What does Jesus mean when He says, "upon this rock I will build my assembly"?

Good evening my beloved brothers and sisters in Christ,

As some of you are already aware, I have slowly been moving away from the institutional church and more toward Christian assemblies such as this forum where the Gospel of Christ takes center stage in life. During this transition period of a year and one-half I have sought not to be rash in changing my beliefs, especially since I have learned much about God in my 60 years in the institutional church. Instead, I desire to keep the sound doctrine of my youth while rejecting that which cannot be supported in Scripture.

As part of my investigation, I have done a lot of studying on the role of church leaders. God has commanded us to obey our leaders in Hebrews 13:17, "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account". Yet when I see those elected to church office pay little heed to the Gospel, it makes me wonder just where those serving as pastors, elders, and priests derive their authority. And to this I often hear Peter's confession of Jesus as the Christ as being the source of this authority. From Matt 16:13-18 (Young's Literal Translation)...

13 And Jesus, having come to the parts of Cesarea Philippi, was asking his disciples, saying, `"Who do men say me to be -- the Son of Man?"

14 and they said, `"Some, John the Baptist, and others, Elijah, and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets."

15 He saith to them, "And ye -- who do ye say me to be?"

16 and Simon Peter answering said, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God."

17 And Jesus answering said to him, "Happy art thou, Simon Bar-Jona, because flesh and blood did not reveal [it] to thee, but my Father who is in the heavens.

18 `"And I also say to thee, that thou art a rock, and upon this rock I will build my assembly, and gates of Hades shall not prevail against it"

In studying this passage and reading Bible commentaries on it, there appear to be two assumptions made by many of those analyzing this Scripture. The first is that Peter is serving as the spokesman for all of the disciples in his confession, meaning that the "you" throughout the rest of the passage is plural of the disciples. The second is that the phrase "upon this rock I will build my assembly" means upon the person of Peter. But is that what Jesus actually said?

The reason for me to ask this question is that Catholic, Orthodox Christian, and many Protestant leaders derive their authority from this single passage. For example, virtually every time I hear a priest or lay Catholic talk about the Pope then they talk about Apostolic Succession, meaning that all of the Popes are spiritual descendants of Peter. So if large numbers of church leaders are going to claim that their authority comes from Peter's anointing as the foundation of the church then it is extremely important that this is what Jesus meant in this context.

While I don't have complete clarity on this matter (which is why I am reaching out here), I have great reason to doubt that this is what Jesus meant. First, the Bible calls Christ the "chief cornerstone" (Ephesians 2:19-22). In that passage Scripture says:

19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

Verse 20 seems to indicate that Christ''s Church is built not on one man, but on the work of both "the apostles and prophets". If that is the case then how are we to interpret Matt 16:18 when it says, "`And I also say to thee, that thou art a rock, and upon this rock I will build my assembly, and gates of Hades shall not prevail against it". Can we assume that "this rock" upon which Jesus builds His church is the same "rock" that He used to refer to Peter? If we do then we contradict other plain Scripture on this matter.

I recently read an article that I believe ties Matt 16:18 and Eph 2:20 together quite nicely. If "this rock" in Matt 16:18 is not the person of Peter but rather Peter's confession then the building mentioned in Eph 2:19-22 is built on the truth that Christ is "the Son of the living God". This would eliminate the church and its leaders as a middleman between the "household of God" and God Himself. It paints a picture of all of the building's stones resting on our chief cornerstone directly rather than a teetering pile of rubble resting on Peter (or the Apostles) who in turn rests on Christ.

Given my current understanding of the Bible, I am more inclined to believe that "this rock" of Matt 16:18 refers to Peter's confession. I am, however, open to persuasion that another interpretation of this passage is better suited. I am, however, unlikely to want to return to the thinking that persists in the church today. When Jesus says that "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me" (John 10:27), I find it difficult to believe that Jesus would have established a system in which worshippers would be required to follow anyone other than Him.

- todd

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Comments (5)
    • Hello dear Todd, it sounds like you know more about this matter than I do. Great to hear from you today. I'll just add:

      30 years later. Peter the Pope strangely refers to himself not as God's number 1 man on earth but simply as a fellow elder. Nor did others refer to him by majestic titles.

      As for his first Papal Bull (decree), he was completely mistaken and needed to be rebuked by the Son of God. Even called by the name of Satan. Plenty of bull, there, no doubt.

