All the acts of the Lord are important and full of significance, for upon the works and words of the Lord would rest the teachings of the Faith. After the memorable night which Andrew and the other disciple (presumably John) spent with the Lord, as recorded in John 1, Andrew set off to find his brother Peter and to bring him to Jesus. When the Lord looked on him, He said, “You are Simon the son of John: you shall be called Cephas (which means Peter).” Peter means, as the Revised Version Margin shows, Rock or Stone.
Petros, the Greek word for Peter, is derived from Petra, which Liddell and Scott say means a rock, such as stands out in the sea or on a beach, a ledge or shelf of rock, or a rocky peak or ridge. Who can doubt that this change in Simon’s name to Peter had further things in view, as we connect John 1:42 with Matthew 16:18-20? The Lord refers back to the time of John 1 when He speaks of Peter’s confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” When Andrew found his brother Simon he said to him, “We have found the Messiah (which means Christ).” But Peter’s knowledge of who Jesus was did not rest merely on Andrew’s words; there was a divine revelation to Peter then, of which the Lord said, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” It was this revelation that so changed Peter that the Lord renamed him. Simon was his natural name, the name of the son of a fisherman of Galilee, who was also himself a fisherman, but Peter is his name according to grace, of him who had the glorious revelation of who Jesus of Nazareth is, which made him a blessed or happy man for ever.
Then the Lord adds, “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.” Here is a further revelation. The first and preeminent truth to be revealed to man is certainly connected with the Divine Being, to know the Son and the Father, and also the Eternal Spirit by whom all revelation of God is made. Then follows on Church truth, as here, and in connection with this Church is the eternal security of all believers in Christ in this dispensation, for against this Church, in which all believers are since Pentecost (Acts 2), hell’s gates cannot prevail.
The devil has always sought to corrupt and destroy the precious truth of God. He cannot destroy the truth itself, thank God! But he can corrupt men’s understanding of it. We know something of the corruptions of the Catholic in regard to this verse (Matthew 16:18), in that they say that Peter is the Rock (Petros, a piece of rock is, according to them, Petra, the Rock itself). Then as to what the Lord calls “My Church” that, they say, is Catholic Church, and they point to its continuance from apostolic times as the proof that the gates of hell have not prevailed against it. The same of course could be said of the Greek church, the Coptic church, the Armenian church, as of the Catholic church, if continuance in time is what is meant by the gates of hell not prevailing against it.
Then, as Peter is the Rock, in their view, and being the first bishop of Rome, which he was not, his seat and see have been occupied in a continuous succession since Peter’s time. Alas for Rome, history will not bear out a pure unbroken succession, and perhaps worse still, some of the bishops of Rome were most wicked, immoral men. But such men, they say, were Christ’s vicars on earth. Such are the corruptions of the devil.
The word “church” is first used in the New Testament in Matthew 18.18, and it is important to note the meaning and connection in which a word is first used, for, generally speaking, it sheds light on its use afterwards in Scripture. The word for church in the Greek means “to call out,” and signifies a “called-out people.” It is applied to the people of Israel, gathered together in the wilderness, who had been called out by God from Egypt (Acts 7:38; Hosea 11:1).
Here in Matthew 16:18 is a called-out people by Christ, for He calls it “My Church.” What call is it that these people heard and responded to? This we shall find in Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” All who feel the insupportable burden of sin upon a convicted heart, and who labour in vain to obtain rest by personal effort, are invited to come to the blessed and only Rest-giver, the Son of the Father referred to in this passage. See Matthew 11.27. Was not His lament in John 5:40, “You refuse to come to me, that you might have life”? He gave the people of Capernaum the assurance, and many others since, “… whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37).
Upon what Rock did the Son of God intend to build His Church? Upon Peter (Petros, a piece of rock) or upon Petra, the Rock? The answer of every sincere heart must be, not upon Petros but upon Petra. The Greek of this verse (Matthew 16:18) is as the English translation: “And I tell you, you are Peter [Petros] and on this rock [Petra] I will build my church [literally, “of Me the Church”], and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” “This the Rock” points back to what Peter had confessed – “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It would have been blasphemy to a true Israelite to have called a mere man, such as Peter, “the Rock.” The Rock to the Israelite was Jehovah, who asked in Isaiah 44:8, “Is there a God beside Me? There is no Rock, I know not any.” “The Rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4).
In contrast to the Rock in Matthew 16:18, we have Peter speaking of the Lord as the living Stone, in 1 Peter 2:8-7. Here he uses the Greek word “lithos”. One of the words for rock in Hebrew means “a cliff”, which is similar in meaning to the Greek for Rock. Stone (lithos) in 1 Peter 2 means building stone or stone dressed suitably for building. In Matthew 16, both Petros (Peter) and Petra (Christ, the Rock) stand related to the truth of the Church which is His (Christ’s) Body (Ephesians 1:22, 28), which is “My Church” of Matthew 16:18.
But Christ, the living Stone, was laid in the heavenly Zion as a sure foundation, and will in due time be laid in Zion, at Jerusalem, in the Holy Land, when He comes again (Isaiah 28:16). He and those who have come to Him (not as Saviour, as in Matthew 11.28, but as the rejected One, rejected by men) are viewed as living stones and are seen as God’s spiritual house, which is God’s house for this dispensation. Christ the Rock and Christ the Stone are associated with different truths; the former is the foundation on which the Church which is Christ’s Body is built, the living Stone is the foundation of God’s house, upon which each several church of God is built.
Paul says that as a wise master builder He laid a foundation and another builds on it. This foundation, and there can be no other, is Jesus Christ. See 1 Corinthians 3:10,11. Paul laid the same foundation in connection with the planting of the church of God in Corinth as God had laid in Zion, but he never laid Christ the Rock, nor has any man built one soul into the Church which is Christ’s Body, on Christ the Rock; that is the work of Christ Himself exclusively.