Keys to the Kingdom — Jesus Builds His Church on Solid Rock  

Editor’s Note — Part 7 of Jesus, Kingdom Builder, a 13-part study of St. Matthew’s Gospel by Dr. Sri. The series will run every two weeks.     

Photography © by Andy Coan

If you ever have the chance to visit the Vatican, go to the center of St. Peter’s Basilica and just look up. You can’t miss it. Some of the most important words Jesus ever spoke will stare down at you. Encircling the base of the dome, a line of three-foot-tall black letters pressed onto a gold background majestically spell out in Latin: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.

Even after visiting St. Peter’s countless times during my years of study in Rome, I am still moved whenever I see these sacred words which Jesus spoke to Peter some 2,000 years ago. They not only mark a crucial turning point in Jesus’ kingdom movement, but they are also commonly hailed as an important foundation for the role of the pope in Christ’s kingdom today. Imagine what it would have been like to have been there during that pivotal conversation between Jesus and Peter. Let us go back to the city of Caesarea Phillipi where these words were spoken for the first time, so that we may hear them anew in the way the twelve apostles themselves might have originally understood them. 

Who Do You Say That I Am?  

So far, throughout most of Matthew’s Gospel, we have been reading about how Jesus has been building His kingdom movement in the northern region of Israel known as Galilee. But in Matthew 16, His kingdom program takes a significant turn. In this scene, Jesus leads His twelve apostles north out of Galilee to a city called Caesarea Philippi. There, He initiated a conversation that would forever leave its mark on Christian history. 

Jesus began by asking the apostles about the public’s perception of Him and His ministry. What were the people saying about Him? The apostles reported that some people thought Jesus was John the Baptist, while others thought He was Elijah, Jeremiah, or another one of the prophets. After hearing about what the crowds were saying, Jesus then turned to the twelve and posed the question on a more personal level: “But who do you say that I am?” (Mt. 16:15). 

At this, Simon Peter took the lead and answered for them all: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt. 16:16). In other words, Peter was saying, “You are the anointed King we have been longing for . . . You are the one who will restore Israel and set us free.” With these words, Peter became the first person in Matthew’s Gospel explicitly to recognize Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah. 

Jesus then responded to Peter’s insight by blessing him and saying: “Blessed are you, Simon Bãr- Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not 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, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt. 16:17-19). 

These famous words serve as the foundation for understanding the role of the pope in the life of the Catholic Church. Yet, some may object that the passage doesn’t appear to say anything about Peter’s being an authoritative head of the Church and the vicar of Christ, much less about his having successors who would continue this role of shepherding all Christians as Christ’s representative. Indeed, at first glance, the passage doesn’t appear to portray Jesus as intending to start an ongoing papal lineage in the manner found in the Catholic Church. However, when we read these words through the lenses of first-century Judaism, we see just how significant these words would have been in the time of Jesus and how profoundly they might shed light on the Catholic understanding of the papacy today. 

A New Name

The first thing which would have captured the apostles’ attention is the fact that Jesus changed Simon’s name. This was not about giving Simon a new nickname. Rather, Jesus was giving him a new vocation. In Jewish tradition, a change in someone’s name signified a change in the person. When God set certain people apart for special roles, He often gave them new names to signify their new purpose in the divine plan. For example, Abram’s name was changed to Abraham (which means “father of a multitude”) when Yahweh elevated him from being a simple shepherd to the founder of the Jewish people. Similarly, the patriarch Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, denoting how he would become the father of the twelve tribes of the nation of Israel.

A new name signals a new mission. Thus, when Jesus gave Simon a new name, He was setting him apart from the other twelve apostles and bestowing on him a special function. This simple name change alone would have signaled to those apostles and first-century Jews that Jesus was giving Peter an important role to play in His kingdom.

Like a Rock

The second element that would have stood out in Jesus’ words to Peter would have been the new name itself. Jesus conferred on Simon the name “Peter”—Kepha in Jesus’ language (Aramaic)—which means “rock.” What is interesting is that Kepha never was used as a proper name before. Although Peter is a common name found in many modern languages today, this was not the case in Jesus’ day. Jesus took an ordinary word — rock — and used it to designate a human being, Simon Peter. The peculiarity of such an action would be similar to having your name changed to a word such as “stone” or “boulder” or some other word that is not normally used as a proper name.

What did Jesus mean when He called Simon by this non-name, “rock”? And what did He mean when He told him He would build His Church on him and the gates of death would not prevail against it?

A number of images come to mind. On a basic level, Jesus was simply saying that Peter will be rocklike: a durable, solid, foundation giving the Church the firm and stable leadership it will need in the years ahead. On another level, Peter will be like Abraham who was described as the rock on which God constructed and established the world (cf. Is. 51:1-2). These allusions point to the pivotal role Peter would play in God’s plan for the Church. But there is another significant image Jesus probably was thinking of when He gave Simon the name “rock.” And it is this image which has the most potential for illuminating the Catholic understanding of the papacy.

The Foundation Stone

The most important rock in all of Judaism was the “foundation stone” (Heb. eben shetiyah) in the Jerusalem Temple. According to Jewish tradition, this rock served not only as the base of the altar for sacrifice in the Temple, but also was associated with significant moments of salvation history. This rock was believed to be the site of creation and the foundation on which God built the world. It was the place where Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac to Yahweh. David dug down to this rock and made it the foundation for the Temple. And it was believed that this rock plugged up the waters of the abyss, the pit of death, and kept the demonic forces of deception and death sealed down below. [1]  

These were vivid images that the Jews used to describe the profound reality of the Temple’s relationship with the spiritual order. Simply put, the Temple was the sacred space where heaven and earth met. To Jews, the Temple was the center of the universe, and the foundation stone was the point of intersection between the spiritual realm and the physical world.

