The Main Event: Rock vs. Pebble

My quest for the truth of Christian Orthodoxy (what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all) has led me down some strange paths. Remaining open to what I find on this journey has made me do a double-take more than once. There may be no greater example than what I discovered while studying Matthew 16:13-19.

In this passage, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do men say that that the Son of man is?” Their responses include John the Baptist, Elijah and Jeremiah among other prophets. Jesus turns to Simon and asks, “What about you? Who do you say I am?” Simon responds, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replies, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Judah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.” Then Jesus says, “I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” He goes on to say, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

For years I have been exposed to this passage of Scripture from a Protestant hermeneutic. Essentially the understanding of this passage goes like this:

Jesus’ question elicits an array of answers from the Disciples. Jesus turns to Simon because he is the most outspoken of the group. Simon’s correct response prompts Jesus to affirm that this was revealed to Simon by God. When Jesus says that Simon will now be known as Peter – he is using a Greek term (Petros) which means small rock or pebble. Jesus goes on to say that upon this rock (Petra), which means large rock or immovable boulder, I will build my church. Two things are usually pointed out here. First – Jesus is affirming Peter’s faith and not making any pronouncement concerning Peter alone. Second, Jesus is not saying He will build the Church on Peter. By using the word Petros for the new name of Peter, and the word Petra for the rock upon which the church would be built, Jesus could not have meant the church would be built on Peter. The two rocks – one small and one large – rule Peter out as a possibility. What did Jesus mean? One of two things is usually espoused. Jesus either meant the church would be built on Peter’s faith, or upon Jesus, Himself.

When Jesus says that he is going to give the keys of the kingdom of heaven to Peter, it is asserted that these keys are given to all Christians. They represent the gospel which is to be preached to everyone. The keys are a general gift given to the entire church and when received by the repentant sinner, open the door to heaven.

Finally, the statement that, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven,” simply means that the Gospel message has the power to condemn or to save. Again, this is a general statement that all believers have the capacity to share the Gospel which has eternal implications for those who hear depending on their acceptance or rejection.

This interpretation seems somewhat minimal but plausible and satisfactorily settles the interpretation of this passage for many. As I began to look for other interpretations I found that this understanding of Matthew 16:13-19 is not shared by all Christians. For centuries another view has been embraced. Exploring this alternate view is the cause for my double-take and I offer you my findings as a platform for discussion – not as a definitive conclusion.

First, the issue of the little rock (or pebble) and big rock (or boulder) should not apply to this passage. Ostensibly, the Greek word used by Jesus for rock was the feminine Petra. Because Simon is a man, the translators had to make a choice. They could use a feminine word for a man, or they could use the masculine form of the word – Petros. The discrepancy arises because of a translation issue. Compounding the problem in English is the complete loss of any connection between the two words. Peter and Rock have no obvious connection. What’s more, Jesus would have spoken Aramaic, not Greek. In Aramaic, Jesus used Kepha for both Simon’s new name, and for the rock upon which the church was to be built. To be accurate, Jesus said, “You are Kepha, and on this Kepha I will build my church…” There is no difference. Apparently, the Pebble versus Rock idea is invalid. Jesus used the same word to give Peter his new name and to name the one upon whom the church would be built.

Second, Jesus gives Peter the “keys to the kingdom of heaven.” This interesting gift has a Scriptural precedent in Isaiah 22:20-22. "In that day I will summon my servant, Eliakim son of Hilkiah. I will clothe him with your robe and fasten your sash around him and hand your authority over to him. He will be a father to those who live in Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.” In this passage Eliakim is made Prime Minister in the realm of King Hezekiah. As the second in command, he will run the affairs of the Kingdom. This passage is a clear parallel to Matthew 16. When Jesus offers Peter the keys to the kingdom, does it stand to reason that he is giving him earthly authority to run the affairs of His kingdom, the Church?

Third, what about the “binding and loosing?” This is a rabbinical term which gave authority to the rabbis to interpret what was permitted or not permitted under the Law. In offering this capacity to Peter, and later the Apostles (Matthew 18:18), is Jesus giving them the responsibility to interpret and preserve the truths of the New Covenant so that orthodoxy would be preserved? Jesus says, as recorded in John 20:21-23, "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." And with that he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven." What an astounding statement. This was rarely quoted in my childhood Sunday School classes. Taken together, the evidence seems strong that Jesus appointed Peter to the office of Prime Minister – to run the earthly affairs of God’s Kingdom, and placed the Apostles as his assistants in this endeavor. Their tasks include, according to these passages, interpreting and preserving orthodoxy and the priestly role of reconciliation.

These discoveries bring up several questions for me. Why does the clear connection between Matthew 16 and Isaiah 22 receive such scant discussion as a possibility within the Protestant hermeneutic? Without the Pebble vs. Rock argument, what happens to the Protestant understanding of Matthew 16? What if Jesus is giving this office to Peter? Should this be ignored?

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