We now come to a very significant section of the book in which the disciples’ faith seems to be much stronger and Jesus’ program made much clearer. This is the famous passage in which Peter makes his great confession of faith, and Jesus responds with the revelation of how He will build His church.
13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15 “But what about you,” He asked; “Who do you say I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in Heaven. 18 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. 19 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.”
20 Then He warned His disciples not to tell anyone that He was the Christ.
We last studied the account of Jesus and the Canaanite woman in the region of Tyre and Sidon. When He came back towards Galilee, He still was in predominantly Gentile territory towards the northeast of the sea. There He fed the four thousand (15:32-39), showing that He was fully able to meet the needs of the Gentiles, just as He had demonstrated that He could meet Israel’s needs when He fed the five thousand.
But when He returned to Jewish territory He was met with a challenging demand for a sign from heaven (16:1-4). Jesus refused to give the Pharisees and Sadducees the kind of sign they wanted, calling them a wicked and adulterous generation, a description of a covenant nation that was unfaithful to its covenant Lord (drawing on the imagery of Hosea). The only sign He would give was already there in Scripture, the sign of Jonah. But it was a different kind of sign, not one to convince people that He was the Messiah, but one that would come afterward to confirm that He was. It was the sign of the resurrection. But by then these enemies would have already opposed Jesus and condemned Him to death.
This challenge prompted Jesus to warn His disciples about the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees (16:5-12). He called it “yeast,” because of its effects on the people. The disciples had trouble understanding this at first, thinking that Jesus was referring to actual bread. But soon they came to see He was warning them about their teaching. The false teaching of these religious leaders seemed to be taking a toll on would-be disciples, for the time of popularity in the Galilean region was now turning to opposition. Jesus and His disciples then left the synagogue and the town for the region of Caesarea Philippi; and many of the people were left confused between the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of the Jewish leaders. And so Jesus would want to know what His own disciples thought of Him.
For those who have had the good pleasure to visit the land of Israel, and for those who want to and are hopeful they will someday be able to do it, the region of Caesarea Philippi is one of the most moving spots to visit in the light of this chapter. The city has not been worked very much by the archaeologists, but we know where it is and where the basic structures were. But across from it at the base of mountains there is this enormous mountain side of rock, like a solid wall stretching straight up to the heavens. At its base there is a cave, which used to be a source for water for the Jordan River. An earthquake stopped it, and the water now seeps up from underground and flows into rivulets and streams to become the headwaters of the Jordan. At the entrance to this cave Philip the tetrarch over the region had built a temple to Caesar (hence, the name was Caesarea Philippi to distinguish it from Caesarea Maritima, Caesarea by the Sea) and to the god Pan (so it is called Banias in Arabic). There were niches carved in the wall of the rock for statues of gods, and the temple was firmly built on the rocky plateau by the entrance of the cave.
What a setting for Matthew 16! Jesus and His disciples had left the city where there was a lot of false teaching about Jesus, and as they came to this region, near Mount Hermon, they saw this temple with all the statues of gods. And Jesus asked His disciples who people said He was, and who they, His disciples, think He was. Then Jesus said that He would build His church upon a rock, but it would survive the gates of Hell. There is evidence of some association with this cave and its temple and the underworld. And then Jesus and His disciples continued up Mount Hermon where He was transfigured before three of them (Matthew 17).
The account is also found in Mark 8:27-30 and Luke 9:18-22. The passage is treated similarly by all three Gospels. They all immediately follow the event with Jesus’ prediction of His death. But the teaching is found only in Matthew.
The structure of the passage is straight forward. In verse 13 Jesus asked the question of His identity; in verse 14 the disciples reported. Then Jesus asked them the same question (v. 15), and Peter responded (v. 16). The rest of the passage is Jesus’ teaching about His program and the powerful authority given the apostles.
