“Upon This Rock”
by Dave Hadlock
In Mattthew 16:18, Christ said to Peter, “thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The word “this” is a demonstrative adjective that shows relative distance between the speaker and the object in question. The speaker is Christ so “this rock” must be close to His proximity. This article will discuss what Christ is referring to as the rock in this passage?
Understanding original intent of scripture can be difficult, particularly when the original scripture is obviously symbolic.This lesson will discuss three possible symbolic meanings to which Christ was referring when He said “this rock”.
At this point in His ministry, Christ and his apostles were at the ancient city of Caesarea Phillipi. Christ was probably standing at the foot of a great rock or cliff (as pictured above) when He uttered the words of building upon this rock. Christ used his surroundings to teach symbolically. By uttering this phrase at the foot of an actual rock, it would have lent context to the firm foundation and strength of the rock upon which the church would be built. Obviously, Christ wasn’t referring to building the church literally upon this rock, but rather He was using the surroundings to add power to His original intent. Scholars debate the original intent, usually discussing the following three possible understandings.
1) The rock is Peter: The Greek word for “Peter” is “Petros”. The word for “rock” in this passage comes from the Greek word “Petra”. There is a possibility that Christ is using the same root word as a play on words, meaning upon the rock of “Peter” I will build my church. This interpretation is strengthened when we consider that what directly follows is a promise to give Peter the keys of the Kingdom. There appears to be a formulaic (cause & effect) phrasing that takes place in this passage. He states “Thou art Peter…I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of Heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven”. Similarly in the New World, Christ says to Nephi in parallel manner, “Thou art Nephi…behold I give unto you power, that whatsoever ye shall seal on earth shall be sealed in heaven.” (Helaman 10:7). The rock becomes Peter in that he represents the holder of the keys of the kingdom. The Church would be built upon priesthood authority or as stated by Paul in Ephesians 2:20, the household of God would be “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.”
2) The rock is Christ: Christ could have been referring to Himself as the Rock upon which the church would be built. Continuing with the teachings of Paul, the foundation was the apostles and prophets, with “Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone” (Ephesians 2:20). Christ is often depicted in scripture as a “rock”. In 1 Corinthians 10:4, Paul compares Christ to the rock from which water flowed after being struck by Moses in the wilderness, stating, “for they (the Israelites) drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ”. This understanding also makes sense given the context of the passage. Peter had just declared his knowledge that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God”. The “this rock” may make reference to this declaration by Peter.
3) The rock is revelation: Joseph Smith taught that the “rock” referenced here by Jesus was the rock of revelation. This understanding is strengthened by the idea that Christ was referencing the means by which Peter knew Christ was the Son of God. For “flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in Heaven.” (Matthew 10:17). Further strengthening this argument is the fact that this physical rock had waters flowing out from underneath it (see picture below). The living waters of revelation that flow forth from the firm foundation.
I believe Christ taught this passage symbolically and with ambiguity because His original intent was for this passage to be understood with the rock meaning all three of these possibilities. All three were in close proximity to Him and are consistent with other revealed scripture. I believe Christ meant that the church was to be built on the foundation of priesthood keys being given to His apostles. These keys would direct people on how to build their own lives upon the knowledge of and a relationship with the Rock, Christ. Which relationship we build and strengthen as we come to know Him in the same way Peter came to know him…not by flesh and blood, but by the Holy Ghost and the “Father which is in Heaven.”
When we as a church and as individuals follow the apostles and seek for personal revelation, we have the assurance that the “gates of hell” shall not prevail against neither the church nor us as individuals. Ancient civilizations often believed that the gates of hell were caves. As Christ spoke to His apostles, he very well may have pointed to the cave at the foot of this mighty rock (seen below) and stressed that through His power and strength, through a firm witness of Him, no gate of hell would have power over them.