“But what about you?” Jesus asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And 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. Matthew 16.15-18.
“Tu es Petrus.” Yesterday, as I realised that Roman Catholics the world over were celebrating the Feast of the Chair of Peter and listening to Palestrina’s anthem, I couldn’t help but turn my mind once again to this thorny question of just what it was that Jesus meant when he told Simon: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”
Hugely controversial, I know; but it is my belief that the answer lies in two things: first, the precise meaning of the Greek words used; and second, the place in which they were spoken. Place? Yes, place … stay with me and I’ll explain.
The two key Greek words are petros and petra, and despite their close similarity, they do in fact have very different meanings. The first is a masculine noun and means a large stone or boulder, and is the new name that Jesus gave to Simon when he first met him (John 1.42). The second is a feminine noun and means a large rock projecting from the earth, or a cliff – something big enough to build upon or to hew out a tomb from, like the one in which Jesus was laid (Matthew 27.60.) And here’s the thing …
Jesus and Peter just happen to be having their conversation in sight of – perhaps at the very foot of – just such a rock.
They have travelled north, you see, with the other disciples to Caesarea Philippi (Matthew 16.13) which was the capital of the Tetrarch Philip, the son of Herod the Great. Caeserea Philippi was a beautiful spot. Situated on a terrace in the folds of Mount Hermon, over a thousand feet above sea level, it was a place of cascades, torrents, fountains, vines, fig trees, mulberries, birds. Today, it goes by the name of Banias, but its significance lies in its ancient name of Paneas — the place of Pan. Here was the sanctuary of the Greek god of flocks and shepherds, in a vast cavern from which gushed the waters that become the Jordan; and (tan-tara!) above the cavern towered an enormous rock wall – a petra indeed – on which had been built Philip’s castle.
The coincidence seems just too great. It is more than enough to convince me that what happened here was this. Peter made his astounding confession – “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” – and Jesus, looking up at the fortress built on the towering cliff beside them, said: “Peter – a stone? Yes – but what you’ve just said is more than a stone: it’s a mighty rock – a cliff, just like this one. And on that confession, that core truth of who I am – I will build my community of believers, my church, just as Philip has built his citadel on this rock here.”
My Roman Catholic friends will not agree with me, of course; but it seems inconceivable to me that Jesus was referring to Peter himself as the mighty rock on which he would build his church. (Although, undeniably, he had an important role in the establishment of the early church, his significance seemed to wane later and he is not mentioned at all after chapter 16 in the book of Acts.) Furthermore, in the second chapter of his first letter, Peter himself gives us a picture of the church that seems to leave no room for himself as its foundation. He describes it as an edifice made up of living stones (stone here is lithos which means the kind of trimmed stone that is used in construction work) with Jesus himself as the chief corner stone (1 Peter 2.4-8). Peter can hardly have imagined such a structure perched on him personally and his successors! But such a structure could, and did, and still does, rest on that amazing confession of the truth of who Jesus is.
When I make that confession too, I become one of those living stones and I too find my place in the great building that is established securely on the top of it – not on Peter but on the immovable rock of the fact that: “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”