There has been a lot of ink spilled over the issue of which “rock” Jesus is talking about in Matthew 16:18. Why not spill some more? First let’s have a look at the text. [To the left a picture of the Gates of the underworld in Caesarea Philippi.]
“13When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
14They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
17Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18And 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.”
- Our view in Churches of Christ and protestantism in general has traditionally been that the rock Jesus was talking about was Peter’s confession.
- The Roman Catholic view is that Peter himself is the rock (their basis for him being the first Pope). The second view does have its merit, although quite a weak one, that it makes sense of the word play between Peter and rock.
- Ray Vander Laan offers up a third possibility that I had never considered. He mentions that in Caesarea Philippi there was a rock that had a cleft in it that people believed was the gates to the underworld. They believed evil spirits associated with the Greek god Pan would travel through those gates back and forth to Hades. Vander Laan believes that Jesus was referring to that rock that his church would be built upon. I believe his point is that the church is going to take supremacy over the gates of Hades and not so much that evil is going to be the basis for his church.
This is a little puzzling because the traditional filter we have used to evaluate this verse is that Jesus is talking about using a rock as a foundation and that only makes sense if the foundation is worthy to serve that which is built upon it. So the foundation and what is built upon it work in unison to accomplish a unified purpose. Vander Laan’s view doesn’t pass through this filter very well as a demonic gate into Hades where evil spirits live just doesn’t seem a very likely foundation for the church. It does challenge us to not read this story flat. It challenges us to stand in Caesarea Philippi, view what they viewed, and recognize some of the obvious parallels Jesus is making with the culture of the area. But we have to be careful and not stretch what Jesus intended to say into something catchy or nuanced in order to make it come to life more in a video.
I am still of the opinion that it only makes sense for the foundation and the building built upon it needs to fit together. It still doesn’t make sense to me to build the church on the rock of a pagan cult, even if the intended message was God wants to bring redemption to Caesarea Philippi and the pagan practices there. The bedrock of our Christian faith and the church is not some rock in Israel or the person of Peter. The foundation of our faith is the true message of Jesus Christ as messiah and Son of God. In my mind, that is the only conclusion we can come to that really makes sense in this passage. Peter’s confession still stands as the foundation for our faith. I think that is something Peter would agree with and I believe he would cringe at attempts to make himself or the stones of Caesarea Philippi the object of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 16:18 of what the church would be built upon. If Jesus really meant C.P. as the foundation of the church, wouldn’t you think the early Christians would have understood that and used it as home base more so than Jerusalem?
What do you think Jesus means when he speaks of the rock he will build his church upon? Do you think Vander Laan is off base based on the above summary of his view?