The Church That Christ Builds
“And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then He warned the disciples that they should tell no one that He was the Christ. (16:18–20)
Throughout history, philosophers have speculated on the reason for man’s existence, the purpose and meaning of human life. Many ancient Greeks believed that life is cyclical, continually repeating itself in endless circles, going nowhere with no purpose. To many modern thinkers, life is just as pointless and futile. In his inaugural address as president of Cambridge University, Dr. G. N. Clark said, “There is no secret and no plan in history to be discovered.” The French novelist and critic André Maurois wrote, “The universe is indifferent. Who created it? Why are we here on this puny mud heap spinning in infinite space? I have not the slightest idea, and I am quite convinced that no one has.” Jean-Paul Sartré, the famous existentialist philosopher, maintained that man exists in a watertight compartment as an utterly isolated individual in the midst of a purposeless universe.
The French molecular biologist Jacques Monod declared that man’s existence is due to the chance collision between minuscule particles of nucleic acid and proteins in a vast “prebiotic soup.” According to such cynical views, man is alone in the vast universe, out of which he accidentally emerged by chance. Francis Schaeffer observed that, according to such thinking, “man is the product of the impersonal plus time plus chance.” Although many of its advocates would deny it, humanistic, evolutionary philosophy must inevitably conclude that there is no real difference between a man and a tree, and that therefore killing a man is no different than chopping down a tree.
In illustration of this point one needs merely to read the ideas of Peter Singer, present patriarch of the equal rights for animals movement, who believes that farmers who raise animals for food should be jailed. He writes: “We should reject the doctrine that places the lives of members of our own species [humans] above the lives of members of other species [animals]. Some members of other species are persons; some members of our own species are not.… Killing say a chimpanzee is worse than the killing of a gravely defective human who is not a person.” Singer identifies nonpersons as the retarded and handicapped (Practical Ethics [Cambridge: Cambridge U., 1979], pp. 97, 73).
In light of such shallow, hopeless, and increasingly popular views of mankind, it is no wonder that many young people demand total license in their life-styles and willingly become entrapped in the seductive webs of drugs, sexual promiscuity, perversion, meaningless violence, and lawlessness. If men are only animals and there is no meaning or purpose to life beyond mere existing, then nothing is wrong and everything is permissible.
When men see no ultimate and eternal reason for their existence and no accountability to God, they see no reason for anything else, including law, morality, or religion. Their only motive for self-restraint is fear of criticism by their peers or of being caught and punished by civil authorities. Their ultimate standard is hedonism, the desire to get everything out of life you can, while you can and in whatever way you can.
The Bible, however, makes clear that there is divine and eternal value and meaning to human life and that God revealed His high purpose to men. Despite men’s spiritual darkness caused by the Fall, “that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made” (Rom. 1:19–20). In the same letter Paul declares that “from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever” (11:36).
The universe was created by God, and man was made in God’s image in order to glorify Himself. All things were made by Him and for Him, Paul declared (Col. 1:16). That is the reason for human existence. And if the ultimate purpose of mankind is to glorify God, it should not seem strange that God is collecting for Himself a redeemed assembly of people who will forever be the praise of His glory (see Eph. 1:6; 3:21). That is the theme of redemptive history. Because He is a worthy God and deserving of glory, the Lord has made men who are able to give Him glory and who will reflect eternally the majesty and splendor of His glorious being. From out of the rebels who now populate the world, God is calling a redeemed church that will forever be privileged to render Him glory (see Rev. 4:6–11; 5:9–14). To be a part of that is to fulfill man’s reason for existence.
As both the Maker and Redeemer of mankind, Jesus Christ is the supreme and sovereign architect of history. All the other notables of history, whether righteous and godly or wicked and rebellious, are no more than players in the great drama that Christ has written and now directs. As someone has said, history is “His story.”
The background of Jesus’ teaching in the present passage, however, was not cynical Greek or Roman philosophy but the God-given Jewish religion that had been humanly perverted. Jesus was speaking to those who from their earliest years had been taught to anticipate the coming of the Lord’s Anointed—the Messiah, the Christ. But their expectations, though partly scriptural, were distorted by the traditional interpretations of the rabbis and scribes over the previous several centuries. They knew the Messiah would bring righteousness and truth, but they also believed that He would militarily conquer and destroy their oppressors and usher in a kingdom of everlasting peace and prosperity for God’s chosen people.
As the disciples walked with Jesus through the outskirts of Caesarea Philippi (see Matt. 16:13), they knew they were in a type of self-imposed exile. The Jewish leaders were becoming more and more adamant in their opposition to Jesus and the multitudes were becoming more and more skeptical and disillusioned.
