One of the most controversial stories in the Bible is also one of the strangest. Jesus is the true king, the “anointed one” in the royal line of David, but very few know it—not until in Matthew 16:13-20 when a lowly fisherman named Simon identifies him for who he really is.
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” says Simon.
“And you are Simon, the son of Jonah!” says Jesus. “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. From now on, your name is Peter and on this rock I will build my Church.”
The passage is odd, to say the least. Why did Jesus respond to Simon’s confession that he is the true King (Christos, the “anointed one”) by giving him a new name, Peter (Petros, “Rock”)? The story is even stranger when we remember that “Rock” had not been used as a name in the Greek-speaking world until now. Petros is a masculinized form of the feminine noun, petra.
Is this exchange an unsolvable problem, or did Peter and the disciples know what Jesus was doing?
[Note: this essay was published by Catholic Exchange and is reprinted with permission.]
Our Lord’s response to Peter’s confession that he is the true King would be total gibberish if Jesus were not referring to something obviously related to kings and kingdoms, something that Simon and the other apostles standing nearby would recognize. It is unlikely that Jesus was pulling words and phrases of out of thin air:
Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,
but my Father in heaven.
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 (Matthew 16:18-19).
This exchange would have been completely unintelligible if Jesus were not referring to something that Peter and the other apostles would understand. But what?
I want to suggest to you that, being familiar with their own scriptures, Peter and the other apostles would have recognized that Jesus was referring to Isaiah 22 and Genesis 41. Although largely unknown today, the stories of Joseph an Eliakim would have been well-known to any first century Jew.
By re-naming Simon “Rock” and handing him the “keys” to his kingdom, Jesus may have been paraphrasing the popular passage about a succession of royal stewards in Isaiah 22:19-23. During the reign of Hezekiah, a man named Shebna was the chief steward. But Shebna was no longer worthy of his office. So God sent Isaiah with news that he would be replaced by a more righteous man, Eliakim:
Thus says the LORD to Shebna, master of the palace:
“I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station.
In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah;
I will clothe him with your robe, and gird him with your girdle,
and give over to him your authority.
He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah.
I will place on Eliakim’s shoulder the key of the House of David;
he shall open, and none shall shut;
and he shall shut and none shall open.
I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot,
to be a throne of honor to his father’s house” (Isa. 22:19-23).
Notice that the symbol of the chief steward’s authority are the “keys” of the royal household, and he had the power to “open” as well as to “shut.” He wore special robes of honor and a girdle, a traditional priestly garment (Lev. 8:7). His office did not cease with his death, but was a chair (“throne”) to be filled by one man succeeding another. He was a “father” to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.
You see, the Davidic kings did not rule alone. They appointed ministers to help them. And the royal steward was the highest-ranking official in the king’s royal court, appointed to manage the day-to-day affairs of the kingdom. His office was second only to the king in authority. He was not the king himself, but he was the king’s mouthpiece, the king’s right-hand man. He was called the al habayith (LXX: tamias), the “one over the house.” He was the na‘ar or soken (LXX: archon), the chief steward or chamberlain of the king’s house. While many of the king’s ministers had power to bind and loose, the prime minister could bind what the others had loosed and loose what the others had bound. He had plenary authority, total veto power. He was someone who you can hang a lot of weight on, “like a peg in a sure spot.”
Are these parallels mere coincidence? Peter reveals the dynastic identity of Jesus. So, in turn, Jesus appears to be revealing the dynastic identity of Peter. The question remains, did Jesus appoint a lowly fisherman, in the presence of the other eleven apostles, to a special office in his Kingdom?
Where else in the Bible does this story appear? Simon is asked a question by King Jesus. He receives a divine revelation and answers the King with an infallible declaration. Simon is then given a new name, Peter, and then appears to be given signs of a royal appointment with which any first-century Jew would have been familiar. Now, the chief steward appears throughout the Old Testament—and not just in Israel. In particular, this royal office was given to Joseph by the Pharaoh (Gen. 41; 45:8). As we revisit the story, notice how similar it is to the story of Peter.
Pharaoh asked his stewards and Joseph a question that could only be answered by divine revelation. Only Joseph answered correctly. In response, Pharaoh appointed him to be the chief steward over his house, giving him his ring and changing his name to Zaphenath-paneah.
Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this…you shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command; only as regards the throne will I be greater than you…without your consent no man shall lift up hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.’ And Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphenath-paneah (Gen. 41:38-45).
