The Rock

Various Views of the Rock

Many Christians, since before the time of the Great Church Councils of the 4th Century, have believed that Jesus has built the Church on Peter’s ministry. Some Protestants, Baptists particularly, believe Christ’s Church is built on Peter’s confession. Other Protestants believe “the rock” upon which the Church is built is Jesus since the bible speaks of Christ as the cornerstone of a house (temple) with the foundation as the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2.20). Various scriptures affirm that the Church, both collectively, and each member individually, is certainly a temple for the dwelling of God by the Spirit. However, a distinction needs to be observed when speaking of the Church as a whole constituting a body. There is “one body,” not many bodies (Eph. 4.4). This “body” is the universal church as an entity by itself. There is only one church comprised of all who are Christ’s. It is the one people of God for whom Christ died as reflected in Jn. 11.52: and not for the Jewish nation only, but to gather together into one the children of God who are scattered (NET). There is a singular people redeemed by God on the basis of Christ’s death which includes all persons since the time of the first redeemed individuals: Adam and Eve. God covered their nakedness with animal skins which typified atonement. The term “church,” I believe, can refer to all the redeemed from every age.

Peter or Other Apostles are not the Rock

Therefore, if my view is correct, the Church cannot be built on Peter. If we examine the New Testament in its historical account of the Church’s establishment, the majority of its writings, and, its influence and authority, then Peter is not the rock. Without a doubt Peter was tremendously influential in the initial preaching and leadership. It was to Peter that God revealed that Gentiles were cleansed by faith and had equal status with Jews (see Acts 10). Yet, the pastor of the Jerusalem church was James the Just, not Peter. Peter was the apostle to the Jews. Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles who dominated the Church’s numbers by the end of the first century. Additionally, Peter needed rebuking for separating himself from Gentile believers in Antioch (see Gal. 2.11-21). Paul was the best candidate of anyone whose ministry built the Church. However, I hope to demonstrate that Christ is building His Church on something much sturdier than fallible humans.

Definitively, the N.T. does not present the concept of Christ building upon any human individual. Of course, Christ appeared to Paul and commissioned him as well as all the apostles. Additionally, the Spirit worked through these persons in mighty ways and many turned to the Lord with churches being established throughout the Roman Empire. In a period of a few hundred years, the whole Greco-Roman world was altered in such a way that most people abandoned their pagan gods, and, at least nominally, became Christians.

The New Covenant Promises a Personal Relationship

If Jesus were building His Church on human individuals, then, conceptually, He would be starting an organization. This is exactly the idea of the Orthodox Church with its apostolic succession and the Roman Catholic Church with its popes. However, the New Testament uses terms such as “body” and “living stones” to describe the Church. Christ is establishing an organism, not primarily an organization. The promise of a New Covenant provided the feature of everyone personally knowing the Lord: And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord (Jer. 31.34 ESV). This “knowing” is accomplished by the gift of the Spirit, which is sometimes called an “anointing” which every Christian possesses: Nevertheless you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you all know (1Jn. 2.20 NET). Further, John tells us that this anointing teaches believers directly as promised in Jeremiah’s prophecy: Now as for you, the anointing that you received from him resides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, it is true and is not a lie. Just as it has taught you, you reside in him (1Jn. 2.27 NET).

These “neighbors” and “brothers” of Jer. 31.34 refer to the Tribe of Levi with its Aaronic Priesthood. Aaron’s descendants were the only legitimate priests during the Old Covenant and the Levites functioned as instructors among the people of Israel. The Levites didn’t have any territory in Israel, only cities scattered throughout the other tribes which facilitated their ministry among the people. However, the New Covenant would feature a New High Priesthood where direct access to God was available through Christ: We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 6.19-20 NIV). The Sons of Aaron under the Old Covenant served in a pattern of the heavenly reality. New Covenant believers access the heavenly temple through Christ. Every Christian is a priest in this New Order.

