“Upon This Rock . . .”

By Wayne Greeson

If you want to get the truth on a subject the best place to go is directly to the source. For example, if you want to find out how your car runs, go to the manufacturer who made it. If you want to know about a building go to the man who built it. Likewise, the best way to get the truth concerning the church is go directly to the source, the author, the builder of the church, Jesus Christ.

The most profound statement ever made concerning the church was made by its builder, Jesus Christ, in Matthew 16:18-19. Within a few words Jesus revealed many great truths about the church which we should learn and understand. Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do men say that I, the Son of man, am?” Some thought John the Baptist. Herod thought this (Mt. 14:2). Some thought Jesus was Elijah, because of the prophecy of Malachi that the spirit of Elijah would return before the Messiah (Mal. 4:5). Others thought he was Jeremiah, who was also thought to come before the Messiah in Jewish legend (2 Esdras 2:18; 2 Macc. 2:4-7). Another Jewish theory concerning the identity of Jesus was that he was one of the prophets. This idea probably was based upon.the promise of Moses that a special prophet would arise (Deut. 18:15).

“But who do you say that I am?”, Jesus asked the disciples. Simon Peter spoke up, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” The term “Christ” referred to the Messiah, the anointed one for whom the Jews hoped and longed. But even more, Simon Peter recognized Jesus divinity by calling him the Son of God.

Jesus responded by indicating that Simon Bar-jona, the son of Jona, was blessed, spiritually favored, for flesh and blood, that is man (Gal. 1:16; Eph. 6:12), had not revealed to Simon Jesus’ divine nature but the heavenly Father. How had the divinity of Jesus been revealed to Simon and the rest of the apostles? Through the miracles and teachings of Jesus (see Mt. 14:22-23; Jn. 17:6-8).

Since the Father had revealed Jesus’ divinity to Simon, son of Jona, Jesus was now going to reveal something to Peter, the disciple of Jesus (“And I also say to you. . . “). Jesus told Peter and the rest of the disciples of his grand purpose and plan to build his church.

“Upon This Rock”: The Foundation

There is a lot of controversy on who or what the “rock” is, referred to by Jesus in this passage. Some popular theories include: (1) Peter; (2) Christ; and (3) Peter’s confession of Christ.

Was Peter the rock upon which Jesus was going to build? The Catholic Church makes this claim and it uses Matthew 16:18 in an attempt to support the position and powers of the pope. Catholics are not alone in their view, there are also many Protestant commentators who support this view, while at the same time rejecting the authority of the pope. The main argument in support of this position is that the name “Peter,” which Jesus designates his disciple, means “rock.”

The Greek and the context of Jesus’ statement do not support the Catholic claim. The name “Peter” is not the same word in Greek as the word “rock” used by Jesus. The Greek word for “rock” is petra, it is feminine and means ‘.’mass of rock” (Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, p. 984). Thayer defines petra as “a rock, ledge, cliff a rock, a large stone” (Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 507). “Peter” comes from the Greek word petros, which is masculine and refers to a “detached stone or boulder, or a stone that might be thrown or easily moved” (Vine, Ibid.)

Greek scholar, Marvin Vincent, pointed out the differences between petra and petros. “In the classical Greek the word (Peter, ‘Petros’) means a piece of rock, as in Homer, of Ajax throwing a stone at Hector (‘Iliad,’ vii., 270), or of Patroclus grasping and hiding in his hand a jagged stone (‘Iliad,’ xvi., 734) . . . The word (rock, ‘petra’) is feminine and means a rock, as distinguished from a stone or a fragment of rock (petros, above). Used of a ledge of rocks or rocky peak. In Homer (‘Odyssey,’ ix., 243), the rock (petra) which Polyphemus places at the door of his cavern, is a mass which two-and-twenty wagons could not remove; and the rock which he hurled at the retreating ships of Ulysses, created by its fall a wave in the sea which drove the ships back toward the land (‘Odyssey’ ix., 484)” (Vincent I Vincent Word Studies of the New Testament, Vol. 1, p. 91; original emphasis).

The foundation of the wise man’s house was a petra, a large mass of rock, not a petros, a small stone (Mt. 7:24). Also, petra refers to rocks split at Jesus’ death (Mt. 27:5 1), the tomb of Jesus was in petra (Mt. 27:60), and when God’s wrath is displayed men hide themselves in petra (Rev. 6:15-17). Peter (Petros) is not and cannot be the rock (petra) upon which Jesus promised to build his church.

Some contend Jesus is the rock. While Christ is certainly designated as a rock and foundation elsewhere, the view that Jesus is the rock in the immediate context of this passage also has some difficulties. Vincent reminds us of the context of Jesus’ statement, “Christ appears here, not as the foundation, but as the architect: ‘On this rock will I build'” (Vincent, Ibid., p. 92).

