When JP and I were dating, I would often come across his German Grandmother, Oma, at their large Savaryn family gatherings.
She knew I wasn’t Catholic. And, on more than one occasion she tried to get me to understand the Catholic faith by telling me that Jesus told Peter “On this rock I build my church,” and that meant Catholicism was true.
I remember thinking I had no idea how building churches on rocks made someone a Pope. But, she was a very cute elderly lady, so I wasn’t about to argue with her either. I just nodded my head and smiled, while inside wondering what on earth she was talking about.
Well, it turns out Oma had something with that rock thing. She didn’t explain the entirety of the Catholic thinking to me, but I have since learned “On this rock I build my Church” actually means a lot more than I ever thought it could.
And understanding the Office of the Pope through a scriptural lens was one of the most helpful ways I learned what the Papacy meant to Catholics, and why I ultimately would accept the Pope as the Head of the Church.
In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says to Peter:
“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”
Many smarter and more eloquent people than myself have looked into this issue in great detail. This talk by Scott Hahn is incredibly thorough and well-researched.
But, the issue at hand is what on Earth Jesus is talking about, and what does he mean by a rock?
Oma was indeed wise in knowing that this is a linchpin in establishing the case for the Papacy. During my research into the Catholic faith, I learned that the most logical explanation for what “rock” is referring to, is that Jesus is indeed calling Peter the rock. And that Jesus is saying he will build his Church on Peter. Even Martin Luther knew it. And so do many, many Christian people, on both sides of the Reformation divide.
Luther, however, did not believe that Peter’s role was meant to be passed on. But, as I learned in the following section… that isn’t the case.
In Matthew 16:19, Jesus tells Peter:
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Old Lorelei would have thought: Nice. Peter gets some keys.
Now, I know there is a lot more meaning to that verse than I ever thought possible.
An important thing to remember when reading about Jesus in the Gospels is that Jesus was Jewish. Many of the things that he did and said would have had great significance for the Jewish people living in his time. And a lot of what Jesus did was fulfill things spoken of in the Old Testament.
When Jesus tells Peter that He is giving Peter the keys of the kingdom, He is actually referencing Isaiah 22.
15 Thus says the Lord, the GOD of hosts: Up, go to that official, Shebna, master of the palace, 16 Who has hewn for himself a sepulcher on a height and carved his tomb in the rock: “What are you doing here, and what people have you here, that here you have hewn for yourself a tomb?” 17 The LORD shall hurl you down headlong, mortal man! He shall grip you firmly 18 And roll you up and toss you like a ball into an open land To perish there, you and the chariots you glory in, you disgrace to your master’s house! 19 I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station. 20 On that day I will summon my servant Eliakim, son of Hilkiah; 21 I will clothe him with your robe, and gird him with your sash, and give over to him your authority. He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. 22 I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open. 23 I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot, to be a place of honor for his family;“
We can really see the parallels here between what Jesus told Peter, and Isaiah 22:22, especially. Jesus wasn’t just telling Peter something random about giving him keys. He was giving Peter authority.
Historically, and Biblically, as in the example from Isaiah, he who held the keys was in a position of authority. The holder of the keys would be the one in charge of the kingdom when the King was away. And that’s what Catholics believe the office of the Pope is as well. When Jesus gave Peter the Keys to the Kingdom, he was setting Peter up to take care of the Christian Church on Earth until Jesus returns.
Furthermore, the Office of the Keys is an inheritable office. That means it was meant from the beginning to be passed on, one person to another, throughout history. Obviously Peter didn’t live long enough to see Jesus return. Jesus knew that would happen, so setting it up as an Office of the Keys ensured it would be passed down from person to person, on and on through time. And the Jewish people living in Jesus’ time would have known exactly what He was referring to.
For me, this information meant that Jesus gave Peter a special role in the Early Church. And that Peter was in a unique, inheritable position of authority. It helped me very much to understand why Catholics have a Pope, and why Peter was the first one. This information led me on the path toward accepting that as how Jesus meant the Church to function from the get-go.
Relating to Protestantism
Another thing that helped me was thinking about this from the standpoint of Protestant church structure. Everywhere I went as a Protestant, there was a head Pastor, sometimes other Pastors, and also a board of Elders. The head Pastor never just unilaterally or flippantly made decisions about the church’s statement of faith. There would always be study, and consultation, and a lot of input into those decisions. As a member of those churches, I put my trust in the discernment of the pastoral staff at the time.
Likewise, no Pope is going to just be hanging out and say, “Well, today I think I’ll change this Church teaching,” or that they are somehow magically granted wisdom in an instant. It’s not that simple. Popes who are impacting Church teachings are incredibly studious, and utilize extensive council in all their decisions. Because everything has to jive. Church teaching cannot contradict Scripture, or Tradition, or the Magisterium.
Regardless of whether one is Protestant or Catholic, we all submit to a hierarchy of some sort. It’s just a much bigger hierarchy in the Catholic Church because of how big the Church is. But I think framing it that way helped me see that I have always submitted to the authority of someone… previously, my Protestant Pastors, and, in many ways, myself. So it wasn’t really that much of a stretch for me, once I understood and believed that the Office of the Pope had serious Biblical and historical merit, to submit to the Authority of the Church, and therefore of the Pope.
I know there were a number of other issues relating to the Papacy that I needed to look into as I began my journey into the Catholic Church. Things like Papal Infallibility (no, we don’t think the Pope is perfect), and the not-so-great Popes of ages past. And I will share my journey through those things at a later time.
However, I think the understanding of Jesus’ very intentional use in calling Peter the rock on which He will build His Church, and the significance of the Office of the Keys helped me get a long way past some of my key objections.
A huge part for me was also learning to let go of my perceived right to be the “Pope” of my own faith. I always submitted to Jesus, but there was a lot that I was trying to figure out on my own about what certain things meant, and I was always viewing Scripture through the lens of someone living in our time, today, with very little knowledge of the times in which Jesus lived and the significance of what he said and who he was speaking to.
I started to question why I, a lay person Christian, was so adamant about maintaing my own right to determine the Truths of my own personal faith? In light of the evidence of the Rock and the Keys, I could no longer justify my previous stance. If Jesus set The Church up to have a leader, and that leadership was intentionally an inheritable office… then I needed to accept the Papacy as legit.
The Church with its vast and extensive history has, collectively, an amazing depth of knowledge and understanding, supported by the Holy Spirit, that has protected Truth and will continue to do so partly through the Office of the Pope. It is such solid ground to stand upon. More than I probably even know.
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