Like A Rock

February 23, 2013 in Theology · 3 comments

Peter the Rock

In light of Pope Benedict’s abdication, it seems relevant to take a look at one of the verses often understood as relating to the papacy, Matthew 16.18: “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.”

The NIV note provides some helpful clarification: “The Greek word for Peter means rock.” You can see this in the Greek: κἀγὼ δέ σοι λέγω ὅτι σὺ εἶ Πέτρος, καὶ ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν καὶ πύλαι ᾅδου οὐ κατισχύσουσιν αὐτῆς.

Unfortunately, many conservative Protestant commentators go to extraordinary lengths to avoid the clear meaning of this verse. Such tortured exegesis often involves trying to glean subtle geological differences between Πέτρος and πέτρᾳ: one means big boulder, one means little stone, one means rock outcropping, one means pebble and on and on. But these subtle distinctions fade away when one realizes that Jesus would have said these original words in Aramaic, where Peter’s name is exactly the same as the word “rock”: כֵּיפָא/Κηφᾶς/kepha’. How do we know this? The Gospel of John spells it out: “And he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas’ (which, when translated, is Peter)” (John 1.42). Again, the NIV note is helpful, explaining that “Cephas (Aramaic) and Peter (Greek) both mean rock.”

Alternatively, some claim that the “rock” Jesus refers to is Peter’s faith, or to Jesus himself. But such readings fail to offer a better alternative than the straightforward reading of “Peter” as the antecedent of “this rock.” There’s a reason for the wordplay Jesus employs here — it’s not to offer an opaque theological diversion, it’s to make a clear point about the future role of one of his disciples.

Matthew 16.18 is really just saying “And I tell you that you are Rock and on this rock I will build my church.” So what does Jesus mean? Simply that Peter will play a foundational role in the building of the church and that Peter’s leadership will be crucial in the early church — and history bears out the truth of Jesus’ statement.

Does all this mean that Peter was the first Pope? Or that the Roman Catholic understanding of the role and authority of the papacy is true? Not necessarily. For that understanding one must look beyond this verse and beyond the Biblical text itself. But unfounded fear of Catholic theology shouldn’t prevent one from recognizing Peter’s important place among the disciples, his special relationship with Jesus and his role as the Rock upon which Jesus built the Church.

2 comments… read them below or add one

dgsg February 24, 2013 at 8:15 pm

Another view is put forward by Biblical historian and lecturer Ray Vander-Laans in one of his teaching DVDs ‘Faith Lessons on the Early Church’ that shows him giving a lecture to a group of students in the most likely location of Jesus’ original teach in Caesarea Philippi – specifically on a rocky outcrop over-looking a pagan temple possibly known locally at the time as ‘The gates of Hades’. In this case, Jesus’ message that he was going to build his church on this ‘rock’ may have symbolically meant just that – he was going to build his church in the most pagan and evilest of places (represented by this place his disciples were looking at or even standing on right at that moment) and the gates of Hades (the evil/paganess of the world, again represented by what they were looking at) would not overcome it. It may be that the whole ‘Peter/Rock’ thing was never Jesus’ main intended message at all and we’ve just made it that due to lack of knowledge of the ‘location dimension’. Whether it was or not, this certainly suggests to me that knowing WHERE any of Jesus’ teachings took place is often quite important to understand what he said and why. Those of us who’ve never had the opportunity to visit the Holy Land and/or don’t see any reason to figure location into Bible study, I think, are left with quite an incomplete set of tools for interpreting Scripture.

I have discovered that this particular teaching by Ray Vander-Laans is up on YouTube at the moment. Probably not for long though. However, if you want to check out what he says on this, go to youtube-dot-com/watch?v=1GHCzopp8qQ and start watching about 9:16, with the actual Scripture coming up about 14:56.

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Dan February 25, 2013 at 11:30 am

Thanks, I hadn’t heard the “location” interpretation before…and I’ll check out what Vander-Laans has to say about it. But while I do think location can be important to our understanding of the Bible, I’m dubious of the idea that “this rock” is referencing a specific geological formation and not the person named “Rock” in the same sentence.

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