The disciples shared much of that disillusionment, because they, too, wondered why, if Jesus were truly the Messiah, He refused to overthrow Rome and establish His own earthly kingdom. Despite Jesus’ obvious supernatural powers and His claims of divine authority, He was less influential and respected among the people now than when He first began His ministry. And instead of being the conquering King’s vice-regents, the Twelve were still a nondescript band of nobodies who were beginning to share Jesus’ rejection.
A short while later, Jesus would paint an even darker picture for them as He “began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed” (v. 21). That the Messiah should be rejected by His own people was unbelievable enough; that He should be executed by them, or by anyone else, was incomprehensible. The bad news became still worse when Jesus declared that every true disciple of His must “deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (v. 24).
But before revealing those heartrending truths, He assured the Twelve that His program was on schedule, that He was indeed in control, and that they had every reason to continue their unreserved trust in Him. What they saw on the surface did not reflect the reality of what God was doing. Just as the Lord sought to bolster the confidence of His people in Egypt while He was preparing to deliver them, and just as He has continued to bolster the confidence of believers in every age while they are enduring trials and hardships on His behalf, He now sought to convince the Twelve that they had no reason to doubt or despair. The Lord here gives a message of great hope to the maligned, beleaguered, rejected, persecuted, and ignoble people of God in every age. In the end there is glorious purpose and victory, because they belong to the indomitable and eternal church that Jesus Christ Himself is building.
In Matthew 16:18–20 Jesus points up at least seven features and characteristics of the church that He builds. He speaks of its foundation, its certainty, its intimacy, its identity and continuity, its invincibility, its authority, and its spirituality.
First, Jesus set forth the foundation of the Church: And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church.
For more than fifteen hundred years the Roman Catholic church has maintained that this passage teaches the church was built on the person of Peter, who became the first pope and bishop of Rome and from whom the Catholic papacy has since descended. Because of this supposed divinely ordained apostolic succession, the pope is considered to be the supreme and authoritative representative of Christ on earth. When a pope speaks ex cathedra, that is, in his official capacity as head of the church, he is said to speak with divine authority equal to that of God in Scripture.
Such an interpretation, however, is presumptuous and unbiblical, because the rest of the New Testament makes abundantly clear that Christ alone is the foundation and only head of His church.
Peter is from petros, a masculine form of the Greek word for small stone, whereas rock is from petra, a different form of the same basic word, referring to a rocky mountain or peak. Perhaps the most popular interpretation is therefore that Jesus was comparing Peter, a small stone, to the great mountainous rock on which He would build His church. The antecedent of rock is taken to be Peter’s divinely inspired confession of Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (vv. 16–17).
That interpretation is faithful to the Greek text and has much to commend it, but it seems more likely that, in light of other New Testament passages, that was not Jesus’ point. In his letter to Ephesus Paul says that God’s household is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone” (Eph. 2:20). In all four gospel accounts Peter is clearly the leading apostle, and he remains so through Acts 10. He was most often the Twelve’s spokesman during Jesus’ earthly ministry (see, e.g., Matt. 15:15; 19:27; John 6:68), and he was the chief preacher, leader, and worker of miracles in the early years of the church (see, e.g., Acts 1:15–22; 2:14–40; 3:4–6, 12–26; 5:3–10, 15, 29).
It therefore seems that in the present passage Jesus addressed Peter as representative of the Twelve. In light of that interpretation, the use of the two different forms of the Greek for rock would be explained by the masculine petros being used of Peter as an individual man and petra being used of him as the representative of the larger group.
It was not on the apostles themselves, much less on Peter as an individual, that Christ built His church, but on the apostles as His uniquely appointed, endowed, and inspired teachers of the gospel. The early church did not give homage to the apostles as persons, or to their office or titles, but to their doctrine, “continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). When the Jews outside the Temple were astonished at the healing of the crippled man, Peter quickly warned them not to credit him with the miracle, saying, “Men of Israel, why do you marvel at this, or why do you gaze at us, as if by our own power or piety we had made him walk?” (Acts 3:12). Although it was he alone who commanded the man to walk (v. 6), Peter replied to the crowd in John’s behalf as well as his own.
Because they participated with the apostles in proclaiming the authoritative gospel of Jesus Christ, the prophets of the early church were also part of the church’s foundation (Eph. 2:20). In fact, as Martin Luther observed, “All who agree with the confession of Peter [in Matt. 16:16] are Peters themselves setting a sure foundation.” The Lord is still building His church with “living stones, … built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5).
