“You Are the Messiah!” — “You Are the Rock!”
Ordinary 21 Year A
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
St. Matthew 16: 13 — 20
The scene where the event in our text occurs is a secluded northern spot near the outskirts of Caesarea Philippi, built by the Tetrarch Philip to honour and ingratiate himself to the “divine” Emperor of Rome. Going from Bethsaida, our Lord chose this location as a quiet place of retreat for His chosen Apostles and for Himself.
The place is significant, not only because it is twenty odd miles from
North of the Sea of Galilee, and really “out of the way” of the Lordꞌs
antagonists, but also because of what it symbolised. “Caesarea Philipi”
means “Philipꞌs Caesarea”. It was the ancient Paneas, expanded and
largely rebuilt by Herod Philip II, tetrarch of Ituraea, and cleverly
named after Caesar and himself. It is not to be confused with Caesarea
built earlier by Herod the Great (Philipꞌs father) on the sea-coast,
north of Jaffa (Joppa).
This beautiful city was Herod Philipꞌs tribute to the invincible god, the
Emperor, against whom his enemies could never prevail — or so he believed.
At last Jesus is alone with His disciples for a few days. For nearly three years He has been revealing Himself concerning His divinity. It is now time for Jesus to take a decisive step!
We are familiar with the custom of Jesus (as seen in Matt. 14: 23) to pray intensively before events of great importance. This was His way of opening the hearts and souls of His hearers to the divine message He wished to convey to them. The event soon to be witnessed by the Apostles has always been seen as one of supreme importance since the beginning of the Church.
Again, let us note His model of intense prayer preceding action.
Some Reflections on the Text
When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he
asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
Bearing in mind the setting for this event, we need to note that when Jesus takes His disciples aside in this way, it is always for in-depth instruction, for rest, and for prayer: all in a harmonious balance. This occasion is no exception. As is so often the case, out of such a time together, momentous understandings are developed.
So Jesus asks his disciples, words to the effect:
“What are people saying about Me?”
“Are they saying I remind them of someone?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah,
still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.
• Why John the Baptist? Remember Herodꞌs fear,
and his belief in transmigration of souls.
• Why Elijah? It is widely believed that Malachi had
prophesied (3: 23) that Elijah would return at the end of time.
Jesus had earlier (Matt. 11: 10 — 14) talked of John the Baptist
in this role.
• Why Jeremiah? Our Lordꞌs fearless denunciation of
wrong, and the doers of wrong, made Him resemble in
many ways the character of Jeremiah (Callan, O.P.) Also
this could be based on II Maccabbees 2:1 — 12 (L. F. Miller).
• Why one of the other prophets? These were all held in
high regard in Judaism, and there was much speculation
about this young, bright and knowledgeable rabbi walking
in the sandals of some such prophet.
So, they reply that He is referred to in a variety of ways such as: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets. The answers are kind, but unsatisfactory, because they don’t convey to Jesus the other things people have said about Him. Why do the disciples (we are talking of the twelve apostles) not mention the belief that Jesus was the Messiah? Quite simply, Jesus had successfully demonstrated that He was definitely not the kind of messiah-figure the people wanted to follow. As they came to realise that, they gradually gave up listening to Him. The crowds were generally convinced that He was a holy man but, apparently, not the Messiah.
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Jesus quietly, perhaps rather solemnly, accepts their reply. At an appropriate moment, equally quietly, he asks:
“But what about you. Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the
Son of the living God.”
Without delay, having listened to all of Jesus’ explanations as to why he is not the popular image of the Messiah who would lead Israel out of Roman bondage, and having listened to the gripes and bitter criticism of Jesus by many would-be followers, Simon (or Simon Peter, or even Peter as he was later called) now answers our Lord from the depths of his soul.
“You are the Anointed One. You are the Messiah
(in Greek, Christ). You are 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.
Clearly, warmed and profoundly moved by this beautiful declaration never before heard from human lips, Jesus in turn addresses Simon in words never before applied to a human being.
“You are greatly blessed, Simon bar or ben Jonah, (Jonah’s son), for this was not revealed to you through human means. This was revealed to you personally by my Father in heaven. You have heard all the human reasons why I am not good enough to be the Messiah, and you have rejected them all. Thus my Father has found your soul open to receiving the truth from Him, and it is this you have just proclaimed.”
