Upon This Rock
August 27, 1989
If you ever travel to the Holy Land, one of the places you may visit is an Arab town called Banias. To get there you will have to travel north from Jerusalem to some place like Tiberius or Capernaum and from there travel even farther north into the finger of Galilee. You will pass through a kibbutz called Kiryat Shemona. On your left will be a mountain range. Beyond that mountain range is Lebanon. On your right will be a mountain range. Beyond that mountain range is Syria.
Once you leave Kiryat Shemona you will travel north again, out of Galilee altogether, and go east for a few miles. At last you will come to Banias. I called it a town. It is really more like a settlement.
What you will see there are a few buildings, a spring, and behind the spring an enormous rock cliff. Built into the cliff is an ancient Catholic monastery. Not far away is the majestic snow-capped peak of Mt. Hermon.
That’s all there is to Banias today. Many generations ago it was called Paneas after the Greek god Pan. About the time of Christ, Phillip the Tetrarch enlarged Paneas and renamed it after the great Caesar Augustus. He added his own name so that no one would confuse this city with any other city built to honor the emperor. Thus the name Caesarea Philippi.
The Crucial Question
And it was to Caesarea Philippi that Jesus brought his disciples. What happened in that Gentile city changed the course of history. For it was there that he asked the question, “Who do men say that I am?”
They answered him with the best wisdom of the day. “John the Baptist.” “Elijah.” “Jeremiah.” “One of the prophets.” Then Jesus asked them the question: “But who you do say that I am?”
That is the fundamental question. That is the question. And against it, and in comparison with it, there are no other questions. “But who do you say that I am?”
It is one thing to know the answers that men give. And that’s a good thing. You go to school to learn that. You may go to seminary, perhaps, and read books to learn that. It is good to know the opinions that people have of our Lord.
But there is a question that goes beyond that. It is the personal question—”But who do you say that I am?”
When Jesus asked that question he had come to a crisis point in his ministry. He had come unto his own and his own had not received him. Oh, it was true that the common people heard him gladly and they loved him. But as their answers revealed, they had no idea who he was. It would be fair to say that the common people liked Jesus but did not worship him.
* * * * * * * * * *
And in Caesarea Philippi, beside that great rock cliff which is still there today, he asked the question, “You who have been with me all this time, who do you say that I am?”
When Jesus asked that question, he asked it in the plural. It’s hard to tell in our translation, but it’s really there. When Peter answered, he was not answering just for himself, but for all 12 apostles.
And he said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (16) A simple, concise answer. And from that answer the world shifted its course.
When Peter said those words, Jesus looked at Peter and gave him a promise which has become one of the foundation stones of the Christian church. “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” (18)
I. What Is The Rock?
In these early Sundays of my ministry here at Calvary we are looking at what Jesus had to say about the church. That’s why we are back in Matthew 16. Last Sunday we talked about the Church’s Testimony—”You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Today we are talking about the Church’s Foundation—”Upon this rock I will build my church.”
Having said that, I must admit that we are wading into a storm center of controversy. For at least 400 years Christians have disagreed over the meaning of these words—you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church. Sincere Christians have disagreed; learned scholars have disagreed; entire churches have based their existence on a certain interpretation of this passage. To be perfectly frank about it, between the Roman Catholic Church and the various Protestant churches there is a veritable continental divide over this statement of Jesus.
A. The Roman Catholic Answer
I would state the difference this way. The traditional Roman Catholic interpretation is that when Jesus said to Peter, “Upon this rock I will build my church,” he was saying that Peter himself was the rock upon which the church would be built. That is, Peter was to be the primate and was to have primacy over the other apostles. And the keys of the kingdom that Jesus talks about in verse 19 refer to the prerogatives given to Peter as the first leader of the Christian church and the first Bishop of Rome. Ultimately, of course, the Roman Catholic looks to this passage as the proof that Peter was indeed the first pope. And even in 1989 the Roman Catholic Church holds to a certain interpretation of this passage as the foundation of its authority structure.
