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What did Jesus mean when he said "on this rock, I will build my church"?
Thank you for your question about Christ and His church.
The context of the phrase "on this rock I will build my church" can be found in Matthew 16:15-18:
He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-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, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it".
Here we can see a conversation between Jesus and his disciples, with specific address being given to Peter. At the start of this passage, Jesus is asking who people say that he is, with some people saying he is Elijah, or John the Baptist, but Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ - not a man, magician or prophet - but as the Son of the living God.
Before we move forward with the rest of this answer, I want to ask you: have you accepted Jesus as the Christ? Have you asked for the forgiveness of your sins and placed your trust in him? If not, I encourage you to watch the video on the main part of our site: Watch the video
Certain Christian traditions, like the Roman Catholic Church, have used the sentence of Jesus you mention as a way of showing Christ installing Peter as the first Pope of the Universal Catholic Church. The problem with this perspective is that although Peter was important during the early church, he was not the leading ruler and didn't have the final say on some matters (Acts 15:6-20).
It is possible that Jesus is using clever word play to emphasise his point. Peter (meaning stone) will be a rock (larger than a stone) in the church, but Christ remains as the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20).
In his letter to the scattered church, Peter talks on this point. He writes that you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture:
"Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame." (1 Peter 2:5-6).
Peter here recognises his place: he is but a stone in the spiritual house of God, and Christ is the cornerstone. Though we may worship in many different ways, in different cultures and languages, we are all in Christ Jesus, recognising him as our Lord and Saviour.
As a final possibility, it may be that Jesus is publicly declaring Peter as the first true believer in his work, with others being added to this number as time progresses.
Overall though, what is clear is that Christ will build his church, with such power and authority that nothing, not even the gates of hell itself, can stop his work. We may see all sorts of evil acts around the world, and from the earliest times of Christianity to now there has been persecution of the church, and yet people continue to believe in Jesus.
In summary, the passage you mention is one of the most debated in the church, and there are a number of possible options that Jesus could have meant. However, what is clear is that Christ is the head of the church and he is building a spiritual house of living stones, which includes you, if you believe in Jesus as your Lord and Saviour.
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*All Scripture references are taken From The English Standard Version of the Holy Bible unless stated otherwise
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