether or not Peter was present at the crucifixion, the implication is that he was not.

Why does Jesus change Paul’s name? The Bible never actually teaches that Jesus changed Paul’s name. In Acts 13:9, we read that Saul was also known as Paul. Many are given a new name in the Bible. In this case, Paul had both a Jewish (Saul) and a Roman (Paul) name. After his conversion, he primarily went by Paul as he was the Apostle to the Gentiles.


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