Day 293: What Did Jesus Mean by “Upon This Rock?” (Matthew 16:18)

Ceaserea Philippi as it is today. In the foreground is the Banias (or Panias) River, which eventually joins with two others to become the Jordan. In the background is the cave, known in Jesus’ day, as the Gates of Hell.

Historical marker at Ceaserea Philippi, depicting how it would have looked in Jesus day. Note the list of shrines and temples in the lower left. The Temple of Augustus stood in front of the Gates of Hell.
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. (Matthew 16:18)

Through the Bible: Matthew 16, Mark 8

When you go to Israel, you will visit the ruins of Caesarea Philippi. And yes, I said “when,” not “if.” You need to go. Christianity doesn’t require a pilgrimage the way Islam does, but I promise that you will never read the Bible the same way again after you visit Israel. Nowhere is this more evident to me than in today’s reading.

In today’s TBR, Tara-Leigh did a wonderful job of navigating some of our sectarian differences about what Jesus meant when He said, “Upon this rock I will build my church.” She talked about Option 1: that “this rock” was Peter, and Jesus was instituting apostolic succession. Let’s call that the Catholic view.

Then there is Option 2: “This rock” referred to Peter’s faith, not Peter himself. Jesus was effectively saying, “I will build my church on the kind of faith that boldly confesses Me as the Christ.” We can call this the Protestant view.

But if you’ll allow me, I’d like to suggest a third option. I’m gonna call it the missional view. And this was something that didn’t really hit me until I went to Israel and stood at the ruins of Caesarea Philippi. Tara-Leigh painted a great picture of the place on the podcast this morning. Today, as in Jesus’ day, you’ve got this dark cave that the locals called the Gates of Hell. But in Jesus’ day, there was the Temple of Augustus directly in front of it. Then there’s a shrine to Pan, a Temple to Zeus, and, of all things, the dance floor of the sacred goats. I can only imagine what that place was like on the weekend. It was basically a religious strip mall.

This is where Jesus took His disciples to ask the all-important question, “Who do you say that I am?” Because in this place, you’ve got lots of options. And Peter, the same guy who, in John 6, would say to Jesus, “Lord, where else would we go? You alone have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68), now says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

To which Jesus makes His famous reply: Upon this rock, I will build my church.

Maybe the Catholics are right, and He was talking about Peter himself. Or maybe the Protestants are right, and Jesus was talking about our confessional faith.

But what if “this rock” meant THIS ROCK, right here in Caeserea Philippi? Jesus says that He will build His church, not on Peter; or even on a faith like Peter’s, but literally, He will build His church in places like this pagan smorgasbord right here. Do you believe that the church can thrive in the marketplace of ideas? Are you confident that when people are given the choice of worshiping Zeus or Pan or political powers or a dancing goat or the risen Christ, they will see the beauty and the glory of the gospel?

Because if you believe that the gospel will stand against all pretenders, then maybe this rock would be a great place for a church. If you believe that there are no godforsaken places on earth, but only churchforsaken places, then maybe its time to buy the vacant lot right next to the Dancing Goats Disco. Let’s build the church.

Upon THIS rock. 

Author: James

I pastor Glynwood Baptist Church in Prattville, Alabama. I read a lot, write a little, and drink lots of coffee. I have three callings in life: surrender to Christ, be a husband to Trish, and be the best father/grandfather I can be. Everything else is an assignment, because everything else can be done by someone else.

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