Is the ‘Rock’ Peter, His Confession, or Neither?

But who do you say the Son of Man is? (Matthew 16:15)

Perhaps Jesus’ most famous, pointed question, this marks a turning point in the Gospel of Matthew and is mentioned in Mark and Luke, too.

After Simon Peter answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16; cf Mark 8:29 and Luke 9:20), Jesus replies:

Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell (Hades in the NIV) shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:17–18, emphasis mine)

There’s a centuries-old debate about what Jesus meant by the phrase “on this rock I will build my church.”

But to truly understand his response, you have to see how it was deeply entrenched in the geography of Caesarea Philippi, where this scene takes place.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Screen-Shot-2019-02-20-at-4.28.12-PM-1-620x405.png The spring of Paneas, one of the main tributaries of the Jordan River.

A city of gods

Caesarea Philippi was located at the southern foot of Mount Hermon at the headwaters of the Jordan River, within what is now known as the Golan Heights.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Golan-Heights-region-4x3-1-620x465.jpg

The area is stunning, with flowing streams, waterfalls, trees, and colorful vegetation.

Though beautiful, less honorable activities tarnished the land in ancient biblical times.

It was best known for a massive rock over 100 feet high and 500 feet wide, on which was built the ancient city of Paneas (renamed Caesarea Philippi).

Paneas was a city dominated by immoral activities and pagan worship. In Hellenistic times, it was the religious center for worship of the Greek god Pan, a goat-footed god of shepherds, flocks, and nature. Pan was also known as a universal deity (appropriate for the name “Pan,” which means “all” in Greek).1

Pan’s temple was the largest in the city. Here people cut niches into the cliff of the rock to put statues of Pan and his nymph entourage.

And they committed deplorable acts as worship to these false gods.

Pan’s temple was a first-century red-light district.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is AdobeStock_50782201-1-620x465.jpeg The larger niche housed a statue of Pan; smaller niches housed other gods.

Later, Rome conquered the territory from Greek rulers, and Herod Philip rebuilt the city renaming Caesarea Philippi after himself. Sadly, pagan worship continued there—well into the third century AD.

But idolatry isn’t Caesarea’s only dark claim to fame.

Death and demonic activity

Pan’s temple was built in front of a massive cave with a deep spring that could never be measured.

Of this cave Josephus writes:

The place is called Panium, where is a top of a mountain that is raised to an immense height, and at its side, beneath, or at its bottom, a dark cave opens itself; within which there is a horrible precipice, that descends abruptly to a vast depth; it contains a mighty quantity of water, which is immovable; and when anybody lets down anything to measure the depth of the earth beneath the water, no length of cord is sufficient to reach it.”2

To the pagan mind, the cave led straight to the underworld, where fertility gods lived.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Caesarea-Philippi.Grotto-of-Pan-1-620x465.jpg Once a deep chasm full of water, Pan’s cave is now much smaller and full of rubble, the result of an earthquake in 1837.

People came from far and wide to worship Pan by throwing animal sacrifices into the water in this cave. If the animal vanished, the sacrifice was accepted. If blood surfaced in the spring, it was rejected.

The cave was known throughout the region as the “gates of Hades.”

The gates of hell shall not prevail

It was from here Jesus told his disciples he would build his Church “on this rock”:

And I tell you, you are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18, emphasis mine)3

Some traditions believe Jesus’ reference to “this rock” is Peter himself.4

Others affirm Peter’s confession “You are the Christ” in 16:17 as the “rock” and the foundation of the Church.5

But as Jesus was standing with his disciples near this area in Caesarea Philippi, his use of the metaphor “rock” would have been vivid for his disciples, as would “gates of hell” (cf Matt 7:24–25).

It’s possible “this rock” Jesus spoke of alluded to the place they were standing at the time:

In light of the massive rock scarp against which Caesarea Philippi was built and into which were hewn images of dead gods and goddesses, Jesus may have been using petra to refer to the worldviews represented in that rock face. They appeared to be insurmountable but, here, Jesus was declared to be the Living God. In other words, this encounter represented a stinging condemnation of all forms of pagan worship.6

Caesarea Philippi was built on a rock where people’s lives revolved around false gods, death, and demonic activity.

Jesus was announcing a new way of life, and he was using geography to do it.

Instead of idol worship, the church—“a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). Instead of false gods in hell, a living Father in heaven (Rom 9:26; 2 Cor 6:16). Instead of a spring that swallowed life, Living Water that swallows death and creates springs welling up to eternal life (John 4:14).

What better place for Christ to announce his Church.

And nothing will prevail against it.

