My pastor, Mike Erre, just got back from a trip to Israel. Sunday he began teaching a special sermon series on the Church and started by looking at the text containing the first of the use of the word, ekklēsia in the Greek—Matthew 16:18. Here’s the background Pastor Mike shared.
Jesus took his disciples to the area around Caesarea Philippi—a city at the base of Mount Hermon once known for the worship of Baal but later, of the fertility god Pan. One notable landmark was the temple Herod built to honor Caesar. This was situated at the foot of a large rock face with a cave, out of which flowed the headwaters of the Jordan River. The rock itself was called the Rock of the Gods and the cave was known as the Gates of Hades because the traditional understanding of the river source was that it came from “down under,” the home of the gods.
I’m not sure about that last part. From my study of Greek and Roman literature, I don’t remember any god but one being from down under, but setting that aside, apparently the name of the cave is accurate. Why it was called that . . . still up for grabs, I think.
At any rate, in this pagan place, known for orgies that included bestiality—the copulation of humans with “sacred” goats (Pan, you may recall, was half human and half goat, and he is pictured in any number of archaeological findings seducing nymphs, or minor female deities)—Jesus chose to make His pronouncement about His Church:
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. (Matt. 16:13-18)
Down through the centuries there’s been much discussion about this passage of Scripture, mostly hanging on Jesus’s meaning of “this rock.” It’s almost as if Jesus pointed to the rock that he was referring to, but we’re left to wonder, was He saying Peter was the rock, which is the view of the Catholic Church. Or was He saying the confession Peter just made that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, is the rock? Or something else. The Greek word means “a rock, cliff or ledge; a projecting rock, crag, rocky ground; a rock, a large stone; or metaphorically, a man like a rock, by reason of his firmness and strength of soul.
So, was Jesus perhaps saying, as my pastor suggested, that the rock face in front of them, known as the Rock of the Gods, was where He’d found His Church—on the very pagans, the Gentiles, if you will, that seemed so far from God at that time.
I tend to think the location does add a great deal to understanding what Jesus was saying, but it seems to me, He generally used objects as metaphors to convey a deeper spiritual meaning.
So he talked about wheat and tares, but they were metaphorical for people, some who followed Him and some who didn’t. He talked about a fig tree (which He cursed), but it was metaphorical for those who didn’t bear fruit. He talked about a vine and branches, but that was metaphorical, referring to those who are His followers. He talked about providing living water when He was standing at a well discussing the needs of the Samaritan woman. Immediately after feeding the crowd of thousands with a few loaves of bread, He declares Himself to be the bread of life.
On and on, Jesus made these kinds of connections between the physical thing and the spiritual truth He wanted people to understand.
So I’m thinking, in front of them was the Rock of the Gods, but Jesus says, This rock—the Christ, the Son of the Living God, as opposed to that rock—is the foundation of the Church. We have other scriptures that refer to the Church as a building, with Christ as the foundation or as the cornerstone, so I think this understanding makes a lot of sense.
What’s more, with the cave in front of them, the one known as the Gates of Hades, Jesus said this metaphorical image for the entire pagan belief system of worship of these false gods would not prevail against the Church.
I think He wanted to get this across to His disciples because He then began prepping them for His death. He wanted them to know that when He was crucified, that was not the enemy winning. That the Church would still be built.
Too often today we Christians wonder about the future of the Church. We see false teachers and false religions growing and flourishing. We see people mock God without fear. We see persecution on the rise—both the violent kind that takes the home, freedom, and lives of some believers; and the shaming kind that turns people against Christians who stand for what they believe. Our tendency might be to think that the Church is crumbling.
We hear this more and more frequently. Attendance is dropping. Young people are leaving the church. One atheist even said as we evolve, humans are renouncing the idea of a god because we no longer need such a crutch, that in the future religion will become obsolete.
But no. We have Christ’s word that the Church is built on a rock.
Throughout the Psalms God is referred to as a Rock:
The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer;
My God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
My shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold (Ps. 18:2)
Perhaps in the instance in Matthew Jesus was referring to something else besides Himself as a rock, but I don’t think so. For one thing, I think Scripture not only made sense to the original audience, but it makes sense to all the rest of us, too. Yes, understanding the place and time can only enhance the meaning, but I don’t think it turns the meaning on its head.
Second, understanding Jesus as the rock is consistent with the rest of the Bible. A key to interpreting Scripture is to understand verses that have several possible interpretations in light of passages with clear, straightforward meanings.
Clear, straightforward: The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer!