In the Fulness of Time/Part 106

By: Dr. Thomas O. Figart; ©2008
Is Christ the “rock”? Is Peter’s confession the rock? Is Peter the rock? Dr. Figart explains the support and objections to each interpretation.

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The Founding of the Savior’s Church. Matthew 16:18

16:18 “And I say unto thee, that thou art Peter (Petros) and upon this rock (petra) I will build my church, and the gates of hades shall not prevail against it.”

There are three major views concerningupon this rock.”

First: Christ is the “rock.” Support for this view: Christ is the great foundation stone (petra) and Peter is merely one of the living stones in the building (1 Peter 2:4-5). Comparing Numbers 20:8 with 1 Corinthians 10:4, where Paul refers back to Israel: “And did all drink that same spiritual drink; for they drank of that spiritual Rock (petra) that followed them, and that Rock (petra) was Christ,” It is concluded that petra in Matthew 16:18 should also refer to Christ, since all the Old Testament references are translated petra in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint.

In the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 3:11 states: “For other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ,” and 1 Peter 2:8 says that Christ is “a stone of stumbling, and a rock (petra) of offense” to the Jews.

Objections to this view: While it is true that Christ is spoken of as the Rock (petra) in connection with Israel in all these passages, petra is not used with reference to Christ and the Church. Instead, the words “stone” (lithos), and “chief cornerstone” (akrogoniaiou) are used.

It was enlightening to note that the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Gerhard Kittel, Editor: Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1965-1976), Vol. 1, p. 792), describes this Greek word for “chief cornerstone” as follows: “The final stone in a building, probably set over the gate.” In footnote 2 at the bottom of the same page: “Eph. 4:16 confirms the fact that the integration is from above, so that the akrogoniaios of 2:20 is to be sought high up in the building. Thus, according to Eph. 2:20, the Church is ‘built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets,’ with Christ as the akrogoniaiou, the final stone, high up in the building.”

Even though Christ is spoken of as the “foundation” (themelion) in 1 Corinthians 3:11, the subject of that passage is not the Church; rather, it is salvation, with the subsequent works of believers as the superstructure, being built upon Jesus Christ, Who is the sole foundation of our salvation! Believers are the builders, either with good works of gold, silver or precious stones which will be rewarded; or bad works of wood, hay or stubble which will not stand the test of fire. But both Paul (Ephesians 2:20) and Peter (1 Peter 2:5-8) picture the Church’s superstructure as believers being built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets!

Thus, it would have been inconsistent for Christ to say that He is the Rock, the foundation of the Church, and then immediately say that He is also the builder of His Church. As a matter of fact, Christ points to “this rock” as being separate from Himself.

Second: Peter’s confession of the deity of Christ is the rock. Support for this view: This solves the problem of Christ saying “upon this rock” by referring only indirectly, not directly to Himself. Thus, the rock (petra) is the foundational doctrine of the Messiahship and Deity of Christ. If Christ had meant that Peter himself is the rock, He would have said, “upon thee (epi sou) I will build my Church.”

Objections to this view: Christ does not say that He will build His Church upon what Peter says, even though the doctrines of His Deity and Messiahship are essential within the Church. Rather, the Church is to be built upon the foundation of people, namely, the apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2:20). While Christ did not say, “upon thee,” neither did He say, “upon me,” yet, when verses 18-19 are read as a unit, it is clear that there is no change from direct reference to Peter throughout: “I say unto thee, that thou art Peter.… And I will give unto thee the keys… and whatsoever thou shalt bind… and whatsoever thou shalt loose….” Everything Christ said in these two verses was to Peter and about Peter!

Lenski says that the Church “rests on the reality which Peter confessed, namely on Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, the living,” yet, even he makes this distinction:

The foundation of the church is not subjective, but objective, namely God’s revelation. Nor does ‘this rock’ signify Peter’s confession. The church is not built on the confession her members make, which would turn the effect into the cause. By her confession the church shows on what she is built. (Lenski, R.C.H. Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Columbus, Ohio: Lutheran Book Concern, 1932, pp. 606-607)

Third: Peter is “this rock.” Support for this view: As already noted, in both verses 18-19 Christ speaks directly to Peter and about Peter, without changing His reference to someone else. Thus, it follows that when He says, “Thou art Peter (petros) and upon this rock (petra) I will build my church,” Christ means that the Church will be built upon Peter. This does not necessitate that Peter is the entire foundation, but it allows that Peter is part of the foundation, which is to be composed of “the apostles and prophets” with Jesus Christ as “the chief cornerstone” (akrogoniaiou) high up in the building, which has been defined as the Keystone which holds the entire arch together. This feature would agree with the following verses: “in whom all the building fitly framed together,” and “In whom ye also are built up together” (Ephesians 2:21-22).

