“…You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” (Matt 16:18)
This is one of the most well-known verses in the Bible regarding the foundation of the church.
However, Jesus left significant ambiguity as to what He meant by the rock.
The common interpretation is that Peter himself was the rock that the church would be built upon; this belief led to the Roman Catholic doctrine that Peter was the first Pope, and that all other Popes must be descended from Peter. Other readings, however, seem to imply that the rock was the ground on which Jesus stood, with a cultural metaphor; He also could have been referring to the divine revelation that gave rise to Peter’s faith.
“…you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church…” (Matt. 16:18).
The name Peter (Petros in the Greek) means “rock” or “rock-man.” In the next phrase, Jesus used a feminine form for “rock” (petra in the Greek)—not a name. He did not say “upon you, Peter,” or “upon your descendants,” but “upon this rock.” So what was the rock?
To consider the cultural possibility, first understand the context of the place in which Jesus stood.
“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi…” (Matt. 16:13).
Caesarea Philippi (not to be confused with the town of Caesarea on the coast of the Mediterranean) was a city in the Golan Heights, 30 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. It was a beautiful geographical location, situated near the source of the Jordan River at the base of Mount Hermon, a lush and lively place, and the city itself stood upon a massive wall of rock, over 100 feet high. A beautiful sight.
But below the city, in the base of Mount Hermon, a deep cave filled with still water of an unfathomable depth reached into the darkest places of the earth; this was believed to be the gates of hell or Hades. Also known as Paneas, the Cave of Pan, the location was dedicated to the worship of the Greek and Roman god Pan, the unruly god of nature, the untamed mountains, and wild sexuality.
Here stood Jesus with his disciples, a 30-mile walk from the Sea of Galilee, at the base of a monumental rock dedicated to pagan worship, near the mouth of a cave believed to be the gates of Hades. Here He made this declaration:
“…upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”
Perhaps, just perhaps, He intended to build the church not as a physical building on that literal 100-foot rock, but in the midst of the pagan culture that surrounded Him—and as a social phenomenon that permeates and revolutionizes the godless culture that surrounds us today.
Alternatively, consider the revelation and declaration of faith. Peter had just declared,
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 17:16).
“Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in Heaven” (Matt. 17:17).
Jesus declared Peter blessed not because of his confession of faith alone, but because of the revelation from the Father in Heaven. Perhaps the rock was this divine revelation and the resulting profession of faith in Jesus Christ, and He intended to build His church within the hearts of believers.
Perhaps these two possibilities are both true.
Perhaps the divine revelation and declaration of faith would lead to the birth of a movement that would transform pagan societies for generations. This possibility should give us hope that, in the midst of our increasingly secular – even pagan – modern society, the church built upon faith in the divine revelation of our Heavenly Father will not be overcome by the gates of Hades.
This post was originally published on the Centennial Institute’s 1776 blog.