B. The Protestant Answer
Protestants have given a number of different answers over the centuries. One of the most popular evangelical answers goes something like this: There are two different Greek words used for “Peter” and “Rock.” Peter is petros, which can mean a small stone and “rock” is petra which can mean a large rock. In that case, Peter is not the rock; the rock is his confession of faith. Jesus would be saying, “You are like a small stone, but I am building my church on your rock-like confession of faith.” Some interpreters have even suggested that Jesus was standing in front of that massive rock cliff and may have picked up a stone when he said, “You are Peter” and then gestured toward himself when he said, “Upon this rock I will build my church.”
There you have the two great answers to the question—What is the rock upon which the church is built? Is it Peter? Or is it his confession of faith?
C. A Third Answer
I would like to suggest this morning that there is a third interpretation which is—at least to me—the most fitting and the easiest to understand. First, when Jesus said “Upon this rock I will build my church,” he was referring to Peter. I say that because the two Greek words—petros and petra—basically mean the same thing. They are different forms of the same word. One is masculine and the other is feminine. That’s the only real difference. Jesus was saying, “Peter, you are a rock-man.”
Second, when Jesus said, “Upon this rock I will build my church,” he said it after Peter made his great confession of faith. The timing is crucial. It’s not as if Jesus looks around and says, “Well, you’re the best I’ve got so you’ll have be the one.” No, Jesus wasn’t looking for some fall guy on which to build his church. Peter could not have been the rock until he made the great confession. That is, the rock is not Peter the doubter or Peter the denier. The rock is Peter the believer and Peter the confesser. The rock is Peter as he publicly confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Upon that rock Jesus will build his church.
Third, when Jesus said, “Upon this rock I will build my church,” he said it to Peter as representing all the apostles. Remember I mentioned that the question was in the plural—”Who do you (plural) say that I am?” Jesus wasn’t asking Peter alone; he was asking all of them. When Peter answered, he wasn’t answering only for himself; he was answering for all of them. And when Jesus said, “You are the rock,” he wasn’t speaking of Peter alone. He was speaking of all the apostles.
Yes, Peter was first. He was the leader. Give him all the credit. When no one would speak up, Peter said it loud and clear. Yes, Peter is the rock. And so are the other apostles.
I think Jesus was saying, “Peter, you are a rock. And upon you, and men like you, I will build my church.” Now to say that is not to agree with everything else that other people may say about Peter being the rock. But it is to say that Peter is the foundation of the church in the sense that, when he made that confession—and all the apostles with him—he was the rock—and they were the rocks upon which the church is built.
Let me put it plainly. The church is not built on men alone; nor is it built on a confession alone. The church is built on men confessing together that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. That is the foundation of the church.
Men Who Make A Great Confession
Some of you may say, “That sounds a lot like the second answer about the confession of faith.” There is a crucial point here. A confession of faith is just an idea. And any idea by itself is just a weak and limp and lifeless thing.
Take the law of gravity. By itself it’s just a theory. But take a man like Newton and let him meet that law and suddenly the course of history is changed.
Take the principle of electricity. By itself it’s just a principle. But take a man like Benjamin Franklin, let him meet that principle, and the lights go on around the world.
Take the theory of relativity. By itself it’s just a complex equation. Scientists still don’t fully understand it. But take a man like Einstein and let him meet that theory and the atomic age is born.
Take the concept of space flight. By itself it’s just a dream on a piece of paper. But take a man like Werner Von Braun and suddenly we’re flying past Neptune.
I am saying that the church is not built upon an idea alone or a theory alone or upon a confession of faith alone. But the church is built upon men who meet a great idea and men who make a great confession—that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
And that is exactly what Ephesians 2:20 says. “For you are…built upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.” I would understand it this way: That the cornerstone or the bedrock of the church is Jesus Christ himself. And upon that bedrock are the apostles. Those unlikely men, those uneducated men, those Galilean men, those fishermen, those tax collectors, those political rabble-rousers, those men who left everything to follow our Lord Jesus Christ, are the foundation stones of the church.