Though it is true that Christ is called the foundation of our salvation in 1 Corinthians 3:11, He is never called the foundation of the Church. Thus, in Matthew 16:18, Christ is the builder, adding living stones (believers) as the superstructure upon the foundation of the Church. But in 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 “every man” refers to the builders, adding their superstructure of good works (or bad works) to salvation. To summarize, the buildings are different, the foundations are different, the superstructures are different, and that which happens to the superstructures is different!

Objection to this view: Much has been said of the difference in meaning when defining petros and petra, possibly to counteract the Roman Catholic teaching about the supremacy of Peter. But, there is firm evidence from Protestant scholars to show that these two words are used interchangeably, and that Peter can be the “rock” without accepting any of the false Romanist doctrine.

The name Petros (not now first given, but prophetically bestowed by our Lord on His first interview with Simon, John 1:43) or Kephas, signifying a rock, the termination being only altered to suit the masculine appellation, denotes the personal position of this Apostle in the building of the Church of Christ. He was the first of those foundation stones (Rev. xxi:14) on which the living temple of God was built…. And it is on Peter, as by divine revelation making this confession… that the… Church was built. (Alford, H. The Greek New Testament. 4 Volumes. London: Rivingtons, 1859. Volume 1, p. 113)

Alford, therefore, teaches that Peter is “this rock” and that the only reason for the difference in spelling is because it would have been inappropriate to use the feminine ending (petra) for a masculine name (Petros).

“petra” a rock, ledge, cliff: Matt. 16:18 [some interpp. regard the distinction (generally observed in classical Greek) between petra, the massive living rock, and petros, a detached but large fragment, as important for the correct understanding of the passage; others explain the different genders here as due first to the personal then to the material reference]… petros (an appellative proper name, signifying “a stone,” “a rock,” “a ledge” or “cliff”. (Thayer, J.H. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. New York: American Book Company, 1886, p. 507)

Thayer gives practically the same basic definitions for petra and petros in New Testament Greek, but acknowledges the distinction in classical Greek. He agrees with Alford on the reason for the spelling change.

petra, rock a. literally of the rock in which a tomb is hewn. b. in a play on words with the name Petros. The apostle so named, or the affirmation he has just made, is the rock upon which Christ will build his Church… petros = stone… Not all the problems connected with the conferring of the name Cephas-Peter upon Simon have yet been solved. (Arndt, W.F., and F.W. Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: U. of Chicago P. 1957, p. 660)

Arndt and Gingrich point to the play one words with the name Petros, or, allow for the interpretation that it refers to his confession.

The feminine petra is predominantly used in secular Greek for a large and solid “rock,”… the individual cliff or a stony and rocky mountain chain…. The masculine petros is used more for isolated rocks or small stones including flints and pebbles for slings. Since there is a great difference in content, the emphasis should be noted, though in practice one cannot differentiate too strictly between petra and petros; they are often used interchangeably (p. 95).
The obvious pun which has made its way into the Greek text as well suggests a material identity between petra and Petros, the more so as it is impossible to differentiate strictly between the meanings of the two words (p. 98).
But what did Jesus mean when He says: “On this rock I will build my church”? The idea of the Reformers that He is referring to the faith of Peter is quite inconceivable in view of the probably different setting of the story. For there is no reference here to the faith of Peter. Rather the parallelism of “thou art Rock” and “on this rock I will build” shows that the second rock can only be the same as the first (p. 108). (Kittel, Gerhard, ed. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 10 vols. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965-1976. Vol. 6, pp. 95-112)

The two important things in these quotes are that the words are used interchangeably even in classical Greek and, that in Matthew 16:18 Peter (Petros) is also petra, the “rock.”

Conclusions: As an Apostle, Peter is “this rock” of Matthew 16:18 upon whom the Church will be built by Christ. Christ definitely uses a play on words with Peter’s name, which He himself gave to Simon in John 1:43. Christ also could have said that He would build His Church on any of the other Apostles, which He eventually did, according to Ephesians 2:20.