By examining the context of Mt. 16. 13-19, it becomes apparent to what the antecedent of the rock (petra) refers. Here is the section with the bracketed Greek terms:

When Jesus came to the area of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They answered, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “You are blessed, Simon son of Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven! And I tell you that you are Peter [petros], and on this rock [petra] I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven.” (Mt. 16. 13-19 NET)

Jesus as Builder (Carpenter)

Jesus has just changed Simon’s name to “Peter.” The Greek term is “petros,” meaning a small stone such as could be used to build common dwellings in Israel of that day. Before Jesus embarked on His ministry He was known as a carpenter (Mk.6.3). This trade involved constructing houses by using locally acquired stones. This was Jesus’ most likely profession since the term “carpenter” in the New Testament refers both to woodworkers and stone masons.

No wooden building existed (or extremely few) in first century Israel. The risk of fire and scarcity of wood forced them to use the widely available stones. This material offered good insulation in both summer and winter. However, wooden doors, windows with their casements were generally required in these stone dwellings. Also, wood paneling probably adorned wealthy houses. Of course, wooden items such as furniture and utensils were commonly used in everyday life. Both masons and carpenters use the same techniques such as a plumb line which could be made with ordinary string and a large pebble. A stretched line also determined straightness in construction. Hammers and mallets were used in both trades. It is impossible to know exactly what trade Jesus performed prior to His ministry (probably with Joseph initially – Mt. 13.55). I personally think it was a stone mason constructing buildings of the common people of Galilee, observant Jews. This would be both ironic and a sort of wordplay: “the carpenter” building the Church.

Peter “petros”- a Small Stone

Jesus is using figurative speech both in renaming Simon and using “petra” upon which He builds His Church. I examine the use of “petros” (Peter) first since the second usage “petra” will be more involved. Simon Peter writes his first epistle referencing Christians as spiritual stones, a figurative idea: you yourselves, as living stones, are built up as a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood and to offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1Pet. 2.5 NET). Although Peter doesn’t use the same Greek term as in Matthew, the concept is the same. After all, he doesn’t want to call them living petros since that would confuse his audience into thinking they belong to him, and not Jesus. Jesus changed Simon’s name to indicate him as an integral individual of the Church which He is building.

The Bedrock “petra” as a Foundation

Continuing with the Greek term “rock” (petra), the second instance of the term in the verse is a feminine form which indicates “bedrock” according to the contextual usage. The Koine Greek in which the New Testament was written needs to be interpreted from its context which is different from English in which the terms by themselves indicate the concept. The second usage cannot naturally refer back to Peter, since, in that case, Jesus would be confusing Simon’s name from an ordinary small stone as opposed to a foundation. These are two different ideas. Someone may argue that Matthew’s Gospel was originally written in Aramaic, with which I would agree, since Matthew is witnessed in 2nd Century Christian literature as written, initially, to a Jewish audience in Israel.  It needs to be noted, however, that the bible was preserved and inspired in Koine Greek. The translator clearly used “petra” as the second term denoting the bedrock upon which the Church is built. It makes no sense for Jesus to change Simon’s name twice in the space of two phrases. It is difficult to think how the terms could form a wordplay referring to the same person.

The Father’s Revelation to Peter is the Bedrock Upon Which the Church is Built

Jesus will build His Church upon bedrock (petra). Finding the antecedent to this figurative usage gives theological clarity of this most important statement by Jesus. Examining the earlier context provides the use of the figure of speech as the Father’s revelation to Simon son of Jonah. Jesus indicated that Simon was blessed because of this insight. Therefore, it is not the confession which Jesus builds upon, since many may repeat Peter’s confession but actually are not genuine Christians. Those with merely an empty confession would not belong to Christ. Here, Jesus is speaking about what He is building effectively, which is authentic believers comprising the Church. Jesus is certainly the Cornerstone of God’s temple but the concept in Matthew is the bedrock of revelation by the Father.