I. The Question of Jesus’ Identity (13-16).
First, the narrative begins with Jesus question: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (13). Jesus asked this question when He and His disciples came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, a city built by Herod Philip the tetrarch on a plane about 1100 feet above sea level at the foot of Mount Hermon. The location is 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. Here Jesus wanted to know who people thought He was. The reason for the question was probably the changing of opinions about Jesus under the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. And, this place with its temple to Pan provided the perfect backdrop for the revelation to come.
Mark and Luke do not include “Son of Man” in their report. Some have suggested that the wording in Matthew gives the answer away, “Who do they say the Son of Man is? But Matthew’s report is probably the original since Jesus uses this title for Himself in the Gospels, and since the title can have a somewhat ambiguous Messianic meaning, making the question significant. The title “Son of Man” was clearly Messianic in Daniel; but it could be used of the prophets as well (as in Ezekiel). Mark and Luke shortened the question for their audiences.
Second, the answer the disciples give is: “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others Jeremiah, or one of the prophets” (14). Some thought He was John come back from the dead. Some thought He was the forerunner of the Messiah and so Elijah. Only Matthew includes Jeremiah, the first of the latter prophets in the canon. Perhaps some people had been struck by the authority of Jesus and His suffering as well at the hands of the leaders. Or, He was considered a prophet of doom like Jeremiah.
No group was openly confessing Jesus as the Messiah.
There were individuals who had addressed Jesus with Messianic titles before this (9:27 and 15:22), but we do not know how strongly they believed what they said, how much they understood, or how influential they were. People might have thought Jesus was the Messiah, but still had misgivings about it.
Third, Jesus wanted to know if the disciples knew: “Who do you say I am?” (v. 15). The “you” is emphatic and plural in the line; Jesus was asking all the disciples. Therefore, Peter was speaking on behalf of the disciples when he answered.
Fourth, Peter’s confession was clear and direct: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Mark has: “You are the Christ.” Luke has “You are the Christ of God.” A lot of scholars say “Son of the Living God” was added by some editor. But there is no reason to take that view. The inclusion of the description provides a better explanation of the other Gospels’ forms; and besides, “Son of God” probably indicated kingship to Peter (based on the Davidic covenant), even though in time it came to mean divinity. The Gospels frequently use “Son of God” to describe Jesus, and so it is not out of place here.
We have already noted that “the Christ” is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew “the Messiah,” meaning, the anointed one. And since in the Old Testament the Davidic King was to be called God’s Son (Ps. 2; 2 Sam. 7), it is likely that Peter meant just that. He was convinced that Jesus was the promised Messiah, the coming king who would miraculously heal the people and drive out the oppressors in the land. As we have noted before, the description of Jesus as “Son of God,” however, is filled with meaning, and will go beyond His description as king to His description as one who is the same as the Father. But Peter would not yet know all that, judging from the things that he said and did after this event.
II. The Teaching of Jesus’ Mission (17-19).
Critical scholarship thinks that these verses should be deleted because they are not in the other gospels. Others suggest they are simply in the wrong place. But there is good evidence to support these verses as original and necessary. In fact, the idea of God’s revealing these things goes back to Matthew 11:25 where the Father’s revealing Christ to people is correlated to faith. What Jesus would be saying here in the argument of the book is that the system was working as He said in 11:25. The Father had been revealing the Son, and Peter got the message.
Therefore, the first point in the teaching is that Jesus appraised the work of the Father in Peter (17). He said, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.” In spite of the leaven (teaching) of the Pharisees and Sadducees, in spite of the confusion among the people, Peter got it right. And this, Jesus said, was revealed to Peter by the Father. The procedure had worked; no one could know the Father or the Son unless it was revealed to them. And so the revelation of the Son to Peter, with all the authenticating signs and miracles, was received. Such knowledge cannot originate in flesh and blood, that is, it cannot originate from mortal flesh. It has to come from above (see 1 Cor. 15:50; Gal. 1:16; Eph. 6:12; He. 2:14).