This cancels out the Roman Catholic doctrine of the supremacy of Peter, which can be disproven elsewhere. In Acts 15 it is James, not Peter, who is in charge of the Church Council. In Galatians 2 the Apostle Paul rebuked Peter for his improper attitude toward Gentile Christians: But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed” (Galatians 2:11-14).

We do not reject the Virgin Birth of Christ simply because Roman Catholic doctrine has added prayer and worship to Mary; nor should we reject Peter as “this rock” upon whom the Church was built because the Roman Church has exalted Peter to papal supremacy. The old cliché is still true: You should not throw out the baby with the bath water!

16:18b “I will build my church.”

Chafer has called attention to the importance of each word in this statement:

When the stress falls on:
I it indicates that the whole enterprise is undertaken by Christ alone.
will the reader is reminded that the Church did not exist at that time.
build suggests a slow, long-drawn-out process (Ephesians 2:20).
my indicates that this company is, above all else, “the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).
church means that there is set up a distinction which exists between this heavenly company and every other classification of human beings. (Chafer, Lewis. S. Systematic Theology. Dallas, Texas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1948. Vol. 4, p. 43)

That the Church, the Body of Christ, was not a continuation from the Old Testament can be shown from several Scriptures. First, in discussing Matthew 13, the various “mystery” aspects of the Church were identified as completely unknown in the Old Testament. Second, Ephesians 2:20 definitely states that the foundation of the Church consists of the apostles and prophets of the New Testament. Third, Peter’s testimony in Acts 11:15-16 was that the Gentiles in Acts 10 were “baptized with the Holy Spirit” just as the apostles were “at the beginning” in fulfillment of the promise of Christ in John 14:16-17, as well as His prediction in Acts 1:5. The “beginning” to which Peter referred was the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2.

16:18c “and the gates of hades shall not prevail against it.”

Since this statement has had various interpretations, it is necessary to review Scriptures which deal with Hades to come to a proper conclusion. The word hades comes from the verb idein, “to see.” Adding the letter alpha (aidein) gives the meaning “not seen” or “unseen.” Thus, Hades is the place of the unseen, the abode of souls after the death of the bodies. It is not the “grave” (mnemeion), which is the abode of dead bodies (John 11:17). In the Old Testament, “sheol” is the equivalent of “hades.”

Even in the Old Testament, two compartments of sheol are listed. Deuteronomy 32:22 mentions “lowest sheol” for the unbeliever and simply sheol for the believer (Psalm 16:10). The New Testament continues this two compartment idea in describing Hades. The upper part is called “Abraham’s bosom” in Luke 16:23 and “paradise” in Luke 23:43, while the lower part is designated as “the abyss” in Luke 8:31 (ASV), or “the deep” and “the bottomless pit” in the King James Version (Revelation 9:1; 20:1,3). Jesus speaks of Hades as having “gates” (pulai). This picture of the unseen world was important in a number of countries. The Egyptian underworld is said to be guarded by a gate, and in Greek literature, Homer speaks of Hades and their keys. Significantly, Jesus said, “I am he that liveth, and was dead, and behold I am alive forevermore, Amen, and have the keys of hades and death” (Revelation 1:18).

According to Ephesians 4:9 Christ descended into “the lower parts of the earth” (called “the abyss” in Romans 10:7) and when Christ “ascended up on high, he led captivity captive.” It would seem that this was prophesied to occur: “The way of life is above to the wise, that he may depart from sheol beneath” (Proverbs 15:24). Thus, the upper section of Hades, (paradise) to which Jesus promised to take the thief on the cross on the very day of crucifixion (Luke 23:43) is now identical with “the third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:3-4).

Herman Hoyt relates all of this to Matthew 16:18: “First, the gates of Sheol-Hades can never close again upon the saved. Christ said, ‘I will build my church and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it’ (Matt. 16:18 ASV). When He led out that host of captive Old Testament saints, He locked the door, and today He holds the keys to that place in His own possession (Rev. 1:18 ASV). That part of Hades will never again open to admit the soul of a saved person” (Hoyt, Herman A. The End Times. Chicago, Illinois: Moody Press, 1969, p. 46).

But, “in the fulness of time” those who have rejected Christ will be imprisoned there, being eternally punished!

Read Part 107


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