We notice how our Lord switches back to Simonꞌs own original name and adds the traditional, ꞌSon of Jonahꞌ to emphasise his earthly status, as well as his cultural background. He is a Jew answering for his people. In the very next sentence Jesus resumes using the name Peter, given long ago (See John 1: 42).
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.
This is a beautiful and unique moment. Each man has attributed to the other a title of great Biblical significance. It is a critical moment as the Messiah is fully identified on the terms he chose.
It is also a turning point for the twelve and for Simon, who, in memory of this occasion, continued to be called Rock; or in English (retaining a link with the Greek text of this Gospel) Peter.
Sadly for the Church, one and a half millennia later, this single verse became the most hotly debated in the whole of Scripture.
Great cataclysmic eruptions within Christianity have taken place as factions have fought each other over its meaning, and caused catastrophic damage.
Our Reflection, on this text therefore needs to go to greater lengths to help our readers continue steadfastly and remain deep-rooted in their Faith. Our comments will reflect a genuine, early church, Hebrew Christian perspective, which we share willingly with those who wish to at least understand this viewpoint, even if seeing it quite differently.
Much divergence seems to arise from an over-emphasis on textual analysis — important though that be; and from historical and political influence which, although long passed, can still exert a strong impact on how we see things. Our position is that we all need to reflect humbly yet nobly on this vital element in our Christian heritage. For those who wish to take a little extra time to look closely at this amazing passage, we offer Appendix 1.
Jesus had more to say to Peter — stunning words, the meaning of which we are still learning.
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.”
As with verse 18, the rabbinic cultural setting for our Lordꞌs formal appointment of St. Peter is the background which lightens up the text.
To “bind” and to “loose” in Hebrew usage are absolutely clear references to the authority to declare a matter lawful or unlawful with respect to the Torah — i.e. to the Law, Godꞌs personally gifted Words and Teaching for His People.
There can be no mistaking our Lordꞌs intent in speaking in this way to His newly appointed “Foreman”, “Royal Steward”, “Prime Minister”, “Chamberlain” or “Vice-Regent” — whichever harmonises with the culture of the relevant time and place.
Our Lord, our beloved Rabbi, is here giving authority to St. Peter, as His representative, to make known, explain and determine the Torah of the Gospel — His Law, His Words, His Teaching. In due time, Peter came to understand, as did the infant Church, that our Lord Jesus Christ was the embodiment, the incarnation of the Word — the Torah — of God. Thus St. Peter was to become the Chief Rabbi, as it were, appointed by Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit to lead, to serve, to guide, to encourage, and finally to die the privileged death of a martyr.
We strongly encourage students of Scripture to read this Appendix 2 (Explanation of Verses 18 and 19) which offers a very readable commentary on these important verses.
Jesus adds to Peter’s newly declared position within the twelve:
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven; whatever
you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever
you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”.
Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that
he was the Messiah.
This amazing episode closes with our Lord demanding that the disciples do not tell anyone what they heard Peter say! This was His way of preventing the people, who expected the Messiah to establish a kingdom, from initiating a political movement and proclaiming Him King. (Compare with Matt. 8: 4).
It is very tragic that Christians are so divided over this passage of Sacred Scripture. The text is one of the most beautiful in the whole Bible. In fact, it was intended to help maintain unity, focus and spiritual stamina in the Christian community. We could be forgiven for thinking, “How could we have gone so wrong?” The answer, however, is to shift our focus back on to our Lord’s teaching and message — and to take great care to do this, respecting the unique cultural heritage in which He chose to present all of this.
This Apostolate seeks to encourage listening to Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate — and to one another. We simply must do this or watch the Church disintegrate to the rejoicing of its hostile enemies all too eager to encourage our in-house fighting.
Our Reflection on the passage upon which we have been meditating has attempted to present the historically traditional view of the text. We hope this encourages fellow Christians, or at least helps clarify misunderstandings of the past.
We close with part of a beautiful sermon from St. Cyprian. All Christians desiring to heal the breach of division in the Church can — fortunately — even if, perhaps, with differing interpretations — read and affirm the principle of unity St. Cyprian upholds. Let us pray that we can be instruments whereby we help promote the unity of Christ’s Body, the Church, and collectively, help hold back, with God’s help, the raging, destructive forces pitching their worst against it.