Peter’s confession assumes a deeper level of understanding than other confessions that had been made. Now, this is not the first time that he and the disciples were made aware of the Messiahship of Jesus. In fact the disciples followed Jesus, believing that He was the Messiah. But their understanding of what Messiah was to do was still weak. What made Peter’s confession so important was the fact that it came against the backdrop of all the confusion and false teachings about Jesus. His confession of faith was so strong that Jesus could begin talking about His death on the cross.
Second, Jesus announced that He was about to build His Church (18). This verse and the next have been at the center of controversy for ages. In verse 18 Jesus declared, “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.” The saying relies on a pun on the name of Peter. The Aramaic name is Kepa (Cephas), and the Greek translation is Petros. The Aramaic word means “rock.” But the saying “on this rock” uses the feminine form of the word, petra. Many have argued that because there are two different words for “rock” used here, the meaning would be that Peter is a small stone, but Christ is the rock on which the church if founded. This would be a difficult sense since Jesus said He would build the Church; would He also be the rock on which it is built?
Or, others argue that the rock on which the Church will be built is the confession that Peter just made, the revealed truth about Jesus. This too is a fairly common view, and there may be some reasonable support for it. But both these views have probably been developed mostly in reaction to Roman Catholic teachings based on this passage. And yet, to say that Peter is the rock would be the normal way to interpret the line. However, and this is important, to say that Christ was going to build his church on the foundation of the apostles does not in any way teach an apostolic succession, papal infallibility, or exclusive authority for successors of Peter. Those doctrines were developed later. All the text would be saying is what the rest of the New Testament affirms, that Christ established His Church on the apostles. Their teaching, their writing the Scriptures, their establishing and organizing the Church, all were the necessary ways that Christ began to build His Church.
If Matthew had wanted to make a contrast between “rock” (Jesus) and “stone” (Peter), he probably would have used lithos for the latter. But then there would be no pun in the passage—and the pun (called a paronomasia) is the force of the line.
The metaphor of the rock is consistent with other uses in Scripture. Here Jesus will build his church; but elsewhere Paul and the apostles build it (1 Cor. 3:10). Jesus is the foundation of the Church (1 Cor. 3:11); but the apostles and prophets are also the foundation (Eph. 2:19,20; Rev. 21:14). Peter has the keys here; but in Revelation 1:18 and 3:7 Jesus has the keys.
So here in Matthew 16 Jesus is the builder of the Church. The foundation will be the apostles. Peter was the first to make this profound confession, and so he is prominent in the early church. But the other apostles have equal authority, even to rebuke Peter (Acts 11:1-18; Gal. 2:11-14). Peter is simply first among equals. If there had been succession, then Peter’s successor would have had authority over John and the other apostles still alive. And that is not the case.
Christ will build His Church. The Church, as most people know, is the “called out” body of believers, Christian congregations of people redeemed by Christ. The Church is known as the assembly of the people of the Messiah. The people of the assembly are the people of God—but this will be a new type of assembly. It will differ from Old Testament congregations of believers in that Christians were now living in the new covenant—Messiah had come and that changed things. In the Old Testament congregations the people knew nothing of the fulfillment of the promises, or of the coming of the Spirit.
But the Church is not completely identical to the kingdom either. The Church is a form of the kingdom in that Christ rules over his Church, and people who become believers and enter the Church also enter the kingdom. But the kingdom for which we pray will be a new order in which Christ will put down all enemies and rule over the whole world. So there is overlap between the terms and the times they cover; but there are distinctions as well. Jesus announced here that he was going to build His Church, indicating clearly that the Church was a future program and not a continuation of Old Testament assemblies.