Probably the most prominent view among members of the church is that the “rock” of Matthew 16:18 is “Peter’s confession.” Too often commentators want to emphasize what they call “Peter’s confession” and overlook the immediate significance that Jesus placed upon Peter’s statement. Christ did not characterize Peter’s statement as a confession but as a revelation! Jesus plainly says what Peter said was not from man, “flesh and blood,” but from the Father. The “rock” to which Jesus refers is the divinely revealed truth, Jesus is the Christ the Son of God. The difference between the confession of a man and the revelation of God is vast and significant. Myriads of churches and kingdoms have built upon the mere confessions of men, but the church Jesus promised to build was going to be established upon the truth of Jesus’ divinity as revealed by the Father.

The identity of “this rock,” as the divinely revealed truth concerning Jesus, can be seen in the immediate context of Jesus’ response to Peter. Robertson points out that, “The emphasis is not on ‘Thou art Peter’ over against ‘Thou art the Christ,’ but on Kago (“And I”): ‘The Father hath revealed to thee one truth, and I also tell you another’ (McNeile) ” (Robertson, Word Pictures In the New Testament, Vol. 1, p. 131). The parallel between verses 16, 17 and 18 illustrates the identity of “this rock” to which Jesus refers.

The basis or foundation of the church built by Jesus is the fact that he indeed is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God! Jesus was “declared to be the Son of God with power . . . by the resurrection from the dead . . . (upon this basis) you are also the called of Jesus Christ” (Rom. 1:46). Paul established a congregation at Pisidia by preaching Jesus was the Son of God as demonstrated by his resurrection (Acts 13:29-39). Paul wrote, “If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is vain and your faith is also vain . . . And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; and you are still in your sins!” (1 Cor. 15:14-17)

Jesus is described as a foundation elsewhere in the N.T. in that he has been declared the Christ, the Son of God by the resurrection. “For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11). The church has been “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:2). “This is the ‘stone which was rejected by you builders, which has become the chief cornerstone.’ Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:11-12).

“I Will Build”: The Builder

Jesus pronounced himself as the builder of his church. This fact had been prophesied, “Behold, the Man whose name is the Branch! From His place he shall branch out, And He shall build the temple of the Lord; Yes, He shall build the temple of the lord. He shall bear the glory, And shall sit and rule on His throne” (Zech. 6:12-13).

Not just any man could build the Lord’s church. Not John Calvin, not Martin Luther, nor Henry VIII, John Wesley, John Smyth, Mary Baker Eddy or any other man or woman. It took the Son of God. “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it” (Psa. 127:1).

“My Church”: – The Building

The “church” refers not to a physical building, but to “those called out” a group of people called together for a purpose. The term “church” in Greek mean “[o]riginally an assembly of citizens, regularly summoned. So in New Testament, Acts 19:39. The Septaugint uses the word for the congregation of Israel, either as summoned for a definite purpose (1 Kings 8:65), or for the community of Israel collectively, regarded as a congregation (Gen. 28:3) . . . The Christian community in the midst of Israel would be designated as (an ekkIesia)” (Vincent, Ibid., p. 93).

“The word church means literally those called out, and often means an assembly or congregation. See Ac. 19:32, Gr.; Ac. 7:38. It is applied to Christians as being called out from the world. It means sometimes the whole body of believers, Ep. 1:22; 1 Co. 10:32. This is its meaning in this place. It means, also, a particular society of believers worshiping in one place, Ac. 8:1; 9:31; 1 C. 1:2” (Barnes, Barnes’ Notes, Matthew, p. 170). Peter describes Christians “as living stones. . . being built up a spiritual house” (1 Pet. 2:5).

“My Church”: The Owner, The Name, and The Number

The church, those called out of the world, do not own themselves. The church is a “purchased possession” (Eph. 1:14). In 1 Peter 2:9, Christians are described (in KJV) as a “peculiar people.” This does not mean that Christians are strange people. In the Greek the idea is “an obtaining, an acquisition,” a possession. The church, Christians, are owned by someone.

Jesus claimed to be the owner of the church when he called it “my church.” He is the owner of the church because he bought it and built it. The purchase price was his own blood. Paul described the church as “the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). Peter reminds Christians, “you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver and gold . . . but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:18-19).

How should the church built by Jesus be designated? Before Peter and the rest of the apostles, he identified the church as “my church.” He bought it. He built it. He owns it. The church is his bride (Eph. 5:24-29) and his body (Eph. 1:22-23). To identify his church with the name or doctrine of men would be blasphemy. The church should be identified by the name of its builder and owner and called Christ’s church (see, Rom. 16:16).

How many different churches today belong to Christ? Consider what Christ said. He said he would build “my church” not “my churches”! He went further and said “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. ” Christ built just as many churches as can fit into the pronoun “it.” “There is one body” which is his church (Eph. 4:4; 1:22-23). While there may be many “so-called” churches, Christ built only one church (see 1 Cor. 8:5-6).

