Upon the rock

Matthew-16-18Jesus’ Response: an emerging church. What history has made clear is that Jesus’ response had been a source of controversy in so far as how it is understood and thus what kind of church was expected to emerge from Jesus’ earthly ministry. Clearly whatever emerges is under the blessing of Christ.

The disciples as a group had already received a blessing: “But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear. Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it”(Mt 13:16-17). Here this blessing is for Peter alone, as the plural address of v.16 shifts to the singular of v.17: Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah – notably keeping the original given name.

But the problem is…. Peter. In the polemics of the Reformation two basic positions were staked out: (a) the reformed position that “upon this rock” refers to Peter’s confession and (b) the Catholic position that the expression refers to Peter and all his successors. Modern scholars, Catholic and reformed alike, take a middle position: the expression refers to Peter (leaving the succession question aside).

R.T. France [1985, 257] writes:

Peter has declared Jesus’ true significance; now Jesus in turn reveals where Peter stands in the working out of God’s purpose. And as Peter’s confession was encapsulated in a title, ‘Messiah’, so Jesus now sums up Peter’s significance in a name, Peter. It is not now given for the first time, for Matthew has used it throughout in preference to ‘Simon’ (which never occurs without ‘Peter’ until v. 17), and Mark 3:16 and John 1:42 indicate that it was given at an earlier stage. What Jesus here reveals is its significance. It was apparently an original choice by Jesus, for no other use of Petros (or the underlying Aramaic kêpā’, ‘Cephas’)as a personal name is known before this; now he reveals why he chose it. It describes not so much Peter’s character (he did not prove to be ‘rock-like’ in terms of stability or reliability), but his function, as the foundation-stone of Jesus’ church. The feminine word for rock, petra, is necessarily changed to the masculine petros (stone) to give a man’s name, but the word-play is unmistakable (and in Aramaic would be even more so, as the same form kêpā’ would occur in both places).

France continues [257-8]

The word-play, and the whole structure of the passage, demands that this verse is every bit as much Jesus’ declaration about Peter as v. 16 was Peter’s declaration about Jesus. Of course it is on the basis of Peter’s confession that Jesus declares his role as the church’s foundation, but it is to Peter, not to his confession, that the rock metaphor is applied. And it is, of course, a matter of historic fact that Peter was the acknowledged leader of the group of disciples, and of the developing church in its early years. The foundation-stone image is applied in the New Testament primarily to Christ himself (1 Cor. 3:10ff.; 1 Pet. 2:6–8; etc.), but cf. Ephesians 2:20; Revelation 21:14 for the apostles as foundation

The developing church. Jesus’ words, “upon this rock I will build my church” (v.18) has also contributed to exegetical controversy. Some scholars hold this passage is a later addition and is not authentic, but betrays a later ecclesiastical interest in interjecting that later period’s hierarchy and organization onto Jesus’ words.

This position is fading because of the realization that ekklesia (church)regularly translates the Hebrew qāhāl, one of the terms for the ‘congregation’ or ‘community’ of God’s people – a term completely appropriate to describe the emerging ‘Messianic community’ of the disciples of Jesus. How could there be a messiah without a messianic community?

The building metaphor is the natural one to use in connection with the name Petros, and does not demand the idea of a full-blown hierarchical structure – nor does it preclude its development. The new church/community of the repentant people of God was at the heart of John the Baptist’s mission, and was the necessary outcome of Jesus’ ministry, with its effect of dividing men according to their faith or unbelief. What is striking is not so much the idea of ‘building a community’, but the boldness of Jesus’ description of it as my church/community, rather than God’s.

The emerging church that lasts forever. Hades is the realm of the dead, not the place of punishment. The “gates of Hades” is a biblical expression (Isa 38:10) that can mean the same as the “gates of death” (Job 38:17; Pss 9:13; 107:18). In this case, the word translated “overcome” or “prevail” means “be stronger than,” and the meaning is that the realm of the dead, which no human being can conquer, is nevertheless not stronger than the church founded on the rock, and the church will always endure to the end of history, accompanied by its Lord (28:20). Thus this text declares minimally that the church will never die. But “gates of Hades” may also refer to the portals of the underworld from which the powers of Satan emerge to attack the church, especially in the eschatological times (cf. the eschatological testing of Matt 6:13 and 26:41 and the dramatic imagery of Rev 9:1-11). Then the meaning would be that the church is under attack by the powers of evil, but will never be vanquished, because it is founded on the rock. In neither case is the church pictured attacking Hades. Once again, the two kingdoms stand over against each other (see 12:22-37). The church does not escape from the power of Hades, but participates in the struggle between the two kingdoms with the sure promise that the opposing kingdom symbolized by the powers of death will never prevail.

The Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven Eugene Boring [346] writes:

For Matthew, each of these two kingdoms makes its influence felt by teaching. The “kingdom of heaven” is represented by authoritative teaching, the promulgation of authoritative Halakha that lets heaven’s power rule in earthly things. The image of Peter with the keys is not that of the doorkeeper to heaven of popular piety and cartoons. As the next image makes clear, Peter’s function is not to decide in the afterlife who is admitted and who is denied entrance to heaven; Peter’s role as holder of the keys is fulfilled now, on earth, as chief teacher of the church. The similar imagery of Matt 23:13 and Luke 11:52 points to the teaching office, as does the introductory pericope Matt 16:1-12 and Matthew’s concern for correct teaching in general. The keeper of the keys has authority within the house as administrator and teacher (cf. Isa 22:20-25, which may have influenced Matthew here). The language of binding and loosing is rabbinic terminology for authoritative teaching, for having the authority to interpret the Torah and apply it to particular cases, declaring what is permitted and what is not permitted. Jesus, who has taught with authority (7:29) and has given his authority to his disciples (10:1, 8), here gives the primary disciple the authority to teach in his name—to make authoritative decisions pertaining to Christian life as he applies the teaching of Jesus to concrete situations in the life of the church. In 18:18, similar authority is given to the church as a whole, and the way the last three antitheses are presented in 5:33-48…shows such application of Jesus’ teaching is the task of the whole community of disciples, with Peter having a special responsibility as chief teacher as well as representative and model.


Matthew 16:17 Blessed are you: Some scholars hold this formula repeats that of the Beatitudes; others opt for a more prosaic translations of “good for you” or “congratulations.” flesh and blood: a Semitic expression for human beings, especially in their weakness. has not revealed this…but my heavenly Father: that Peter’s faith is spoken of as coming not through human means but through a revelation from God is similar to Paul’s description of his recognition of who Jesus was; see Gal 1:15–16, “…when he [God]…was pleased to reveal his Son to me….”

Matthew 16:18 You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church: the Aramaic word kēpā’ meaning “rock” and transliterated into Greek as Cēphas is the name by which Peter is called in the Pauline letters (1 Cor 1:12; 3:22; 9:5; 15:4; Gal 1:18; 2:9, 11, 14) except in Gal 2:7–8 (“Peter”). It is translated as Petros (“Peter”) in Jn 1:42. The presumed original Aramaic of Jesus’ statement would have been, in English, “You are the Rock (Kēpā’) and upon this rock (kēpā’) I will build my church.” The Greek text probably means the same, for the difference in gender between the masculine noun petros, the disciple’s new name, and the feminine noun petra (rock) may be due simply to the unsuitability of using a feminine noun as the proper name of a male. Although the two words were generally used with slightly different nuances, they were also used interchangeably with the same meaning, “rock.” church: this word (Greek ekklēsia) occurs in the gospels only here and in Mt 18:17. There are several possibilities for an Aramaic original. Jesus’ church means the community that he will gather and that, like a building, will have Peter as its solid foundation. That function of Peter consists in his being witness to Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God. The gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it: the netherworld (Greek Hadēs, the abode of the dead) is conceived of as a walled city whose gates will not close in upon the church of Jesus, i.e., it will not be overcome by the power of death.

Matthew 16:19 the keys to the kingdom of heaven: the image of the keys is probably drawn from Is 22:15–25 where Eliakim, who succeeds Shebnah as master of the palace, is given “the key of the house of David,” which he authoritatively “opens” and “shuts” (Mt 22:22). whatever you bind…loosed in heaven: there are many instances in rabbinic literature of the binding-loosing imagery. Of the several meanings given there to the metaphor, two are of special importance here: the giving of authoritative teaching, and the lifting or imposing of the ban of excommunication. It is disputed whether the image of the keys and that of binding and loosing are different metaphors meaning the same thing. In any case, the promise of the keys is given to Peter alone. In Mt 18:18 all the disciples are given the power of binding and loosing, but the context of that verse suggests that there the power of excommunication alone is intended. That the keys are those to the kingdom of heaven and that Peter’s exercise of authority in the church on earth will be confirmed in heaven show an intimate connection between, but not an identification of, the church and the kingdom of heaven.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.