What is the rock in Matthew 16:18 upon which Jesus will build His church?
Matthew 16:18 records Jesus saying, "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." Who or what is this rock?
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According to the interpretation of the Roman Catholic Church, this rock refers to Peter. The word "Peter" is the Greek word for rock. Therefore, the connection is made between Peter as a rock and the use of rock in verse 18. This has become very important for Catholic theology because Peter is then seen as the foundation of the church and the first pope among the line of popes in the Catholic tradition.
However, Protestants understand the "rock" to be Jesus. Jesus could be referring back to Peter's confession that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:16) or perhaps He was pointing to Himself when He made the statement. Why do Protestants believe this? First, Jesus would not build His church upon any person other than Himself. Second, Jesus immediately follows with, "I will build my church." While Peter was an important part of the church's beginning, Jesus is the builder of the church. Third, Jesus said, "The gates of hell shall not prevail against it." Death would eventually come to Peter, but Christ would resurrect from the dead, proving death could not prevail.
The debate over what Jesus meant has been long. But a look at the rest of Scripture points toward the view that Peter's confession regarding Jesus' identity – so Jesus Himself – as the rock is the best understanding of the passage.
For example, 1 Corinthians 3:6-7 notes, "I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth." Jesus is the builder of the church from Paul's perspective.
Of great importance are Peter's own words in 1 Peter 2:4-7. He writes, "As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture: 'Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.' So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, 'The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.'"
If Peter called Jesus the cornerstone and Paul called Jesus the One who grows the church, then the most accurate understanding of the rock upon whom the church is built is Jesus Christ. No human could accomplish this goal; but Jesus, God in human form, fully accomplished His work and continues to build a prevailing church today.
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