Therefore, whether one interprets Matthew 16:18 as referring to Peter as a small stone placed on the mountainous stone of his confession of Christ or as referring to his being one with the rest of the Twelve in his confession, the basic truth is the same: The foundation of the church is the revelation of God given through His apostles, and the Lord of the church is the cornerstone of that foundation. Because it is His Word that the apostles taught and that the faithful church has always taught, Jesus Christ Himself is the true foundation, the living Word to whom the written Word bears witness (John 5:39). And “No man,” Paul says-not even an apostle—“can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11). The Lord builds the church on the truth of Himself, and because His people are inseparable from Him they are inseparable from His truth. And because the apostles were endowed with His truth in a unique way, by their preaching of that truth they were the foundation of His church in a unique way.
That the Lord did not establish His church on the supremacy of Peter and his supposed papal successors was made clear a short while after Peter’s great confession. When the disciples asked Jesus who was greatest in the kingdom of heaven, He replied by placing a small child before them and saying, “Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:1–4). Had the Twelve understood Jesus’ teaching about the rock and the keys of the kingdom (Matt. 16:18–19) as referring exclusively to Peter, they would hardly have asked who was greatest in the kingdom. Or, had they forgotten or misunderstood Jesus’ previous teaching, He would have answered by naming Peter as the greatest and probably would also have chided them for not remembering or believing what He had already taught (cf. Matt. 14:31; 26:24; John 14:9).
A short while after that, the mother of James and John asked Jesus to give her sons the chief places of honor in His kingdom, one on His left and the other on His right (Matt. 20:20–21). We learn from Mark 10:35–37 that James and John were themselves directly involved in the request, one they would never have made had they understood Peter to have been given primacy as Christ’s successor. Or, as with the previous incident, had James and John misunderstood His teaching about the foundation rock of the church and the keys of the kingdom, Jesus would have taken the occasion to restate and underscore Peter’s supremacy.
Although Peter recognized himself as an apostle (see, e.g., 1 Pet. 1:1; 2 Pet. 1:1), he never claimed a superior title, rank, or privilege over the other apostles. He even referred to himself as a “fellow elder” (1 Pet. 5:1) and as “a bond-servant” of Christ (2 Pet. 1:1). Far from claiming honor and homage for himself, he soberly warns his fellow elders to guard against lording it over those under their pastoral care (1 Pet. 5:3). The only glory he claimed for himself was that which is shared by all believers and which is yet “to be revealed, … when the Chief Shepherd appears” (vv. 1, 4).
Second, Jesus pointed up the certainty of the church, declaring, “I will build My church.” As Peter had just confessed, Jesus is the Son of God; and God cannot lie or be mistaken. Therefore, because Jesus said, “I will build My church,” it will be built. It is the divine promise of the divine Savior.
In using the future tense, Jesus was not saying, as some contend, that He had not built His church in the past. The idea is that He would continue to build His church just as He had always done. As will be discussed below, church is used here in a general, nontechnical sense and does not indicate the distinct body of believers that first came into existence at Pentecost.
Jesus was not emphasizing the time of His building but its certainty. No matter how liberal, fanatical, ritualistic, apathetic, or apostate its outward adherents may be, and no matter how decadent the rest of the world may become, Christ will build His church. Therefore, no matter how oppressive and hopeless their outward circumstances may appear from a human perspective, God’s people belong to a cause that cannot fail.
Several years ago a man traveled across the United States interviewing pastors in a number of large evangelical churches. He concluded that wherever there is great growth there is a corresponding great desire on the part of the church leadership to build the church. Perhaps the man misinterpreted some of the responses given to him, or perhaps the pastors did not express their objectives in the best of terms. In any case, however, no Leader in Christ’s church should have the desire to build it himself. Christ declared that He alone builds the church, and no matter how well intentioned he may be, anyone else who attempts to build it is competing with, not serving, the Lord.
I once visited a church at which the pastor pointed to a certain man and said, “He is one of my converts.” “That’s wonderful,” I replied. “When did he come to the Lord?” “I didn’t say he was the Lord’s convert,” the pastor explained. “I said he was one of mine.”
By human reason, persuasiveness, and diligence it is possible to win converts to an organization, a cause, a personality, and to many other things. But it is totally impossible to win a convert to the spiritual church of Jesus Christ apart from the sovereign God’s own Word and Spirit. Human effort can produce only human results. God alone can produce divine results.
When he studies and is obedient to the Word, and when he walks in the Spirit and produces the fruit of the Spirit, a believer can be sure he is living where Christ is building His church. It is not faithful believers who build Christ’s church, but Christ who builds His church through faithful believers. Wherever His people are committed to His kingdom and His righteousness the Lord builds His church. If believers in one place become cold or disobedient, Christ does not stop building but simply starts work somewhere else. His true church is always “under construction.”
