I had a pleasant discussion with one of my readers on The Road To Concord this week. It was about the Catholic teaching that it is the true church of Christ, as established in Matthew 16:18-19. I was raised Catholic, so I know this is a very sensitive issue for many in the Catholic church. None the less, I would like to address the topic, and to offer some gentle correction to those who may believe the Catholic teaching. But first, I want to say that what follows is in no way meant to be read as a condemnation, or judgment or rebuke. I offer my words out of an agape love, and I hope hope that they will be received that way.
Let’s start by trying to agree on some basic ground rules. The Scriptures were not written in English. Nor were they written to a twentieth or twenty-first Century, Western world mindset. They were most likely written first in Hebrew, to an Ancient Near East (ANE), Hebrew mindset, then translated into Greek by people who often held a Hellenized, or Greek world view. This might all seem obvious, but, surprisingly, many people fail to stop and consider the implications of these simple facts. Worse still, many who have acknowledged these facts often dismiss them as trivial. They are anything but. If we are to understand the Scriptures correctly, we must learn the culture and language in which and to which they were written.
OK, now that we have agreed (hopefully) to pay attention to the linguistic and cultural problems of properly interpreting Scripture, let’s discuss another point that will be key to properly understanding the passage at hand. This passage occurs at the foot of Mt. Harmon. In ancient times, this location was believed to be where the opening into Hades, or the Underworld was located. In other words, this is where the gates of Hell were. It is also the mountain where the fallen angels who came down to take wives (Gen 6:1-4) were believed to have first set foot on the earth. So, hopefully we can see that passage didn’t take place in any old place in some Israelite desert. There is hidden significance here that can easily be lost to modern readers, but which would have been painfully obvious to the original audience.
OK, now, before we can address the Catholic church’s claim to be the only true church of Christ because it is built on Peter, we need to have a bit of a length discussion about the passage in question. So, let’s do so, and let’s do so in the full context of the passage:
Matthew 16:13-19 New American Standard Bible
Peter’s Confession of Christ
13 Now when Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets.” 15 He *said to them, “But who do you yourselves say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. 18 And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”
I wish to start by drawing your attention to the fact that Yeshua is already in a discussion about the Holy Spirit’s revelation to Peter when He says, “And I also say to you that you are Peter,…” Remember, Peter’s name is really Simon, son of John. Yeshua changed his name to Cephas (Peter), which means, ‘a rock’ (John 1:42). Now, at first glance, it may well appear as though Yeshua is saying He will build His Church upon Peter (the rock). But I ask you to consider another way to understand this passage. I ask you to consider the possibility that Yeshua was actually saying:
“And I also say to you that you are Peter (rock), and upon this rock (Mt. Harmon, the entrance to the underworld) I will build My Church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”
Now, don’t draw your decision too quickly here. Gates are a defensive weapon, so Yeshua is not saying that Hades will attack His Church and fail, He is saying He will attack Hades and it will fail to keep Him from conquering and building His Church upon the ruins of Hades. Remember, Yeshua and the Apostles are standing in the shadow of the mountain of Hades when this is being said. So, it is almost as if Yeshua is saying to Peter:
‘Yes, you are Peter, but upon this rock (gestures over His shoulder to Mt Hermon), I will build My Church, and the defensive gates at the entrance to the underworld will not be able to stop me from building upon its ruins.’
I was redundant on purpose. I hope you’ll forgive me for this, but I wanted to state my case in more than one way — in the hope that it will be perfectly clear. I first encountered this understanding in a book titled, “Reversing Hermon,” written by Dr. Michael Heiser. Dr. Heiser’s argument thoroughly convinced me that this is — in fact — the correct interpretation of what is being said in this passage.
At this point, Yeshua picks His address to Peter back up and says He is giving the keys to the Kingdom to Peter. This is yet another commonly misunderstood passage, and for several reasons. First, this is a bit of a poor translation. A bit of the original meaning has been lost because the Greek translators had grown accustomed to using the same Greek words for specific Hebrew words every time they translated that Hebrew word. But those Hebrew words sometimes had meanings different from that of the Greek word that had been assigned to it. A little more of the original meaning is further lost in the fact that few modern readers recognize that there is an ancient rabbinic idiom in play here. So, let’s address the first part here; the slight miss-translation.
