In Matthew’s Gospel, the words “stone” (lithos) and “rock” (petra) occur ten times (Matt 3:9; 4:3, 6; 7:9; 21:42, 44; 24:2; 27:60, 66; 28:2) and five times (Matt 7:24, 25; 16:18; 27:51, 60),2 respectively. The related word “tomb” (taphos or mnēmeion) occurs thirteen times (taphos in Matt 23:27, 29; 27:61, 64, 66; 28:1; mnēmeion in Matt 8:28; 23:29; 27:52, 53, 60 [2x]; 28:8).
As I reflected on the raised saints in Matt 27:51-54, it struck me that the rock/stone/tomb motif is a vital one, not only for that passage, but for all of Matthew’s Gospel. In the Matthew 27 passage we see rocks split and the tombs of certain dead believers opened, accompanied by their bodily resurrection. This results in the confession of the centurion concerning Christ, that He is the Son of God, in Matt 27:54. In Matt 16:18 we see that Peter’s great confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, is the “rock” upon which Jesus would build His church.
Could it be mere coincidence that both confessions are linked with rocks? It seems to me that the Holy Spirit produced the miracle of the split rocks and moved Matthew to include this account (not found in the other Gospels) to highlight the confessions of both the centurion and Peter.
But just as the rocks were split and the tombs of OT saints were opened, Jesus’ own tomb was later sealed with a stone. His grave was opened as well, as the stone was rolled away.
II. STONE/ROCK/TOMB PLAY A PROMINENT ROLE, ESPECIALLY LATER IN THE GOSPEL
References to stones or rocks in Matthew are not found uniformly throughout the book. Instead, the references occur at the start of Jesus’ ministry (Matthew 3, 4, 7) and at the end (Matthew 16, 21, 24, 27, 28).
These words are intimately connected with Jesus’ temptations, His death, His burial, and His resurrection. Opposition to Jesus and His rejection by the nation are major themes in these chapters. Not surprisingly, in Matthew Jesus refers to Himself as “the stone which the builders rejected” (Matt 21:42).3
There is only one reference to tombs in the early ministry of Jesus. It involves the two demoniacs who came out of the tombs. Jesus cast the demons out of them (Matt 8:28). All other references to tombs occur after the triumphal entry during the last week of Jesus’ ministry and after His death and resurrection.
III. PETER’S CONFESSION IS THE ROCK (MATTHEW 16:18)
When the Lord asks the disciples who they think He is (Matt 16:15), Peter confesses that He is the Christ, the Son of God. After Peter’s great confession, Jesus says, “And I also say to you that you are Peter (petros) and on this rock (petra) I will build my church and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” Some think that the Lord was promising to build the church on Peter himself. Yet that fails to consider what Peter has just stated in his great confession. It is Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, which is the rock upon which Jesus would build His church. We also see echoes of Peter’s confession in Matt 27:54 in the confession of the centurion.
IV. THE CENTURION’S CONFESSION RESULTING FROM THE SPLIT ROCKS AND TOMBS WHICH WERE OPENED (MATTHEW 27:51-54)
Peter’s confession in Matt 16:16 is, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Actually, in Greek the confession is more literally, “You are the Christ, the Son of God, the living One” (ho Huios tou Theou tou zōntos).
As noted above, following Peter’s great confession, Jesus calls him Petros and says that upon this petra He would build His church.
In Matthew, there are only three other confessions of Jesus as the Son of God. One is by Peter and the other disciples when Jesus (and Peter) walked on water, and Jesus calmed a storm (Matt 14:33). Another confession is by the two demon possessed men coming out of the tombs (Matt 8:29). The final one is by the centurion (Matt 27:54).
Even the confession of the demons in Matthew 8 is tied to the rock/stone motif since the men they possessed “came out of the tombs.” In light of Jesus’ later explanation of why He changed Simon’s name to Peter, or Petros, in Matt 16:18, the confession in Matthew 14 is also linked to the rock motif since Peter is named as one of those making that confession in the boat.
V. JESUS’ BURIAL AND RESURRECTION ARE TIED TO ROCK, STONE, AND TOMB
Although Matthew does not specify this, Jesus’ tomb was cut out of rock (Mark 15:46). Matthew does tell us that a stone was placed over the entrance to Jesus’ tomb, and it was sealed by the Romans (Matt 27:66). On the Sunday morning of Christ’s resurrection, Matthew tells us, “an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it” (Matt 28:2).
Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection are all linked in Matthew to the rock/stone motif.
In fact, in Matthew 16, after Peter makes his great confession, the Lord went on to tell him and the other disciples that He was going to be killed in Jerusalem and that He would rise from the dead on the third day (Matt 16:21). Peter’s response was the polar opposite of his great confession. He went on to rebuke Jesus and to say, “This shall not happen to You!” (Matt 16:22).
Peter and the disciples did not yet understand that the Messiah had to die and rise again. They were thinking in terms of glory now. They expected to rule with Christ without any suffering first.
The man called Petros had to learn the full significance of the name the Lord had given to him.
So too did all of His followers. On the third day a group of women came “to see the tomb” (28:1). They came to anoint the body (Mark 16:1). They clearly did not believe that He was going to rise from the dead. None of His followers understood, until after He arose and an angel announced that He had risen, that He would rise from the dead on the third day. Even then, many did not believe until they personally saw Him in His post-resurrection body.
The empty tomb plays a key role in the rock, stone, and tomb motif in Matthew and in Mark and Luke as well. The motif is key to proclaiming who Jesus Christ is.
VI. BUILDING YOUR HOUSE ON THE ROCK (MATTHEW 7:24-28)
Two of the early uses of petra in Matthew are found at the end of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7). A life that is built on belief in the teachings of Jesus is like a house that is built “on the rock” (Matt 7:24). Such a life is one that will withstand all that can come against it, as illustrated by rain, floods, and winds.4
But a life that does not believe and apply Jesus’ teachings is one that cannot withstand life’s storms. When the wind, rain, and floods come, the person will fall like a house built on sand.
This same motif is picked up later in the Gospel when Matthew cites the Psalmist who spoke of the stone which the builders rejected.
VII. JESUS IS THE STONE WHICH THE BUILDERS REJECTED (MATTHEW 21:42)
In a confrontation with the religious leaders of His day, the Lord Jesus quotes from Ps 118:22-23 concerning “the stone which the builders rejected.” This “stone” is the One that “has become the chief cornerstone.” He was speaking of Himself. Jesus is the chief cornerstone. The Apostles and prophets filled out the foundation (Eph 2:20; 1 Cor 3:5-15).
So not only is the confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, the rock upon which Jesus would build His church, but He Himself is the cornerstone.
VIII. THE ROCKS DID CRY OUT (MATTHEW 27:51, 54)
In his Gospel, Matthew includes the Triumphal Entry. However, unlike Luke, he does not specifically mention the fact that Jesus said at that time that if His disciples had not cried out, “the stones would immediately cry out” (Luke 19:40). But Matthew does cite John the Baptist who indicates that “God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones” (Matt 3:9).
When Jesus died, the stones did cry out in a figurative sense. As the rocks were split (Matt 27:51), they were confessing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. The centurion heard the “voice” of the rocks and he confessed, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matt 27:54).
There is a clear connection in Matthew’s Gospel, indeed, in all of the Gospels, between the stone, rock, and tomb motifs. Jesus is regularly associated with these three themes. They emphasize and confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
Faith in Jesus as the Christ results in eternal life. Our confession of Him as the Christ, the Son of God, is itself a rock upon which Jesus builds His church. Jesus Himself is the cornerstone for the Church. A life built on Jesus’ teachings is like a house built on bedrock. It will not be moved by the calamities we all face in life, even when we face death itself.
1 Editor’s note: Bob Swift was a long time friend of the Grace Evangelical Society. He was an avid student of the Word of God. On March 18, 2018, Bob went to be with the Lord after a long illness. In the past, he had written articles for this journal. This article was the last one he sent to GES, just a few months prior to his departure. It is published in memory of Bob. Except for a few editor footnotes and format changes, the article is as Bob wrote it.
2 Mark has the word petra only once, while Luke has five uses. Mark has eight uses of lithos, and Luke has fourteen uses. While this motif can be seen in all of the Synoptics, I have focused on Matthew because it seems to be more prevalent there.
3 We know from Paul in 1 Cor 10:4 that Jesus is also called the Rock which followed Israel in the wilderness wanderings.
4 Editor’s note: Clearly, this verse has nothing to do with gaining eternal life. As Bob correctly points out, building one’s house upon the rock involves living one’s life on Christ’s teaching. It involves works of obedience. Such a life survives all that may come against it and will result in eternal rewards.