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Answering objections against Peter and the Keys

At a recent Bible study about "Peter and the keys" we had a fascinating discussion on the following passage:

"He said to them, 'But who do you say that I am?' Simon Peter replied, 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.' And Jesus answered him, 'Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter (Petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (Matthew 16:15-19 RSV)

In a nutshell, I argued the following points:

Others in our discussion group, however, raised some objections to these arguments, claiming that:

I would like to respond briefly to these objections, because I believe Scripture answers them quite clearly.

 

Objection:

The New Testament was written in Greek and this Greek text is reliable. Interpretations that rest on speculation that the conversation took place in Aramaic are unsafe and shaky at best, especially when they imply that the Greek text is misleading.

Answer:

This objection is misleading, as it implies that I argued that the New Testament Greek text is unreliable. Of course, I never argued such a thing. I believe that the text is reliable and inspired, for Jesus promised His words would never pass away, and subsequently God preserved the Scriptures through the Church He founded.

However, this does not mean that every believer has the ability to interpret every passage of Scripture without error. Even with prayer and careful study, it is still possible for a believer to arrive at wrong conclusions about the meaning of a passage of Scripture. Peter once commented that in Paul’s letters,

"…there are some things that are hard to understand that the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures." (2 Peter 3:16 NAB)

The "ignorant and unstable" are liable to error in interpreting Scripture. Who among us has assurance that we never fall prey to ignorance or instability?

Improving our chance of finding a true interpretation often requires digging carefully beneath the surface of a passage and examining what underlies it. This is why, although the biblical text is sound, we must not fail to dig beneath the surface to achieve a more sound understanding of the text.

Now, the Bible itself doesn’t identify the language in which Matthew was written originally. However, we know that in the first century A.D. the mother tongue of Palestinian Jews was Aramaic.(1) There are important ancient writers (St. Irenaeus, Eusebius, and others) who testify that Matthew wrote his gospel for the Jews in their own language, and only later translated it to Greek.(2)

But actually it isn’t important to this discussion whether the Gospel of Matthew was written in Aramaic. What really matters here is that the New Testament text proves that in this conversation at Caesarea Philippi, the name Jesus gave Peter is the Aramaic "Kepha", meaning "Rock". Consider John 1:41-42.

"He first found his brother Simon, and said to him, 'We have found the Messiah' (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him, and said, 'So, you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas' (which means Peter)." (John 1:41-42 RSV)

We see that when Jesus first met Simon, He indicated the name that later He would confer upon Simon: "Cephas", prounounced "Kay-fas".(3) But Cephas is not a Greek name, nor is it even a Greek word. Rather, it is a Greek rendering of the Aramaic word: "kepha", meaning "rock".(4) The parenthetical phrase in John 1:42 ("which means Peter") proves John realized that "Cephas" was not familiar to the Greek-speaking audience of John's gospel, but still found it important to quote Jesus literally. Therefore he carefully included both "Cephas" and an explanatory translation to the Greek "Petros".(5)

This proves that even if Matthew wrote his Gospel first in Greek (on this scholars are divided), and even if Jesus’ spoke to Peter here in Greek (and that is doubtful), it is nevertheless very clear that the name which Jesus gave to Simon was not the Greek "Petros", but the Aramaic "Kepha". One may have theological or personal reasons to resist this conclusion, but Scripture is clear on this point.

Therefore, on the basis of John 1:42, as well as the frequent appearance of "Cephas" in the New Testament, we can know with certainty that Simon's new name means "Rock". Further, we can know that Jesus said, "You are Rock, and on this rock I will build My Church."

 

Objection:

"Peter" comes from the Greek, "petros", which means "a stone". "Petra" means "rock". Therefore, Peter can't be "petra", or the "rock" of verse 18.

Answer:

There are serious problems with this claim.