St Cyprian (C.E. 195 – 258 approx) Bishop of Carthage
The Lord said to Peter: ‘I now say to you: You are Peter and
on this rock I will build my Church… I will give you the keys
of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth shall
be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth
shall be considered loosed in heaven.’
To him again, after his resurrection, he says, Feed my sheep.
Upon him, being one, he builds his Church; and though he gives
to all the apostles an equal power, and says, As my Father sent
me, even so send I you; receive ye the Holy Ghost: whosesoever
sins ye retain, they shall be retained; — yet in order to manifest
unity, he has by his own authority so placed the source of the
same unity, as to begin from one. Certainly the other apostles
also were what Peter was, endued with an equal fellowship
both of honour and power; but a commencement is made from
unity, that the Church may be set before us as one; which one
Church, in the Song of Songs, (6: 9), doth the Holy Spirit
design and name in the person of our Lord:
My dove, my spotless one, is but one; she is the
only one of her mother, elect of her that bare her.
He who holds not this unity of the Church, does he think that he
holds the faith? He who strives against and resists the Church,
is he assured that he is in the Church? For the Blessed Apostle
Paul teaches this same thing, and manifests the sacrament of
unity thus speaking;
There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one
hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God.
(St Cyprian, On the Unity of the Church)
To all our readers desiring and praying for unity in our Lord Jesus Christ, we offer the Aaronic Blessing, begging God’s peace and lovingkindness be poured out upon us all.
Numbers 6: 24 — 26
The LORD bless you and keep you!
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Proclaim the Gospel to Every Creature
(Mark 16: 15)
The real Jesus, is the real answer to the real needs of the world!
Let us remember God’s teaching, contained in His Word and in doing
“You Are the Messiah!” “You Are the Rock!”
Ordinary 21 Year A St. Matthew 16: 13 — 20
1. One of the greatest tragedies for Christianity has been how our Lord’s
Those who decline to look to the Chair of Peter have continued to
2. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” How privileged was
3. The world around us, increasingly, ridicules Biblical principles —
Let us pray for one another to take firm, decisive action to build our lives on the life
Matthew 16: 13 — 20
Ordinary 21 Year A
13 8 When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi 9 he asked
14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, 10 others Elijah, still
15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
16 11 Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the
17 Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.
18 And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my
19 I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. 14 Whatever you
20 15 Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was
9  Caesarea Philippi: situated about twenty miles north of the Sea of Galilee in the territory ruled by Philip, a son of Herod the Great, tetrarch from 4 B.C. until his death in A.D. 34 (see the note on ⇒ Matthew 14:1). He rebuilt the town of Paneas, naming it Caesarea in honor of the emperor, and Philippi (“of Philip”) to distinguish it from the seaport in Samaria that was also called Caesarea. Who do people say that the Son of Man is?: although the question differs from the Marcan parallel (⇒ Mark 8:27: “Who . . . that I am?”), the meaning is the same, for Jesus here refers to himself as the Son of Man (cf ⇒ Matthew 16:15).
10  John the Baptist: see ⇒ Matthew 14:2. Elijah: cf ⇒ Malachi 3:23-24; ⇒ Sirach 48:10; and see the note on ⇒ Matthew 3:4. Jeremiah: an addition of Matthew to the Marcan source.
11  The Son of the living God: see ⇒ Matthew 2:15; ⇒ 3:17. The addition of this exalted title to the Marcan confession eliminates whatever ambiguity was attached to the title Messiah. This, among other things, supports the view proposed by many scholars that Matthew has here combined his source’s confession with a post-resurrectional confession of faith in Jesus as Son of the living God that belonged to the appearance of the risen Jesus to Peter; cf ⇒ 1 Cor 15:5; ⇒ Luke 24:34.
12  Flesh and blood: a Semitic expression for human beings, especially in their weakness. Has not revealed this . . . but my heavenly Father: that Peter’s faith is spoken of as coming not through human means but through a revelation from God is similar to Paul’s description of his recognition of who Jesus was; see ⇒ Gal 1:15-16, “. . . when he [God] . . . was pleased to reveal his Son to me. . .”.
