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Upon this rock I will build my church

Q. When Jesus told Peter "Upon this rock I will build my church," is Jesus the rock or is Peter?

The passage being referred to is Matthew 16:18 and it is Jesus who promises to do the building on the rock which is Peter. To better understand what is being said, let's look at the verse in its larger context.

"When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?' They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.' ‘But what about you?' he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?' Simon Peter answered, ‘you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.' Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter (Peter means rock) And On This Rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades (hell) will not overcome it (not prove stronger than it). I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be (have been) bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be (have been) loosed in heaven.'" [Matthew 16:13-19, NIV (parenthesis contain footnoted interpretations from NIV text)]

"Christ" means "anointed one." At the time of Jesus, the term "anointed one" had become synonymous with "king." By declaring Jesus to be the "Son of the living God," Simon has directed attention away from kingship (who would lead the people to victory on earth and liberate them from the Romans) to his divine relationship with God. This is the revelation to which Jesus refers when he says "this was not revealed to you by man . . . " Peter had just shown that God the Father is using him as an instrument of His revelation.

Only in this place in the four gospels is Simon identified as "son of Jonah"; in the two other occurrences where his father is identified, he is identified as John (John 1:42 and 21:15-17). Jesus has just used the title "Son of Man" for himself, which means "one like a man"; could it be that Jesus is saying that Simon is to be "one like Jonah?" Jonah was the one who preached the impending destruction of Nineveh and effected the repentance of the people. This was an early type of the role which Peter was to play in the Church, leading people to reconciliation with God.

"Peter" means "rock" as the footnote indicates. The Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke) word is kepha which is transliterated in some texts as "Cephas" (John 1:42; 1 Corinthians; Galatians). Some will argue that the Greek text of Matthew has petros (pebble) for "Peter" and petras (large rock) for "rock" but this is inconsequential. In the time of Jesus the two words were used interchangeably, the distinction being that petras is the feminine form of the word and as such it is not applied to a male. Christianity has enough problems without inferring Peter was effeminate. Since Jesus spoke Aramaic and kepha is not gender specific, the word play is obvious, unlike the English where "Peter" is substituted for "rock." This name

change is very significant because no one had ever been named "rock" before; it's like naming the anchor man on your tug-of-war team "post"; it signifies what he is to do.

In the four gospels, the Greek word ekklesia, translated here as "church" appears only twice; here and in Matthew 18:17:

"If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or tax collector." (NIV)

From this, it is clear that the term ekklesia applies to the visible gathering of the community of Christians.

From the above discussion, it is clear that it is Jesus who was promising to establish a visible Church on earth with Peter, the Rock, as its visible earthly anchor. The Church was not to be established on Peter's faith, which we know faltered when he denied Jesus 3 times, but upon Peter the individual who was leader of the Apostles and an instrument of the Father's revelation. As it says in Ephesians 2:20:

"Built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone" (NIV).

Although this answers the question, let's look at the rest of the scripture passage from Matthew 16:

"the gates of Hades will not overcome it" means, very simply, that death will not overtake the Church. Hades, translated in the footnote as "Hell" was the abode of the dead, Abraham's bosom. It was the place where all departed souls went after their earthly life because heaven was not yet open (this event happened with Jesus' death on the cross). When Peter died, the role of leader would be taken by another; the office would not cease when the occupant died. This means that there will always be a visible head who, like Peter, will be an instrument of the Father's revelation and guidance; Satan will not be able to expropriate the office because it is divinely protected. This type of perpetual office is not foreign to the Holy Scriptures: Isaiah 22:19-21 describes the replacement of Shebna with Eliakim as the head of the palace of the house of David; and Acts 1:20 describes where Peter, as head of the Apostles, calls for a replacement for the position which had been occupied by Judas Iscariot ["his bishopric let another take" (KJV)].

The "keys of the kingdom of heaven" are the symbol of authority given only to the most trusted servant. Again, this is not an image which is foreign to Holy Scripture: It is used in Isaiah 22:22 where Eliakim is given the key to the house of David (a perpetual office since David has been dead for several hundred years), and in Revelation 1:18 where Jesus, who will judge us, is depicted as holding the keys of death and Hades.

Finally, the "binding" and "loosing." Very simply put, he who has the ability to bind and

loose, has the ability to make the rules. As the visible head of the Church on earth, Peter is given the ability to make the earthly rules for the operation of this Church. This doesn't mean that he can change the rules that we have received from God (such as the ten commandments and all the others contained in Holy Scripture) but he can make such determinations as the length of the fast before receiving communion and whether priests should be allowed to marry. This binding and loosing also has an Old Testament parallel in Isaiah 22:22 where Eliakim, having received the keys, has the power of the keys explained "what he opens, no one can shut, and what he shuts, no one can open." This means that Eliakim alone among the servants has the ability to determine who is admitted and who is excluded from the house (kingdom) of David. The authority to "bind and loose" is also given to the Apostles in Matthew 18:18, with one significant difference: Only Peter has been given the "keys," the symbol of ultimate authority.

Recommended reading:

  • ●  Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 440, 442-443, 552-553, 765, 881, 1444

  • ●  Jaki, Stanley L., And On This Rock, Trinity Communications, Manassas, VA, 1987, pages 71-92

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