On This Rock

Keys to the Kingdom, Part 1

"On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell 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 16:18-19)

Yeshua begins his declaration by saying, "On this rock I will build my church." But what is this rock and what did he mean to communicate by this statement? There has been an argument over the last few centuries about the interpretation of this verse. When Yeshua referred to the rock on which he was going to build his "church" (which we will address in the next issue), was he referring to Peter himself or to Peter's declaration of Yeshua being the Messiah? Since the beginning of the Roman Catholic Church, Catholicism has maintained that Simon Peter was the rock upon which Yeshua intended to build. After all, the name Peter (Petros in Greek), and the Hebrew equivalent Kefa (transliterated into Greek as Cephas) means "rock." And if Yeshua was speaking to The Rock when he said he would build his assembly on The Rock, then it seems obvious Peter is the object in question. Therefore, Peter is considered to be the first pope. Catholicism backs its claim by the greater context of this verse, particularly its understanding of the "keys to the kingdom," but also the concepts of "binding" and "loosing," that we will discuss in future articles. Since these concepts are in the immediate context of Yeshua's instructions to Simon Peter, it follows that they are connected with the rock upon which Yeshua would build his church. As a whole, Protestantism, however, flatly rejects such a notion.

Generally, Protestantism argues that the rock was not Peter himself, but Peter's confession. Yeshua asked him point blank, "Who do you say that I am?" (vs. 15). Peter's response spoke volumes: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Yeshua's statement seems to be an immediate response to Peter's confession. We know that even to this day, this confession sets apart Yeshua's followers from the other sects of Judaism. We believe him to be the long awaited Messiah and King of Israel and that belief determines our allegiance to him. In this sense, it seems that our foundation as a community of believers is based on this confession, more than the Apostle himself.

But there's a problem with this belief. Although Peter's confession is critically important, it wasn't the first such confession by his disciples. His brother, Andrew, had actually made this confession long before Peter did and used it as his reason to bring his brother to the Master:

He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, "We have found the Messiah" (John 1:41)

Also, we cannot ignore the wordplay Yeshua is using in his pronouncement to Peter. In Yeshua's native language, it would have been pretty obvious that he was referencing the name he had given Peter to drive home his message. Remember, Peter wasn't his birth name. He was named Simon (Shimon in Hebrew) by his parents. The Gospels make it clear, however, that he was given the name Peter/Kepha by Yeshua:

He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter) (Mark 3:16)

Both Peter (Petros) and Kepha (Cephas) mean "rock." With this in mind, Yeshua could have been referencing a familiar midrash about Abraham when he gave Peter his new name. An ancient midrash called Yalkut Shemoni says that God considered Abraham to be the bedrock, the petra, upon which he built His world. It is interesting and is a crucial connection, because it uses this Greek loan word, petra, to describe him as such. So, it doesn't appear that Peter's confession was the rock Yeshua was speaking about. In all likelihood it was Peter himself. Yeshua had intentionally given Shimon the name "Peter." Why? Most likely as a prophetic symbol that he would one day live up to that name, knowing the responsibility of Yeshua's assembly would rest on his shoulders. Until Yeshua's resurrection, Peter was a little rough around the edges. He was impetuous and a bit of a brawler. He was quick to make promised he couldn't fulfill. He made a lot of mistakes, and most of us can identify with him because of these things. But ultimately, he took up Yeshua's challenge and not only became the "apostle to the circumcised," but also the first apostle to reach out to the uncircumcised, the non-Jew. He became the pivotal junction between Jews and Gentiles in the Kingdom of Messiah. He became The Rock upon which the community of Yeshua was built.