Jesus said, “All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me” (John 6:37). At Pentecost, Peter declared that from among both Jews and Gentiles, Christ builds into His church “as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself” (Acts 2:39). It was not the apostles but the Lord Himself who “was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved” (v. 47; cf. 11:24). When the Gentiles of Pisidian Antioch heard the preaching of Paul and Barnabas, “they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was being spread through the whole region” (Acts 13:48–49). That preaching, true and faithful as it was, was not capable by itself of winning converts to Christ. Only those whom He had sovereignly chosen for salvation and who believed the truth of His Word were saved.
The New Testament is replete with commands and guidelines for believers’ attitudes and conduct. It gives direction for selecting godly men and women to serve in the church. It gives abundant instruction for righteous living, for prayer, and for acceptable worship. Many of the Lord’s blessings are contingent on His people’s obedience and trust. But the most sincere and diligent efforts to fulfill those commands and standards are useless apart from Christ’s own divine provision and control. He desires and He uses the faithful work of those who belong to Him; but only He builds His church, the church that He loves and for whom He “gave Himself up, … that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:25–27). Men are able to build human, earthly, physical organizations, but they cannot build the eternal, spiritual church.
Third, Jesus alluded to the intimacy of the fellowship of believers. “It is My church,” He said. As Architect, Builder, Owner, and Lord of His church, Jesus Christ assures His followers that they are His personal possession and eternally have His divine love and care. They are His Body, “purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28), and are one with Him in a marvelous, holy intimacy. “The one who joins himself to the Lord is one spirit with Him” (1 Cor. 6:17). Christ is not ashamed to call them “brethren” (Heb. 2:11) and “God is not ashamed to be called their God” (Heb. 11:16). That is why when men attack God’s people they attack God Himself. When Jesus confronted Paul (then known as Saul) on the Damascus road, He asked, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4). By persecuting Christians (see 8:3; 9:1–2) Saul had been persecuting Christ.
God has always identified Himself with His people and jealously guarded them as His own. He several times referred to His chosen people Israel as the apple, or pupil, of His eye. Through the prophet Zechariah He declared to them, “He who touches you, touches the apple of His eye” (Zech. 2:8; cf. Deut. 32:10; Ps. 17:8; Prov. 7:2). The front part of the eye, the cornea, is the most sensitive exposed part of the human body. God was therefore saying that to harm Israel was to poke a finger in His own eye. To harm God’s people is to harm God Himself, and to cause them pain is to cause Him pain.
Fourth, Jesus emphasized the identity and continuity of His people. They are His church. The word ekklēsia (church) literally means “the called out ones” and was used as a general and nontechnical term for any officially assembled group of people. It was often used of civic gatherings such as town meetings, where important announcements were made and community issues were debated. That is the sense in which Stephen used ekklēsia in Acts 7:38 to refer to “the congregation” of Israel called out by Moses in the wilderness (cf. Ex. 19:17). Luke used it of a riotous mob (“assembly”) incited by the Ephesian silversmiths against Paul (Acts 19:32, 41).
Matthew 16:18 contains the first use of ekklēsia in the New Testament, and Jesus here gives it no qualifying explanation. Therefore the apostles could not have understood it in any way but its most common and general sense. The epistles use the term in a more distinct and specialized way and give instructions for its proper functioning and for its leadership. But at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus’ use of ekklēsia could only have carried the idea of “assembly,” “community,” or “congregation.” If He spoke in Aramaic, as is probable, He would have used the term qāhāl (taken directly from the Hebrew), which means an invited gathering, and was commonly used of synagogue meetings. In fact, the word synagogue itself originally referred to any gathering or congregation of people. Only during the Babylonian exile did Jews begin using it to denote their formal and organized place of religious activity and worship. And only after the Day of Pentecost did the term ekklēsia take on a new and technical significance in reference to the distinct redeemed community built on the work of Christ by the Holy Spirit’s coming.
In describing the inhabitants of heaven, the writer of Hebrews speaks of “the general assembly and church of the first-born” (Heb. 12:23), referring to the redeemed saints of all ages. That seems to be the sense in which Christ uses church in Matthew 16:18, as a synonym for citizens of His eternal kingdom, to which He refers in the following verse. The Lord does not build His kingdom apart from His church or His church apart from His kingdom.
Fifth, Jesus spoke of the invincibility of the church, which the gates of Hades shall not overpower.
The gates of Hades has often been interpreted as representing the evil forces of Satan attacking the church of Jesus Christ. But gates are not instruments of warfare. Their purpose is not to conquer but to protect those behind them from being conquered, or, in the case of a prison, to keep them from escaping. And Hades, which corresponds to the Hebrew sheol, refers here to the abode of the dead, not to eternal hell.