Because the Church is a part of or a form of the kingdom, nothing can prevent it from realizing its fully promised blessings when Christ returns. It is tied to the coming kingdom of God. And so the gates of Hades cannot prevail over it. “Gates” is figurative for the power or the powerful leaders of Hades (in the Hebrew literature “gates” could be substituted for those who sit in the gates). Thus it would represent Satan or Satanic forces, the powers of Hell, who inflict death and destruction on the human race. Since Jesus the Messiah was building His assembly of believers, the powers of death and destruction could not prevail over it. This is especially true since Christ has defeated sin, death and the grave through His resurrection. Since He has done that, there is no power in the world below that can win over His program. The Church may seem at times to be weak, divided, and ineffective. But that is usually the result of human leaders and institutions creating problems; the Church itself, the company of the people of Jesus, will be victorious, because Christ has overcome the world. Even death, a weapon of Hell, cannot destroy the true Church. It may ruin denominations or local churches that lose sight of the vision; but the universal body of believers, the universal Church, will be victorious.
Third, Jesus gives the keys to the kingdom to Peter (v. 19). Now the metaphor changes from rock-foundation to the keys of the kingdom. The person with the keys has the power to admit or exclude people (Rev. 9:1-6; 20:1-3). The allusion is to the chief stewards of the monarchs (Isa. 22:15, 22). The king was still sovereign; but whoever had the keys had authority over the house. What then was the binding and the loosing?
A literal translation of this line would yield: “whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” If this is the translation, there is no place for earthly ministers to claim the power; they simply speak for God and enact what heaven has enacted. Unfortunately, the history of the Church has shown many who think they have the power to admit to heaven or confine to hell. For the many views ad arguments on the verse you can consult the commentaries at will.
The meaning of the binding and loosing in the verse probably refers to people and not to teachings (see 18:18 for “whatever”). The keys then speak of the permission of entering the kingdom or being excluded from it. The meaning of this idea is clarified by the teaching of Jesus in Luke 11:52. There Jesus denounced the teachers by saying that they had taken away the key of knowledge and had not only failed to enter the kingdom themselves but had hindered others from doing so. This meant that by their approach to Scripture they were making it impossible for people under their teaching to accept the revelation about Jesus and enter the kingdom. In strong contrast, Peter, by confessing Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, had received the revelation and so was to be given the “keys.” The metaphor of the “keys” refers then to the clear teaching about Christ and the proclamation of the Gospel. Peter, by proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, which by revelation he was understanding more and more, would open the kingdom to many and shut it to others. See Acts 2:14-39 and 3:11-26, and the result that the Lord was adding to the church those who were to be saved (Acts 2:45). There we see how Jesus would be building His Church. But the proclamation of the Gospel message would also alienate and exclude people as well (see Acts 4:11-12; 8:20-23).
This view then harmonizes with the translation of “whatever you bind . . . will have been bound . . . “ and so forth. By making the proclamation of the Gospel, the message of the kingdom, Peter would be binding and loosing what heaven had already bound and loosed. Peter would preach the Gospel, and that preaching would be the means by which those bound in heaven would be bound, and those loosed in heaven would be loosed. As long as Peter proclaimed the true Gospel, he would be binding or loosing what had been bound or loosed in heaven—he would be using the keys to the kingdom properly.
There is a strange use of these expressions among Christians today for a commanding, authoritarian form of praying. In it people say they bind or loose evil spirits in people when praying for healing. There is no warrant for that use of the words; the context clearly ties the keys of the kingdom to salvation, who enters and who does not, and the authority to grant entrance and announce exclusion comes only with the proclamation of the Gospel already revealed. When the Gospel is preached, it appears that it brings some into the kingdom and repels others. But the Gospel being preached is only the earthly manifestation of the heavenly process.
Are these keys given to Peter only, or to the apostles only, or to all Christians? If the keys refer to the proclamation of the Gospel to the world, then they are the possession of all believers, because that is the task for the church. Christ’s disciples were and are to be fishers of men (Matt. 4:19), lights to the world (5:14-16), and witnesses who proclaim the message of the kingdom (10:6-42). They are also commissioned to teach the nations all that Christ commanded (28:18-20). Even though the glorious kingdom will come suddenly in the future, in the meantime Christ builds His church. He established it on the foundation of the apostles; but He builds it through the proclamation of the Gospel, the accurate preaching of the word of God. In proclaiming the Good News the people of God will make it clear how others can enter into the kingdom, but they will also make it clear what will exclude people from the kingdom. Their message will include and exclude. But the passage in no way teaches that they, or the apostles, have a direct pipeline to heaven, or even worse, can make the final decision of who is bound and who is loosed. God does that, has done that; and we by our preaching the Gospel will see it all work out, what has already been bound or loosed in heaven. The passage is not concerned with Peter’s power or infallibility, but rather the role that he and the disciples of Jesus will play in the building of the Church. Since his proclamation is the basis of preaching about Christ, it precipitated Jesus’ teaching about how the Church would be built.
