If you have never been to Israel, let me encourage you to do so. It’s an experience that will last a lifetime!
When people hear I have been to Israel, I often get asked the same question. The question is, “Do you have a favorite site?” That’s a hard question to answer because many sites have different meanings that give me holy goosebumps.
However, one site does provoke some deep personal reflection. Caesarea Philippi lies to the very north of Israel and just south of the Syrian border. Often if people are unfamiliar with the site, they are still familiar with what took place there. It is in Caesarea Philippi where Jesus asked His disciples in Matthew 16:13-20, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The disciples answered, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” Jesus then asked a personal, penetrating question, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter, always speaking first and thinking later, quickly responded, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied to Pete’s confession, and it is Jesus’ response that most people remember, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” Then Jesus makes the statement which is often quoted, “Upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”
Please understand Peter’s confession forever changed the relationship between Jesus and His disciples. They are now declaring Jesus’ deity. Jesus is no longer a rabbi, a teacher, or a good man — He is the Son of God, the Messiah!
For Upon This Rock, I Will Build My Church
So, here is the question: What is the rock Jesus is referring to? Some believe Peter was the rock. The problem with that answer is understanding that the term “rock” is found over thirty times in the Old Testament and speaks of God each time. The term “rock” in Scripture never refers to a human. Here are some Old Testament examples:
- Deuteronomy 32:4 – “He is the rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.”
- 2 Samuel 22:2 – “He said: ‘The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer’…”
- Psalm 18:2 – “The LORD is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge.”
- Psalm 28:1 – “To you I call, O LORD my Rock…”
- Psalm 144:1 – “Praise be to the LORD my Rock…”
- Isaiah 8:14 – “And he will be a sanctuary; but for both houses of Israel, he will be a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall. And for the people of Jerusalem, he will be a trap and a snare.”
- Isaiah 17:10 – “You have forgotten God your Savior; you have not remembered the rock, your fortress. Therefore, though you set out the finest plants and plant imported vines.”
- Isaiah 51:1 – “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the LORD: Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn.”
A standard method of speech in the Middle East is to speak descriptively using pictures. Words like rock, fortress, and shepherd are used as descriptive language. In the West, we use words, not pictures, to speak descriptively. Words such as loving, peaceful, powerful, and forgiving may be how Western writers describe Jesus. I mention this because, in Caesarea Philippi, a HUGE word picture stands before the disciples as Jesus asks them this relationship-changing question. This “rock” is not like one would see laying on the ground. This rock is a literal mountainside. The Gate of Hell is a former pagan temple whose entrance is believed to lead to the opening of Hell itself, and it is located at the base of this mountainside.
What is THE Rock?
So WHAT is the rock? The rock is Jesus! The foundation of the Church is Jesus. The Church is built by the millions of confessions that Jesus is the Son of God — the Messiah. The first confession of which happened in Caesarea Philippi. Peter proclaimed the deity of Jesus. Jesus would build the Church based on that confession, and the gates of Hell would not prevail against it.
Peter himself confirmed that his confession of Jesus as the Messiah is true, for in 1 Peter 2:6-8 he says:
“For in Scripture it says: ‘See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.’ Now to you who believe this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone’ and ‘a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.'”
The apostle Paul in Romans 9:30-33 writes:
“What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone. As it is written: ‘See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.'”
Paul confirms Peter’s confession that the rock that caused Israel to stumble is Jesus, as they both used the same Old Testament passage to verify their testimony. Both Peter and Paul quote Isaiah 28:16 which speaks prophetically of the coming of the Messiah. Both New Testament authors confirm that the rock refers to Christ.
If Peter was the cornerstone, why then didn’t Isaiah say, “Behold I lay in Rome (where Peter was) a chief cornerstone?” Because, it was laid in Zion (Jerusalem), not Rome. This distinction is crucial to understanding where authority lies. The rock couldn’t possibly be Peter, who is just a man. God has not entrusted any human being to build or build the (ekklesia) church on them. He built it upon HIMSELF, on Christ.
After he personally acknowledged Jesus is the rock (1 Peter 2:4-8), Peter preaches this to all of Israel. In Acts 4:11, speaking of Christ, Peter says, “This is the stone the builders rejected (Christ) which has become the chief cornerstone.” He then proclaims there is salvation in no other, “for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” That rock (Jesus) is our salvation. The promise and fulfillment of eternal life are what the Church is built upon. Salvation is found in the person of Christ, not in the Church, sacraments, or anything human.
Jesus said He would build his Church on the confession that He is the Messiah, the Son of God. The rock Jesus spoke of in Matthew 16 was Peter’s confession. This is why he received such a high commendation, “Blessed are you, Peter.”
Now, this is where it becomes personal. In Caesarea Philippi, the disciples were asked, “Who do you say I am?” That day in front of a pagan temple, in a pagan region, they confessed Jesus as Lord.
The disciples are not the only ones who have to answer that question. You and I also must answer the same question, “Who do YOU say Jesus is?”
Maranatha, Lord Jesus!