Apart from references to Simon Peter, the word "petros" never appears anywhere in the Bible. The New Testament refers to "a stone" in dozens of passages and many different contexts. Yet these passages never use the Greek "petros". Instead, they use "lithos", which is the common Greek word for "a stone".(6) If Jesus wanted to identify Simon as a stone, why didn't He use a word commonly understood to mean "a stone"? In Greek, He could have used the unambiguous "lithos". According to the gospels, this is the very word the Lord used on numerous occasions to designate "a stone".(7) Or, in Aramaic, He could have used "evna", which means "a small stone".(8)

We have already demonstrated from Scripture that Jesus gave Simon the name "Kepha". "Kepha" is rendered in Greek as "Cephas"(9,10), and appears many times in this form throughout the New Testament. However, it is not a Greek word and therefore had no meaning to a Greek-speaking audience. Therefore, Simon also became known as "Petros". "Petros" is the masculine form of the Greek feminine noun "petra", meaning "rock".(12)

Ignoring the Matthew passage in question, the only cases in which one can find any distinction between "petros" and "petra" occur not anywhere in Scripture but in some works of ancient Greek poetry.(11) And in the New Testament era any distinction between the meanings of these words had disappeared. Note that in John 1:42, John explains that Cephas "means Peter", and thereby equates the two words, making no distinction whatsoever between Cephas ( = "kephas" = "Rock") and "Petros". John certainly does not contrast "Rock" with "Peter": to him they are one and the same.

So, why do some people say that "petros" in Scripture means "a stone"? In the end, there is no biblical evidence to support this meaning, and there is overwhelming biblical evidence to conclude "petros" means "rock".

The plain truth is that there is no precedent either in the New Testament or in contemporaneous Greek writings for interpreting "petros" as "a stone".

 

Objection:

The "rock" in verse 18 refers to Christ …or to faith in Christ …or to Peter's profession of faith in Christ. Jesus was contrasting Simon Peter -a stone- against Himself, the "Rock", showing that to believe in Christ is to build one's life upon rock.

Answer:

Look at the passage carefully:

"And Jesus answered him, 'Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter (Petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it." (Matthew 16:16-18 RSV)

To whom does Jesus actually give the name "rock"? Himself? No. Faith? No. He gave it to Simon Peter, just as Jesus had promised earlier:

"Jesus looked at him, and said, 'So, you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas' (which means Peter). (John 1:42 RSV)

Jesus gives the new name to "you" (singular pronoun): that is, Simon Peter. And He continues, "you (singular pronoun) are Rock".

Certainly there are other passages that describe Christ as "rock", but these are different passages and different contexts. Further, Jesus is not the only individual Scripture calls "rock". What about Abraham? Scripture quotes God Himself referring to Abraham as "rock"…

Hearken to me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek the LORD: look unto the rock [whence] ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit [whence] ye are digged. Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah [that] bare you: for I called him alone, and blessed him, and increased him. (Isaiah 51:1-2 KJV)

Obviously this does not contradict passages that call Christ "rock", nor does it mean that Abraham is Christ. Metaphors are used in various contexts in different ways, and the application of the metaphor "rock" to Abraham clearly does not prevent its subsequent application to Jesus or Simon Peter in a different sense and a different context. To argue otherwise is to weave an uneven fabric of passages related merely by their usage of the word "rock", ignoring their different contexts.

Rejecting Peter as "rock" because Christ is "Rock" is a mistake, and requires denying the plain and correct meaning of this unambiguous passage.

In verse 18 Jesus clearly names Simon Peter as "rock". Jesus then expands the metaphor by presenting Himself as the divine builder, Who has designated the foundation upon which He chooses to build His Church. Note that in this metaphor, Jesus is the architect and builder, not the foundation. Just as the Lord "digged" His people from the rock of Abraham, who became "father of many nations" (Genesis 17:5), so also the Lord founded His Church upon the foundation rock of Simon Peter. Do we claim that Peter is equal to Christ, or that Peter is a perfect man, or that he made himself the Rock? Of course not. We simply recognize that Jesus gave Peter a unique and foundational role essential to the structure of the Church.

Jesus gave Peter the authority and assistance to shepherd the Church in right teaching and holy discipline. Therefore,

ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner [stone]; (Ephesians 2:19-20 KJV)

 

Objection:

Jesus spoke to Peter as a representative of all believers. Therefore, Jesus gave the "keys of the kingdom of heaven" to all believers, not just Peter.

