“Thou Art the Christ” #BCCSundaySchool2019

Readings: Matthew 16-17, Mark 8-9, Luke 9*

There is so much we could say about these readings, but this post will focus on the episode of Peter’s testimony of Jesus. The manual places the most emphasis on this part of these readings, and it uses Peter’s testimony as support for the idea that prophets and apostles are revelators and have revealed knowledge that’s worth listening to. This is a timely message, with general conference coming up, and the manual specifically asks us to ponder the testimonies we will hear from the apostles at conference this weekend along with Peter’s testimony.

That message is fine as far as it goes. But I think we sometimes misread Peter’s interaction with Jesus in Matthew 16:13-20, Mark 8:27-30, and Luke 9:19-21 if we overemphasize Peter’s role as an institutional revelator as the salient thing from this passage.

Flesh and Blood Hath not Revealed it Unto Thee

But first, a little context. Jesus’s question, “Whom do men say that I the Son of Man, am?” suggests that “who is Jesus?” was a topic of general discussion. Matthew and Mark don’t provide much detail about that, but Luke’s version says that the rumor mill about who Jesus was started to grind after he sent his disciples out and they began preaching and healing (Luke 9:6-9). Seeing their preaching, some people said Jesus must have been John the Baptist come back from the dead. Others said he was Elias or another ancient prophet. The rumors were flying so fast and thick that even Herod was troubled by them, worried that John, whom he had killed, really was back from the dead. It was in this milieu of discussion that Jesus asked his disciples, “who do they say I am?” and then followed it up with a more piercing, personal question: “but who do you say I am?”

It was in answer to this question that Peter said “You are the anointed, the Son of the living God.” And in Matthew’s version, Jesus then answer him by calling him blessed because “flesh and blood have not revealed it to you, but my father in heaven.”

Remember that at this time when Peter bore his revealed testimony of Jesus, he was not yet the head of the church. In fact, after this, when the disciples argued about who was the head disciple, Jesus refused to settle the argument and instead taught them to lead in the church is to be the lowest servant of all (Mark 9:33-37, Luke 9:46-48). At this point, Peter was just a disciple and nothing more.

It is significant, I think, that Peter received this testimony as only a lowly disciple, because it means that each church member is potentially able to receive this testimony by divine revelation. Because while we like to honor prophets and apostles out of reverence for the authority they bear, revelation is not a gift that is limited to those of a certain leadership tier, but is available to anyone. When Jesus tells Peter “blessed are you, for flesh and blood have not revealed it unto you,” I think he is describing intimate, personal revelation, not institutional revelation. In fact, while Matthew’s version then goes on to describe Jesus’s statements about the rock on which we would build his church, and about the keys of the kingdom, Mark’s and Luke’s version don’t even include those statements. I think that suggests that to at least some early Christians, including Mark and Luke, it was Peter’s personal revelation, not Peter’s institutional role, that was the primary point of this episode. Institutional revelation is important, but I think Peter’s testimony is primarily about personal revelation. As I read it, the primary point of Peter’s revealed testimony of Christ is that rather than just take Peter’s word for it, we ought to follow Peter’s example in seeking personal revelation of Jesus’s divinity.

It’s also worth noting that right after this, when Jesus begins to prophesy of his death and resurrection, Peter stops him, and Jesus calls him his enemy in a really harsh rebuke: “Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence to me: for thou savorest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men” (Matthew 16:23). So the fact that Peter had received divine revelation about Jesus’s identity as the Messiah and the Son of God did not mean that Peter knew everything about Jesus or that he was infallible. When Peter was speaking by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, he spoke revelation, but when he spoke based on his own fear and conventional wisdom, he erred. Peter was a revelator, but he was not infallible, even when speaking of the topic on which he had received revelation.

Upon this Rock

But that’s not to say that these passages have nothing to do with institutional authority. In Matthew’s version, after pronouncing Peter blessed because of his personal revelation, Jesus goes on to say “I also say unto thee that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Peter is clearly identified here as someone that will receive “the keys of the kingdom.”

