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Peter, The Rock, and The Confession (part 6)

And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:17-18)

What does Jesus call Peter? Simon. Remember that Simon is his birth name. Jesus is the one who gave Peter the name “Peter.” Until Jesus came along his name was Simon. Jesus states his full name – Simon, son of Jonah. Notice that Jesus is offering a blessing. Jesus is not criticizing Peter but blessing him. The world did not teach Peter and the apostles that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. The people were saying that Jesus was John the Baptist, Elijah, or a prophet. The people did not declare who Jesus truly was. But Peter speaks the words of truth. Peter was not taught this fact from the world, but he had learned from God by listening and believing Jesus’ words. They had drawn the correct conclusion from Jesus’ teaching and the miracles he performed.

In verse 17 Jesus called Simon by his full, given name: Simon son of Jonah. Now he changes and no longer calls him Simon, but calls him by the name that Jesus gave him, Peter. I would like to begin by suggesting to you that if Jesus’ answer has nothing to do with Peter but his confession, why does Jesus call him “Peter” which means “rock” rather than Simon? Jesus is intending a word play to take place. If not, it would have been natural to do one of two things: (1) Say, “Simon” since Jesus called him Simon in the last breath. (2) Not say his name at all. Jesus just identified him as Simon, son of Jonah. Jesus could have simply continued, “And on this rock I will build my church.” But Jesus is intending to do something with Peter’s name. Peter’s name mean “rock” and it is the name given to him by Jesus. Now Jesus is using this name as a word play with his teaching, “On this rock I will build my church.” So the great question that has stirred great controversy for hundreds of years is “who or what is the rock?”

There are three standard interpretations: (1) Peter is the rock, (2) Peter’s confession is the rock, or (3) Jesus is the rock. I am going to show why I think Jesus is teaching that Peter is the rock and why that is the most natural understanding of the text.

Addressing False Arguments

(1) Because the Greek words are not the same gender, they cannot be referring to one another. This argument states that since Jesus uses the feminine for rock, petra. Jesus cannot be referring to Peter when Jesus says, “upon this rock I will build my church.” However, no such grammar rule can exist in gender-based language like Greek. If you have taken a foreign language that is a gender-based language, then you will understand what this mean. For example, in the Spanish language every noun is assigned a gender. A bathroom is assigned a masculine gender (el bano) while a house is assigned a feminine gender (la casa). The Greek language does the same thing. A rock in Greek must be spoken of as feminine because that is proper Greek. Jesus had to say, “petra” because that is the only proper way to say “rock.” We cannot assume anything beyond this. This happens in other places in the New Testament that we may not be aware of. For example, in 1 Corinthians 10:4 we read, “and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ.” The word for “rock” is petra (feminine) even though it refers to Jesus, a male. To further bolster this point, it is highly likely that Jesus was speaking in Aramaic, the language of the Jewish people in the first century. There is no distinction between the two words “rock” in the Aramaic.

Consider D.A. Carson’s thoughts from the Expositor’s Bible Commentary:

“Although it is true that petros and petra can mean “stone” and “rock” respectively in earlier Greek, the distinction is largely confined to poetry. Moreover the underlying Aramaic is in this case unquestionable; and most probably kepa was used in both clauses (“you are kepa and on this kepa”), since the word was used both for a name and for a “rock.” The Peshitta (written in Syriac, a language cognate with Aramaic) makes no distinction between the words in the two clauses. The Greek makes the distinction between petros and petra simply because it is trying to preserve the pun, and in Greek the feminine petra could not very well serve as a masculine name.”

The idea is that in most languages there is no distinction between the words “rock” and “Peter.” The Greek shows two different words because it is a gender-based language.

(2) The two “rocks” refer to different rocks. Peter is called a pebble or a small rock while the rock that the church is built on means a large stone. The argument is false. The reason for the different Greek words is gender, not meaning. Further, there is not evidence to show such a distinction between these Greek words. That is, petros does not always refer to little pebbles and petra does not always refer to large stones. The argument does not hold up. To go even deeper, Expositor’s Bible Commentary points out, “Had Matthew wanted to say no more than that Peter was a stone in contrast with Jesus the Rock, the more common word would have been lithos (“stone” of almost any size). Then there would have been no pun–and that is just the point!” But Jesus is intending the word play. In the parable of the sower, Jesus spoke of the rocky ground. Petra is the word used for rocky ground, which should with finality end the argument that petra always means a large stone.

If the Catholic church had not turned this text into proof that Peter is the pope with the right of transferal, I do not believe this passage would present any difficulty. The most natural reading is, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah. You are rock, and on this rock I will build my church.” Jesus is pictured as the builder of the church, and Peter and the apostles (remember, Peter is representing the apostles in his confession) are the foundation. This is in accordance with the scriptures.

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone…. (Ephesians 2:19-20)

Notice that these metaphors are used interchangeably through the scriptures. In 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, Paul calls himself the expert building and Jesus the foundation built. In Revelation 21:14 we read the apostles are the foundation of the city of God. In Matthew 16, Peter has the keys. In Revelation 1:18 and 3:7, Jesus has the keys. In John 9:5, Jesus is “the light of the world.” In Matthew 5:14, his disciples are the light of the world. To say that Jesus is the only foundation is to miss the other metaphors in the scriptures. Each metaphor must be held in its own context. In one case, Jesus is the foundation and Paul is the builder. In another case, the apostles and prophets are the foundation and Jesus is the cornerstone. In Matthew 16:18 Jesus is the builder, “I will build my church.” The foundation of the church that Jesus built is the apostles.

Jesus’ Teaching

Jesus is telling Peter (and the apostles because Peter represents them) that they will play a central and vital role in the establishment of the church. I do not think this observation can be denied by any cursory study of the book of Acts. After Jesus ascends to heaven, it is the apostles who are given the life purpose to go into the world, preaching the gospel to every creature. The church was not built on Peter’s confession. The church is built upon the teaching of the apostles, given by God through the Holy Spirit, and their actions of going into the world and preaching the good news of our resurrected Savior, Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God.