What does Jesus mean when he says “upon this rock I will build my church”?

What does Jesus mean when he says “upon this rock I will build my church”?

Asked by Zeke

Since Jesus said regarding Peter that upon this rock he will build his
church and whatever you honor on earth I’ll honor in heaven, doesn’t that
make the Catholic Church able to make it’s own laws which God has to obey?

Firstly let me apologise for the delay in getting back to you, things have been busy for me over the past month or so, I’m sorry for letting you hang for so long…

But your question is a good one!  There seems to be 3 things for us to think about from what I can see:

1) Who is the ‘rock’ Jesus is referring to in Matt16:18, is it Peter or Jesus?

For our purposes, the answer to this may not be especially relevant, since both allow for pride of place to be given to Jesus in establishing and building his church, while at the same time noting that Peter and the Apostles play an important secondary role.  I have put some notes on this discussion at the bottom of this response so you can have a look if you want to.

Point 2 is much more crucial…

2) Is there a link between Peter and the modern day leaders of the church?

Peter is an Apostle of Christ, of which there are only 12 (Lk 6:12-15).  No-one else has since been given the authority of Apostle since those original 12.  In John 21, Jesus is seen to ‘feed’ his apostles and instructs them to ‘feed’ the rest of his sheep.  The way Jesus has set up his church to function is based wholly on the forgiveness of sins achieved by Jesus’ death and resurrection, which we access by faith in him, not by good works (Eph 2:8-9).  This message of free forgiveness was to be passed on through the Apostles.  Of course, the way the Apostles are continuing to do this is through their words preserved for us in the Bible. 

To be sure, there are also other leaders in the church, who were originally appointed by the Apostles.  But no-where in scripture does it suggest that subsequent church leaders are given the same level of authority as Apostles in the church.  Everyone who is not an Apostle is to access Jesus through the message of the Apostles which we find in scripture.  That means there is no Apostolic succession (ie their authority doesn’t get handed down to the next generation of church leaders).  In my understanding, the Roman Catholic Church in particular works on the basis of Apostolic succession, giving the Pope the same authority as the Apostles, or in fact even greater authority since his word can override scripture (which is God’s word through the Apostles).

Of course, not even the Apostles thought that they had the ability to dictate what God the Father, or Jesus the Son should do, but they gave all recognition and authority to Christ (eg Acts 3).  Nor did the Apostles suggest that forgiveness of sins was mediated through them, rather they preached the message of Jesus and called for a response to him (eg Acts 3 again).

In terms of your question, that means that regardless of what was said to Peter and the Apostles here, there is no reason to suggest that church leaders can just pick up the idea and run with it, presuming to have the same position under God as the Apostles. 

Of course, I don’t think Jesus is saying that even Peter can make his own laws which God has to obey!  Which brings us to point 3…

3) What does Jesus mean by ‘whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven’? (Mt 16:19)

Firstly, in the original Greek, the sentence goes something more like ‘whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven’.  That means whatever is happening on earth, the reality of it has already been decided in heaven, by God.  This seems a bit strange, but we’ll come back to this point in a moment.

Next we need to go back and understand what Jesus means by ‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ (v19).  The keys of the kingdom of heaven are best described in Luke 11:52 as the ‘key to knowledge’.  Here Jesus is condemning the experts in the law for the way they have handled Old Testament scripture.  Not only have they failed to enter God’s Kingdom themselves, but they have also hindered others from seeing that Jesus is the fulfilment of the Old Testament and so enter the Kingdom too.  The ‘keys of the Kingdom of Heaven’ is the knowledge that Peter is increasingly understanding, ie. that Jesus is the Christ, the King and Saviour of God’s Kingdom.

As Peter preaches this, people will either enter the Kingdom, or reject it.  They will either be bound (restricted), or loosed (permitted) to enter the kingdom.  Note that this is based on their response to the message of Jesus, not Peter’s whim.  He does, however, hold the keys to the kingdom, which he holds out as he preaches the message of forgiveness in Christ. 

Of course, Eph 1:3-14 tells us that God’s people have been chosen before the beginning of time.  In this way, the reality of that Peter sees on earth, has already been decided in Heaven.  This gets us back to what we said before about the translation of v19.

In terms of your question then, the binding and loosing is talking about salvation in Christ, which Peter is involved in as he preaches the gospel message (holds out the keys).  It is not talking about any rules he wishes to make up.  And who will be saved is very much in God’s hands, not Peters.  The authority is top-down, from God to us, through the Apostles -not the other way around.

So, in summary, my answer would be that no, church leaders do not have the ability to make laws which God has to obey, absolutely not!  This is because in Matt 16:18-20 Jesus is talking about responding to the message of Jesus, not church legislation.  As Peter holds out the message (keys) that all people can come into God’s Kingdom if they are trusting in the free gift of Christ’s death and resurrection in their place, some will believe and others will not.  God knows who, and Peter will see that reality as he preaches the message.
Also, the church in no way has the same (or greater) authority than the Apostles.  All believers, and all church leaders, must submit to the Apostle’s words in the Bible, which is the only true authority on faith and conduct.

I feel like I need to apologise for how difficult that answer sounded – I’m sorry, but it’s a tough question!  I would be more than happy to answer any more questions you have on this or anything else if that would be helpful.  Once again, I hope you can get something out of this, I know I have as you’ve pushed me to look more closely at these verses.  So thank you!

God bless,

*Notes on Point 1 as promised.

Who is the ‘rock’ referred to in V18?

Some say it is Peter, because:
-  It is the natural flow of the sentence in English,
-  There is a play on words between ‘Peter’ (or Cephas, meaning rock) and the rock mentioned which seems to link Peter as the rock.
-  Peter, along with the other Apostles, are referred to elsewhere as ‘foundational’ to the church.  Eg. Eph 2:20 ‘…God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone’.
-  Peter is instructed to feed Jesus’ sheep in John 21:17, ie. to build the church.
-  Peter appears at instrumental times during the spread of the early church, such as at the conversion of the first Jew (Acts 2) and the first Gentile (Acts 10).
-  This view can be maintained without endangering Christ’s central role in saving and building his church: highlighted by Eph 2:20 above, and in Mt 16:18 ‘I will build my church’ (it’s not Peter’s church).

Others say the rock is Jesus, because:
-  The rock image is making an emphasis that contrasts Peter to the true rock.  Peter may have the name ‘rock’, but Jesus is the true rock on which he will build his church.  Perhaps Jesus is pointing to himself when he says ‘this rock’.
-  Something similar happens in John 2:19.  Here Jesus uses conversation about the physical Temple to make a statement about himself, which is then open to misinterpretation by those around him.  Likewise here, he uses Peter’s name (‘rock’) to make a statement about himself, which is then open to misinterpretation.
-  It would be unhelpful of Jesus to suggest that Peter is the rock when other places in scripture give this central role to Jesus.
-  Peter has just recognised Jesus as the Christ in v16.  This context seems to give emphasis to Jesus’ authority and role, which is then re-iterated in v18.


Answers are kindly provided by our friends at Christianity.net.au

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