What is important for us to note is how Jesus used these images when He referred to Simon as the rock upon which He would build His Church, and the gates of death would not prevail against it. In other words, Jesus was saying that Peter is like the Temple foundation stone. Just as God used the Temple rock to build the world and protect it from the chaotic waters and evil spirits underneath, so too God will use Peter to build the Church and protect His people from the powers of death. [2]

Keys to the Kingdom

After changing Simon’s name to Peter, Jesus did something else that made Peter’s important position in the kingdom even more obvious. Jesus gave Peter “the keys to the kingdom” and the power to “bind and loose” (Mt. 16:19).

To understand the royal symbolism of the keys given to Peter, we need to see how they were used in the Davidic kingdom of the Old Testament.

The key of the house of David symbolized the administrative authority of the “master of the palace” — the king’s highest ranking official in the royal court. Similar to prime minister-like positions in other ancient near-eastern kingdoms, the master of the palace in the Davidic dynasty shared in the king’s own authority, governed in the king’s name, and acted for him in his absence.

Isaiah 22 describes the promotion of a man named Eliakim to this most prestigious office. As master of the palace, Eliakim handled the day-to-day affairs of the kingdom for the king. He wore a royal robe and exercised authority, ruling as a father figure over the people of Judah. To symbolize the unique authority he held, he was given the key of the house of David. Holding the key to the kingdom, this new master of the palace was described as “a peg in a sure place” and “a throne of honor” to his father’s house (Is. 22:15-25).

This is the royal imagery Jesus was alluding to when He gave Peter the keys to the kingdom. Jesus was saying that Peter will be the new “master of the palace” in the kingdom He was building. Since the keys symbolized how the Davidic king vested the prime minister with his very authority, Jesus, in giving Peter the keys to the kingdom, was saying: “You, Peter, will be the prime minister in my kingdom. You will be vested with my very authority so that you can shepherd the people in my name.”

What About Succession?

To this point, we have seen that Jesus certainly singled out Peter for having a unique role in His kingdom. Peter underwent a name change signifying his special vocation. He was the foundation rock for the Church, keeping even the powers of evil at bay. And he was given the keys to the kingdom, designating him as the prime minister, ruling with Jesus’ authority in the Church. Matthew’s Gospel clearly shows us that Peter was elevated to a preeminent position of authority in Christ’s kingdom.

But where do Catholics get the idea of an ongoing papacy? All that we can conclude from the passage so far is that Peter was given this special authoritative position. It is one thing to say that Jesus established Peter as the head of the Church, but it is another thing to claim that Jesus intended for there to be successors to Peter’s office throughout the centuries down to Pope John Paul II today. Where does Matthew 16 mention anything about this special authority being passed on to successors?

The answer again lies in the keys. Isaiah 22 tells how Eliakim was replacing the previous master of the palace, a man named Shebna. To symbolize the transfer of the office from Shebna to Eliakim, Eliakim was given the key to the house of David (cf. Is. 22:22). It’s important to note that Eliakim was assuming an office that continued from generation to generation. And it was the handing on of the keys which symbolized the transfer of the prime minister’s office to the following successor. Thus, the notion of succession was built right into the image of the keys.

So when Jesus gave Peter the keys, He was entrusting His authority not only to Peter, but also to all his successors. Jesus was saying something like, “I give this authority not only to you, Peter, but also to all those who come after you in this office.” Therefore, the keys weren’t meant only for Peter, but were intended to be passed on to Peter’s successors, just as they were passed on from prime minister to prime minister in the Davidic kingdom of old.

This is why the Catholic Church has always taught that Peter’s successor — the pope — serves as the “Vicar of Christ” and preeminent shepherd of God’s people (cf. Catechism, no. 882). As the modern day successor of Peter and bearer of “the keys,” Pope John Paul II stands as the current prime minister in Christ’s kingdom. Sharing in all the prerogatives of this royal office, the pope is the King’s representative. As the prime minister, he is vested with Jesus’ authority and leads God’s people in Christ’s name. And like the prime minister Eliakim, who was a father figure in the kingdom of David (cf. Is. 22:21), the pope leads us as our “Holy Father” in the New Covenant kingdom of Jesus, the Church.


[1] T. Fawcett, Hebrew Myth and Christian Gospel (London: SCM, 1973), 239-45; Z. Vilnay, Legends of Jerusalem (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1973), 5-82; R. De Vaux, Ancient Israel (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), 318-19; cf. Rev. 20.
[2] Fawcett, 244-45; DeVaux, 318-19.

Questions for Discussion:    

  1. Read Catechism, nos. 880-82. How would you explain biblically the Church’s teaching on the papacy as found in these articles from the Catechism?
  2. Read Catechism, no. 891. What is papal infallibility? How might themes discussed in this article shed light on the infallibility of the pope?
  3. Answer the following objection: Jesus might have given Peter a unique authoritative position in the kingdom, but the Scriptures nowhere teach that this authority was meant to be passed on to his successors.


Reprinted with permission from the July/August 1999 issue of Lay Witness magazine. © 1999 Catholics United for the Faith /     

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