Rock and Keys

When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am? And they said, Some [say that thou art] John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed [it] unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:13-19)

In the borders of Caesarea Philippi, in the north of the land, Jesus elicited from his disciples a confession of faith concerning himself. He enquired first what others were saying, and then asked the disciples what they thought. Peter spoke on behalf of the company when he said: "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God". It was a remarkable statement for one man to make to another far more difficult to state then than when the subject has been crystallized in creeds and Statements of Faith after the subject of the confession has been raised from the dead. The answer was gratifying to the Teacher, who replied: "Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matt. 16:16-19).

These verses have been the subject of controversy for centuries because of the meaning attached to them by the church of Rome, and the tremendous claims based thereon. They form the basis of the pretensions which have led the Roman Catholic Church to demand the submission of men to her teaching and to enforce her claims with all the cruelties that have been inflicted upon so-called heretics. Around the cupola of St. Peter's at Rome the words glitter in golden letters cut in the stone, each twelve feet deep. They encircle the vast building ; and are easily read from below. If, however, the meaning which is attached to Christ's words by the Roman Church is the obvious and correct one, it is strange that the writers of the early centuries knew nothing of it. This is common knowledge to all who have read anything of the controversy with Rome; the following extracts give a summary of the facts. In the book, The Pope and the Council, bearing the pen-name of Janus, but written it is said by two of the most capable historians of the Church of Rome, Acton and Dollinger, at the time of the Council which declared the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, occurs the following:

"Of all the Fathers who interpret these passages in the Gospels (Matt. 16: 18; John 21:17) not a single one applies them to the Roman bishops as Peter's successors. How many Fathers have busied themselves with these texts, yet not one of them whose commentaries we possess - Origen, Chrysostom, Hilary, Augustine, Cyril, Theodoret, and those whose interpretations are collected in catenas - has dropped the faintest hint that the primacy of Rome is the consequence of the commission and promise to Peter ! Not one of them has explained the rock or foundation on which Christ would build his Church of the office given to Peter to be transmitted to his successors, but they understood by it either Christ Himself, or Peter's confession of faith in Christ; often both together. Or else they thought Peter was the foundation equally with all the other Apostles, the Twelve being together the foundation-stones of the Church (Rev. 21:14). The Fathers could the less recognize in the power of the keys, and the power of binding and loosing, any special prerogative or lordship of the Roman bishop, inasmuch as - what is obvious to any one at first sight - they did not regard a power first given to Peter, and afterwards conferred in precisely the same words on all the Apostles, as anything peculiar to him, or hereditary in the line of Roman bishops, and they held the symbol of the keys as meaning just the same as the figurative expression of binding and loosing."

In Littledale's Plain Reasons against joining the Church of Rome, we read:

"Archbishop Kenrick of St. Louis, in his speech prepared for, but not delivered in, the Vatican Council, and published at Naples in 1870, declares that Roman Catholics cannot establish the Petrine privilege from Scripture, because of the clause in the Creed of Pius IV, binding them to interpret Scripture only according to the unanimous consent of the Fathers. And he adds that there are five different patristic interpretations of St. Matt. 16:18: (1) That St. Peter is the Rock, taught by seventeen Fathers; (2) that the whole Apostolic College is the Rock, represented by Peter as its chief, taught by eight; (3) that St. Peter's faith is the Rock, taught by forty-four; (4) that Christ is the Rock, taught by sixteen; (5) that the Rock is the whole body of the faithful. Several who teach (x) and (2) also teach (3) and (4), and so the Archbishop sums up thus: "If we are bound to follow the greater number of Fathers in this matter, then we must hold for certain that the word Petra means not Peter professing the faith, but the faith professed by Peter". - Friedrich, Docum. ad illust. Conc. Vat. I. pp. 185-246."

It is not sufficient to show that the significance attached to the words of Jesus by Rome is not historically well founded; we desire to know as accurately as we can what Jesus himself intended by his words. The extracts given indicate a choice of meanings, and finality in interpretation may not be possible.