The Theological Concept as Developed in John’s Gospel

John’s Gospel contains many discourses which the Synoptic Gospels omit. The disciple John was particularly close to Jesus’ teachings as part of the inner circle along with his older brother and Peter. John was always mentioned in the synoptic listings of disciples after his brother James. Therefore, it is believed that he was younger and that Jesus taught John before he could develop the typically wrong ingrained theological thinking which characterized the older disciples. The others had to relearn popular Messianic concepts to correct their understanding of Jesus’ mission as Redeemer instead of the expectation that was current in 1st Century Israel. All the people, and especially Israel’s religious leaders, were hoping for a warrior messiah to free them from Rome’s oppressive rule. The Law, Writings, and Prophets did promise such a conquering deliverer, but, in other instances, a suffering servant is pictured, one who would vicariously be a substitute for the people. This depiction of substitute in the O.T. was cryptically veiled in order for events to fulfill themselves in mysterious ways. The evil powers worked out their sinister will to show where their affections resided: None of the rulers of this age understood it. If they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1Cor. 2.8 NET). Yet, it was God’s design and will for Christ to die since humanity’s redemption was accomplished by God’s great love for us: this man, who was handed over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you executed by nailing him to a cross at the hands of Gentiles (Acts 2.23 NET).

John, unlike any of the Synoptic Gospels, develops this theme of the Father’s role in redemption as highlighted both in Jesus’ discourses and prayer. Here is a list of seven instances where Jesus explicitly cites the Father’s action in bringing believers to personal knowledge of who Jesus was just like the revelation given to Peter in Mt. 16.17:

Everyone whom the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will never send away. (Jn. 6.37 NET)

Now this is the will of the one who sent me—that I should not lose one person of every one he has given me, but raise them all up at the last day. (Jn. 6.39 NET)

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who hears and learns from the Father comes to me. (Jn. 6.44-45 NET)

Glorify your Son, so that your Son may glorify you—just as you have given him authority over all humanity, so that he may give eternal life to everyone you have given him. (Jn. 17.1-2 NET)

I have revealed your name to the men you gave me out of the world. They belonged to you, and you gave them to me, and they have obeyed your word. (Jn. 17.6 NET)

I am praying on behalf of them. I am not praying on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those you have given me, because they belong to you. (Jn. 17.9 NET)

Father, the ones you have given me, I want these to be where I am with me, so that they can see my glory that you gave me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. (Jn. 17.24 literal Greek)

The Keys Given to All the Disciples

However, some may not be convinced with these arguments and point to Mt. 16.19 where Jesus promises the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven to Peter in relation to Peter’s status. This is the common misconception of what occurs after a person’s death when they expect to meet Peter standing at heaven’s gate since he supposedly holds keys. These keys, however, speak of binding things on earth so they remain bound in heaven, but they are not for the gate of heaven. Instead, they pertain to deeds of people on earth, which may either be retained or loosed; specifically, sins. Neither does Peter acquire the keys exclusively, but they are given to all disciples of Jesus in this New Covenant of the Spirit operating in believers. Jesus typified benefits of a disciple in promising these keys to Peter. Later, in Matthew 18.15-20, Jesus uses this same language of binding and loosing things on earth with them retaining that same status in heaven. Jesus speaks of two or three of His followers agreeing about a matter and also praying in agreement about issues of discipline for sins. Therefore, Peter cannot be the exclusive recipient of these keys since Jesus is directing all His disciples and mentions several individuals in agreement about an issue.

Further, notice Stephen, the first Deacon, forgiving the mob of their sin of unjust condemnation against him reflecting the same sentiments as Jesus: Then he fell to his knees and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7.60 NET). The exercise of these keys of binding and loosing are to be used in merciful ways so that some individuals would repent as happened with both Jesus and Stephen. At Pentecost, 3,000 were converted just 50 days after Christ’s crucifixion. When Stephen prayed, Saul was there agreeing with Stephen’s death, but, later, God had mercy on Saul, giving the vision on the road to Damascus, in Acts 9, in which he was saved.