Recently I watched a documentary on Saint Peter The History Of St. Peter, With David Suchet where that beloved actor (who brought to life Agatha Christie’s no less lovable Hercules Poirot) presented his public with this interesting question:
“What probably would have puzzled [Peter] then is why Jesus is now referring to him as “Rocky”  . So, why is it that the phrase “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church” caused so many disputes? I think because it is open to so many different interpretations. I mean, if I’d receive that piece of text through the post, I would want to ring out my playwright and ask: “What do you mean?” Unfortunately, we can’t do it in this case, But in context, let’s say: Here is Jesus, there is Peter, and there is a Rock. I wonder what was He doing with His hands? Was he saying: “Upon this Rock [pointing at the mountain] I will build my Church.” Or was He saying “On this rock [pointing at Himself] I will build my Church.” Or was He looking at Peter and saying [pointing at Peter] on this rock, you Peter, I will build my Church”? Which I think it’s highly unlikely knowing the wonderfully flawed character of Peter. Or may be, He is saying to Peter: “What you have just said about Me, your faith is the rock on which I will build my Church.”?
To answer Mr. Suchet’s question we have to go to the beginning of the story. Using our imagination we will place ourselves in the first scene, near the shore opposite Caesarea where Jesus and the disciples were gathered by the beach. Peter’s boat is anchored. We can see it in the background as the enemies of Jesus approach:
The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, ‘When it is evening, you say, “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.” And in the morning, “It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.” You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.’ Then he left them and went away. (Matthew 16:1-4 NRSVACE)
The Pharisees and Sadducees come with the intention of detecting something in Jesus that would allow them to condemn him to death. They ask Jesus for a sign, to perform some kind of miracle that they can later assign to witchcraft or to the devil. They do not come looking for the Messiah. Contrary to that cunning attitude, Jesus’ first disciples are found by their Master–perhaps in the same spot by the shore–they are not looking for him. Those disciples follow Jesus unconditionally right away. Here we find the first of a few mirror images presented to us in Matthew 16. The intention of the hearts of the disciples is exactly the opposite of the intention of his enemies. One group seeks life, the other seeks death.
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. (Matthew 4:18-22 NRSVACE)
To his enemies, Jesus responds with a parable: they know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but they cannot interpret the signs of the times. The sign they allegedly seek is happening in their own time and right before their eyes. It is their malice that is blinding them in the same manner that the good disposition of the disciples’ hearts allow them to see Jesus as the Good Teacher. Without missing one second, Jesus prophesies that an extraordinary sign will be given to the adulterous and wicked generation his enemies represent: the sign of Jonah.
There are many facets to the “sign of Jonah” and one could write a book on that alone.
- Jonah is a minor prophet, his name means “dove” and the Christian mind is directed to that symbol of the Holy Spirit that will be shown to the entire nation on the first Pentecost.
- Jonah is a reluctant prophet who tries to escape from declaring a warning of destruction to the city of Nineveh. Peter will one day try to escape Rome to save his life (in the same manner as Jonah) only to be redirected to his mission by Christ in the now famous story of the question “Domine, Quo Vadis?” The sign of Peter’s martyrdom would mark the Mons Vaticanus in Rome as a site that will be for centuries the center of the Christian world.
- Jonah’s message led the Ninevites to repentance. Peter’s ministry of taking Jesus’ message to the world would one day save a world guilty of grievous sins from being destroyed by God.
- We cannot forget that later on, while on the opposite shore, Peter will be called by Jesus “son of Jonah” in spite of Peter being Simon Bar Yohanan, Simon son of John. In what sense is Peter a son of the prophet Jonah? Again, a thick book can be written to answer that question alone and there are more!
“Then he [Jesus] left them [Jesus’ enemies] and went away” is in stark contrast with the disciples’ disposition: “Immediately they left their nets and followed him […] Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him” — Matthew presents us with these mirror images over and over. Some are so subtle that one has to really strive to detect them. Once detected, they are impossible to overlook.
