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This Rock

Tu Es Petrus ...Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church” (Matt 16.18)


When Jesus first met Simon in Bethany, he told him that he was changing his name to “Kepha” (Jn 1.42; Mk 3.16; Lk 6.14). Simon is “reed” (that blows in the wind), meaning a weak and capricious character. Henceforth, Simon would be Kepha or Rock!

The reason for giving Simon a new name was revealed later in a climactic event in Caesarea Philippi. Jesus asked the disciples who they think he is. Simon, now known as Kepha or Peter, made a stirring profession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16.17). In response, Jesus disclosed the divine plan: “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16.18).

Jesus spoke in Aramaic, the common language of Palestine in his time. Peter is from Latin Petrus, Greek Petros and Aramaic Kepha (or transliterated into Greek as Cephas) which means Rock. In the divine scheme, Jesus conferred the symbolic name of Rock upon Simon, setting a stage for a deliberate name play in Matt 16.18 to let known his plan for his community of believers: Thou art Kepha and upon this kepha I will build my church.

This imagery of the “rock” must be provoking to the disciples because the episode took place near a colossal mass of rock in the southern foothills of Mount Hermon. They probably recalled another occasion when Jesus described how a house laid on the foundation of rock was able to withstand the brute flood and swelling river (Matt 7.25; Lk 6.48). With this profound revelation in Matt 16.18, Jesus was establishing a community which, like a building, would have Peter as its solid foundation; and like a rock, would be able to resist the jaws of decay and destruction and endure till the end of time.

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 16.19)

After declaring the founding of the Church on Peter, Jesus told him: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 16.19). The metaphor of the keys can be drawn from Isa 22.21-22 where Eliakim succeeded Shebnah as “master of the palace” and was described as having received the key of the house of David which he magisterially “opens” and “shuts.” By assigning Peter the role of the bearer of “the keys,” Jesus was clearly appointing Peter as his steward or vicar with full function of a regent to rule over the church.

Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt 16.19)

Jesus completed the mandate to Peter with the promise of the power of “binding and loosing,” and an assurance that his actions would be ratified by God. This power of “binding and loosing,” shared collectively with the other apostles (Matt 18.18) is compared to the disciplinary and doctrinal authority of the rabbis in Jesus’ time who interpreted the Old Testament for the faith and life of the Jewish people. Taken together with the metaphor of the key of government, it bespeaks a special jurisdictional authority to which is reserved for Peter only.

“I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22.32)

During the Last Supper, Jesus told Peter: “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.” Another interesting word play: The Greek word used for “strengthen” is steizein, meaning to make hard or firm. The assonant Greek word stereoma is one of the words used in the Greek Old Testament to render the Hebrew selao, rock. Here again, Jesus was telling Peter to communicate to his brethren that firmness of faith from which he got his name.

“Feed my lambs … Tend my sheep … Feed my sheep” (Jn 21.15-17)

Since the existence and life of the Christian faith are intimately linked to the risen Jesus, it is natural that the confirmation of the Petrine ministry should be after the resurrection. Before he ascended to heaven, Jesus asked Peter if he loved him more than the other disciples. The same question was repeated three times, and after receiving a “yes” answer each time, Jesus instructed Peter to “Feed my lambs … Tend my sheep … Feed my sheep.” The shepherd is a familiar agrarian figure responsible for finding pastures and watering places for the sheepfold, defending it against attack and preserving discipline within the flock. Jesus also used the same image to describe his own ministry: “I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me” (Jn 10.14). By conferring the shepherding role on Peter, Jesus was installing upon him the power of jurisdiction to shepherd and watch over the whole church.

The terse words and trajectory of images in the New Testament combined to depict a Petrine primacy in the government of the church as a secure rock, ever intact and unshaken, a bulwark of faith in the treacherous sea of strife, upheavals, and disorders of the past 2000 years of human drama and beyond. The Catholic Church alone is built on the foundation of Jesus who personally provided a visible leadership for his followers in Peter and his successors, the popes. On the rock of Peter is God’s assurance for stability, security, permanence and unity of the church.

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