WHO OR WHAT IS THE ROCK?
by Jeff Hagan
Matthew 16:13-19 is a very important passage. In this section we find Peter's confession of who Jesus is. His confession has been the source of countless debates, but there appears to be only three possible options contextually (I'm fully aware Christ is the foundation, Christ is THE Rock, however, in my humble opinion, that truth doesn't fit the immediate context for this passage): first, Peter's recognition of Jesus as Messiah represents all disciples and it is on this recognition Christ will build His church. The second option is that Peter is a unique disciple and Christ will build His church on Peter. Third, Peter is unique among the disciples, at least in part, because he was first to recognize Jesus as the Messiah and on that recognition, or on that statement of faith, Christ will build His church.
The first option is accepted by many scholars and commentators; the second by Roman Catholic scholars and commentators; and the third seems to bridge the gap of the of the first two.
From my studies I believe the third option is the correct one. The first leaves no room for the uniqueness of Peter's claim. If he's speaking on behalf of all of them how is it unique. But clearly in the passage how the truth was revealed to Peter was unique. The entire passage hints at something unique going on. This is later confirmed in Acts where the church begins being built and Peter is the key figure. He's the speaker at Pentecost and it becomes clear he assumes the role of the leader of the disciples.
The second option seems to carry little weight. It's a belief put forth by Roman Catholicism in an attempt to claim their authority over all other churches by placing Peter as the first pope and tracing their origin and authority to him. However, nowhere in the New Testament do we see a single individual as authoritative and having exclusive rights to the truth (of course excluding Jesus). Instead, we read of the priesthood of all believers. We also read in Galatians that God is no respecter of persons or single authoritative positions. Even the apostles submitted themselves to each other.
Therefore, the third option seems to be the most accurate. It allows Peter to be unique among the apostles in a way that is unified with all of Scripture, it allows the rock to be the unique declaration of faith regarding who Jesus is, and it is confirmed and comes into fruition as the accurate position in Acts and beyond.
Let us now just touch on each verse:
V.13 - in this verse we find the most important question anyone can ask themselves being asked by Jesus to Peter. Our answer to this question is the ultimate of importance because what we say and believe matters, because what we believe determines how we think and live, and therefore, our eternal state. Society has all kinds of answers to this question, as we see in our passage...
V.14 - "Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." People came to these conclusions simply based on their own imaginations, speculations, or their religious background or upbringing. The identity of Jesus is not subject to human opinion. They were all wrong.
V.15 - "But who do you say that I am?" Peter, staying true to what we know about him, answers promptly.
V.16 - "The Christ, the Son of the Living God." Exactly right and a strong statement of faith in who Jesus is. The Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One who would be the Deliverer and Forgiver of sin. How did Peter know who Jesus truly was?
V.17 - the second half of this verse explains how Peter knew. "...flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven." Peter didn't reflect back on Jesus' teachings and miracles in coming up with his answer. Peter certainly didn't pick it up from the crowds. Jesus knew God had uniquely revealed this truth to Peter.
V.18 - "you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church." So, what is the rock? This was mentioned earlier, the truth that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Jesus says He will build His church on that truth. He is the Christ, the One whom God sent to be Savior and Lord. He is the Son of the Living God, God Himself in human flesh. His church, the only church that matters, is built on this truth.
V.18 - "and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." The church cannot, and will not fail. The church would be built and it would/will endure.
V.19 - "keys of the kingdom," "binding and loosing."
"In this verse, Jesus is speaking directly to the apostle Peter and indirectly to the other apostles. Jesus’ words meant that Peter would have the right to enter the kingdom himself, that he would have general authority symbolized by the possession of the keys, and that preaching the gospel would be the means of opening the kingdom of heaven to all believers and shutting it against unbelievers" (got questions.org, "What Does the Bible Mean by Binding and Loosing").
We also see binding and loosing in the context of church discipline in Scripture. At the most surface, basic, elementary level the apostles had the authority to allow (loose) and forbid (bind) in relation to church practice and discipline.