The other shore
When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ They said to one another, ‘It is because we have brought no bread.’ And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, ‘You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!’ Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (Matthew 16:5-12 NRSVACE)
The disciples forget to bring provisions. They are going to be far from home. Please remember that to move the boat to the opposite shore and back was a considerable effort. Without food they would soon be unable to move the boat swiftly in case of trouble. It seems to me that Jesus had something to do with that missing meal for the crew. The lack of bread points most conspicuously to the Bread of Life standing there with them. The missing food also points at their incipient, little faith and their scarce understanding. Jesus brings up the subject with a cryptic warning against “the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Teachings tainted with political interests, and men bent on oppressing the people are to be avoided by the future Christian leaders. This is a poignant passage for us now, when sectors of the Church seem so willing to become instruments of schemes for world domination. Yeast is basically a bacterium used by bakers to leaven bread. If the fermentation process is not stopped by baking the fermented dough, the whole mass is ruined for human consumption. That is a subtle sign of the times. Jesus is pointing at a process that needs to be paused at the right time to be useful, productive. The nation of Israel was divided and punished many times because the divine doctrine trusted to them had been polluted by false teachings. “Beware!” says Jesus, because the New Israel, the Church, will be exposed to the same kind of deadly pollution.
Earth and Heaven the two shores of the spirit
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. (Matthew 16:13-20 NRSVACE)
The disciples and Jesus cross the sea to the pagan part of the territory. Caesarea Philippi is the area where the temple of Pan is located. Pan is a god of hell but not only that, he is the god of the lower passions of man. He is often represented as half man and half goat, as a satyr who plays a shepherd’s flute. Those who follow the enticing melodies of the lowest passions (envy, fear, lust, gluttony, avarice) end up in Pan’s realm. The noblest of the pagans saw in the figure of Pan a clear warning to dominate their own passions. If they wanted to live a virtuous life (virtue being the quality of being a vir a true and noble man) they had to keep it clean.
There Jesus begins to develop an answer to the question of the Pharisees: “Who are you?” In typical fashion he poses the question to his own disciples. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Most people had the idea that Jesus was one of the great prophets, perhaps the great prophet promised to Moses in antiquity. No one knew for sure. Theories abounded. Then he asks them directly, no longer referring obliquely to the mysterious Son of Man but posing the question straight: “Who do YOU say that I AM?” Since Ego Eimi —the name “I am” revealed to Moses as the name of God– is the Greek equivalent of the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) … Jesus’ question goes deep. In the image appear the two shores of the human condition MAN (“You”) and GOD (“I am”) —On one shore: the sinful territory, the dark cave where mankind exists struggling with the flesh, the world, and the devil. On the other shore: Heaven, the land of the living, the home of God.
The mission Jesus is about to give those men is to take souls in the barque of Peter. They will take those souls from the earthly shore to the heavenly shore. Each soul, each “YOU” will travel from that polluted, impotent, imperfect ME to the holy, almighty, perfect beyond imagination I AM, the God of our fathers. That is why when Simon answers, Jesus recognizes the divine inspiration that has flooded Simon Peter’s heart. Exulting, Peter proclaims for all the centuries to come: “You are the Christ! the Son of the living God!” Flesh and blood could not have guessed the right answer, it had to come from the heavenly side. From a distance impossible to fathom, God Himself moors Peter’s bark to His own heavenly dock. God the Father secured the destiny of the souls aboard Peter’s barque. Hidden there is the very essence of the ancient truth: Nulla salus extra Ecclesiam.
You are Kepha
Why calling Peter “son of Jonah” or “Rock”? I remember the prophet Jonah thrown overboard into the stormy sea to calm the tempest, the ire of God. Like a rock, Jonah sinks into the depths and it is swallowed by a fish, a figure of redemptional death. Jonah goes into the water to save the souls in the boat. The equivalent of Jonah –the “son of Jonah” on this side of the prophetic mirror image– is Peter, Kepha, the Rock. Jesus is speaking Aramaic to Peter and that is why we will analyze that word. Why Kepha?
