Upon This Rock

by Tom Wacaster

Most of us are very familiar with our Lord’s promise in Matthew 16:18 to build His church.  The immediate context begins in verse 13 and extends through verse 20. Unfortunately, most people focus on verse 18 and neglect both the context and other passages that help the student come to a proper understanding of the precise meaning of verse 18. The consequence is a warped view of the church, a twisted view of the role of Peter as the “rock,” and the nature of the church Jesus promised to build. I want to use a couple of my weekly columns to take a closer look at Matthew 16:13-120 in hopes of giving us a better understanding and providing some tools that might help you to teach others the truth contained therein.

The paragraph is beautiful in its structure and powerful in its impact. G. Campbell Morgan had this tribute to the passage now before us:

“This is one of the most remarkable passages in the whole of this Gospel of the King. Here we are at the center of our story; here we find light which flashes backward and forward, illuminating the path we have already travelled, and casting its light upon what remains to us of the study of this book. Some consider this event as the climax in Jesus’ training of the disciples, for it is at this important junction in their association with Jesus that public confession is made concerning our Lord’s deity” (The Gospel of Matthew)

“Now when Jesus came into the parts of Caesarea Philippi.” The place is significant. This city is rich in its history, and beautiful in its surroundings. Holman’s Dictionary provides the following information:About 1,150 feet above sea level, Caesarea Philippi is located on a triangular plain in the upper Jordan Valley along the southwestern slopes of Mt. Hermon. Behind it rise bluffs and rugged mountain peaks. The area is one of the most lush and beautiful in Palestine, with groves of trees and grassy fields abounding. Water is in abundance, for the city is near the spot where the spring Nahr Baniyas, one of the sources of the Jordan, gushes from a cave in the bluffs. The city is also in a strategic location, guarding the plains in the area. The extent of its ruins indicate that it was a city of considerable size. Caesarea Philippi seems to have been a religious center from its earliest days. The Canaanite god Baal-gad, the god of good fortune, was worshiped here in Old Testament times. Later, in the Greek period, a shrine was dedicated to the god Pan. When Herod the Great was king of the Jews, he built a temple out of white marble near the same spot and dedicated it to Emperor Augustus. The city also has an important place in the history of the area. Paneas, as it was called before its name was changed, was the site of a famous battle (198 B.C.) in which Antiochus the Great defeated the Egyptians and thereby took control of Palestine for the Seleucids. In 20 B.C., the Romans under Augustus, who then controlled the area, gave the territory to Herod the Great. After Herod’s death, it passed to his son Philip who ruled there from 4 B.C. until his death in A.D. 34. Philip rebuilt the city into a beautiful place and renamed it Caesarea Philippi in honor of Tiberias Caesar and himself. When Herod Agrippa II (grandson of Herod the Great) inherited the city, he renamed it Neronias in honor of the emperor Nero. But, after Nero’s death the name was dropped. During the Jewish-Roman War of A.D. 66-70, the Roman general Vespasian rested his army here. After the war, Titus, who succeeded his father as general of the Roman armies, held gladiatorial shows here during which a number of Jewish prisoners were put to death. After subduing the Jews, the Romans changed its name back to Paneas.

Standing at the foot of that massive rock ledge where Herod had erected a temple in honor of Caesar Augustus, the Lord was about to announce that He would build His church on a rock more firm, more solid, and more lasting than any monument to men.

“Who do men say that the Son of man is?” Jesus was eliciting an answer that, if correctly provided by His disciples, would demonstrate their spiritual development. Having already called upon them to follow Him, He tested their loyalty by giving commands for them to follow. Now He would test them to see if they had fully accepted Him as Lord; as the Messiah promised from of old. Jesus began with an open discussion as to what “men” thought of Jesus. There were some who said that Jesus was John the Baptist risen from the dead. It is generally believed, based on Matthew 14:1-3, that Herod may have started this report, a report that was evidently accepted by a large number of the populace. Such a false concept of Jesus would immediately be embraced by the enemies of Christ for the simple reason that the miracles could then be explained without having to acknowledge that Jesus was the Messiah. Others thought that Jesus must have been Elijah. The Jews had a tradition that Elijah would come back to earth, and upon that return he would do great miracles and works. This would be another way of accounting for the miracles of Jesus without acknowledging Him to be the Son of God. Finally there were those who claimed that Jesus was “Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” Why some would draw this conclusion is not clear. It is notable that every attempt had been made to exhaust the possibilities of exactly who Jesus was without any clear affirmation that He was the Messiah promised in the Old Testament. All such opinions were without merit. While a great number evidently recognized Jesus as a “great one,” they had not advanced far enough in their faith to proclaim Him as the Messiah, the Son of God.  Had Jesus failed to bring His disciples to the point where they believed that Jesus was more than a prophet, He would have failed in His earthly ministry. As you can see, the question our Lord asked was most important and one designed to test whether or not this little band of apostles had been influenced by the “leaven” of the Pharisees, or whether they were ready to acknowledge Him as the Christ. The question the Lord asked of them must be considered by all men, for if Jesus is no more than a prophet, then in actuality He is an imposter and a deceiver. As Foster noted, “All these popular views were like the modern rejections of Jesus as ‘a good man,’ ‘the greatest of teachers,’ or ‘one of the prophets.’ They seem to praise, but they actually defame Jesus as a deceiver. There is no such middle ground which may be occupied. If the claims of Jesus to deity are denied, then He was not a good man, nor the great teacher, nor a prophet. It is all or nothing” (Foster, 702). If not John the Baptist, or one of the prophets, then exactly who is this Jesus?

“He saith unto them, But who say ye that I am?” They had walked with Jesus for a little more than two years, witnessed His miracles, listened to and embraced His teachings. Based on that, who did they think He is? In less than a dozen words (ten in our English), Peter takes the lead and proclaims one of the most earth shattering truths that will ever grace the lips of men. “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” As Foster noted: “One of the amazing things about Peter’s confession is that it is so brief, so precise, so entirely adequate that even though he did not at the time comprehend the divine content of the word Christ, yet at Pentecost, when he was fully inspired to proclaim the full gospel, the good confession did not have to be revised.”  The “son of man” is put in contrast with the “Son of the living God.” His answer contains two propositions: first, that Jesus was the Christ; second, that He was the Son of the living God. The former identified Him as the long-expected deliverer of whom the prophets had written; and the latter declared Him, what the Jews had not expected their Messiah to be, the Son of God.

Any attempt to examine our Lord’s promise to build His church separate and apart from the confession of Peter and the apostles is poor hermeneutics and has led to a fundamental flaw in Catholicism—namely the doctrine of the Popery. (see part 2)

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