When the terms gates and Hades are properly understood, it becomes clear that Jesus was declaring that death has no power to hold God’s redeemed people captive. Its gates are not strong enough to overpower (katischuō, to have mastery over) and keep imprisoned the church of God, whose Lord has conquered sin and death on her behalf (Rom. 8:2; cf. Acts 2:24). Because “death no longer is master over Him” (Rom. 6:9), it is no longer master over those who belong to Him. “Because I live,” Jesus said, “you shall live also” (John 14:19). Satan now has the power of death, and he continually uses that power in his futile attempt to destroy Christ’s church. But Christ’s ultimate victory over Satan’s power of death is so certain that the writer of Hebrews speaks of it in the past tense: “Since then the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14; cf. Rev. 1:18).
It is that great truth of which Peter spoke at Pentecost, declaring that “God raised [Christ] up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power” (Acts 2:24). It is the truth about which Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers who were wavering in their belief in the resurrection. He declared, “Death is swallowed up in victory,” and then asked, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:54–57).
In light of what He was about to teach them concerning His own death and resurrection and their own willingness to deny themselves and take up their crosses and follow Him (Matt. 16:21–24), Jesus now assured the Twelve, and all believers who would ever come to Him, that the gates of Hades, the chains of death itself, could never permanently overpower them and hold them captive.
Sixth, Jesus spoke about the authority of the church. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” He said; “and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
The Lord was still addressing Peter as representative of the Twelve, telling him that whatever you shall bind, that is, forbid, on earth shall be bound in heaven and that whatever you shall loose, that is, permit, on earth shall be loosed in heaven. He told Peter and the Twelve, and by extension all other believers, that they had the astounding authority to declare what is divinely forbidden or permitted on earth!
Shortly after His resurrection Jesus told the disciples, “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained” (John 20:23). In giving instruction for church discipline to all His people, Jesus said that, if a sinning believer refuses to turn from his sin after being counselled privately and even after being rebuked by the entire congregation, the church not only is permitted but obligated to treat the unrepentant member “as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer” (Matt. 18:15–17). He then said to the church as a whole what He earlier had said to Peter and to the other apostles: “Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (v. 18). In other words, a duly constituted body of believers has the right to tell an unrepentant brother that he is out of line with God’s Word and has no right to fellowship with God’s people.
Christians have such authority because they have the truth of God’s authoritative Word by which to judge. The source of the church’s authority is not in itself, anymore than the source of the apostles’ authority was in themselves or even in their office, exalted as it was. Christians can authoritatively declare what is acceptable to God or forbidden by Him because they have His Word. Christians do not determine what is right or wrong, forgiven or unforgiven. Rather, on the basis of God’s own Word, they recognize and proclaim what God has already determined to be right or wrong, forgiven or unforgiven. When they judge on the basis of God’s Word, they can be certain their judgment corresponds with the judgment of heaven.
If a person declares himself to be an atheist, or to be anything other than a believer in and lover of the Lord Jesus Christ, Christians can say to that person with absolute certainty, “You are under God’s judgment and condemned to hell,” because that is what Scripture teaches. If, on the other hand, a person testifies that he has trusted Christ as his saving Lord, Christians can say to him with equal certainty, “If what you say is true, then your sins are forgiven, you are a child of God, and your eternal destiny is heaven.” The authority of the church lies in the fact that it has heaven’s word on everything “pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence” (2 Pet. 1:3). When believers are in agreement with God’s Word, God is in agreement with them. Believers can declare a person’s spiritual state with divinely granted authority by comparing that person to the Word of God.
Finally, Jesus reminds the disciples that His church is a spiritual reality, as He warned them that they should tell no one that He was the Christ. Most Jews, including the disciples, expected the Messiah to come as a conquering King, as a military and political leader to set them free from Rome, not as a Savior to set them free from sin. The people’s expectations were so warped and selfishly misguided that to tell them that Jesus was the Christ would be to cast pearls before swine (see Matt. 7:6).
Jesus declared to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting, that I might not be delivered up to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm” (John 18:36). When Christians mix their faith with politics and various humanitarian causes, they run the risk of losing their spiritual focus and their spiritual power. Although human government is divinely ordained by God (Rom. 13:1–7; Titus 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:13), the state is no more to be an instrument of the church’s program than the church is to be an instrument of the state’s.
Like the kingdom of God, the church is “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God” (Rom. 14:17–18).
This great teaching of our Lord only introduces the subject of the church, which from Acts on dominates the rest of the New Testament.