“Hades Shall Not Prevail Against It”: – The Duration Where the King James version reads “Hell” in Matthew 16:18, a more accurate translation is “Hades.” Hades is the unseen world, the place where the spirits of those who have died are kept and it is often used to signify death. Christ presents two figurative buildings, his church or kingdom and the house or kingdom of Death (Hades). “In the Old Testament the ‘gates of Hades’ (Sheol) never bears any other meaning (Isa. 38: 10; Wisd. 16:3; 111 Macc. 5:51) than death, McNeile claims. See also Psa. 9:13; 107:18; Job 38:17. . . It is not the picture of Hades attacking Christ’s church, but of death’s possible victory over the church. ‘The ekkiesia is built upon the Messiahship of her master, and death, the gates of Hades, will not prevail against her by keeping Him imprisoned. . .’ (McNeile). Christ’s church will prevail and survive because He will burst the gates of Hades and come forth conqueror. He will ever live and be the guarantor of the perpetuity of His people or church” (Robertson, Ibid., Vol. 1, pp. 132-133).

On the day of Pentecost, the church was established upon the evidence that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, as demonstrated by the resurrection. Peter preached that the resurrection demonstrated Jesus had conquered Hades or death (Acts 2:22-36). (See, v. 24 “it was not possible that he should be held by it”; v. 31 “his soul was not left it in Hades.”)

The Christ’s victory over Hades or death assures the members of Christ’s church that they also will be victorious over death. On this ground, Daniel was told that God’s kingdom would never be destroyed (Dan. 2:44). Likewise, the Hebrew writer proclaims we have received a “kingdom which cannot be shaken” (Heb. 12:28). “. . . [T1he Lord affirms that death shall have no power over the members of the Church; they shall be able to rise superior to its attacks, even if for a time they seem to succumb; their triumphant cry shall be, ‘O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?’ (1 Cor. 15:55)” (Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 15, Matthew, p. 136).

“The Keys of the Kingdom”: – The Authority

A key is an instrument used to open a door and one who possesses a key has the power and authority of access. Thus, a key is often used in the Scriptures as a symbol of power and authority. For example, God promised the Messiah, “The key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; and he shall shut, and none shall open” (Isa. 22:22). And, the risen Lord is said to have “the keys of death and of Hades” and “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Rev. 1:18; 3:7).

Therefore, “the keys of the kingdom,” Jesus promises Peter, represent the power and authority to open the door of the kingdom, church. Peter used this power, given to him by the Lord, to open the door of the church through the preaching of the gospel, first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles (Acts 2:14-36; 10). Peter reminded his brethren of this privilege during the apostolic council at Jerusalem. “. . . Peter rose up and said to them: ‘Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe'” (Acts 15:7).

The binding and loosing, Jesus mentions, represents authority in the kingdom. “No other terms were in more constant use in Rabbinic canon-law than those of binding and loosing. They represented the legislative and judicial powers of the Rabbinic office” (Vincent, Ibid., p. 96). “To bind a thing was to forbid it; to loose it, to allow it to be done. Thus they said about gathering wood on the Sabbath day, ‘The school of Shaminei binds it’ – i.e. forbids it; ‘the school of Hillel looses it’ i.e. allows it. When Jesus gave this power to the apostles, he meant that whatsoever they forbade in the church should have divine authority; whatever they permitted, or commanded, should also have divine authority -that is, should be bound or loosed in heaven, or meet the approbation of God” (Barnes, Ibid., p. 171).

While Peter alone was given the power of the “keys,” the privilege of first opening the church to the world, he was not alone in the power of “binding and loosing.” The privilege of authority in the kingdom or church, through binding and loosing, was given to all the apostles (see Mt. 18:18-20).

This power or authority, Jesus delegated to his apostles, was not arbitrary nor based upon their human wisdom. The binding and loosing of the apostles was to be based upon what had already been bound and loosed in heaven and revealed to them. Robertson points out that this is exactly the construction of the Greek, “Note the future perfect indicative (shall have already been bound, shall have already been loosed), a state of completion. All this assumes, of course, that Peter’s use of the keys will be in accord with the teaching and mind of Christ” (Robertson, Ibid., Vol. 1, P. 134). Elsewhere, Jesus promised the apostles they would be guided into all truth, which they would bind and loose, by the Holy Spirit (Jn. 16:13; 1 Cor. 2:13; Gal. 1:11-12).


The words of Jesus in Matthew 16:17-18 teach so many truths concerning the church he built. All Jesus promised, he accomplished. He built his church and founded it upon his deity as demonstrated by his resurrection. Peter stood up on the day of Pentecost, after Jesus’ resurrection, and opened the door to the kingdom. Peter preached Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God as shown by his resurrection. “Then those who gladly received his word were baptized . . . and the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:41, 47). And, for those who become a part of Christ’s church, even death does not separate them from the love of God (Rom. 8:39). Become a part of Christ’s triumphant church and share in his victory over death.

Guardian of Truth XXXII: 10, pp. 307-308, 311
May 19, 1988