***

Understanding the geography of Israel enhances our understanding of the narrative of the Bible.

For more information on the geographical, cultural, and historical settings in the Bible, I recommend The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land and the award-winning Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels.

Have you been to Caesarea Philippi or studied this area of Israel? Comment in the post.

 

Karen Engle received her MA in Biblical Studies and Theology from Western Seminary. She is an editor for Faithlife and regularly takes groups to Israel.

 

 

 

  1. Collins, John J., and Daniel C. Harlow. Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism, “Paneion (Banias) at the Foot of Mt. Hermon.” Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.
  2. Josephus, Flavius. Wars of the Jews 1.403–405, The Works of Josephus, Updated Edition, Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1987.
  3. Other translations say “gates of Hades.”
  4. Bruner, Frederick Dale. Matthew: A Commentary, Volume 2. “Confessing Jesus as the Divine Christ by Faithlife Teaching,” Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Beitzel, Barry. Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels, “Peter’s Declaration at Caesarea Philippi,” Lexham Press, Bellingham WA, 2016.

Comments

  1. Mike Gallagher says:

    Karen,

    Thanks for the interesting post!

    I do think that your position on this would be easier to accept if Jesus hadn’t change Peter’s name.

    And, although I don’t have any particular degree in theology or biblical study, my understanding is that the petros/petra issue has to do mostly with the particular Greek translation that was employed when translating the scriptures. In all likelihood, Jesus was speaking in Aramaic and would have actually said “You are Kepha, and on this kepha I will build my Church”.

    But since we can’t say for sure exactly what language Jesus was using in this instance, we should look at evidence, other than just geography, that was closer in time to the actual event. The best source would be the early Fathers and the Church that was functioning at that time since they were actually living out early Christianity.

    I do think a fuller picture of the event and how it unfolded in the life of the Church would give us a more complete understanding of what Jesus actually meant.

    Thanks,

    Mike

  2. While the geography adds a great deal of “color” to Jesus’ words I think it also goes beyond the physical stones to the living stones of the New Temple in the New Jerusalem, the walls of which are founded on the twelve apostles:

    Rev 21:14 NLT The wall of the city had twelve foundation stones, and on them were written the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

    The New Jerusalem represents the New Covenant with the Jews:

    Gal 4:24-26 NLT – 24 These two women [IE: Sarah and Hagar] serve as **an illustration of God’s two covenants**. The first woman, **Hagar, represents Mount Sinai where people received the law that enslaved them. 25 And now Jerusalem is just like Mount Sinai in Arabia, because she and her children live in slavery to the law. 26 But the other woman, **Sarah, represents the heavenly Jerusalem**. She is the free woman, and she is our mother.

    So this is not “the Church” per se but rather the “Greatest Generation” of Jews that Messiah raised up in the last days to finally fulfill all the covenant promises (aka “the millennium”). This was the import of John’s ministry, Jesus’ earthly ministry and the “power from on high”.

    So Peter is one of the twelve foundation stones of the walls of the new Jerusalem/new covenant. Peter’s role in the new covenant is that of a Jewish judge:

    Mat 19:28 NLT – 28 Jesus replied, “I assure you that when the world is made new and the Son of Man sits upon his glorious throne, you who have been my followers will also sit on twelve thrones, **judging the twelve tribes of Israel**.
    Luk 22:30 NLT – 30 to eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom. And you will sit on thrones, **judging the twelve tribes of Israel**.

    This was the “regeneration” of Israel:

    Act 1:6-8 KJV – 6 When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, **wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?** 7 And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power. 8 But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth [IE: the Roman empire].

    The new covenant and the bride of Christ is this born again Israel aka “the Israel of God” which consisted of 144,000 (12,000 from each tribe) of Jews. These were the judges of Israel of the 1st century.

    Paul’s “new humanity” was a mystery not revealed to the twelve. That is why in Acts 15 Paul goes to Jerusalem to meet with the judges of Israel and explain what Christ had sent him to do with the gentiles, which was not what the Twelve expected. But when he explained they gave him the right hand of fellowship, bade him godspeed and resumed their Jewish ministry (which we see in the Jewish epistles):

    1Pe 1:1 ESV – 1 Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,

    The term “elect” does not refer to gentiles but rather to the Israel of God, the “remnant”. Isaiah had promised that the Jews who numbered as the sand of the sea would be exiled and only an elect few would return to their own land:

