Updated: Feb 3
Last Sunday, the lectionary reading from the Gospel was Matthew 16:13-20. In this series of verses we read Jesus telling Peter, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” (Matthew 16:18b, NIV) Much has been assumed by this statement, such that most people believe Jesus foretold of the greatness of the Church of Rome, where Saint Peter would be pronounced the first pope. A cathedral would be built there, which would be named Saint Peter’s Basilica. That church would oversee the spread of Christianity around the world. Everything came true, just as Jesus prophesied.
The problem with this belief is it is missing the primary message presented by Matthew. The purpose of Matthew writing verses 13-20 in chapter 16 is not to proclaim the importance of Peter, but quite the opposite. To fully understand this, one has to review the steps that unfold in this remembrance.
First, Jesus asks his disciples, of which Peter is one, “Who do the people say I am?” Without naming who said what, Matthew recalled, “They replied,” such that no one disciple stood above any of the others as “they” answered Jesus’ question. “They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’” The disciples, including Peter, told Jesus the people thought he was a man in touch with God, as a prophet of significance, one worthy of following. That was as “they” (the disciples) were doing.
Second, Jesus then asked his disciples (“λέγει αὐτοῖς” – “He [Jesus] says to them”), which included Peter, “Who do you think I am?” At this point, you must realized that Matthew recalled (by divine inspiration) a question to the whole group, just as the first question had been posed to the whole group. The first question spurred several responses, from multiple disciples (if not all); but this question gave the disciples (as a group) reason to pause. We can read this pause due to the end of the stated question (question mark or semi-colon mark), and the next line not beginning with the words, “Some say.”
The next statement begins, “answering – moreover” (“ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ”), where this can also be translated to read, “taking up the conversation – replying – responding” – “on the other hand – moreover – indeed now – even though.” This says the “answer” to Jesus’ question to “them” was not something they had openly discussed with Jesus. Possibly, they were afraid to say how much they thought the same as the people – that Jesus was a prophet in touch with God worthy of following. With this pause recognized, there is more power of understanding that leads to the purpose for this memory of Matthew, such that Peter seems to have suddenly spoke, “even though” he himself did not know how to answer the question properly and politely. Peter acted as the lead disciple often, so the silence of the others might have caused him to want to “take up the conversation.” What should be seen is how Peter opened his mouth and these words come out: “You are the Christ [Χριστὸς – Christos – the Messiah], the son of the living God.”
This is the first time anyone had called the man Jesus “the Christ,” as the promised Messiah. That was huge to say. Jesus had not told the disciple he was the “son of the living God” directly, although he had referred to God as his Father. Still, since God was recognized as the Father of all Jews, such a distinction was was not understood by the disciples (at that stage of their discipleship). Jesus calling God his Father had not yet come across to them this way, as if they whispered amongst themselves, “Jesus just said he is God’s son again.”
This means Peter replied to answer Jesus’ question, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God,” without knowing he would say that. The statement is then not to be read as one of professed faith, as it is so often marveled as being, but as a blurting out of words without thought. Peter made a statement that should be heard as the same voice heard from above at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, or at the transfiguration of Jesus on the high mountain, in both cases where God said, “This is my son.”
This is why Jesus exclaimed (exclamation point present in translation), “Blessed are you Simon Barjona!”
By Jesus saying that Peter was “Blessed,” this is not some token ‘thank you’ statement. That recognition of a “Blessed” state cannot be read as if Peter was awarded points on a TV game show, for answering a question correctly. By being “Blessed,” Jesus was pointing out that an act of God had just come from Peter’s mouth. God had put His arms around a mere mortal. Peter’s words were a sign that God had “Blessed” him, because the words were not Peter’s, but God’s.
We know that because Jesus then said, “for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” Jesus was “flesh and blood,” as were the disciples, and as were the people of Judea. That means no air-breathing human being had previously told Peter what he had just said. Peter had not learned that about Jesus from someone else, in particular Jesus. Peter was not saying what someone else believed; and Peter was not actually saying what he believed, as belief has to be ultimately rooted in the conscious thought processes of the mind.
Peter spoke “by the Father in heaven,” which can be (and must be) read as through divine guidance, via the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is crucial to grasp that realization.
