Before we begin with today’s passage, I want to review the 3 historical interpretations of Matthew 16:18:
- Jesus builds the church upon the rock of Peter whose nickname means “rock.”
- Jesus builds the church upon Himself, the ultimate Rock which Peter the little rock correctly identifies.
- Jesus builds the church upon the confession of Peter, the little rock correctly identifying the big Rock and thus serving as the model for all future believers who are built upon Jesus.
Today’s passage seems to allow all 3 of these interpretations to be incorporated into a correct understanding of Matthew 16:18. That’s not to say that one interpretation (mainly number 2, that the Church is built on Jesus Christ) isn’t more correct, but rather the other two shouldn’t just be outright rejected without trying to understand how they fit into the founding of the Church.
In that light, let’s look at Ephesians 2:19-22:
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
The “you” Paul is addressing in verse 19 are Gentiles. In verse 12 he tells them to “remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” He then goes on to explain how the atoning work of Christ on the cross provided a way for Gentiles to be reconciled to God and his people.
It is in this context that Paul goes on to explain the Church by using the metaphor of a temple or dwelling place for God and encouraging us to picture an actual physical building. Believers, both Jew and Gentile, make up this temple and are “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.”
In contemporary Western culture, the cornerstone has become more symbolic than anything else. It’s typically somewhere visible and inscribed with the year the building was erected and/or the seal of the organization that built it. But in ancient Eastern culture, the cornerstone was of great importance. It was the very first stone laid for the foundation, and the rest of the foundation (and thus, the rest of the building) was built in reference to it. “The cornerstone of a large building gives it a reliable and firm foundation, leading to the cohesion and stability of the whole building” (Zondervan Dictionary of Bible Themes). So as the cornerstone of this temple or dwelling place for God (i.e., the Church), Jesus is the “reliable and firm foundation,” and everything that comes after is built in reference to him.
Thus, Paul’s assertion here that we are “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” does not contradict other passages that declare Jesus as the only foundation of the Church. Instead, he his setting up this view of Church history that sees all of us as bricks making up a temple for God. Each generation is laid upon the generation that preceded it, with the 1st-century apostles being the foundation that has Jesus as it’s cornerstone. When you think about it, it should be awe-inspiring. Our generation of believers has a heritage of faith that includes all the great men of God throughout the last 2 millennia, stretching all the way back to the apostles themselves.
When we talk about men who were “pillars of faith,” that’s exactly the type of imagery Paul is invoking. It’s the view of the history of faith that the author of Hebrews had when after listing great men and women of faith in chapter 11, he began chapter 12 with, “Therefore since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” Or as Isaac Newton, the famous physicist, once wrote to fellow scientist Robert Hooke, “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
As evangelical Protestants, we tend to be wary of tradition. That’s understandable because we are spiritual descendants of men who fought against the elevation of tradition to the same level of authority as Scripture. But we need to be careful that we don’t completely ignore the layers of bricks on which we are built, and especially not the foundation laid by the apostles and prophets. In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton put it this way: “It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record.” When tradition conflicts with Scripture, we should always side with Scripture, and we definitely should continue to assert that the Church is ultimately founded on Jesus alone, but we also need to be careful that we don’t completely mute the voices of the Giants on whose shoulders we stand because as Chesterton wrote elsewhere in Orthodoxy, “Thinking in isolation and with pride ends in being an idiot.”
And so if we look at the Church as having Jesus as the cornerstone and the apostles as the initial foundation, we can say that in some regard, the Church is built on Peter. After all, it’s clear from Scripture that he was the most significant figure in the early years of the Church, and it was through him that the gospel was initially taken to the Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles. That’s not to say that he was infallible (Paul himself rebukes Peter in Galatians 2, where, coincidentally, he also refers to James, Peter, and John as “pillars”) or the “head” of the Church, or the first pope. But if Jesus is the cornerstone of the Church’s foundation, then we can see Peter as being the first stone laid after that. Or going back to the metaphor from Matthew 16:18, if Jesus is the petra or bedrock on which the Church is built, Peter is the first petros or stone laid on that rock. And I think that Paul’s explanation of the cross in verses 13-18, and his statements that “in whom the whole structure … grows into a holy temple” and “In him you also are being built together” in verses 21-22, allows the third interpretation of Matthew 16:18 to fit here too.
Using Paul’s imagery and the 3 historical interpretations we started with, I think we can say that Jesus is the cornerstone of the Church (everything is built on him), Peter and the rest of the apostles are the foundation (the first bricks to be laid on, and in reference to, the cornerstone), the rest of believers throughout Church history (including us today) are the bricks making up the building, and Peter’s confession (the fact that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God”) is the mortar holding it all together.
Things to Reflect on in Light of This Passage:
1. Do I understand my place as a brick in the temple of God? Or do I view Christianity as something I do isolated from both community and history?
2. Do I view Church history as something I can learn from and build on? Or do I view 21st-century American evangelical Protestantism as being the only way to “do” Christianity?
3. Do I see Peter’s confession of Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” as the ultimate thing that connects me with believers throughout time? Or do I put confessions of creeds, political beliefs, sports teams, etc. on a higher level of importance than that shared faith?