Rev. Mark A. Barber
Most of us have heard this text preached before and/or studied it in Sunday school. Usually the lesson zeroes in on Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ. Additionally, there is usually some discussion on whether Peter was given the prominence in the church above that of the other apostles or whether the rock just refers to Jesus’ confession. These things are and should be discussed. But there is much more in this passage than to proof text the papacy or even upon the confession itself. To do this, we must understand this passage within its context and see all that is taught. When we have done this, we will begin to see how rich this passage is. Let us now examine the passage.
Jesus had just finished warning the disciples against the teaching of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These two groups were united in their opposition to Jesus, even though their views about Judaism were at loggerheads with each other. It is at this point that Jesus departs for the region of Caesarea Philippi.
To the modern reader in America, it would be easy to overlook the importance of this transition. Some would see this as a means to get away from the persecution of the Pharisees and Saduccees. But would it not be odd to go to the same place where Herod Phillip had his palace, a man whom Jesus called “a fox”? Is this not where John the Baptist had run into trouble and been arrested and beheaded. Would going to Caesarea Philippi then be an attempt to escape the frying pan by jumping into the fire?
Others would see this as a means of Jesus withdrawing from the crowds to give important teaching to His disciples. The parallel account in Luke seems to indicate this, although it does not mention the place where Jesus took them. Indeed it is true that Jesus did have something very important for His disciples to learn, more than appears to us at first.
To cross over to Caesarea Philippi was to cross into Gentile territory. The importance of this statement cannot be overstated. It represented a territory whose culture would seem utterly hostile to the Palestinian Jews who made up Jesus’ disciples. There was already enough Gentile intrusion and influence in the land of Palestine itself, even in the holy city of Jerusalem. Jesus had also taken the disciples into Gentile territory before. He had taken them to Decapolis, the ten Gentile villages east of the Sea of Galilee and to the land of the Gadarenes where the demoniac had been delivered from a legion of demons in the cemetery there. The feeding of the 4,000 took place in Gentile territory. And Jesus healed a Gentile woman’s daughter while on a mission to the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon.
But the region of Caesarea Philippi was very, very pagan. In the ancient times, it was a center of Baal worship. From a cave every year, it was believed that Baal and his female consort Asherah emerged as from the dead. Their sexual union, ritualized by temple prostitutes, restored fertility to the dead earth. In the worship of these gods, the firstborn children were sacrificed in hopes of having many more children. The ancient Israelites had become ensnared in the worship of Baal which caused Yahweh to send them out of the land into captivity. The remnant of the Jews who returned from the Babylonian captivity had learned their lesson, or so they thought. They corrupted the title Baal-Zebul which means “exalted lord” to Baal Zebub which means “lord of the flies” in mock contempt. This is the same Baalzebub which the Jewish leaders had accused Jesus of using to exorcise demons. So this would come as quite a shock that Jesus would lead them there.
Even more shocking is that when the Greeks conquered Palestine, they carved a temple into the cliff where this cave was located from which both Baal and the east branch of the Jordan River emerged and dedicated it to their god, Pan, who was half goat and half man. The word “Pan” in Greek means “everything”. Worship of this “everything” god included scantily dressed goat dancers whose private parts were covered only with removable veils. The horrors of this place would even be worse than the shocking dream of Peter in the book of Acts in which he was asked to slay and eat all sorts of unclean animals. No self-respecting Jew would ever be caught dead there.
I feel the disciples would have been a bit on edge when Jesus asks them the first question: “Who do men say that the Son of Man is?” The word “men” is generic. Jesus did not say “Who do the Jews think the Son of Man is? But the disciples the thought within the borders of their own culture and answered accordingly. They gave various answers of what they had heard from other Jews, some thought John the Baptist or Elijah, some others Jeremiah or one of the prophets, all Israelites.
From this response, Jesus gets in their face and asks the disciples directly of their opinion of Him. He wants to know what they thought. What would be the expected answer? Would it not be: “You are the Son of Man?” Had not Jesus told them such already? Was that not true of Jesus? -of course it was.
But Simon did not give the expected answer. Instead of saying “You are the Son of Man”, he boldly states that Jesus is “the Son of the living God. And instead of saying “You are the long expected Jewish Messiah” he states “You are the Christ.” What is the difference between Jesus as Messiah and Jesus as Christ? After all, the translation of both terms is “anointed one”. The difference is this—is Jesus the Messiah to the Jews alone or the Christ to all the nations, including Israel?
So here, Jesus is acclaimed a new title as the Son of the living God in addition to the title Son of Man. And the mandate as the Jewish Messiah is expanded to the universal Christ.
Jesus responds to Simon’s confession by calling him out by his full Aramaic name Simon Bar-Jonah which is Simon, son of Jonah, and blessing him. Simon’s father was named after the reluctant prophet Jonah who was called by Yahweh to preach to the Gentiles. Jesus had previously mentioned Jonah to the Jews as the only sign Jesus would give. As Jonah was in the sea-creature’s belly for three days and three nights, so Jesus would be three days in the tomb. Flesh and blood had not told Jonah to preach to the Gentiles; indeed, every one of his peers would have thought him mad. Rather it was God who had revealed this to Jonah. In the same way, flesh and blood had not revealed the full identity of Jesus, it came from God the Father directly.
As Jesus had been transformed in the understanding of Pater, resulting in the addition of the title “Son of the Living God” to Jesus, Jesus responds by giving Simon Bar-Jonah a new Greek name, “Peter”, meaning stone or rock. John had already revealed that Peter had been called by the Aramaic name “Cephas” which means the same thing in English. But Jesus does not say “Thou art Cephas” but “Thou are Peter”, a Greek name.