Next, you must realize that Matthew recalled that Jesus did not recognize Peter as Peter, when he told him he was “Blessed.” He said to him, “Blessed are you Simon Barjona!” (“Barjona” means “son of Jonah”) Jesus referred to Peter by his real name, which was Simon.
From this one needs to realize that Simon was first called Peter by Jesus, after Simon became one of his first disciples. The name is Greek, rather than Hebrew. The meaning for that word, “petros” (in the lower case) is “small stone, pebble, chip of rock.” Thus, Jesus nicknamed Simon Barjona as his “little pebble,” symbolizing how he was the one who would be the first small stone on the path that Jesus would walk. That Greek word became personified, as “Peter,” but that nickname only identified Simon as Jesus’ “Pebble.”
So, when Jesus then said (Matthew 16:18), “I tell you, you are Peter,” the capitalization of “Petros” is to be read as an indication of “one who is nicknamed Pebble,” being that one individual named Simon, son of Jonah. By pointing out how God had used the one disciple nicknamed as a “little stone” to respond to Jesus’ question, God had chosen Peter purposefully, to fill the one with that “small rock” moniker with God’s Holy Spirit, so that individual could give the right and truthful answer to Jesus’ question. Although Jesus did not ask the disciples, “Who does God say I am?, Jesus marveled at the appearance of the man named Simon saying such a profound thing. That led to Jesus being inspired to state a contrast of a “Pebble” (“Petros”) to a mighty “rock” (“petra”).
The word “petros” is different from “petra,” as separate nouns referring to a root that means “rock.” The former means “small rock,” while the later means, “cliff” or “ledge,” implying a “solid rock rising up through the earth” [ref: Souter] or “a huge mass of rock, as a projecting cliff.” Thus, Jesus (who was always filled with the Holy Spirit of the Father, and who always spoke with deep intent and purpose) said (in essence), “From one small pebble, to one giant stone mountain will my church be built.” The symbolism goes well beyond the person named Simon, called Peter.
The true meaning of Jesus saying, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,” is to identify one person, “You,” who is not alone, but one with God. Just as “I am” is the singular, first person meaning of “eimi,” as “ei” (“εἶ”) the second person is stated. That means “You are” as the second person, joined with God, just as was Jesus. Each could say, “I am,” as vehicles through which the Holy Spirit could speak. “You,” as Jesus (I, me) – we “are” joined with “I AM.” Like “You” will be later Simon, like “I am” now, we “are” each just one important “Pebble,” just one meaningful “stepping Stone” for the LORD, the Father. Yet, from such small beginnings, it will be “on this rock” of the Holy Spirit, which I will bring to “You” from my Father, “my church,” “my gathering,” “my assembly of people will be built.”
The power of this element of the Holy Spirit manifesting through one disciple, prior to any of “them” being ready to receive the Holy Spirit, via the surrender of their ego-driven minds and the opening of their hearts, asking God to bring them the mind of Christ, must be realized as well. While Peter spoke from the Father, he did not understand how or why he said what he said. However, all the disciples heard what Peter had said, and the all saw how welled Jesus praised Peter for saying it.
The disciples thought Jesus called Peter “Blessed,” just like one would hear Tennessee Ernie Ford tell someone, “Well bless your pea-pickin heart.” They heard “Blessed” as a casual term, not a designation of holy presence. As human animals, they would like to be likewise “blessed” affectionately, as they thought Simon was. The disciples would listen, memorize, and then go out and mimick what they had learned, telling others they encountered, “Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God, just so Jesus would be proud of them too. Unless they were told not to do that.
Jesus then “ordered them,” “admonished them,” “prohibited them” from telling anyone what they had heard. The reason is simple. Rather than Jesus being afraid that the Pharisees would start coming after him for speaking heresy, Jesus just did not want someone saying he was the Christ because he heard someone say that. Everyone must come to that realization through being filled with the Holy Spirit.
With that instruction given, then the “keys to the kingdom of heaven” would be truly given for a “solid rock” church, which could easily withstand the attacks of evil, from “the gates of hades,” with church members able to withstand those who would be trying “to prevail against” them. Otherwise, there might be those who would only be giving lip service to Christianity, saying “Jesus is the Christ,” without knowing the truth about “why.”