Today’s reading: Matthew 16
“How much authority did Jesus give Peter?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Matthew 16:16-19
William Barclay, writing about these verses, said, “it is also easy to see how Protestants and Roman Catholics alike my approach this passage not with the single-hearted desire to discover its meaning, but with the determination to yield nothing of their own position, and, if possible, to disprove the position of the other.” With that in mind, I asked my brother, Eric, to write about Peter from a Catholic perspective, and I followed with some words from the Protestant tradition.
A Catholic Perspective.
Why Caesare′a Philippi? This is one of the furthest journeys Jesus leads for his disciples. Why to this specific location? A few possible reasons:
- It is practice for them, to help prepare them for their future missionary journeys far beyond Judea.
- It is near the headwaters of the Jordan River, symbolic of an important beginning.
- It boasts a backdrop of impressive rock formations, pertinent to Jesus’ message.
Why a name change? When God changes a man’s name, He is saying, “Pay attention to this man”. Just as with Abraham and Israel, Simon now becomes Peter, and for a reason.
Why the name Peter?
“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.”
In Greek it is Petra, while Petros is rock, a play on words of sorts. In Aramaic, the language likely spoken in this discourse, the word would have been kepha, for both! So Jesus was in effect saying, Thou art Rock, and on this rock I will build my Church.
Not only is there this impressive backdrop of geological formations, there is also a well-known Greek temple built up on the mountain behind them. Jesus is saying, never mind that temple to a false god, on Peter I will build my Church to the one true God. Christ is the builder, Peter is the foundation. This is not unprecedented: 1 Peter 2:5: “like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood.” Ephesians 2:19–22: “the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”
Are there other examples of Peter’s primacy? Combine all the references to all other apostles in the gospels, they do not add up to those of Peter. The Protestant biblical scholar F. F. Bruce says this about Peter’s authority: “About 700 B.C. an oracle from God announced that this authority in the royal palace in Jerusalem was to be conferred on a man called Eliakim…(Isa.22:22). So in the new community which Jesus was about to build, Peter would be, so to speak, chief steward.”
“ I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” clearly is saying something very special and unique about Peter’s role in coming Church. These “keys” relate to the office of steward, held by a single man, not a group.
Apologist Dave Armstrong offers these additional proofs:
“Jesus clearly regarded Peter as a sort of “chief shepherd” of the Christian flock, charged with carrying on His own pastoral office after He was gone. We see that Jesus exhorted Peter to feed his sheep; He prayed that Peter’s faith would be strong so he could in turn strengthen the other apostles. Peter is later observed performing this very role in his exhortation of bishops and elders with a sort of “encyclical” letter. Peter’s name invariably appears first in list of Apostles, and he is even called the “first” in Matthew 10:2. Peter is regarded as the leader of the Apostles by an angel; another angel tells Cornelius to ask Peter for Christian instruction. Peter authoritatively interprets prophecy, works the first miracle after Pentecost, utters the first anathema, is the first to rebuke and refute doctrinal heresy or error, and offers the sole recorded interpretation of the events on the day of Pentecost, making him the first Christian to preach the gospel in the new Church Age. This speech includes authoritative interpretations of Scripture and doctrinal and disciplinary decisions. He was the first to preach about repentance and baptism, led the first mass baptism, and enjoined the first baptism of Gentiles. The entire Church appeared to pray for Peter after he was put in prison. He was—following instruction by a revelation—the first Jewish Christian to receive Gentiles into equal fellowship, and was the first traveling missionary and visitor of new churches, even before Paul, and (along with James and John), commissioned St. Paul to evangelize the Gentiles. Finally, at the only church council recorded in Scripture—the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15—it was Peter who presided. Not James (the bishop of Jerusalem), or the great evangelist Paul. Scripture presents Peter to us as the head of the Apostles. To this day the Catholic Church has simply followed that biblical model.”
Did Peter discover Christ’s nature himself?
“For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”
Central to the faith is the understanding that Christianity is a revealed religion. Peter did not come up with this on his own; God revealed to him that Jesus was in fact the Messiah. Years of study cannot create this foundational truth. It only comes from heaven above. Nothing in this says other men were not gifted, empowered, chosen, and essential for God’s plan, but clearly God chose Peter for a very specific and unique task at the Church’s inception.
A Protestant Perspective.
Protestants would agree with Eric’s excellent discussion of the origin and significance of Peter’s name, as well as the primacy of his position in the early church. Commentators offer differing opinions about the intent of Jesus’ proclamation, “upon this rock I will build my church.” Some say Jesus is talking about Peter’s faith or message as being the rock. Others say Jesus is talking about himself as being the rock. I believe the clearest understanding of Jesus’ words is that Peter himself is the rock that will provide the foundation for the early church, and Eric has detailed the ways in which Peter became that foundation. It’s important to remember that there was no church when Jesus said these words, and the word for church – ecclesia – was not a religious word but a common word for group or community. Jesus was saying something like, “you will be the rock that I build my community on.”
Peter realized that though he was a rock – Rocky we might call him today – he was only the first among many rocks, and Jesus was still the chief rock, the cornerstone.
Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 2:4-5
When Jesus gave Peter the keys of the kingdom, he was giving him the power to open the doors of the kingdom to let believers in. When he gave him the power to bind and to loose, he was using a Jewish idiom that meant he would decide what was forbidden and allowed. Peter did these things, but Jesus went on to include all the disciples in the important work of decision-making in the church:
“I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” Matthew 18-18-19
In the Old Testament tradition, Peter was a mighty man of God. He was first in professing Jesus to be the Christ, and he was given the lead position in the founding of the church. I think he would say, however, that he was one stone among many in God’s temple, one member of the living body. I think he would agree with Paul that we do not “follow Paul”, or “follow Apollos”, or “follow Cephas”, but we all follow Christ.
Image: St. Peter by Besenzi