18 And I tell you …: Bernhard Weiss (Das Matthäus-Evangelium [Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1898]) sees a contrast between Jesus and his Father, as if Jesus were saying, “Just as the Father revealed something to you and thereby honored you, so now I do the same.” But the formula is common enough in places without such a contrast, and this may be an unwarranted refinement. The words simply point to what is coming.
that you are Peter …: The underlying Aramaic kêpāʾ, (“Cephas” in Jn 1:42; 1 Co 15:5; Gal 1:18; et al.) was an accepted name in Jesus’ day (see comments at 4:18). Though Ben F. Meyer (pp. 186–87) insists that Jesus gave the name “Cephas” to Simon at this point, Jesus merely made a pun on the name (4:18; 10:2; Mk 3:16; Jn 1:42). Yet Meyer is right to draw attention to the “rock” motifs on which the name Cephas is based (pp. 85–86, 194–95), motifs related to the netherworld and the temple (and so connoting images of “gates of Hades” and “church”; see below). The Greek Kēphas (Eng. “Cephas”) transliterates the Aramaic, and Petros (“Peter”) is the closest Greek translation. P. Lampe’s argument (“Das Spiel mit dem Petrusnamen—Matt. xvi.18,” NTS 25 : 227–45) that both kêpāʾ, and petros originally referred to a small “stone,” but not a “rock” (on which something could be built), until Christians extended the term to explain the riddle of Simon’s name, is baseless. True, petros commonly means “stone” in pre-Christian literature, but the Aramaic kêpāʾ, which underlies the Greek, means “(massive) rock” (cf. H. Clavier, “Πέτρος καὶ πέτρα,” Neutestamentliche Studien [ed. W. Eltester; Berlin: Topelmann, 1957], 101–3).
and on this rock …: “Rock” now becomes petra (feminine), and on the basis of the distinction between petros (above) and petra (here), many have attempted to avoid identifying Peter as the rock on which Jesus builds his church. Peter is a mere “stone,” it is alleged, but Jesus himself is the “rock,” as Peter attests (1 Pe 2:5–8) (so, among others, Lenski, Walvoord). Others adopt some other distinction; e.g., “upon this rock of revealed truth—the truth you have just confessed—I will build my church” (Allen). Yet if it were not for Protestant reactions against extremes of Roman Catholic interpretation, it is doubtful whether many would have taken “rock” to be anything or anyone other than Peter.
- Although it is true that petros and petra can mean “stone” and “rock” respectively in earlier Greek, the distinction is largely confined to poetry. Moreover, the underlying Aramaic in this case is unquestionable, and most probably kêpāʾ was used in both clauses (“you are kêpāʾ, and on this kêpāʾ”), since the word was used both for a name and for a “rock.” The Peshitta (written in Syriac, a language cognate with Aramaic) makes no distinction between the words in the two clauses. The Greek makes the distinction between petros and petra simply because it is trying to preserve the pun, and in Greek the feminine petra could not very well serve as a masculine name. For a full discussion of the linguistic issues, see Chrys C. Caragounis, Peter and the Rock (BZNW 58; Berlin: de Gruyter, 1989), 9–16.
- Paronomasia of various kinds is very common in the Bible and should not be belittled (cf. Barry J. Beitzel, “Exodus 3:14 and the Divine Name: A Case of Biblical Paronomasia,” TJ 1 : 5–20; BDF, para. 488).
- Had Matthew wanted to say no more than that Peter was a stone in contrast with Jesus the Rock, the more common word would have been lithos (“stone” of almost any size). Then there would have been no pun—and that is just the point!
- The objection that Peter considers Jesus the rock is insubstantial because metaphors are commonly used variously, until they become stereotyped, and sometimes even then. Here Jesus builds his church; in 1 Corinthians 3:10, Paul is “an expert builder.” In 1 Corinthians 3:11, Jesus is the church’s foundation; in Ephesians 2:19–20, the apostles and prophets are the foundation (cf. Rev 21:14), and Jesus is the “cornerstone.” Here Peter has the keys; in Revelation 1:18; 3:7, Jesus has the keys. In John 9:5, Jesus is “the light of the world”; in Matthew 5:14, his disciples are. None of these pairs threatens Jesus’ uniqueness. They simply show how metaphors must be interpreted primarily with reference to their immediate contexts.
- In this passage Jesus is the builder of the church, and it would be a strange mixture of metaphors that also sees him within the same clauses as its foundation.