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      • Thanks David. I'm not sure that I'm any more enlightened than anyone else in discussing this matter, but I do place a great emphasis on this particular subject as I'm struggling to find any institutional church where its leaders know the basic principles of the Christ faith. They may espouse many "truths", many of which are built on cultural understanding of Scripture and not based on deep study of the Word itself. I have been guilty of this myself, which is why I'm digging much deeper into the subject.

        I very much appreciated your comment about "Papal Bull". :-)  You are spot-on with that comment. I have always wondered how some Christians who rely on Apostolic Succession for their authority can also claim the cloak of infallibility for their pronouncements when Peter is such a mess sometimes. He was so bad in one instance (Gal 2) that Paul had to severely reprimand him.

        I appreciate you pointing put that Peter calls himself a "a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ" in 1 Peter 5:1. That's good stuff.

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      • Todd, thanks for starting this topic.  As you have shown from other scriptures, Peter could not be the one person upon whom the entire church was built. It has to be Jesus, not only His person, but also the faith which connects us to Him. I would add that Peter's confession was based upon a revelation from God the Father.

        Others have pointed out that there are different Greek words that were translated into rock. You are Peter (a lesser rock). Not that I agree with Rome, but Peter was important in the early church and was used of God to open the door into the Kingdom of God to first the Jews at Pentecost and later the gentiles with Cornelius. It was he who wrote that we are all "living stones" built together into a spiritual house of worship.

        Another point I would like to make is that there is a handing down of the essentials of the faith from one generation to the other. In the early church there were trusted leaders who were discipled by others who could trace back to the first generation of apostles. None of them were powerful popes in the eyes of the world. The idea of apostolic succession was I believe a perversion of this principle.

        In my studies it looks as though the "Gnostic" teachers were misleading many. It seemed safer to find those who knew Christ or one of the apostles, and later those who were discipled by them to get answers. (2 Timothy 2:2). The Gnostics and false teachers also prompted the canonization of the New Testament writings. Many strange teachings were being circulated, and the church needed to establish a standard by which these could be tested.

        Sorry for the length. Once I got started I found more things to share!

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        • Hey Dan, thanks for the response. Don't worry about the length. If you write a novel then I will read it. :-)

          You have made some good points here. If it's ok with you, I'd like to focus on your thoughts about the Gnostics as I believe that they are providential to this discussion. I don't know if you're familiar with Matt Whitman on YouTube, but he interviews church leaders from many expressions of the Christian faith as a way to promote unity in the church. His most recent video was on the Anglican church (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-yVCbEGWos&t=190s). I left a comment thanking Matt for his efforts, then expressed my great distress when Communion is used as a tool for segregating Christians rather than unifying them. As I was writing about how many Christian churches use made up rules to limit access to the Lord's table, the word "Gnosticism" came to mind. Perhaps it was because I had first read your comment to me here a few days before, and if so, thank you for putting that term into my memory. Regardless, I feel like church leaders who promote human-made rules for the practice of their churches are themselves Gnostics. Perhaps not in the classic sense of the Gnostics of the first century AD, but Gnostics nonetheless with their emphasis on their own private interpretations of Scripture. Please understand that I am not opposed to anyone who would attempt to interpret Scripture using the words God gas placed there before them. What I find troubling is when those interpretations drive a wedge between us. For example, I am what most people would call a Calvinist in my interpretation of God's actions in our salvation. But for as much as I hold the doctrine of election to be true, I am certainly not going to let it impact my interest or ability to break bread with others in the name of Jesus. As long as you confess that Jesus is God Incarnate (Matt 16 and 1 John 4) then you are a part of the club no matter how much I think that your theology is wrong. To do otherwise is to lack grace as found in the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt 18).

          So maybe the word "Gnostic" is not the right word to describe church leaders today, but it certainly describes is the sentiment that I find as I dig deeper into this topic. We may have fancy confessions and church rulebooks that make all of our human judgments look official, but they do not rise to the level of Scripture and must therefore be revised or abandoned when their doctrine goes against the teachings of the Bible.

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          • Thanks Todd. It has been a great experience for me to be among those of differing traditions that all agree that Jesus is God incarnate. I have learned much about Him from many, and hope we can at times even discuss our differences with respect and in the desire to grow.

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            What does Jesus mean when He says, "upon this rock I will build my assembly"?
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