Earlier today I had a chance to talk about the origins of the Church with a gentleman. He was talking very enthusiastically about a conference he had just attended, given by someone who presented himself as a “biblical scholar.” Here in the Spanish side of the Internet there are many who introduce themselves as biblical sages mostly with the intention of attacking the Holy Scriptures, the Church, and most importantly Christ. By now I am used to the nonsense flowing from the pen of “scholars.” One more reason to give thanks to God for keeping pure the doctrinal treasure of the Catholic Church through the centuries. The harvest of dubious scholars is large but the traditional wisdom of the Church always prevails, coming straight from the infinite wisdom of our Creator.
Before the memory of the conversation flies off my mind I will take a few minutes to share the main points here. The subject was the affirmation by that self-appointed biblical expert: “Jesus did not intend to create a Church. He was a Jew who wanted to pass on some higher ‘knowledge’ to his disciples who ended up starting a church by mistake, etc. etc.” Most of us have heard that before.
I am sure you thought already of Matthew 16:
“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do men say that the Son of man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ [Massiach] 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 who is in Heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter [Kepha] and on this rock [Kepha] I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.”
There are many good explanations, some of them word by word, of this passage of the Bible (please see my previous article Signs of the Church.) For the purpose of answering the original question I am going to concentrate on the images presented by Matthew for our inspection.
Chapter 16:1-6 begins with Matthew’s account of a conversation between Jesus and some Pharisees. “Pharisee” means “set aside” or “separated,” a man voluntarily consecrated to serve God in a certain manner. Before leaving them, Jesus tells the Pharisees:
“You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah.”
The “sign of Jonah” is a not so oblique reference to Christ’s glorious resurrection, the inability of the Pharisees to see Jesus’ obvious messianic role is counted against them as an evil disposition. Abraham “believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6) and now the opposite happens to the poor Pharisees, their reticence to believe in Jesus in spite of many miracles and extraordinary signs is reckoned to them as wickedness. This is one of the many counterpoints hidden in this chapter of Matthew. Perhaps in the original Hebrew version of Matthew’s account, the words pointed at the hidden meaning in such a manner that those familiar with sacred history could easily see the images. It is a bit harder for us but not impossible to see.
So the Pharisees are looking for a “special sign” one exclusive sign for them. Christ comes to the lost sheep of Israel but the Pharisees are not sheep, they are self-appointed shepherds. Their perception of Jesus is obscured by their sense of self-importance. Even so the sign they expect from the Messiah is going to be “the sign of Jonah:” Jesus emerging from the depths of death three days after Calvary so everyone and the Pharisees can see and believe. That “sign of Jonah” is going to be connected also to Simon Peter, the kepha, the rock because his own father was coincidentally called Jonah, and he was a fisherman.
“For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12: 40)
“When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sad′ducees.” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “We brought no bread.” But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O men of little faith, why do you discuss among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How is it that you fail to perceive that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (Matthew 16:5-12)
On the evening after Passover God told the Hebrews in Egypt not to allow their bread to rise but to grab everything and leave in haste: “Do not let any leavening touch the dough. Just bake it and go.” So they obeyed, taking only their basic needs as they fled to the Promised Land. The image suggests that the “separated” Pharisees and Sadducees and their leaven were supposed to be left behind by the disciples of this new Moses, Jesus the Messiah. He was about to give them a mission that would take them beyond the borders of Israel. (Matthew 16:5-12) The leaven were the teachings that later led the Pharisees to commit the greatest crime ever: the killing of the Messiah.
To Caesarea Philippi
Jesus then takes the disciples to the Roman reserve, to Caesarea Philippi, more specifically to a small valley where there was a cave dedicated to Pan, the pagan god ruling the basest instincts of mankind. The cave was a temple of sorts, guarded by iron gates so no one could steal the offerings deposited there. The local pagans believed the cave was the entrance to the underworld, the gate of Hell.
Not far from there we can picture Jesus surrounded by the Twelve in an image reminiscent of Joseph in pagan Egypt surrounded by his brothers. In Genesis Joseph reveals to his unsuspecting brothers that he is not dead but alive, and is now the powerful Vizier of Pharaoh holding sway over all of Egypt. Earlier on Joseph had taken one of his brothers captive to make sure that the others would return. That brother’s name was Simeon (Shimon,) sharing across the centuries the same name with Simon the son of Jonah, the disciple of Jesus who was about to be renamed Kepha, Peter.