None of this requires that conservative Roman Catholic views be endorsed (for examples of such views, cf. Lagrange, Sabourin). The text says nothing about Peter’s successors, infallibility, or exclusive authority. These late interpretations entail insuperable exegetical and historical problems—e.g., after Peter’s death, his “successor” would have authority over a surviving apostle, John. What the NT does show is that Peter is the first to make this formal confession and that his prominence continues in the earliest years of the church (Ac 1–12). But he, along with John, can be sent by other apostles (Ac 8:14), and he is held accountable for his actions by the Jerusalem church (Ac 11:1–18) and rebuked by Paul (Gal 2:11–14). He is, in short, primus inter pares (“first among equals”), and on the foundation of such men (Eph 2:20), Jesus built his church. That is precisely why Jesus, toward the close of his earthly ministry, spent so much time with them. The honor was not earned but stemmed from divine revelation (v. 17) and Jesus’ building work (v. 18).
I will build my church …: The term ekklēsia (“church,” GK 1711) occurs only here and at 18:17 in the Gospels. Etymologically, it springs from the verb ekkaleō (“call out from”) and refers to those who are “called out”; but usage is far more important than etymology in determining meaning. In the NT, ekklēsia can refer to assemblies of people in a nonreligious setting (Ac 19:39), and once it refers to God’s OT people, the “church” in the desert at the giving of the law (Ac 7:38; cf. Heb 2:12). But in Acts and in the Epistles it usually refers to Christian congregations or to all God’s people redeemed by Christ. Therefore R. Bultmann (“Die Frage nach der Echtheit von Mt 16:17–19,” TBl 20 : 265–79) argues that the use of ekklēsia in Matthew 16:18; 18:17 cannot be authentic. It refers to a practicing group of Christians, a separate community, or a Christian synagogue in contrast to the Jewish synagogues, and is presided over by Peter.
K. L. Schmidt (TDNT, 3:525) suggests that the Aramaic term behind ekklēsia in Matthew is a late term, kenîštāʾ, which could mean either “the people [of God]” or “a [separate] synagogue.” In fact, the strongest linguistic evidence runs in another direction. Whenever ekklēsia in the LXX is translating Hebrew, the Hebrew word is qāhāl (“assembly,” “meeting,” “gathering,” GK 7736), with reference to various kinds of “assemblies” (cf. THAT, 2:610–19), but increasingly used to refer to God’s people, the assembly of Yahweh.
The Hebrew qāhāl has a broad semantic range and is not always rendered ekklēsia; sometimes in the LXX it is translated “synagogue” or “crowd.” “Synagogue” customarily translates an entirely different Hebrew word (ʿēdâ, “corporate congregation,” GK 6337), which the LXX never translates ekklēsia (on these words, see NIDNTT, 1:292–96). Thus ekklēsia (“church”) is entirely appropriate in Matthew 16:18; 18:17, where there is no emphasis on institution, organization, form of worship, or separate synagogue. Even the idea of “building” a people springs from the OT (Ru 4:11; 2 Sa 7:13–14; 1 Ch 17:12–13; Pss 28:5; 118:22; Jer 1:10; 24:6; 31:4; 33:7; Am 9:11). “Jesus’ announcement of his purpose to build his ekklēsia suggests … that the fellowship established by Jesus stands in direct continuity with the Old Testament Israel” (Ladd, Theology of the New Testament, 110), construed as the faithful remnant with the eyes of faith to come to terms with the new revelation. Acknowledged as Messiah, Jesus responds that he will build his ekklēsia, his people, his church—which is classic messianism. “It is hard to know what kind of thinking, other than confessional presupposition, justifies the tendency of some commentators to dismiss this verse as not authentic. A Messiah without a messianic community would have been unthinkable to any Jew” (Albright and Mann, 195).
Implicitly, then, the verse also embraces a claim to messiahship. The “people of Yahweh” become the people of Messiah (cf. 13:41). If the Qumran community thinks of itself as the “people of the covenant,” Jesus speaks of his followers as his people—his church—who come, in time, to see themselves as people of the new covenant established by Messiah’s blood (26:28).
Jesus’ “church” is not the same as his “kingdom” (contra Hill). The two words belong to different concepts, the one to “people” and the other to “rule” or “reign” (see comments at 13:28–30, 36–43). But neither must they be opposed to each other, as if both cannot occupy the same place in time (contra Walvoord). The messianic reign is calling out the messianic people. The kingdom has been inaugurated; the people are being gathered. So far as the kingdom has been inaugurated in advance of its consummation, so far also is Jesus’ church an outpost in history of the final eschatological community. “The implication is inescapable that, in the establishment of the church, there was to be a manifestation of the kingdom or rule of God” (Stonehouse, Witness of Matthew, 235). When the kingdom is consummated, then Messiah’s “assembly” shall also attain the richest blessings Messiah’s reign can give. Nothing, therefore, can eliminate Messiah’s church or prevent it from reaching that consummation.
