One of my favourite stories from the Gospels is the one Jesus tells about two men who went out to build a house.
The wise man built his house upon the rock, but the foolish man built his house upon the sand. When the storms came, the house on the sand collapsed, but the house on the rock stood firm.
The image of a solid foundation stone was well known in Jesus’ time. Jesus used the idea when he gave Simon the new name “Peter,” which means “the Rock.” When Jesus said to Peter that he was the rock on which he was going to build the Church, the other apostles would have understood that a comparison was being drawn between Peter and Abraham. In Isaiah 51:1-2, the prophet says: “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, / to the quarry from which you were taken. / Look to Abraham your father…” The Jewish teachers said about this passage, “When God looked upon Abraham … he said, ‘Behold I have found a rock on which I can build and found the world.’ ” As a faithful rabbi and teacher, Jesus knew this passage from Isaiah. In calling Peter “the Rock” he means that Peter is the new Abraham, the one who will be the foundation stone of the Church and the spiritual father of His people.
All the Gospel stories are full of meaning and interesting details, but this passage in Matthew is especially revealing. For example, we’re told that this conversation took place near Caesarea Phillipi. At that place was a huge natural rock formation on top of which the Romans had built a temple to the pagan shepherd god Pan. So when Jesus said, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Mt 16:18), he was looking at this great rocky foundation on top of which stood a temple to a shepherd god. Jesus’ meaning was clear — Peter, whose name means “rock,” was to be a great foundation for Christ’s Church — the Church of the real Good Shepherd.
Matthew’s Gospel reveals other truths about Peter’s special relationship with Jesus. It reminds us that it was Jesus who gave Simon the name “Peter” in the first place. In the Bible, when God gives someone a new name, it means they are given a new calling and a new identity. So, when God called Abram to be the father of His people, his name was changed from Abram to Abraham. The new name is not only an indication of a new role, but also a sign of a divinely appointed vocation.
Prime Minister Peter
In England, the queen is the head of state, but she remains at a distance from everyday governance. She has a prime minister — one who bears her authority and governs the nation on behalf of the people. The political situation in present-day England provides a good picture of the order Jesus establishes for His Church.
In the same passage in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus calls Peter “the Rock,” Jesus also equates the Church with the kingdom of heaven. In other words, the Church is like a kingdom, and Jesus is the king. But the king delegates power to ministers beneath him. In England, the prime minister runs the country on behalf of the monarch. It was the same way in the Old Testament. The Israelite king had a prime minister, and in the Book of Isaiah we get a fascinating glimpse into the royal court of Israel. The prophet Isaiah recognizes the prime minster of the king, and says to the former prime minister: “On that day I will summon my servant / Eliakim, son of Hilkiah [that’s the prime minister]; / I will clothe him with your robe, / gird him with your sash, / confer on him your authority…. / I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; / what he opens no one can shut, / what he shuts, no one can open” (22:20-22).
This passage sheds light on Jesus’ words to Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19). The apostles understood in a moment what we have to struggle to grasp — that Jesus — in granting Peter the keys to the Kingdom — is appointing him as the prime minister of His kingdom. As God gave Eliakim the authority of the king — symbolised by the keys — so Peter was being specially appointed and chosen by Christ himself to be prime minister in Christ’s kingdom and to exercise Christ’s own authority on earth.
It is interesting to see that non-Catholic scholars also understand the background for this important verse. F.F. Bruce, in “The Hard Sayings of Jesus,” writes: “What about the keys of the kingdom? The keys of a royal or noble establishment were entrusted to the chief steward … they were a badge of the authority entrusted to him.” Bruce then refers to the passage in Isaiah 22 and says, “So in the new community which Jesus was about to build, Peter would be, so to speak, chief steward.” This link between Isaiah 22 and Matthew 16 is also attested by Lutheran scholar Joachim Jeremias, who writes in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, “The keys of the kingdom are not different from the keys of David … handing over the keys does not imply appointing a porter … handing over the keys implies appointment of full authority.”
The Good Shepherd’s Shepherd
In Matthew’s Gospel we have two strong images about Peter’s role from Jesus himself: the Rock and the Royal Steward. There is another important passage of Scripture that backs up Peter’s special relationship with Jesus, and the fact that Jesus was delegating His divine authority to Peter. We know that Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd from John 10:14. All through the Gospels He talks about sheep, goats and shepherds; and He likens the people of God to the flock of God. This was nothing new. The Old Testament prophets had also seen God as the shepherd and His people as the flock. In the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, He is fulfilling the prophecy from Ezekiel 34:23 where God himself promises to become the Good Shepherd who will judge His people with justice. Jesus fulfills this prophecy when He declares himself the Good Shepherd.
Who would be the shepherd after Jesus returned to heaven? Jesus said there would be “one flock, one shepherd” (Jn 10:16). After His resurrection, in a moving and tender conversation with Peter, Jesus delegates His job as shepherd of the sheep to Peter himself. In John 21:15-17, Jesus solemnly commands Peter three times to feed His sheep and take care of His lambs.
So, in three powerful images Jesus hands over His own authority in a unique way to Peter. Peter is — like Abraham — the spiritual father and foundation stone of the people of God. Peter is to be the prime minister of the Kingdom and bear full authority in Jesus’ absence. The solemn commission to Peter is completed when Jesus commands Peter to take charge as the chief shepherd of the flock.
Father Dwight Longenecker can be reached at dwightlongenecker.com.