Summary: In Matthew 16, Jesus confers on Peter (and, later the other Apostles) authority to rule the Church, founded on the truth of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah.

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Matthew 16:13-20

800-Pound Gorilla? Or the First Pope?

There’s a phrase that’s popular in modern discussions of any number of topics, and that phrase is this: “an 800 pound gorilla in the room.” An example would be this line which I plucked from a blog entry on the international economy as it relates to crude oil. One sentence in that essay said this: “China’s need for oil is the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room, and no one seems willing to confront it or even acknowledge it.”

For fun, I googled the phrase “800 pound gorilla in the room” and got 4,300 hits. When I googled just the words “800 pound gorilla” I got over 80,000 hits. Of course Google doesn’t index EVERY LAST WORD that’s been printed or spoken, so I expect that their count for the phrase “800 pound gorilla” is very much a low-ball estimate on the popularity of the phrase in common discourse.

There’s an 800 pound gorilla in today’s gospel lesson. Perhaps even two of them. Actually, there is an 800 pound gorilla for Protestant Christians, not for Roman Catholics. For Romans, what we have in this passage is not an 800 pound gorilla, but an 8 million ton Pope. The first Pope, in fact; declared to be so by no one less than Jesus Himself. And, because this Sunday is the first time that this passage has appeared in the lectionary we are using for the Sunday readings from Scripture, I can NOT do what those people I mentioned earlier are doing about 800 pound gorillas. In short, I cannot ignore it, or to pretend it isn’t even there.

So, let me begin today by identifying each of the 800 pound gorillas in this section of Matthew’s gospel.

The first gorilla is found in verse 17: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. 18 And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, …” The Roman reading of this statement by our Lord is that the Church is built upon Peter, the first Bishop of Rome, the first Pope.

The second gorilla is found in verse 19: “And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Romans who read this latter statement find in it the endowment of magisterial authority to the first Pope, and to his 264 successors, down to the present Pope Benedict XVI.

I honestly think there is neither a gorilla, nor a Pope (in the current Roman sense of that term) in this passage. But to dispel the impression of either gorilla or Pope, we’re going to have to look at each of these in turn.

Let’s begin with verse 18: 18 And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, …”

When Jesus says these words, they are a play on words. The word “Peter” in our translation is the Greek work “petros.” When it refers to some THING, rather than a person, it means “stone.” It also is used as a name, as we can verify by others throughout the rest of the New Testament referring to Peter with the word “Petros.” It would be roughly equivalent to a contemporary man having the name “Rocky.” There’s a television news celebrity named Stone Philips. So the use of a word that literally refers to the material we call stone, or to a piece of stone which we call a rock – well this isn’t exactly an original idea. It’s already customary in the First Century.

I should note here that Paul refers to Simon bar Jonah with both names – Petros and also Cephas, which is the Aramaic word for stone. This is, in fact, the name which Jesus bestows on Simon bar Jonah when he first calls him to be a disciple, as we read in the first chapter of John’s gospel. So, when Jesus refers to him here in Matthew 16 with the name Petros, or Peter, this is nothing novel.

What’s novel is the next words which Jesus speaks: “And upon this rock I will build my church.” The question arises immediately – what does “this rock” refer to? If it refers to Peter, then Christ is saying that he will build his church on the Apostle Peter. And, this is exactly how the Romans read Jesus’ words here.

But, there are several problems with this reading. The first problem comes from the very words Jesus uses here. When he says “upon this rock” he uses a slightly different word – not “petros” but “petra.” The Romans say – “No biggie! The words are synonyms; yes, indeed, it’s Peter the Apostle upon which Jesus will build his church.” But, Protestants (and, I’d include Orthodox teachers here too), respond this way – If Jesus meant what you say he means, he would NOT have changed the word from petros to petra. By our Lord’s very choice of vocabulary, he deliberately meant to point to something else as the foundation of the church.

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W Pat Cunningham

commented on Dec 26, 2009

Well, this is kinder than many Protestant commentaries, but it "dances around" the full meaning of the text. It doesn''t really advance the discussion between Catholic and Protestant. I suggest further reading in some of Steven Ray''s writings, like "Upon This Rock." We do need more dialogue on this issue, especially in view of the problems involved with denominational splitting and leadership.

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