WHAT IS THE ROCK OVER WHICH JESUS ESTABLISHED HIS CHURCH?
The theme of the Rock over which lord Jesus established his Church, narrated in the gospel of Matthew 16:18, contains the core of the gospel of salvation, commended to be proclaimed all over the world before our Lord Jesus, Second Coming (Matthew 24:14).
To understand the verse, we need to see the context in which it was given.
1 – After Jesus had a exchange of words with the Pharisees and Sadducees over who He was, and after He warned his disciples over their way of thinking as dangerous and contagious (Matthew 16:1-4,6-12); they all went to Caesarea Philippi, a city in the north-east part of Israel where apparently either experienced the same doubt from some in the population, or our Lord just wanted to test the conviction of his disciples, because He asked them, ‘Who did the people think He was’ (Matthew 16:13).
There was a problem Jesus wanted to address once and for all between his apostles.
Even though many believed Him to be the Messiah, most did not, especially among the Temple officials.
2 - Regardless of what opinion the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the local population had of Him, Jesus wanted to know most importantly, what his own disciples believed of Him. So, He asked openly:
“But who do you say that I am?” (Mt 16:15).
The word ‘And You’ (Ὑμεῖς δὲ) of verse 15, indicates the urgency of the answer. In other words, Jesus said: “I know what they think about me, BUT what DO YOU THINK about ME ?”.
The opinion of his disciples was paramount, since they were destined to be the fathers of the Christian community, and the main witnesses of Lord JESUS as the Messiah, Son of God, before the whole world.
They needed to be sure of that He was the promised Messiah and the Son of God YHWH.
3 – Jesus’s Apostles had seen Jesus perform miracles, even resurrections, and they should have had a clear understanding of who He was. However, apart from knowing He was from God and the Messiah, they seemed to have different opinions of how his ministry would fit in the pre-conceived image they had of the Jewish Messiah (Luke 24:21, Matthew 28:17).
Suddenly, the apostle Simon, boldly, declare his convinced opinion of who Jesus was.
4 – Simon’s declaration came forward first from all other disciples. We do not know the reason of the other disciple’s delay. That they all believed at the time that Jesus was a prophet from God and the Messiah is to be assumed since they followed Him, knowing He claimed to be the one (Matthew 7:21,28-29; 8:29; 10:32-33; Mark 11:3).
But for some reason they took time, maybe based on their degree of personal faith or in the idea they had of the Jewish Messiah; but these seconds of delay gave way to the declaration of Simon, whom directly and in full conviction declare before Lord Jesus:
“Σὺ εἶ ὁ Χριστὸς ὁ Υἱὸς τοῦ Θεοῦ τοῦ ζῶντος.”
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Simon the apostle, had just proclaimed in full conviction of faith, that Jesus in did was who He claimed to be, and put his own life as a guarantee of it. He was the first one who officially in the name of the Christian Church proclaimed the faith that was the base of our salvation and the core of the incarnation. That the Word of God had become flesh, and that He was the promised Messiah the Tanakh spoke about. (1John 5:1; John 3:18).
This alone, that is, to believe and confess that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God YHWH; and that He is the promised Messiah, and the implied submission to Him, is what brings forgiveness of sins and salvation. Not a set of believes or ceremonies or even personal conduct; but the faith and submission to Christ alone is what attains our salvation, the PERSON OF JESUS, not his teachings by themselves. Because is Jesus in person who forgives the repentant sinner, forgiveness which is never and impossible to attain through the fulfillment of commandments or precepts, but only attainable through the mercy of the living Jesus.
5 – SIMON’S CHANGE OF NAME
Amazed by Simon’s declaration, our Lord Jesus blessed him and said to him, that what he just declared, was a revelation from the Father (Matthew 16:17), and because of that boldness, that example he just set for not only his eleven companions, but for all those who will come to believe in Jesus in the future, Jesus said to him:
“κἀγὼ δέ σοι λέγω ὅτι σὺ εἶ Πέτρος, καὶ ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν, καὶ πύλαι Ἅιδου οὐ κατισχύσουσιν αὐτῆς.”
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
Simon did not have his name changed. That’s a development of what happened here.
Lord Jesus did not say from now on you will be called ‘Peter’, but ‘YOU ARE’ Peter.
In other words, Lord Jesus called Simon – Petros (Πέτρος), or Stone, because of the declaration he just had given, which was the base of the Christian faith.
Given the context where people had different believes about Jesus, a man could believe anything of Him. That He was a prophet of God, a holy man, a teacher, rabbi or guru, but unless they accepted Him and SON OF GOD, and the MESSIAH, they would not be saved. They would not be forgiven, but die in their condemnation (John 8:24). And Simon had just professed the true faith when he was asked by Jesus, and that is the reason our Lord said: ‘You are a stone’.
KEPHAS-PETROS-ROCK OR STONE
The clarification of the meaning of the word used by Jesus is central to understand the context of the whole verse 18.