13  You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church: the Aramaic word kepa – meaning rock and transliterated into Greek as Kephas is the name by which Peter is called in the Pauline letters (⇒ 1 Cor 1:12; ⇒ 3:22; ⇒ 9:5; ⇒ 15:4; ⇒ Gal 1:18; ⇒ 2:9, ⇒ 11, ⇒ 14) except in ⇒ Gal 2:7-8 (“Peter”). It is translated as Petros (“Peter”) in ⇒ John 1:42. The presumed original Aramaic of Jesus’ statement would have been, in English, “You are the Rock (Kepa) and upon this rock (kepa) I will build my church.” The Greek text probably means the same, for the difference in gender between the masculine noun petros, the disciple’s new name, and the feminine noun petra (rock) may be due simply to the unsuitability of using a feminine noun as the proper name of a male. Although the two words were generally used with slightly different nuances, they were also used interchangeably with the same meaning, “rock.” Church: this word (Greek ekklesia) occurs in the gospels only here and in ⇒ Matthew 18:17 (twice). There are several possibilities for an Aramaic original. Jesus’ church means the community that he will gather and that, like a building, will have Peter as its solid foundation. That function of Peter consists in his being witness to Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God. The gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it: the netherworld (Greek Hades, the abode of the dead) is conceived of as a walled city whose gates will not close in upon the church of Jesus, i.e., it will not be overcome by the power of death.
14  The keys to the kingdom of heaven: the image of the keys is probably drawn from ⇒ Isaiah 22:15-25 where Eliakim, who succeeds Shebnah as master of the palace, is given “the key of the house of David,” which he authoritatively “opens” and “shuts” (⇒ Isaiah 22:22). Whatever you bind . . . loosed in heaven: there are many instances in rabbinic literature of the binding-loosing imagery. Of the several meanings given there to the metaphor, two are of special importance here: the giving of authoritative teaching, and the lifting or imposing of the ban of excommunication. It is disputed whether the image of the keys and that of binding and loosing are different metaphors meaning the same thing. In any case, the promise of the keys is given to Peter alone. In ⇒ Matthew 18:18 all the disciples are given the power of binding and loosing, but the context of that verse suggests that there the power of excommunication alone is intended. That the keys are those to the kingdom of heaven and that Peter’s exercise of authority in the church on earth will be confirmed in heaven show an intimate connection between, but not an identification of, the church and the kingdom of heaven.
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition
Name change in the Bible
And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build
In Matthew 16: 18, our Lord gives Simon a new name. Many readers take little
From our Lordꞌs words, and reflecting on His style which incorporates
Genesis 17: 1 — 6
1 1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared
1  The Almighty: traditional but incorrect rendering of the divine title shaddai, of uncertain meaning.
Isaiah 51: 1 — 5
1 1 Listen to me, you who pursue justice, who seek the LORD; Look
1  Rock . . . pit: your glorious ancestry.
Traditional rabbinic teaching related a story emphasising how God made use of chosen people (sometimes a person, sometimes a body of people) to be His agent in the world.
There was a king who desired to build and lay foundations. He dug constantly deeper but found only a swamp. At last he dug and found a petra. He said, “On this spot I shall build and lay foundations”. So the Holy One, blessed be He, desired to create the world, but sitting and meditating on the generations of Enoch and the flood, He said, “How shall I create the world, seeing that those wicked men will only provoke Me?” But as soon as God perceived that there would rise an Abraham, He said, “Behold, I have found a petra upon which to build and to lay foundations of the world.” Therefore he called Abraham Rock, as it is said, look to the rock from which you were hewn ….. (Isa. 51: 1 and 2)
It is helpful to remember, for the sake of continuity in Sacred Scripture, to recall that Godꞌs promise was renewed in Jacob:
Genesis 35: 10 — 11
God said to him: “You whose name is Jacob shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” Thus he was named Israel.
God also said to him: “I am God Almighty; be fruitful and multiply. A nation, indeed an assembly of nations, shall stem from you, and kings shall issue from your loins.
Thus we can say:
Abraham was considered to be the rock from which the people Israel was hewn (Is. 51: 1 — 2), and a rabbinic saying claims that Abraham was the rock on which God built the world. Similarly, Peter will be the human patriarch and foundation-stone of the new people of God.
This Patriarch of the new people of God, Peter (Petra, Rock) will be blessed in ways corresponding to Abraham and Jacob.