This “upon this rock” passage has been the subject of lots of religious debate. Catholics have long used it to prove the institutional primacy of Peter, and by extension, of the papacy. Protestants take a variety of positions: some argue that the “rock” is Jesus himself, some argue that the rock is Peter’s testimony of Christ, and some argue that these two are overreactions to Catholic proof-texting and that the best reading really is that Peter is the rock, but that that doesn’t mean that the papacy is legitimate. (Here is a 2009 master’s thesis from Dallas Theological Seminary by Brittany Burnette that gives a good overview of the arguments and a detailed linguistic analysis of the passage.)

Latter-day Saints have employed a variation on the second of the protestant arguments listed above: the “rock” is the revelation behind Peter’s testimony, so the scripture is a proof-text for the primacy of the principle of revelation, and by extension, of church leaders who are sustained as revelators.

But like many theological arguments, all these arguments usually tell us more about the positions of those that are making them than about the scripture itself. I tend to agree with those protestant scholars that see the “rock” in this passage as Peter, and that fighting this interpretation is an overreaction to the Catholic church’s use of this passage in support of its claim of institutional authority. Conceding that Peter is the “rock” for purposes of Jesus’s statement here does not need to mean conceding protestant objections to the papacy, and I also think that as Latter-day Saints, given Joseph Smith’s claim that he received priesthood authority directly from Peter himself, we have even less need than protestants do, to fight the text when it seems to identify the “rock” as Peter. I mean, I have no objection to calling revelation metaphorically a rock that forms part of the metaphorical foundation of the church, but I don’t think that’s what Jesus is doing here in Matthew.

Here’s what I think Jesus is doing: He’s making a joke. (The thing about the Jesus of the gospels that often gets overlooked is that he is really funny guy. Blame it on the KJV.) Here Jesus calls Peter “Petros” (Greek for “a stone”), which is either a direct translation of or a play on the nickname that Jesus gave Peter when he first met him. Matthew doesn’t record that nickname, but John says that Jesus named him “Cephas,” which is a Greekified version of an Aramaic word that meant “a stone.” Jesus says “you are Petros (Greek for a rock) and upon this petra (Greek for a large rock or bedrock) I will build by church.” It’s as if in English, Jesus said to his friend Simon, nicknamed Rocky: “I tell you, you’re Rocky, and on this rock I’ll build my church.”

Now, some have made a big deal out of the fact that “petros” usually means a small stone, and “petra” usually means a large stone, and argue that therefore Jesus couldn’t possibly have meant to call Peter the rock. I don’t find this very convincing. I think the better reading is that Jesus is deliberately making word-play here. I’m no scholar of Greek, but the fact that he changes it from petros to petra doesn’t seem to me to break the identification of Peter with the “rock” on which he will build his church that he seems to be deliberately drawing.

I should probably note here that we don’t know exactly what language the actual Jesus was speaking at this moment. Scholars assume that the historical Jesus would have spoken Aramaic, but Matthew here portrays him making a Greek wordplay. Actually, that’s not quite right: the translation of Matthew in Greek portrays him making a Greek wordplay. Scholars still debate whether Matthew was originally composed in Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew, but the earliest copies that we have are in Greek, and it is that text we are studying, so while we may speculate about what Jesus’s actual words were, or what Matthew’s actual words were when he originally wrote them, we can’t know for sure what those words were. Maybe Jesus was speaking Aramaic and the
Greek words we have are just a translation of a similar wordplay in Aramic. Maybe Jesus was speaking Greek. Or maybe he was speaking in Aramaic, but throwing in a few Greek words for the wordplay. We just don’t know. The best we can do is to study the text we have, and at least as portrayed in the earliest copies of Matthew’s gospel that we have, Jesus is making a wordplay on Peter’s name using Greek words.

Rather than drawing a contrast between Petros (Peter) and petra (something else), I see Jesus making a subtle statement about his grace with the wordplay between Petros and petra. “You are just a little stone, Peter, but through my grace I will make you a strong stone foundation that can bear the weight of my church while you lead it for a while.”