There is an evident play upon the meaning of the name Peter - a stone. The name had been given to Simon by Jesus as a token of certain qualities he possessed: and Peter's position in the apostolic band is indicated by the fact that in all enumerations of their names, his comes first. It was characteristic of the man that he should answer for the rest. "Thou art Peter (petros)", said Jesus, "and upon this rock (petra) I will build my church." The importance that should be attached to the change in the word, and the exact distinction between the two words, has been much discussed. The general attitude today is to discount any difference. This is in part due to a constant effort to turn back the language of the New Testament into Aramaic, which was generally spoken by Jesus, and in which no distinction is possible. But that leaves unanswered why, granted that Jesus spoke in Aramaic, Matthew should use two words. That the necessities of grammar simply required it, is not admitted by all; and that in classical Greek at any rate the distinction was preserved, is not questioned.

Bullinger in Figures of Speech, illustrating the repetition of words derived from the same root, comments thus:

"Here note (1) that Petros is not merely Simon's name given by our Lord, but given because of its meaning. 'Petros' means a stone, a piece of rock, a moving stone which can be thrown by the hand. While "petra" means a rock or cliff or crag, immovable, firm, and sure. Both words are from the same root, both have the same derivation, but though similar in origin and sound they are thus different in meaning. This difference is preserved in the Latin.

(2) In the case of petros, we have another figure: for the word is used in two senses, though used only once. There is a repetition, not of the word but of the thought which is not expressed: "Thou art petros" where it is used as a proper name Peter, and there is no figure: but the sense of the word is there as well, though not repeated in words: "Thou art a stone". Thus there is a metaphor implied.

(3) While petros is used for Peter, petra is used of Christ: for so Peter himself understood it (see 1 Pet. 2:4,5,6 and Acts 4:11,12); and so the Holy Spirit asserts in 1 Cor. 10:4. "And that rock was Christ" where we have a pure metaphor. So that petros represents Peter's instability and uselessness as a foundation, while petra represents Christ's stability as the foundation which God Himself has laid (1 Cor. 2:11; Isa. 28:16)".

It is important to remember the Old Testament use of the word Rock. Reference was made to this in considering the parable of the Two Builders (Matt. 7:24-28). God was the Rock of Israel, and Jesus was that God in manifestation. This Peter had confessed. The answer of Jesus then can be, "Upon this rock, the fact that I am the Son of God, will I build my church" ; or "upon myself - the rock, will I build my church" - in which case Jesus is builder and foundation; or, the answer may mean: "Upon this confession" - although this differs little, for on this meaning it is not so much the confession as what is confessed that really matters.

What then of the unprevailing "gates of hell"? This is simply a figure of the grave which closes its doors upon all placed therein. Prisoners there have no power to break their bonds; and friends without can do nothing to release the imprisoned. This Hezekiah recognized, saying: "The grave cannot praise thee, death cannot celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth" (Isa. 38:18). The Psalmist speaks of afflicted men whose "soul abhorreth all manner of meat; and they draw near unto the gates of death (Psa. 107: 18). But men of faith in God's promises are not without hope. The Messianic Psalms speak of a lifting up of the Messiah "from the gates of death; that I may show forth all thy praise in the gates of the daughter of Zion" (9:13, 14; for Messianic reference see verse 8). The gates of the citadel of death are not therefore invincible. The church of the Messiah, because it is his church, will be delivered therefrom and be victorious.

If Jesus has "the keys of the grave and of death" (Rev. 1:18), he will use them to deliver his people. They have to be subjects of another release, however, before the Lord uses those keys. All need a deliverance from ignorance; all need the way of life to be opened to them. So Jesus speaks of other keys given to Peter - the keys of the Kingdom. "The key of knowledge" had been taken away by the scribes, Jesus said (Luke 11:52). But Peter made use of the keys of knowledge for opening the understanding of men, by the preaching of the gospel. This he did when at Pentecost he told the Jews how they might be saved; this he did when he told Cornelius "what he ought to do to be saved". As a teacher, guided by God's Spirit, Peter unfolded authoritatively God's purpose: and as this authority as a teacher was idiomatically referred to as "binding and loosing", so Jesus said that in the use of the keys, Peter would, with heaven's endorsement, speak with authority as he instructed men in the gospel.

From: Parables of the Messiah by John Carter