Not long before Jesus’ arrival into the historical scene the Romans had intervened to name one extra High Priest in Jerusalem. The Caesar was a Supreme Pontifex and he did not like competition. He was the highest priest before all gods. That included the God of Israel in the Emperor’s obtuse and degenerate pagan mind. There was no room for discussion and so the High Priesthood of Annas began to rotate yearly between him and his son in law Caiaphas (Καϊάφας, Kaiphash) who was also a priest.  Notice the prophetic projection of two high priests in office as the end of the Mosaic order approaches its own bloody end in 70 D.C. Notice also the phonetic similarity between Kepha and Kaiphash. There we find another mirror image: Kepha is a “rocky crag” while Kaiphash means “a dell, a hollow or small valley.” One is the opposite of the other. With that in mind please read Isaiah 22, the story of how God replaced the unfaithful, self serving steward of the royal house of Israel with a better suited, honest, God-fearing man. That in itself deserves its own article. I will digress only to point at this:
On that day I will call my servant Eliakim son of Hilkiah, and will clothe him with your robe and bind your sash on him. I will commit your authority to his hand, and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open. (Isaiah 22:20-22)
I am sure the disciples of Jesus –who have heard many times the words of Isaiah 22 read in the synagogue– recognized what was going on. Jesus was setting the foundation of His coming Kingdom. He was naming the first steward of the royal house of this New Israel, the Church. Add to this the contrast between the names of Kaiphash and Kepha. One is rising, the other is going down. One has the true eternal divine anointing, the other was put in place by a power of this world. Here we begin to answer Mr. Suchet’s question, I believe.
Upon this rock
Jesus makes it clear that he is building a Church. “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” The end of the Mosaic religious system is implicit in that statement and in the negative side of the Kepha-Kaiphash comparison. Jesus is launching Peter’s barque onto the waters of history. Something is beginning that no one there (except Jesus) fully understands. The gates of hell was the name given to the entrance to the Temple-Cave of Pan. Jesus promises the Church shall prevail. Yes, the lower passions of the human heart will be subject to the doctrine and sacraments of the new Church. Mere men, aided by the Holy Spirit, will have power to erase the spiritual and in some occasions the physical effects of sin. Death will not keep Jesus prisoner. After the Resurrection, the Church will begin to move and one day the New Israel will conquer the world. Like any good general would do, Jesus orders the disciples to keep his identity secret.
We know the arch-enemy of God, the devil, does not accept God’s universal sovereignty but argues that the world belongs to the forces of evil on the right of conquest. Jesus will respond to the devil with Peter. The old fisherman will go to Rome. There he will proceed to conquer the presumably unconquerable city. He will present to Jesus a glorious martyrdom in a very special place: the Mons Vaticanus. The old prophets of Rome, the augures used to keep there a sacred forest where they would sacrifice a white doe, read the entrails and vaticinate the future. That is: to pronounce favorable or unfavorable judgement on important matters such as going to war, select a king, etc. Those were the prophecies or vaticinii of the old Roman reign. By dying on that hill, Peter conquered it for Christ. That is the hill where the Vatican City is located, where the infamous Circus is no longer found. To the victor belong the spoils: the sacred Mons Vaticanus is now the Vatican, the purple of the Caesars is now the purple of the Catholic Cardinals and Bishops, the blood of victims killed to entertain the savage Roman populace became the sacred blood of the Christian martyrs, the language of Rome survived only in the Church like a spoil of war but was corrupted anywhere else in the Empire, and so on. Rome was conquered: Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat.
The distant dark shore
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ (Matthew 16:21-23 NRSVACE)
The happy thoughts of Jesus confirming his Kingdom did not last. Soon Jesus begins to explain the ancient dictum …
‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.’ (Genesis 3:16)
Our mother Eve heard those words from God Himself. She did not know back then that the mysterious riddle contained the secret of her own redemption. There was described the rescue of her now sinful children. Heaven would be accessible only through the extraordinary suffering demanded for redemption. The future Kingdom of the Heavens would require the desire to be with Jesus, to be spiritually wedded to him in heaven, to be ruled by Jesus forever.
‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready; to her it has been granted to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure’— for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’ (Revelation 19: 6-9)
Peter did not understand the necessity of suffering. He could not see the value of the Cross that Jesus was now explaining to them. The strange response of Jesus closes a cycle. We can see there a subtle reflection one more time. See, first Peter is inspired by God to give the glorious witness of Jesus being the Christ. That is the beginning of the cycle. At the end of the cycle, Jesus reveals that Peter has fallen under the influence of Satan, the enemy of God and mankind. It is a shocking change that left Peter wondering what was going on.