And I think this interpretation actually fits better with the other times that Jesus calls Simon Peter. It’s actually pretty significant that Jesus calls Simon Peter, because he doesn’t do it very often. He almost always calls him Simon. The exceptions are in John when he calls him Cephas (John 1:42), here where he says “thou art Peter” (Matthew 16:18) and at the last supper where Peter declares “I am ready to go with thee, both to prison, and to death,” and Jesus answers him “I tell thee, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, before that thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me” (Luke 22:34). This is Jesus’s sense of humor again, but this time it’s a dark sardonic humor, because he’s echoing the name he used for Peter when he blessed him for his revealed testimony of Jesus to prophesy that Peter will deny that he even knows him. But by doing so, he’s also giving Peter a subtle reminder that though he is just a little Petros, he will yet become the petra on which Jesus will build his church. This mostly goes over Peter’s head at this point, of course, but I can’t help but think that we as readers are supposed to think with deep irony of Peter’s divine testimony and of Jesus’ prophecy that he would build his church on Peter when Jesus prophesies that Peter will soon deny knowing him.

To me, the petros/petra wordplay is beautiful because it recognizes that Peter is not yet who he will become, but it also recognizes the kinship between who Peter is and who he will become. And to me, that says something profoundly beautiful about what grace does. We are not yet what we will be, but God recognizes what we will be in us and calls to become that.


  • These readings give us the following episodes:
    • Jesus send his disciples out to preach and heal (Luke 9:1-10).
    • Jesus feeds thousands people with a few loaves of bread and a few fish (Mark 8:1-9; Luke 9:11-17).
    • Jesus responds to the religious authorities’ demand that he show them a sign (Matthew 16:1-12; Mark 8:11-21).
    • Jesus heals a blind man (Mark 8:22-26).
    • Peter testifies that Jesus is the anointed and the Son of God (Matthew 16:13-20; Mark 8:27-30; Luke 9:19-21).
    • Jesus prophesies of his death and resurrection (Matthew 16:21-28; Matthew 17:22-23; Mark 8:31-38; Mark 9:31-32; Luke 9:22-27; Luke 9:44-45).
    • The transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13; Mark 9:1-13; Luke 9:28-37).
    • Jesus heals a possessed man (Matthew 17:14-23; Mark 9:14-29; Luke 9:38-42).
    • Jesus pay taxes with money from a fish (Matthew 17:25-27).
    • Jesus responds to the disciples’ argument over who is the head disciple (Mark 9:33-37, Luke 9:46-48).
    • Jesus commands his disciples to forbid not a man who did miracles in the name of Jesus even though he was not one of the twelve (Mark 9:38-40; Luke 9:49-50).
    • A Samaritan village rejects Jesus (Luke 9:51-56).
    • Jesus warns those that would follow him that discipleship has no earthly reward and requires total dedication (Luke 9:57-62).

Comments

  1. Jared Livesey says:

    “The rock” of which Jesus mentions in Matthew 16 ought to be read in correspondence with 3 Nephi 11 (particularly verses 39-40), Luke 6:46-49, and Matthew 7:21-29. It would also profit to connect these with John 14:23, which, as Joseph noted, is referring to a literal, personal appearance of Jesus and Father (D&C 130:3). Those to whom they come are those who do what Jesus said to do in the Sermon, and are therefore built upon the rock.

  2. Jared Livesey says:

    Also, JKC, other interesting questions to ask might include:
    What does it mean to us for someone to be the Christ?
    Why did Jesus command his disciples to NOT tell anyone that he, Jesus, was the Christ?
    What could they say about him other than he was the Christ after that?
    After John openly testified that Jesus is the Christ, why did John still have disciples following him?

  3. Jared, I don’t think those other verses actually tell us much about what Jesus meant when talking to Peter here. There’s no indication in the text that he’s referring to any of those verses. Calling something a rock is a common enough scriptural metaphor that I don’t think we ought to assume that all rocks are the same rock. Instead, I think it’s going to be more accurate to take each metaphor on its own terms.

    That said, there’s nothing at all wrong with comparing/contrasting those verses. That can result in some interesting and productive devotional readings of scripture, I just wouldn’t trust it as a method of exegesis.