The Greek word translated here as ‘bind,’ is ‘deó,’ and it does mean to ‘bind, fasten or tie.’ But the Hebrew word that stands behind it can also mean to ‘declare unlawful.’ And the Greek word translated as, ‘loosed,’ is ‘luó.’ It means to ‘loosen, untie or release.’ But the Hebrew word behind it can mean to ‘make lawful.’ Now, the Hebrew meanings I just gave are not exact. They are roughly translated here, to account for the way the idiom uses them in our next section of this discussion. For those who wish to dig into this deeper, I would suggest the discussion on page 103 of David Bivin and Roy Blizzard, Jr.’s book, “Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, New Insights from a Hebraic Perspective.”
As I said, there is also a Hebrew idiom here that was frequently used by the rabbis, and Yeshua was a rabbi, so it would be natural for Him to employ it. The idiom is, “To bind and to loose.” As you may have already suspected, or even understood, this refers to declaring something to be lawful or to make it unlawful. But here is the part few modern readers misunderstand. This idiom does not mean that new laws can be created, or old laws annulled. If this were the case, the person who claimed such authority would be claiming higher authority than YHWH, as only YHWH can add to or take away from His Law (TORAH). So, why does the idiom suggest that one can ‘make unlawful or make lawful?’ Because the idiom — and the authority being given to Peter — refers to the authority to make judgments of YHWH’s existing TORAH.
It probably wouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that the Law of Moses is not TORAH. TORAH is the sum total of the first five books of Scripture and is considered, ‘The Teachings.’ But even then, neither TORAH, nor the Law of Moses cover every situation believers might encounter. It should be obvious. However, what might surprise many is that this applies to the New Covenant (more properly, the Renewed Covenant). I won’t go into the Scriptural proofs here, but TORAH was not done away with after Yeshua was crucified. Yeshua, Himself, said not one jot or title of the Law (TORAH) will pass away before all is accomplished, and we still have prophecy left to be fulfilled, o TORAH is still in place — period! Anyway, Yeshua knew this, and He knew the Church was going to face many new challenges that those living under the Covenant of Moses had never had to wrestle with. Consequently, the Church was going to need a replacement for Moses, a head judge, so to speak. This is what Yeshua is doing here; He is making Peter the equivalent of Moses under the Renewed covenant.
Whew! Now we can finally address the claim of the Catholic church.
Well, the first thing we should see after our discussion of the passage in question is that Yeshua never actually said He was building His Church on Peter. And why would He? YHWH didn’t build Israel on Moses, so why would Yeshua build the Church on Peter. Rather, YHWH made Moses the head judge of the Law for Israel, just as Yeshua made Peter the head judge of the Law for the Church. Do you see the parallel here? Moses was given authority to interpret the Law, but not to alter or do away with it, so why would Peter’s authority be any different? Therefore, it should be clear that Yeshua didn’t build His Church on Peter, which then means that the Catholic church is not and has never been, ‘the true Church of Christ,’ as claimed. Christ is the True Church of Christ. Always has been, always will be.
That’s it; we’re done. See how simple the issue was? Once we understand the original meaning of this passage, the clear parallel between Moses and Peter becomes clear, as does the fact that Yeshua didn’t say He was building His Church on Peter.
Remember, ultimately, the Church is the Body of Christ, and is composed of the true remnant. It is not a building or collection of buildings, nor is it a hierarchy of bureaucratic leadership over the believers. Unfortunately, the idea that buildings and bureaucracy have anything to do with the church is one of the primary shortcomings of both the Catholic and Protestant churches. Yeshua taught us never to do any of that, and yet, this is exactly what we have done. Worse, if anyone dare suggest we return to Yeshua’s teachings, the likelihood today is that they will be branded a heretic and driven from that congregation. So, is it any wonder we have such squabbles between Catholics and Protestants, and between the different denominations withing these two larger groups? One tells all the rest that only they worship the correct way in spite of the fact that Scripture teaches it is the only true way. I wonder, what would our Messiah have to say to us about all this? No matter, I have a pretty good idea I know what Paul would say; that is, if he didn’t take off his sandal and start beating us with it, first. 🙂