Some would say, how strange that God would build His plan of salvation for mankind on men, though great indeed, who were — humanly speaking — not without grave weaknesses. We go seriously astray, however, in our understanding of Scripture when we fail to recognise that God’s choice of all-too-human vessels is at the very centre of His Plan. Human frailty lost us Eden. God uses human frailty in the Divine Restoration in a way that ultimately gives glory to Him. There is no short cut! Jesus did not set up His Church with angels running it. His choice is to work through the weakest of creatures so that, ultimately, the Glory of God will shine forth for the whole of creation to see. That should be a great source of comfort to us all.
The Church has come to apply the same title (i.e. father) to each of these great patriarchs. We talk of “our father Abraham”, and in the case of the patriarch heading the Church, the title came into use a century and a half after later — more in respect of the role than as a formal title.
Of particular importance are the parallel features associated with the two men.
Two Patriarchs: Abraham and Peter
• Both men were established as patriarchs: heads of successive generations in
• They were called “rock” by the Father and the Son.
• Many nations would spring from them.
• Indeed, each would be associated with Godꞌs expressed Will:
“For my house shall be called a house of prayer
• In each patriarch, God served notice that in the restoration of His Household, the
— openness and inclusivity for all sincere people;
— an enriched sense of belonging and feeling accepted
— strong unity among His People, and an accompanying
— a passionate belief in their Faith and mission.
During the first centuries of the Church’s existence, Christians honoured our Lord’s choice of title for its leadership on earth. They talked of the Chair of Peter. They also, increasingly, honoured the patriarchal role from Scripture — papas (Greek) — father of nations. Although the latter was used quite widely, it retained the aspect of “head of a household,” no matter how small or local a part of the whole Household of God: all connected in mission and purpose. Political interference later created division among Christians, but the Biblical perspectives we have described remain a source of inspiration to us, and can help us foster unity among the Body of Christ.
Explanation of Matthew 16 verses 18 And 19
(Based on “The Gospel According to St. Matthew, by L. F. Miller, S.T.J.; Joseph Wagner, Publishers. 1937).
And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will
At His first meeting with Simon, Jesus declared to him that his name
“No longer shall you be called Abram; your name
I will render you exceedingly fertile; I will make
Jacob’s name was changed to Israel:
God said to him: “You whose name is Jacob shall
God also said to him: “I am God Almighty; be
On the present occasion, Jesus declares the future office of Peter, because
“You are Rock, and upon this rock I will build my church.”
The symbolic meaning that Jesus attached to the name Rock, or Peter, is
“Gates of the netherworld”
“Gates of the netherworld” — the power of the devil and his helpers.
(1) “prevail” is to overthrow by hostile activity, which proceeds
(2) the devil is the principal enemy of the Church (Matt. 13: 39;
(3) “netherworld” designates the devil in Rev. 6: 8 and 20: 14.
I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
To “Give the Keys”
To “give the keys” of a house, a kingdom, or of anything symbolically
— In Isa. 22: 22 Eliacim receives the keys of the house (that is,
— in Rev. 3: 7; Jesus has the key of David; Rev. 1: 18; He has the
The same figure occurs in Greek and rabbinical literature.
“Whatever you bind or loose.”
According to contemporary usage in Israel, the power of “binding and
Traditionally, the Church has acted on our Lord’s words as implying a
Many Christians who are not members of the Catholic Church may have difficulty understanding the authority Roman Catholics believe was conferred on St. Peter. Our Lord taught that His Church would always be led by the Holy Spirit to maintain the integrity of His doctrine and commands. Members of the Church are bound to uphold all that Jesus commanded (Matt. 28: 18). However, it is well documented, commencing with the Book of Acts, and recorded in the annals of the Church down through history, that people may hold a very extensive range of opinions on all aspects of the Faith. Indeed, within the Catholic Church there has never been a period when debates have not been in progress about one matter or another. The Church thrives on informed, rational and respectful divergence of viewpoints and their humble expression for open debate. This practice has continued in the Church since it was part of the Synagogue. Indeed Hebrew Catholics view it as a gift from Judaism: the on-going, lively debate of the Faith as it presents in the contemporary world — in whatever era.
The issue raised in Matthew 16: 19 above is that in matters of faith and morals, when adjudication is required — and this does not normally occur without substantial, long term debate beforehand — when the faithful need a clear definition of articles of the Faith, the responsibility for this and the authority to declare what the correct teaching is — this is the role of whoever is sitting “in the chair” of Peter.