    Your other questions seem to get at the issue that arises from the fact that our English word “Christ” has taken on a very specific meaning loaded with Christian theological baggage that it did not carry for first-century Jews talking about somebody being an anointed.

  4. Jared Livesey says:

    JKC,

    Why not assume whenever Jesus speaks of “the rock” or “my rock” throughout the scriptures he is speaking of the same thing in each instance? If we make that assumption, what is the rock?

    It is for the purpose of offloading the milennia of baggage now attending the term “Christ” that I suggested those questions to be answered.

    Another question that would be of interest to see answered is “why did the Pharisees react with such hostility to the idea that Jesus was the Christ?”

  5. …”revelation is not a gift that is limited to those of a certain leadership tier, but is available to anyone.” I would just add within our responsibility or stewardship.

  6. “Why not assume whenever Jesus speaks of “the rock” or “my rock” throughout the scriptures he is speaking of the same thing in each instance?” Because that assumption would ignore a lot of context.

    Yeah, those questions about what it means to be the anointed are interesting questions.

  7. Yeah, Roy, I agree. The revelation we’re talking about here, though, is specifically the revelation that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of God. That’s not limited to any particular stewardship.

  8. Jared Livesey says:

    @JKC

    You reject my suggestion to see what happens if we assume that whenever Jesus speaks of “the rock” or “my rock” throughout scriptures he means the same thing because you feel that there are contexts which require Jesus to be speaking of different things when he uses those two phrases – that is, you feel that there can be no one unified meaning to those phrases that fits wherever they occur.

    So, just for the sake of conversation, let us provisionally assume the meaning of “the rock” and “my rock” is “the knowledge directly revealed by the Father to the individual that I, Jesus, am the Christ.” Which scriptural usages of the phrases “the rock” and “my rock” do you believe break that assumption?

  9. Another Roy says:

    Thank you for this post. I enjoy discussing these concepts with my family during home study.

  10. Jared, I mean no offense. I think the best reading of Matthew 16:18 is that Jesus is referring to Peter, not to Peter’s revelation, as “this rock.” But lots of smart people disagree with me. You can too. No hard feelings.

  11. Jared Livesey says:

    @JKC

    There are no hard feelings and no offense taken nor intended.

  12. bellamy says:

    Your comment about Joseph receiving the priesthood from Peter is based upon an common misunderstanding of church history . Joseph was very explicit. He received the priesthood the same way that every true prophet does. ie directly from God ,not through the instrumentality of man nor angels .see Genesis 14 JSV see History of the Church V Our Section 27 says nothing about any bestowal of priesthood .It says keys of the ministry which is much different. Other that that common enought lapse generally a good article

  13. bellamy,

    Section 27 isn’t as clear as you suggest. It says “ordained you.” And the church today would interpret “ordained” to mean conferring priesthood. That said, the idea of “Melchizedek priesthood” wasn’t something that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery had at that time. That seems to have come later, and the word “ordained” is not always used in the early church the way we’r use it today. It would probably be more accurate, according to the 1830 understanding of priesthood, to say that they recieved the apostleship from Peter, James, and John.

    Still, the idea that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery recieved what would later be called the Melchizedek Priesthood from Peter, James, and John, is not something invented centuries later, and is not a misunderstanding of church history. It’s something that Joseph Smith himself said. One good example is the blessing he gave Oliver Cowdery in 1833, which Cowdery recorded in 1835 in Kirtland:

    “These blessings shall come upon him [Oliver] according to the blessings of the prophecy of Joseph in ancient days, which he said should come upon the Seer of the last days and the Scribe that should sit with him, and that should be ordained with him by the hand of the angel in the bush, unto the lesser priesthood and after receive the holy priesthood under the hands of they who had been held in reserve for a long season even those who received it under the hand of the Messiah while he should dwell in the flesh upon the earth, and should receive the blessings with him, even the Seer of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saith he, even Joseph of old, by his hand, even God.”

    But anyway, the historical record is ambiguous, and I used the phrase “priesthood authority” rather than “the priesthood” to address that ambiguity.

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