Finally, Jesus safeguards the method of the kingdom by forbidding publicity (v. 20). Jesus was not trying to keep the message quiet, or his identity a secret. He was refusing to bow to the demands of the people to declare himself with a sign. He wanted people to come to faith in Him as Peter and the disciples had done, through the response of faith to the revelation. He wanted to make sure that they would come to Him by faith, and not because of messianic zeal without true repentance. And He wanted to ensure that the steady progress to the cross would not be hindered by full disclosure. After the resurrection there would be complete proclamation to the world. The disciples were beginning to understand how all this was to work, but they still were unclear on the death and resurrection (see 16:21-23).
If you have time you could study many Old Testament passages about the Messiah as the Son of the Living God (some of these are in the archives under the daily devotions on Old Testament Christology). But there is one passage that is parallel to this one in Isaiah 51. There the prophet writes: “Look to the rock from which you were cut, and to the quarry from which you were hewn; look to Abraham your father, and to Sarah who gave you birth.” In that passage the LORD is reminding the Israelites of their heritage in the Abrahamic Covenant. God began with Abraham and Sarah and built a nation, the people of God. Now, in a parallel fashion, the Lord begins with Peter and the other apostles to build His Church, a ew program in the New Covenant.
This is one of those passages that will involve more reading of different interpretations than of simply studying the text. And some of those views will involve a lot of passages and a lot of theological reasoning. That may be more than most people wish to do, but it is important to understand traditions of churches. But a careful study of the text of this passage will show how far the passage can be taken; and thereafter teachings allegedly based on this passage will ave to be evaluated carefully. If a church denomination holds to apostolic authority, it would have trouble proving it from this passage alone. If a church denomination is adamantly opposed to such a teaching, it would have trouble basing its view on this passage if it sought to remove Peter as the rock. In other words, that debate is more involved, and this passage is brought into it because of Peter and because of the keys. The views are not going to change.
Putting aside the centuries of Christian debate on that issue, we can conclude that in this passage:
1. Peter declared his faith in the Messiahship of Jesus, the Son of God. His words fit the language of the Bible; but in time he and the others would come to realize that those words meant more than they had understood at the time. And as they studied the Old Testament again and again they would see that the higher meaning of those words was in there. Today, how people answer the question, “Who do you say I am?” will reveal whether or not they have faith, and so whether or not they are part of God’s program.
An aside is necessary here. Some may be satisfied that Jesus was a prophet (as Islam would claim). If He was a prophet, then His words must be true—and He claimed to be God, and to have come to die for our sins. If people reject that, then they cannot say He is a prophet, or at least not a true prophet.
2. Christ declared that he was going to build His church on the apostles; they would proclaim the message of Christ, record it in Scripture, and establish the Church throughout the known world. Everything we do today is based on the work and the teachings of the apostles, who were commissioned by Christ and inspired by the Spirit.
3. Christ gave to the apostles and to all disciples the privilege of proclaiming the Gospel to the world, and by that proclamation binding and loosing what was already bound and loosed in heaven. This was no mysterious power reserved for a few; by proclaiming the Gospel one would see faith or rejection in the hearers, and understand how the kingdom of Christ was growing in a world that often refused to enter. We all have the keys of the kingdom because we can proclaim entrance into the kingdom. Our task is the faithful teaching of the truth of the Gospel, even though some will be offended and refuse it. The message is based on the person of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, and on His work, the work of redemption.