Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Rock And The Keys

This weeks gospel is at the root of much disagreement between Protestants and Catholics. It has been much debated yet not really. I have yet to see a protestant really engage some of the most powerful reasons why their interpretation is untenable and the Catholic interpretation is correct. Most protestants ignore it or parrot arguments that have long been discredited. It makes the argument so on-sided it gets boring after a while. 
Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi andhe asked his disciples,“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah,still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply,“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply,“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter,and upon this rock I will build my church,and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to 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.” Then he strictly ordered his disciplesto tell no one that he was the Christ.  
It starts out with the most basic of theological questions: Who is Jesus? That question dominated so many church councils for centuries. Jesus does not tell us here how to answer that question. Rather He focused on who should answer that question. 

First Jesus asks what people are saying. What opinions of Jesus are out there? Everyone has a theory. Some make more sense than other. Yet they are all wrong. 

Then Jesus addresses the question to the disciples. Who do you say that I am? Peter is the only one who speaks. You are the Christ. The Son of the living God. He get is right. Yet how does he get it right? Jesus specifically said God gave Peter that knowledge supernaturally. Peter did not figure it out on his own or with the help of any other person. 

Why is that important? Jesus is teaching us how the new covenant is going to work. We can't trust what the crowds say but we can trust what Peter says. How do we know this? He says, "on this rock I will build my church." Note the future tense. He is not talking about the present question. He is talking about what will happen in the future. This is how the church is supposed to work.

A Large Rock Dominates Caesarea Philippi
How do we know Jesus was talking about Peter and not about the declaration Peter just made? Because He says so. Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. Now the word "you" should be clear enough. It is different from "your statement" or "your confession."  It is a personal pronoun. It refers to the person being spoken to. In this case it is obviously Peter. 

Yet Jesus makes the obvious more obvious. He used the name Simon. He goes further than that. He says "Simon son of Jonah." This is jarringly formal. Like when a parent uses the first, middle and last name of their child. It is a super-emphasis on exactly who He is speaking to. Then He goes even further. He takes emphatic identification to a new level by changing Simon's name to Peter. That would serve as a constant reminder that this is the man Jesus blessed by declaring him to be the rock and giving him the keys.

Caesarea Phillipi becomes important here to. There was a large rock there with a temple on it dedicated to to pagan god Pan. It would have taken about 2 days for Jesus and his disciples to get out there. If Jesus went to all that trouble just to underscore a point then maybe it is pretty important. Then He says the victory of the church over the gates of hell is at stake. Then He talks about the keys of heaven and hell. Those sound like they might be important too. If it does not refer to the papacy then what could Jesus be talking about?

That question weighed on me as a protestant. Not just whether the text had to support the papacy. It was that I could not really make any sense of it as a protestant. In what sense was the church built on Peter? How did that not end when Peter died? If that blessing ended with Peter's death then the gates of hell have prevailed have they not? 

One objection protestants have is that the papacy takes away from the Lordship of Jesus. That is answered by the first reading from Isaiah 22. It shows how the keys would have been understood by Jews. They would have been a symbol of authority but not an authority to compete with the king's authority but rather someone who made decisions in the king's absence. 

It is a bit like the cabinet today. They exercise authority for the head of state not to limit his power but to extend that power. Similarly the pope's authority is not there to prevent Jesus from being Lord but to allow Jesus' Lordship to have real visible content. It is easy to say Jesus is Lord and do as you please if you can just imagine Jesus agrees with you all the time. If Jesus appoints someone to clarify exactly what His Lordship means then it is not so easy. 

It is not an easy thing but it is a good thing. At the end of the day more clear leadership from Jesus is a huge benefit. It is hard. What would you expect from Jesus? He never lead us down an easy road. Yet it is always a blessing. 


  1. Randy,

    You should check out this fantastic article that Joe wrote last year that destroys the Protestant objection that it was Peter's "Confession" that was what was blessed, rather than Peter himself:

  2. Thanks for that Nick. I had seen the connection with John 1 before but never developed quite that well. Great writing from Joe Heschmeyer. He is an awesome blogger and will be an amazing asset to the church once he is ordained. I would not be shocked to see him get a red hat before he is done.