    Isa 10:22 NKJV – 22 For though your people, O Israel, be as the sand of the sea, A remnant of them will return; The destruction decreed shall overflow with righteousness.
    Jer 44:14, 28 NKJV – 14 ‘so that none of the remnant of Judah who have gone into the land of Egypt to dwell there shall escape or survive, lest they return to the land of Judah, to which they desire to return and dwell. For none shall return except those who escape.’ ” … 28 ‘Yet a small number who escape the sword shall return from the land of Egypt to the land of Judah; and all the remnant of Judah, who have gone to the land of Egypt to dwell there, shall know whose words will stand, Mine or theirs.
    Mic 5:3 NKJV – 3 Therefore He shall give them up, Until the time that she who is in labor has given birth; Then the remnant of His brethren Shall return to the children of Israel.
    Zep 2:7 NKJV – 7 The coast shall be for the remnant of the house of Judah; They shall feed their flocks there; In the houses of Ashkelon they shall lie down at evening. For the LORD their God will intervene for them, And return their captives.

    The “remnant” of Israel was to be empowered and they would be the city on a hill and be the light of the world:

    Isa 42:1 KJV – 1 Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him: he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles.

    Isa 45:4 KJV – 4 For Jacob my servant’s sake, and Israel mine elect, I have even called thee by thy name: I have surnamed thee, though thou hast not known me.

    Isa 65:9, 22 KJV – 9 And I will bring forth a seed out of Jacob, and out of Judah an inheritor of my mountains: and mine elect shall inherit it, and my servants shall dwell there. … 22 They shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat: for as the days of a tree are the days of my people, and mine elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
    Mat 24:24, 31 KJV – 24 For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect. … 31 And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
    Mar 13:22, 27 KJV – 22 For false Christs and false prophets shall rise, and shall shew signs and wonders, to seduce, if it were possible, even the elect. … 27 And then shall he send his angels, and shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from the uttermost part of the earth to the uttermost part of heaven.
    Luk 18:7 KJV – 7 And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?
    Rom 11:7 KJV – 7 What then? Israel hath not obtained that which he seeketh for; but the election hath obtained it, and the rest were blinded

    So to make a long story longer, Peter was one of the twelve foundation stones of the new covenant with the Jews, part of the elect remnant of the Israel of God, one of the twelve judges on the twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel during the millennium (circa 30ad to 70ad) when the Messiah built his “Israel within Israel”.

    Rev 7:8-9 KJV – 8 Of the tribe of Zabulon were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Joseph were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Benjamin were sealed twelve thousand. 9 After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands;

    After fulfilling Israel’s promised glory, both covenants were destroyed and from then on all were on equal footing on the basis of faith in the propitiating death of the messiah:

    Rom 9:4 NKJV – 4 who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises;
    Eph 2:12 NKJV – 12 that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.

    1Co 10:11 ESV – 11 Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.
    Heb 9:26 ESV – 26 for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.

    I have to go because Eutychus needs some CPR!

    • Bill, your missing the context “on this rock I will build my church.”
      Geography just doesn’t add color to Jesus words it adds clarity to meaning of Jesus words. To extrapolate that “it also goes beyond the physical stones to the living stones of the New Temple in the New Jerusalem, the walls of which are founded on the twelve apostles” is quite a stretch of the imagination that the text can not sustain.

      • Are you saying that Jesus was saying that he would build a physical “Church building” on the stone “gates of hades” and that the stone “gates of hades” will be unable to withstand it?

        • Start here:

          1. Collins, John J., and Daniel C. Harlow. Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism, “Paneion (Banias) at the Foot of Mt. Hermon.” Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.

          2.Josephus, Flavius. Wars of the Jews 1.403–405, The Works of Josephus, Updated Edition, Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1987.
          Other translations say “gates of Hades.”

          3.Bruner, Frederick Dale. Matthew: A Commentary, Volume 2. “Confessing Jesus as the Divine Christ by Faithlife Teaching,” Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990.
          Ibid.

          4.Beitzel, Barry. Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels, “Peter’s Declaration at Caesarea Philippi,” Lexham Press, Bellingham WA, 2016

        • Beitzel, Barry. Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels, “Peter’s Declaration at Caesarea Philippi,” Lexham Press, Bellingham WA, 2016

          Bill, you should have this resource in your LBS, go read the data and come back and post.

  3. Michael Smith says:

    The ESV is one of the very few major Bible translations that renders 16:18 as “gates of hell.” That is not what Jesus said. He said, “gates of Hades.” This is an important distinction because in the following stories there is repeated emphasis on His death and resurrection. Jesus is indicating that He will build His church and even His death will not stop that from happening. Why? Because He will be resurrected. The story of the Transfiguration is given as evidence that after His death, Jesus will be resurrected (16:21) and then come back with His kingdom (16L28).