Upon This Rock: Examining Matthew 16:18-19

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death 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.” (Matthew (RSV) 16:18-19)

Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter by Pietro Perugino (1481-82) Fresco, Cappella Sistina, Vatican.
Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter by Pietro Perugino (1481-82) Fresco, Cappella Sistina, Vatican.

The first verse, I suppose, is what many would consider to be a Catholic “proof-text” showing Simon Peter to be the first pope. While I do not like the term “proof-text,” as it implies Scripture texts that can be taken in singularity to prove a position and/or doctrine, I will agree that Mathew 16:18-19 is a major starting point for showing how Scripture speaks to the formation of the Church and the structure of the body desired by Our Blessed Lord.

To properly understand what is Jesus is saying to Peter in this verse we must look at the context, both immediate and overall. For example, in the immediate sense Simon Peter, in verse 16 of the same, just made the first infallible papal statement under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit when he correctly identified the full personage of Christ Jesus when he proclaimed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

It was partly in response to this that Jesus makes His statement to Simon officially renaming him Peter. He is where the Protestant begins to protest. At the name of Peter, some argue, Jesus was making a point of minimizing the importance of this Apostle’s position by choosing to refer to him in a manner consistent with “little stone” rather than rock or the implicit “large stone or boulder.” Those who favor this argument refer to the Greek petras, which means “rock” but is in the feminine. The argument is backed up further by the false notion that the masculine petros actually means pebble or small rock.

Lithos is the more common term used for stone and petros, which is also are indeed synonyms in the ancient Greek lexicon meaning stone or piece of rock. However, using this for the basis of an argument discounts the fact that John 1:42, remarking on the first meeting between Jesus and Simon states, “‘So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas’ (which means Peter).” Ancient Aramaic did not contain a word making a distinction between piece of rock, stone and/or rock. Rock meant rock. Cephas meant Cephas. So the most accurate English translation of the actual statement made to Peter by Jesus would be, “And I tell you, you are [Rock], and on this [rock] I will build my church.” In addition to the Gospel According to John, the New Testament records Saint Paul referring to the Saint Peter by Cephas no less than eight times while references to Peter as Peter are made countless times many of them citing Peter at the front of a list of the Twelve. Peter always spoke first and was first among the Apostles.

Where does that play into Church structure? Well, it lays the foundation of sorts for the continuation of God’s preferred governance structure of defined hierarchy. Beginning with Genesis, God always made use of one person to carry a message or instruction. There was Adam, Abraham, Noah, Moses, Joshua, Jacob, David, Solomon, etc. There was always ONE voice to speak for God in the most important of cases thus ensuring unity of meaning.

Verse 19 in Matthew 16 continues to lay out the particular role and position that Peter was given. By Jesus giving Peter the “keys to the kingdom of the Heaven” along with the authority “bind and loose on earth and in heaven,” Our Blessed Lord made Simon Peter, the steward of His kingdom and the one person on earth who can speak on behalf of the Lord independently. This is why we often see pop imagery of Peter standing before the pearly gates of Heaven like some saintly bouncer. Obviously, Peter’s role does not come close to making the ultimate decision of accepting or rejecting souls, this only God can do. The role given to Peter was however, one of authority and like the reference to Moses’ chair, made by the Lord Himself in Matthew 23:2, this was more of a perpetual office rather than a one-time designation.

To further my argument, we must also turn back to the Old Testament prophetic book of Isaiah where in Chapter 22 we are given the message:

“…I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your girdle on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.”  (Isaiah (RSV) 22:21-22)

Verse 22, in particular, speaks to the role of opening and shutting. Verse 21 on the other hand, speaks to the authority of kingly stewards. And what we are presented with in Isaiah 22 is fulfilled in Matthew 16 in the Petrine Office or Papacy. Again, the centrality of this position ensures unity in instruction and management. Couple that with the remaining portion of Matthew 16:18, “…and the powers of death shall not prevail against it,” becomes a divine guarantee to the Office and to the Church, Jesus’ disciples, that His Church (singular mind you) will not falter no matter the circumstances.

Pan's Cave or Pangrotte
Pan's Cave or Pangrotte. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Lastly, with concern to Matthew 16:18-19, I would like to set the context a bit further and bring to mind the physical setting where this all took place: Caesarea Philippi. History tells us that this location, which is the site of a massive rock formation containing a spring within the formation, was the site of a pagan city and temple dedicated to the Greek god Pan, the god of desolate places. By the time Jesus and His disciples made their, pagan worship there was no more yet the reputation of this place remained. The cave at Caesarea Philippi was commonly referred to as the “Gate of Hell” because many an infant was sacrificed to Pan there by means of being dropped over the precipice.

So with aided by the physical surroundings, the office and name conferred to Simon Peter by Jesus took on extra significance. Peter is the Rock on upon which the Church was built, directly situated over the Gates of Hell – of Death – in order to guard and guide those who may otherwise fall without this visible mass before to impede their way. And still many continue to willingly walk over the precipice and sink themselves into the abyss of eternal death.

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