20th Century Living Stones
Many years later Peter wrote a letter which found its way into the New Testament. We call it First Peter. This is what he said in chapter two: “You have come to Christ who is the Living Stone.” He called Christ the Living Stone. Then he said, “And you are built upon him as living stones upon living stones.” (I Peter 2:4-5 paraphrased)
That is to say, Jesus Christ is first. He’s the Living Stone. Upon him is built first, the apostles, then all the first century believers, then the second century believers, then the third century believers, then the fourth and the fifth and the sixth, all the way up to the twentieth century. Here’s where we fit in. When we confess faith in Jesus Christ, we become living stones, joined into that great church which Jesus Christ is building.
One Revolutionary Truth
Ladies and gentlemen, there is an important truth here. You are not a Christian because you have shown up in church this morning, as wonderful as that is. And you are not a Christian because you have been baptized, as good as that is. You are not a Christian because of anything you do or because of anything you say. If you are a Christian, you’re a Christian because of what you believe and confess about Jesus Christ.
And the church is not made up of people who have walked an aisle and been baptized. And it’s not made up of people who have gone through a membership class, as good as that is. It is not made up of people who tithe all their money to the church, as good as that may be. The church is made up of people who have confessed one revolutionary truth—that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
So the church’s foundation is first the bedrock, Jesus Christ, then the apostles—led by Peter who first confessed that truth, and then finally we join in when we have come face to face with the great idea that Jesus is the Son of God from heaven and in that moment we become living stones in the church that Jesus is building.
II. What Is The Church?
A. What It Isn’t
What does it all mean for us here at Calvary Memorial Church? Let me suggest that in the light of this there are three things that the church is not.
1. The Church is not the building. That’s a common mistake. We say, “I’m going down to the church,” but we’re really talking about the building. This building is a wonderful example. It was designed by W.G. Williamson in 1902 for the First Presbyterian Church of Oak Park. It is so beautiful that it is listed in the Chicago Magazine Guide to Chicago as one of the noteworthy churches of Oak Park and River Forest. But no matter how lovely it is, this building is not the church. Why? Because although it is built of stone, the stones are dead, and the church Jesus is building is made of living stones.
2. The Church is not the statement of faith. Now we at Calvary have an excellent statement of faith. Most people never read it except when they join the church, and truthfully, most people don’t even read it then. That’s a shame because our statement of faith is very well written. Certain parts of it are very moving and eloquent. But the statement of faith is only words on a piece of paper. That’s all. By itself it has no power to do anything. And for those who don’t believe it, it doesn’t matter at all.
3. The Church is not the membership list. This may surprise you. Surely, you say, the church consists of its members. Yes and no. Yes, the church technically consists of its duly recognized membership. But no, the church is not the membership list. Why? Because it is possible to go through all the motions of joining a church without ever putting your personal faith in Jesus Christ. That is, you just nod your head and sign on the dotted line without ever making a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. In that case you are a member of a Christian church, but you yourself are not a Christian.
B. What It Is
What, then, is the church? Let me quote from the introduction to the Church Covenant of Calvary Memorial Church. “Having been brought by divine grace to embrace the Lord Jesus Christ and to give ourselves wholly to him.” That’s what the church is. It’s the men and women who have embraced Jesus Christ and have given themselves wholly to him. That’s the church Jesus is building. That’s the foundation of Calvary Memorial Church.
We who make up the congregation of this church are not here because we are:
or outstanding in any particular way. There are a few people here who fit some of those words. And there are a lot of us who don’t fit any of them!
But there is one thing that fits all of us. In our hearts we have embraced the Lord Jesus Christ. We have made him our own. He belongs to us and we belong to him. That one fact makes us a church.
Only one question is left. Are you in the church or out? If you are in, you’re in because you have embraced Jesus Christ and given yourself wholly to him. If you’re out, it’s because you haven’t done that.
So where do you stand this morning? Are you in or are you out?