Answer:

The Bible disproves this. Matthew records that Jesus explicitly gave the keys to Peter, addressing Himself to Peter with the accusative singular pronoun "se" [thee].(13) Nowhere else in the New Testament does Jesus say He will give these keys to anyone else.

But what to do "the keys" refer to? Are they simply a symbol of faith in Christ, or of acceptance of the Gospel? No. What does Scripture say? There are two passages that are very relevant, as they refer both to "keys" and to binding and loosing:

"And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: `The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens. (Revelation 3:7 RSV)

"In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your girdle on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. And I will fasten him like a peg in a sure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his father's house. And they will hang on him the whole weight of his father's house, the offspring and issue, every small vessel, from the cups to all the flagons." (Isaiah 22:20-24 RSV)

These passages speak of keys as a visible token of authority, given to one who rules over a household or a kingdom. It is not given as a personal gift, but as a necessary instrument for the right governing of the kingdom. The one who carries the keys has the authority to "open" and "shut", to "bind" and "loose". If everyone in a kingdom were to have such authority, the result would be anarchy and the speedy collapse of the kingdom.

 

Objection:

Peter was known to deny Christ, and elsewhere to earn Paul's rebuke, and therefore could not possibly qualify as the "rock" upon which Christ would build His Church.

Answer:

This objection is based upon the false assumption that Jesus can not accomplish His will through imperfect men. Recognizing this underlying fallacy immediately defuses the objection, but it's interesting to explore this a little further.

One idea underlying this false assumption is that the "rock" upon which Jesus builds His Church has to conform to our own standards of what "this rock" should be. I suppose if we were God, it would. Humanly speaking, one might expect that the rock should appear to be massive, unshakable, without fault or defect. But if we look past this preconceived idea, we can realize that "this rock" is not a solid foundation because the rock itself decided to be so; it's solid because the Lord established it according to His own purpose, and cemented it to the "chief cornerstone", who is Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church.

Scripture does not tell us whether, after the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles, Peter ever sinned. He well may have. Certainly he earned Paul's rebuke for failing to act without partiality toward the circumcised and uncircumcised. Peter may have had other personal failings as well. But even if we assume that Peter subsequently sinned, this would not undo the fact that the Church does not collapse if one of its human pastors fails. Jesus, the cornerstone, upholds the Church, despite cracks and flaws in its stones and base. This is why, even though all the Apostles were sinners who needed God's mercy, they still form the foundation of the Church.

"You form a building which rises on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone." (Ephesians 2:20 RSV)

"The wall of the city had twelve courses of stones as its foundation, on which were inscribed the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb." (Rev. 21:14 NAB)

How great and visible a proof this is of the Church's divine origin and its Founder's tireless protection! Defects in the living stones of the Church are visible to the whole world, yet against the Church "the gates of hell shall not prevail".

 

Your friend,

John Robin.

 

Footnotes

1 George A. Buttrick, et al., eds., The Interpreter's Bible, 1951, Abingdon Press. vol 7, pg. 43.

2 Patrick Madrid, Pope Fiction, 1999, Basilica Press. pg. 44.

3 James Strong, Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, 1890, Abingdon Press, Nashville. Greek #2786.

4 James Strong, Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, 1890, Abingdon Press, Nashville.

5 Similarly, for the benefit of his audience John provided a translation of the Hebrew term "Messiah" to the Greek "Christos".

6 Strong, Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible.

7 Matthew 7:9; 21:42; 21:44; Mark 13:2; John 8:7; 11:39.

8 Karl Keating, Who is the Rock? Catholic Answers, San Diego, CA.

9 Strong's Concordance defines "Cephas" as "the Rock"; cf. 2786.

10 J. Michael Miller, The Shepherd and the Rock -Origins, Development, and Mission of the Papacy, 1995, Our Sunday Visitor.

11 Patrick Madrid, Pope Fiction, 1999, Basilica Press. pg. 42. Madrid notes that among the prominent Protestant theologians who acknowledge this fact are Oscar Cullmann and D. A. Carson.

12 The Interpreter's Bible translates "Petros" as "Rock man". Vol. 7, pg. 451.

13 James Strong, Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, 1890, Abingdon Press, Nashville. Greek #4571.