Sound familiar? The parallels between Pharaoh’s royal appointment of Joseph and Jesus’ royal appointment of Peter are striking:
- Both are asked a question by a king
- Both receive a revelation from God
- Both answer the king with an infallible declaration
- Both are appointed to the office of royal steward by a king
- Both of their names are changed by a king
- Both receive signs of their royal assignment
Being familiar with their own heritage, it seems very plausible that Peter and the other apostles would have recognized that Jesus was referring to Isaiah 22 and Genesis 41. Peter had just identified Jesus as the true King David, and in response Jesus identifies Peter’s role in his Kingdom. Jesus refers to a popular kingdom tradition because the Kingdom of God fulfils and amplifies the Davidic kingdom.
Jesus has a Real Kingdom
As the “anointed one,” Jesus gathered the scattered tribes into one global Kingdom. It’s a real Kingdom with a real King and a real hierarchy. As king Solomon appointed twelve officers to rule his kingdom (1 Kings 4:7), so also Jesus appoints twelveapostles to rule his Kingdom after his ascension (Matt. 19:28). The Twelve are his royal cabinet, the body of men authorized to do the King’s will, entrusted with vice-royal authority to represent him in his New Israel, the Church.
And because the Davidic kingdom is the Old Testament prefigurement of the Church, it’s no surprise that while Christ appointed twelve ministers, he also appointed one to be the chief steward, not only giving Peter the symbols of this office but also giving him a new name. The only other men God personally re-names in salvation history are Abram and Jacob, and every new name represents covenant, headship, fatherhood, and authority.
What Jesus gives to the apostolic college as a whole (Matt. 18:18), he gives to Peter individually (Matt. 16:19). As soon as Jesus tells the Twelve that they will sit on thrones to judge the tribes of Israel (Luke 22:28-30; cf. Ps. 122:4-5), he immediately turns to Peter and tells him to strengthen the others (Luke 22:31-32). As the chief steward, he is to feed his sheep, to rule (poimaine) over them (John 21:17).
Evidence of the royal steward’s office fills the New Testament. “These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, who is called Peter,” (10:2). Paul says that Christ “appeared to Cephas and then to the twelve” (1 Cor. 15:3-5). Peter announces that Judas’ office must be filled (Acts 1), Peter preaches the first sermon (Acts 2), Peter performs the first miracle (Acts 3), Peter speaks in Solomon’s portico, Peter speaks before the Council (Acts 4), and it is Peter whom Paul must see when he visits Jerusalem (Gal. 1:18). Peter decides to confirm the first Samaritans (Acts 8) and to baptize the first Gentiles (Acts 10). He alone could have stood up and announced the final decision of the first council (Acts 15). Peter alone is the keeper of the keys, the rock, the vicar of Christ, the lowly fisherman who was made the “master of the house.”
The modern-day successor to this office, the pope, serves as the current “chief steward” in Christ’s Kingdom. Like Eliakim, who was a “father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem,” the pope leads as the “Holy Father” of the Church. As in the Davidic kingdom of old, the pope is the King’s premier representative. Until the return of Christ the King, there will be a steward over the Church.
The Kingdom is Already/Not Yet
Do you believe Jesus is King? Do you believe his Kingdom is not yet fulfilled but already here, visible and real? Like the Davidic kings of yore, King Jesus appointed a fisherman to be his chief spokesperson, the officer who rules over the royal household. Jesus established this position as an office, and by definition an office has successors. The reign-by-reign record of the papacy stretches from St. Peter to Pope Francis making it the longest unbroken office in the history of the world. And it was Christ’s idea.
The Church is the social continuity of the Incarnation. She is the fulfillment of the Old Covenant. The Kingdom of God is not of this world, but it is still in it. The same hermeneutic that would lead you to believe Jesus is the “anointed one” would lead you to believe he established a Kingdom with a hierarchical administration. The same hermeneutic that would lead you to believe in bishops would lead you to believe in the pope.
Whether unpacking the question of papal infallibility or unearthing the biblical and historic evidence of papal succession, agreeing that Jesus is king is a great place to start. King Jesus has gathered the tribes. Even after his Ascension, his Kingdom retains a royal administration until he returns. The same Lord who prayed that his Church would be one (John 17:21) said he would build his Church on the Rock that is Peter (Matt. 16:18). Who are we to change the rock on which Christ said he would build his Church?
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