Today is the seventh anniversary of the election of the Holy Roman Pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI.
Therefore, in honor of this great and historic event, over the next three days we will meditate upon the great mystery on the person of Simon Peter, Prince of the Apostles and Vicar of Christ.
In an attempt to deny the authority of the Pope, and thus free himself from the Catholic Church, Martin Luther was faced with the difficult challenge of dismissing Our Lord’s words to Saint Peter as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew: “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the powers of death shall never prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.” (Matt. 16:18-19). The Catholic Church has always interpreted this passage as identifying Peter as the foundation stone upon which Christ will build His Church. In order to reject the Catholic interpretation of this passage, many Protestants are forced to do linguistic gymnastics, denying that our Lord’s words are a bestowal of certain privileges on Saint Peter, and teaching instead that Jesus is actually demeaning Peter in this passage. As with past topics, context is essential for an authentic interpretation of the text.
Only a few verses prior to this often quoted passage, Our Lord asks His Apostles, “Who do you say that I am?” To this question Simon Peter responds, “You are the Christ” (Matt 16:16). It is this declaration which is the foundation for the blessing which our Lord then bestows upon Peter. To understand the import of Peter’s declaration of faith, we must place ourselves within the context of the Hebrew culture. The title “Christ,” is taken from the Greek word “Christos,” which simply means “anointed.” The Hebrew word for “anointed” is “Messiah.” This title, most famous for its reference to Jesus, was a term used to identify the reigning king in Israel. Thus, we read throughout the Old Testament that when a new king was chosen, he was anointed with oil as the sign of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon his head. He was then titled the “Messiah” (cf. 1 Sam 10:1; 16:1,13; 1 Kgs 1:38-40) or in Greek, the “Christos.” The proclamation of Blessed Peter that Jesus is the “Christ,” is nothing other than the announcement that Jesus is the long-awaited King of Israel.
As King, Jesus also receives the title “Son of David,” a title often given to Our Lord in the New Testament (cf. Matt 9:27, 12:23, 15:22, 21:9; Mk 10:47). This title, “Son of David,” identifies him as the new Solomon (King Solomon was the son of King David). The importance of this aspect of Jesus’ kingly role must not be overlooked, and is essential to a proper understanding of the role of Peter, as proclaimed in the Gospel of Matthew. Recall that it was wise King Solomon who built the first Temple (House of the Lord) in Jerusalem. It thus falls upon the shoulders of the New Solomon (Jesus) to re-build this House of God in a glorious fashion. As the long-awaited King of Israel, newly proclaimed by Simon Peter, there is one thing that Jesus must do to show the authenticity of this claim; He must build the House of God. As can be expected, following Peter’s proclamation that Jesus is the “Christ,” the New Solomon does what only the New Solomon can do: He begins to build the house of the Lord. To Peter’s declaration, Jesus responds, “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build My Church.”
To further confirm the Catholic interpretation of this text, let us recall that King Solomon, the wise builder, built the Temple in the center of Jerusalem. Today, this location is a holy place for Muslims, and the shrine which is built there is known as the “Dome of the Rock.” This name is given to the building because within this Muslim shrine is exposed the surface of a huge rock. This rock, known among the Jews as the “foundation stone,” was the great rock upon which King Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem. This rock was legendary among the Israelites as the place where God had formed Adam in Paradise, where Noah’s ark came to rest, where Isaac was to be sacrificed by Abraham, and where God had chosen his house to be built. It was believed that this rock was the capstone to the realm of death, the place where all prayers go up to heaven, and the place where the graces of God rain down upon the earth.
Knowing this history, Jesus the King, the New King Solomon, the new “Wise Builder,” chose Simon, and changed his name to Peter, which means the rock, and upon this rock He built the house of God which is the Catholic Church.