6 – Originally, the conversation was done in Aramaic, a mixture of old Hebrew with local Arabic language, that became the common dialect of Judea at the time of our Lord.
The declaration of Jesus to Simon, was done in Aramaic, but from the only verse in the whole NT we have of this event, the only word we have is the Greek translation Πέτρος – Stone.
Obviously, this was not the exact word used by Lord Jesus, and it is even translated in a very generic form, just to make a difference with the word Πέτρᾳ - Rock; used by our Lord over where He said, He would stablish his Church.
The Aramaic version comes from the gospel of John, where the original word is mentioned, and the translation given to the Greek speaker:
“Thou art Simon the son of Jonah: thou shalt be called Cephas, which is by interpretation, A stone.”
Other sources are the letters of Paul, where Simon is referred as Kephas, as the name the community had become to know him, in virtue obviously of the Lord’s words (Galatians 2:9; 1Corinthians 1:12).
But even as some have suggested that in Aramaic the word is not different to the one Jesus had used when He said that ‘over this Rock I will build my Church’, the linguistic controversy gets settled in the posterior Greek translation, given under the true conception of the word Kephas used by our Lord in his original context. And the word used is Πέτρος.
7 – The word Πέτρος, means in Greek, the generic name of Stone. (1)
It does not specify exactly what size of stone, but it covers from pebbles (Small stones for gardening), to boulder (large stones used for washing clothes or hammering). It is obviously referred to its nature, hard and permanent, more than to the size.
This is the connotation that our Lord gave Simon, when He said to him ‘YOU ARE A STONE’, meaning you are firm in the faith. This is also the meaning the word Κεφας had when it was pronounced by Jesus according to the context in the sentence, and that is why it was translated as Petros and not Petra, since the writer of the gospel knew the intention of our Lord.
8 – Our Lord continues, saying:
“… καὶ ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν, καὶ πύλαι Ἅιδου οὐ κατισχύσουσιν αὐτῆς.”
“and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it”
The reason why the first rocky word was translated by the writer from Aramaic into Greek as Petros, and this word left as Petra, from which we have no Aramaic internal evidence, is to leave clear in the mind of the reader the change of subject in the verse.
Simon just had been called Petros- Stone by Jesus, in virtue to his solid and correct faith, the declaration that he had made of who Jesus truly was.
After that, Lord Jesus said and ‘over this Petra-Rock, I will establish my Church’. The intention of the writer in giving two different words, one for Stone used on Simon, and the other one meaning Rock, large as a cliff or rocky hill (2) used as the base of the Church.
The change of words means the change of subject, from the person of Simon, to his declaration, the foundation of the Christian faith and root of our salvation, to believe and accept Jesus of Nazareth, as THE MESSIAH AND SON OF GOD.
That was the intention of the translator, but even if Jesus would have said, ‘Simon, you are a ROCK, and over this ROCK I will build my Church’, the meaning, given by the context, will be the same: “You are Rock, because you have declared the Rock of Salvation, that I am the Christ, the Son of God, and over this faith I will establish my Church”.
The Rock or Πέτρᾳ, over which Jesus was going to establish his Church, was the faith that Simon, the Stone proclaimed, that JESUS WAS THE MESSIAH, THE SON OF THE LIVING GOD.
Today, only people who accept the historical Jesus as such, are catalogued as Christians, from Mormons, to Roman Catholics, from Seven Day Adventist to Russian Orthodox; however, those who accept Christ as only a prophet or reject Him altogether, are not considered Christians, like Muslims, Jews or Bahais.
The word Eκκλησία, used by Jesus, means not an institution, but simply a congregation, a human conglomerate, in this case, united in this common faith, that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. And that is the historical reality of Christianity as a world religion, despite what the internal denominations think of themselves as the ‘unique representative’ of that true congregation of believers.
Those two articles of faith and not the Nicaean Creed, is what constitutes a man into a Christian, even before his baptism.
Lord Jesus blessed apostle Simon for his firm faith and fearless declaration of it, calling him a Stone, which later, tradition used it as a name for Simon, even though that was not Jesus’ intention.
Lord Jesus proceed to confirm this blessing by saying that over this faith that Simon-Peter had just pronounced, He will establish his Church, or congregation of believers.
Our faith and subsequent submission to Jesus of Nazareth as the promised Messiah, who comes to redeem the whole world, and to accept Him as the Son of the Living God YHWH, Lord Supreme of the Universe, is what marks us as Christians and makes us members of the Church of Jesus Christ. And it is the base of our salvation.
Christians may differ greatly in other topics, but as long as they submit in intention to Jesus as their Lord, they have the opportunity to repent and be saved, by the person of Jesus, not a creed.
However, anyone who does not accept Jesus as such, is already under condemnation while he does not proceed to that acceptance. The root of our salvation.
It is the declaration of Peter, and as a consequence Jesus Himself who is the Rock over which the Church is established, and that was understood and proclaimed by the first Christians:
“For no one can lay a foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
(1) Strong’s Concordance, 4073.
(2) Stong’s Concordance, 4074.