There is one possible explanation. This travelling to pagan territory, crossing the lake and landing in the land of those spiritually opposing the God of Israel is part of a lesson built by Jesus. It may very well be a prophetic insight of the route of the successors of Peter through human history. The Church will follow a similar path to that of Israel: the beginning is the epic and glorious escape from Egypt, the end –repeated many times– was the falling over and over into apostasy and exile only to return in repentance to the side of God. That is the story of Israel and that is the story of the Church. The first, happy congratulation of Jesus to Peter is the glorious beginning of Peter’s ministry, his anointing. The condemnation of Peter’s rejection of the Cross of Christ is a warning: in the last stages of his ministry, the successors of Peter will fall under the shadow of the evil one. That whole arc contains the entire history of the Papacy.
Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? (Matthew 16:24-26 NRSVACE)
To follow Jesus successfully we must embrace the Cross in some form. Christ will share the splinters of his Cross with us as He decides is best. The ancient prediction communicated to Eve is true: “ in pain you shall bring forth children” and through Jesus we know also that to inherit the Kingdom of the Heavens ‘You must be born again.’ That implies to go through the pains of childbirth from darkness into light.
It was given to us to live in this generation. The divine symmetries are there, so clear that they are hard to deny. The ministry of Peter is in a crisis of diabolic confusion, the Church has been sold the empty doctrine of unbounded mercy as if sin has now ceased to exist. Divine Mercy is an ocean where sinners can seek purification and forgiveness, it is not and will never be divine permission to sin at will. (1 John 3:8-10) We see two high priests look at us from the ancient hill in Rome. One of them was imposed by who knows what obscure powers. We are living at the edge of history, we are seeing a dark world order pass rapidly into oblivion. Soon we will have to answer clearly that we desire Christ more than life itself.
‘For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’ (Matthew 16:27-28 NRSVACE)
And behold! He cometh with ten thousands of His holy ones to execute judgement upon all, and to destroy all the ungodly, and to convict all flesh, of all the works of their ungodliness which they have ungodly committed, and of all the hard things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him. (Book of Enoch 1:9 cf. Jude 14,15)
Yes. Peter saw the Son of Man coming in His Kingdom. That is why he was crucified upside down: to be able to look at the heavens and see his Master once again ashore waiting for Peter to arrive. (John 21:7)
 Aramaic, kepha. Rock, rocky crag or promontory.
 “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ He [Caiaphas] did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death.”( John 11:50-53)
Please read this also if possible today or tomorrow Mercy Sunday.
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This is great exegesis and beautifully written.
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Thank you, Peter! 🙂
Your latest post is one of the best you have ever produced. It is comprehensive and yet has the urgency of an important message from the battlefield.
The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. The cornerstone is Christ and so what was until recently called the vicar of Christ (or pope) is also the cornerstone. Christ (as He so often does) alludes to the Psalms, specifically 118:22. He is the fulfillment of the Psalms. Peter as his representative on earth thus becomes the key building block of the newly rising Church. Everything is mirrored forward and backward in time – which is the perspective of eternity.
Interesting that the builders reject the stone as not suitable for their purposes – not rich enough? Not hard enough? Not smooth enough – all the worldly qualities. There is also an echo of the stonecutters who in our times reject the cornerstone, especially the necessity for suffering and death as a gateway to life in its fullness. From the tower of Babel to the claimants of our resources for the Utopian project, the frenzied building up of material as a stairway to heaven is always doomed. That is again ironically mirrored in the power of the rejected stone. In our (most interesting time) the one Vicar of Christ is eclipsed by the other who disavows the term and who seems to have his eye on the material concerns of his flock.
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Thank you for the encouraging comment! In my mind, I wish I could show the uniqueness and the glory of the true Catholic faith to those lingering in the questions presented by Mr. Suchet. In reality those questions should not even exist if people truly studied Scripture reading it like the Fathers of the Church read it from the beginning. I have learned a lot from them and the Jewish scholars that preceded them. We truly have a mysterious and beautiful faith. Praise be to God for giving us so many undeserved gifts!
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This link will lead you to one of several articles by Emmett O’Reagan regarding the sign of Jonah. Definitely worth reading.
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