“So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, I pray you.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” (Genesis 45:4-5)
In these two scenes we are comparing, Joseph and Jesus have one thing in common, they both have to reveal a secret identity to a group of twelve men. They also have in common a Shimon/Simeon/Simon, the name of the man they chose to set aside, separate. Coincidentally this Simeon is the brother of Levi, both sons of Leah the first wife of Jacob. Levi is the father of the priestly tribe of Israel, the Levites. It is therefore appropriate that the first priest of the New Covenant be called like the younger brother of Levi, thus fulfilling — in the names — the Old Testament principle that “the elder will serve the younger.” The principle that was revealed during the struggles between Esau and Jacob. (Genesis 25:23) The priestly service of Simon Peter will be greater than Levi’s both in authority and glory.
You are Kepha
The time comes for Jesus to reveal His secret identity. He gathers the twelve in the valley and asks:
“Who do men say that the Son of man is?”
There is no shortage of “theories” about who this awesome prophet is. Then the deeper question comes, designed to invite God the Father to confirm what Jesus has been secretly keeping in pectore.
“But who do you say that I am?”
And then, like lightning striking suddenly from Heaven, Peter answers before anyone can say a word…
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Peter instantly recognizes the sonship of Jesus as divine and not adoptive like ours. Jesus is the Blessed Messiah, the One to reign over Israel forever, the Son of David to whom David himself called “my Lord.” (Psalm 110:1)
The answer from Jesus reveals a lot about the future mission of Peter:
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in Heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter [Kepha] and on this rock [Kepha] I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Back in Jerusalem the Roman Consul has intervened to limit the duration of the office of the High Priest. Orders from Rome demand that the males of the family of Annas (the authentic High Priest) rotate serving as High Priests for one year at a time. That year the top priestly authority rests on Kaiaphas, Annas’ son in law. (John 11:51) There is a phonetic similarity between Kaiaphas and Kepha, but the words are also morphological opposites. Kaiaphas means “a dell, or depression” while Kepha means a “rocky crag, or promontory.” That counterpoint seems to indicate two opposite directions for the two men, Kepha is going to increase, Kaiaphas is going to decrease. One was named by the Romans holding David’s fortress in Zion while the other will eventually move to Rome and establish the Church in the Mons Vaticanus, now known as the Vatican Hill.
Peter will eventually be crucified near the Roman Circus on the old Vatican Hill. The name is highly suggestive because in the early days of Rome that hill was reserved for the sacrifice of a white doe. After the sacrifice the Roman priests, the augures would read the entrails of the animal and give their vaticinia (predictions, prophecies, oracles) hence the name “Mount of Oracles” in Latin Mons Vaticanus.
Jesus then names his High Priest in Roman territory (Caesarea) and sends him to conquer the enemy’s capital city. In time the successors of Peter will outlast the Roman Empire, spiritually conquering Rome and appropriating the symbols of Roman power. The purple of the Emperor’s cape the purpura imperialis will become the purple of the bishops of the Catholic Church, the purpura episcopalis. True to the practice of the kings of the Middle East that used to cut the tongue of the conquered kings, Christ symbolically cuts Caesar’s tongue. The noble Latin language will be now the posession of Christ’s Church. The proud Romans will pay dearly for the affront of destroying God’s Temple in Jerusalem. From Rome, Peter and his Lord will proceed to spiritually conquer the whole world and then the end of times will follow.
The multiple references to Jonah seem to suggest that one day, Christ perhaps will make His resurrection visible to the whole world and the world will repent just like Jonah’s Nineveh, filling the Church with a huge catch of souls. (See John 21:4-8)
This rich palimpsest of symbols is by no means completely covered by this commentary. Yet, who would dare to say that is simply a series of meaningless coincidences?
On Earth as it is in Heaven
Later in Rome, Peter was crucified upside down and entered Heaven from the Mons Vaticanus. His cross became a perfect reflection of Christ’s Cross. Kepha the rock is the earthly mirror image of the Heavenly Rock, the Christ. Since the days of Peter, the Cross is the ladder that the Church Militant climbs to reach to the Church Triumphant in Heaven.
Tell me if you wish that Jesus did not intend “to start a Church,” or that there are many “churches” all of equal importance and different doctrine. One could repeat those errors over and over but the image carved here by the Holy Spirit of the One Church Militant and Triumphant is indestructible. It reminds me of Jacob’s dream of a ladder that reached the Heavens. I can confidently conclude just like Jacob: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the House of God, and this is the Gate of Heaven.” (Genesis 28:17)
 Some Jewish names have been slightly modified by the translators of the Bible, so that we can distinguish between the various men and women in sacred history that share the same Hebrew name, i.e. Meriem is at the same time the name of Miriam, the sister of Moses, and of Mary, the Blessed Mother of God.