Now we get to the mystery of the phrase “upon this rock”. I have been teasing you all along about the meaning to these words. So now permit me to reveal it to you. When Ray Van Der Laan in one of the videos called “Faith Lessons on the Holy Land” showed me the key, it made all the difference in the world how I understood this verse. When I saw the video, it showed a picture of the place. There was the temple carved into the rocky cliff like the Nabatean city of Petra which was also carved into the rock, That word is the same here, upon this petra”. Are you starting to get the picture here? Jesus is not referring to Peter here at all. Instead, He is pointing to the rock which the pagan temple is carved. Let me give you one last piece of the puzzle. Do you remember the cave I mentioned from which one of the branches of the Jordan emerged? Remember how I told you it served as the tomb of Baal and Asherah for half of the year? Now let me reveal the cave’s name. In Greek it was called “the Gates of Hades” (the Greek underworld) or to put it in King Jamese. “The Gates of Hell”. Now do you see what Jesus means when he states “Upon this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it?
This was as Gentile a rock as could be imagined. Peter and the others had learned about a Jewish rock called Horeb in the wilderness journeys of the book of Exodus. In’ fact, the Greek translation of Exodus 17:6 is “Petra of Horeb”. From under this rock, water flowed when Moses was instructed to strike it. And under this Rock of Horeb the children of Israel made a golden calf and danced, played and committed fornication. Moses then called out to the assembly of Israel “Who is on the Lord’s side?” In spite of this and many other rebellions of the children of Israel, God built the church of Israel there. But the idea of a Gentile rock is a radical development indeed.
God not only chose a Gentile rock upon which to found the church, but he chose one that was in the world as compared to the rock in the wilderness. It was in the world where Caesar was believed to be Lord and King that the true Lord and King, Jesus, was to be proclaimed. It was not at the nearby temple of Caesar in Caesarea Philippi where people were to worship, but here, in the church of the living God, built on top of the rock. Let Baal and all of the other dead gods be buried in the gates of Hades, under the rock. Jesus would go on to tell his disciples of his rejection and death in Jerusalem. They would bury Jesus in a tomb carved into the Petra. But Jesus would emerge alive from there on the third day, never to return to the realm of the dead and of dead gods. He completed the predicted exodus at Jerusalem. It is not Caesar whose spirit ascended to the right hand of Zeus (Jupiter) and demonstrated himself to be the son of a god as some supposed. Rather it is Jesus, a crucified Jew and no more than that in the eyes of many, who ascended to the right hand of the living God (theos). Jesus called out to the idolatrous pagans assembled to worship Pan, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this sinful and adulterous generation, of Him will the Son of man be ashamed …”(Mark 8:38). In other words, “Who is on the Lord’s side? This person is the one who takes up his or her cross and follows Jesus.
We should now clearly see, that it was God’s intention from the very beginning to build a church from all nations, and not just a particular nation. Remember that this is in Matthew’s gospel, the one most think was written to Jewish Christians. Many modern interpreters, for example, see the Sermon on the Mount as being written to the Jews, not to Christians. But Matthew 4:25 states “And there followed him great multitudes of people from Galilee, and from Decapolis, and from Jerusalem, and from Judaea, and from beyond Jordan.” Did you notice Decapolis? These were Gentile villages. Gentiles were in the crowds which followed Jesus. This sets up the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus saw this mixed multitude, went up the mount and sat down. And when His disciples gathered around Him, He began to teach them the Sermon on the Mount. The end of this sermon tells us exactly who these disciples were. They were like the wise men who built their house upon (perhaps “in the rock”) the petra (rock). The disciples were those who had heard the words of Jesus and had put them into practice. In this sense, the disciples of Jesus are the stones of the church itself which Jesus had founded upon the rock, a Rock of all nations ruled by the Christ of all nations. We then must listen to the call of the Great Commission to go out and proclaim the gospel to all nations for the purpose of making them disciples. We have a story to tell to the nations. We must be bold and not hide any more in our churches. No more of this “Hold the Fort” stuff, help is coming. No more of this “safe am I in the castle of God’s word retreating”. Folks, the message we need to follow is “Onward Christian Soldiers—with the cross of Jesus, going on before”. God has commanded us to go out and not turn in. But the church has turned in on itself. No wonder there is no revival, no wonder we no longer hear the cries of new birth. It is because we have failed to be disciples ourselves. No army goes out to war carrying its gates in front. Satan is not coming after us with gates. Instead, we are to storm the gates of hell itself. The call from the commander is “forward”! “”Make disciples of all nations (Gentiles) by baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost and by teaching them to put into practice all the things I have commanded you”. Has not Jesus promised to be with us even to the end of the age? Has not all authority been given to Jesus? If we will but think God’s thoughts after Him, and act God’s acts after Him, will it not work out. Will we not find then that God had bound and loosed in heaven will be bound and loosed on earth. Will it not be found that God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven?
But we cannot think God’s thoughts after Him and act His acts after Him unless we are listening. Let none of us think ourselves wise enough in ourselves to build upon the rock. If we do, we will receive the stinging rebuke the Lord gave Peter: “Get behind me Satan for you would replace the concerns of God with the concerns of men. At this revival, let us take the time to pray and hear what the Lord is telling us to do. Let us hear His words and put them into practice.