This past Sunday’s readings were on the papacy. The First Reading was from Isaiah 22:19:23, in which the LORD to Shebna, master of the palace:
“I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station. On that day I will summon my servant Eliakim, son of Hilkiah; 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. I will place the key of the House of David on Eliakim’s shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut when he shuts, no one shall open. I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot, to be a place of honor for his family.”
This passage makes Eliakim something like a Prime Minister in Israel. His authority is granted in the gift of the Keys. In 2 Kings 18:18,when the Assyrians show up to threaten Israel, “They called for the king; and Eliakim son of Hilkiah the palace administrator, Shebna the secretary, and Joah son of Asaph the recorder went out to them.” So Eliakim acts on behalf of the king, and is the chief administrator of the House of David.
The Gospel is from Matthew 16:13-20,
When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi He asked His Disciples, “Who do men say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven.”Then He strictly ordered His Disciples to tell no one that He was the Messiah.
There’s a lot that can be said on this passage, and a lot which I have said over the course of this blog’s lifetime. For now, though, four basic points will suffice.
Compare the two questions Jesus asks closely.
- “Who do men say that the Son of Man is?”
- “But who do you say that I am?”
Jesus’ first question isn’t “Who do men say that I am?” but “Who do men say that the Son of Man is?” Obviously, the crowds would have noticed that Jesus and John the Baptist weren’t the same person by this point. They’ve seen the two of them together (see, e.g., Matthew 3:13). And John was quite different than Jesus (Matthew 11:18-19a):
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.”’
So the crowd wasn’t mistaking Jesus for John. They were mistaking John for the Son of Man, while Jesus is the actual Son of Man. This is one of the clearest implications that “Son of Man” is some sort of Messianic title: the people are trying to figure out whether this “Son of Man” had already come, or was yet to come. Jesus’ second question, of course, reveals that He is the Son of Man.
We should play close attention to the gift of the Keys. Given what we’ve seen from Isaiah, we can see how this power will give Peter to head the Church, and to speak on behalf of the King of the Kingdom of Heaven. He’s God’s Eliakim, if you will. The term “Vicar of Christ” captures this image well, since a vicar is someone standing in for someone else. Eliakim stood as King Hezekiah’s vicar in 2 Kings 18. Peter did that for Christ in Acts 2, and throughout his ministry; Benedict does that today.
Abp. Fulton Sheen had a profound insight. Jesus’ first question asks about the consensus of the crowds. His second question asks about the episcopacy. But the correct answer only comes from Peter speaking on behalf of the episcopacy, and even then, only because God revealed the answer through Peter.
It’s a remarkable thing that Christ begins His declaration that He will build His Church by showing which three systems of Church governance don’t work: (i) governance by the flock, (ii) governance by an unheaded episcopacy, and (iii) governance by a single Church leader without Divine protection.
The comparisons to non-Catholic Christianity should be obvious. Protestantism typically follows (i), and splits into innumerable factions as a result. On even fundamental issues, they can’t form a unified response: some say regenerative infant Baptism, others symbolic infant Baptism; still others symbolic adult Baptism. Orthodoxy tends to follow (ii), and like the other Eleven, largely stays quiet in the face of modern controversies. Without a unified head, it’s hard to unify and mobilize the Body, so it too often lies dormant. Certain other groups, like Mormonism, fall into category (iii). They have a single head, but because he’s not protected by the Holy Spirit, he can’t get the answers consistently right.
So Christ has just shown us why Protestantism, Orthodoxy, and Mormonism won’t work. And He’s shown us the necessity of a Divinely-protected papacy, in order to keep Christianity (i) unified, (ii) mobilized, and (iii) orthodox. But then He does something even more remarkable: He establishes His own Church.
In all the controversy over whether Matthew 16:17-19 establishes the papacy (it does, as I’ve argued here and elsewhere), we can miss a more fundamental point: Christ says, “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church…”
We shouldn’t let the controversy over the first half of that statement cause us to ignore the second half: Christ just said He was going to build His own Church. That’s huge.
Here, however, I must ask you to set aside preconceived notions about what “Church” is and isn’t. Certain phrases, like “Church,” “New Covenant,” and “born again,” mean one thing to Jesus, and something quite different to Protestant ministers. This passage from Matthew 16 is one of only two times Jesus ever says the word “Church” in the Gospels, with the other being Matthew 18:17. If we want to understand Church the way Jesus does, we should start here, and understand these two passages. Likewise, of course, if we want to understand what the “New Covenant” is, we should read up on the only time Jesus ever uses that phrase in the Gospels (Luke 22:20), and read John 3:5-8 to understand what Jesus meant by being “born again,” and how it involves “water and the Spirit.”
With that said, ask yourselves: why did Jesus build His own Church? The simple answer is that this is the only way that the Church would remain pure, and not fall into apostasy (Psalm 127:1):
Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain.
For the Church to survive, it must be built by Christ. Great: the Church is built by Christ. So the converse seems to be true as well: if the LORD built the Church, it won’t be overrun. The Gates of Hell shall not prevail, as Christ explained. He doesn’t create ecclesial Deism, in which He simply sets Christianity in motion and lets it run wild. Notice also what He’s not doing: He’s not simply having believers form whatever bodies they choose. He’s not about to entrust the task of creating the New Testament Church to the crowds who can’t figure out who the Son of Man is. He’s going to build Her Himself.
Understanding this point is vitally important. It explains why the Church can’t just compromise on the Truth. We didn’t create the Church. She was created directly by God. We have no business tinkering with Her Truths, because they’re not ours to play around with.
I also think that understanding the basics of why Jesus built the Church, and what that means for the Church, immediately makes the Catholic Church a serious contender when She claims to be the One True Church. Because we should be able to recognize now that there is such a thing as the One True Church. Christ didn’t build a Church to have it become One amongst many. And a Church built by any other than the LORD isn’t His equal.