What Does “On This Rock I Will Build My Church” Mean? – Matthew 16
Reflection from my reading in Matthew 16 in the One Year Bible New Testament.
I had a chance to visit the ancient city of Ceasarea Philippi, and the city sits under a hug rock (see picture above). Jesus went here with his disciples and asked them who people said he was. They told him John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets. Then Jesus asked the question that all of us who have heard of Jesus must answer one way or another .
“But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Matthew 16:15–16
Simon’s answer is one that we all must come to in order to receive eternal life. When someone comes to Christ, it is not because they are so smart but because God has opened their eyes. In the same way, Simon was inspired by God to respond this way to Jesus’ question. Here’s what Jesus told him:
“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 16:17
His response was from God and Jesus used the opportunity to share with him how he will use Simon in the future.
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Matthew 16:18
Peter showed great faith in Jesus in this exchange. Jesus changes his name to Peter, which means “rock.” There is debate on what Jesus meant by “on this rock I will build my church.” Interestingly, Peter in greek is “Petros” which means small rock, and on this rock is the word “Petra” which means bedrock or large rock. Because of this usage of different greek works there have been a variety of interpretations.
The “Rock” could be referring to one of the following things.
- “Peter” as the leader of the apostles and their foundational work of building the church. We see them doing this in Acts.
- Some say “rock” in this case refers to Jesus himself as the foundation of the church. They argue that Jesus is the “Petra” or large rock that the church is built on. We see the illustration of Jesus as the foundation of the church elsewhere in the Bible.
- Some say the “rock” refers the confession Peter made that “Jesus is Christ” and that saving faith is the foundation of the church.
- Catholics use this verse to legitimize the Papal tradition. They say that because Peter was the rock and put in charge of the keys of the kingdom that Christ’s blessing continues through the spiritual line of Peter.
My best interpretation is that he is referring to Peter specifically, and that Peter himself will be instrumental in building the church. But I do not believe that there is a papal succession because there is nothing in this passage that implies anything about a passing down of Peter’s authority.
I Will Build My Church
It is important to note that Jesus himself will build the church. Whether or not the “Rock” he is referring to in this passage is Peter or Jesus himself, the truth is God uses people to advance HIS church! Church leaders can rest assured that ultimately Jesus is the one building his church as they are being used by him.
The Gates of Hell Shall Not Prevail Against It
The Church is not a fortress but an offensive force storming the gates of hell. Jesus and his Church will win. The Church should be on the offense going to the lost and rescuing them from hell!
The Keys To The Kingdom
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Matthew 16:19
Peter was given a stewardship in the kingdom. In his expository outline Warren Wiersbe says,
“These are not the keys to the church, but the keys of the kingdom. They are not the keys to death or eternity, for Christ holds those (Rev. 1:18). In the Bible, “keys” stand for authority and stewardship (Isa. 22:22; Luke 11:52). Peter used these keys when he “opened the door of faith” (Acts 14:27) to the Jews (Acts 2), the Samaritans (Acts 8), and the Gentiles (Acts 10). This is stewardship, not lordship.”
Peter played a significant role in the early church and is an example for us today, though not the ultimate example. Jesus himself is our ultimate “cornerstone” and leader of the church, and we should follow his example.
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