and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. On Hades, see NIDNTT, 2:206–8; Str-B, 4:1016–29; comments at 5:22; 11:23. The “gates of Hades” have been taken to represent the strength of Satan and his cohorts (since “gates” can refer to “fortifications,” Ge 22:17; Ps 127:5): the church, because Jesus is building it, cannot be defeated by the hosts of darkness. Other scholars focus not on “gates” but on “Hades” and, turning to Revelation 1:18, think this means that death will not prevent Messiah’s people from rising at the last day. But “gates of Hades” or very similar expressions are found in canonical literature (Job 17:16; 38:17; Pss 9:13; 107:18; Isa 38:10), noncanonical Jewish literature (Wis 16:13; 3 Macc 5:51; Pss. Sol. 16:2), and pagan literature (Homer, Il. 9.312; Od. 11.277; Aeschylus, Ag. 1291; Euripides, Hec. 1), and seem to refer to death and dying. Hence the RSV: “The powers of death shall not prevail against it.” Because the church is the assembly of people Jesus Messiah is building, it cannot die. This claim is ridiculous if Jesus is nothing but an overconfident popular preacher in an unimportant vassal state of first-century Rome. It is the basis of all hope for those who see Jesus as the Messiah who builds his people.
18 The Greek phrasing of this declaration, when compared with that of v. 16, conveys a reciprocity which can be rendered in English only by heavy overtranslation. Simon has declared “You are the Messiah,” to which Jesus now responds “And I in my turn have a declaration for you: You are Peter.” Each “naming” also goes on to mention the father (“Son of the living God;” “son of Jonah”). “Messiah” was a title which implied a functional role (though that has not yet been spelled out); now Jesus gives to Simon a “title,” a nickname, which (like the famous renamings in the OT: Abram/Abraham, Sarai/Sarah, Jacob/Israel) also speaks of his future role, and that role is spelled out in vv. 18–19. While Matthew has used the now familiar name “Peter” to designate Simon throughout his narrative (see on v. 16), he has made it clear that Peter was a second, given name (4:18; 10:2), and now is the time to explain it. This new name, Petros, representing the Aramaic Kēphâ, “stone” or “rock,” is otherwise virtually unknown as a personal name in the ancient world, which makes it the more probable that Jesus chose it for Simon with a view to its literal meaning. He is to be a “Rock.”24 And one important function of a rock, as 7:24–27 has reminded us, is to provide a firm foundation for a building. So on this rock Jesus will build his church, and it will be for ever secure.
This is such a bold image that attempts have been to evade its obvious force. One has been to point out that the feminine noun petra, “rock,” differs from the masculine name Petros. This is obviously true, but of questionable relevance. The masculine noun petros occurs infrequently in classical poetic Greek to mean a stone (i.e. a broken piece of rock), though the distinction from petra is not consistently observed. But petros as a common noun is unlikely to have been familiar to Matthew’s readers, as it is not found in the LXX (except twice in 2 Macc) or in the NT and related literature. In these writings the term for a stone is lithos. The Greek reader would therefore see here a difference in form but not in meaning, since petros was not now (if it ever had been) the current term for a “stone.” If Jesus was speaking in Aramaic, there would be no difference at all, with kēphâ occurring in both places. The reason for the different Greek form is simply that Peter, as a man, needs a masculine name, and so the form Petros has been coined. But the flow of the sentence makes it clear that the word-play is intended to identify Peter as the rock.
A second escape-route, beloved especially of those who wish to refute the claims of the Roman Catholic church based on the primacy of Peter as the first pope, is to assert that the foundation rock is not Peter himself, but the faith in Jesus as Messiah which he has just declared. If that was what Jesus intended, he has chosen his words badly, as the word-play points decisively toward Peter, to whom personally he has just given the name, as the rock and there is nothing in his statement to suggest otherwise. Even more bizarre is the supposition that Jesus, having declared Simon to be Petros, then pointed instead to himself when he said the words “this rock.” This would be consonant with subsequent NT language about Jesus as the foundation-stone (see below), but in regard to this passage it is the exegesis of desperation; if such an abrupt change of subject were intended, it would surely require a “but” rather than an “and,” and could hardly be picked up by the reader without some “stage-direction” (as in 9:6) to indicate the new reference.
All such apologetic rewritings of the passage are in any case beside the point, since there is nothing in this passage about any successors to Peter. It is Simon Peter himself, in his historical role, who is the foundation rock. Any link between the personal role of Peter and the subsequent papacy is a matter of later ecclesiology, not of exegesis of this passage.
When the image of a foundation stone is used in relation to the Christian church elsewhere in the NT, that stone is Jesus himself, not Peter, as in 1 Cor 3:10–11 (where Christ is the foundation, and Paul’s apostolic work merely the superstructure) and 1 Peter 2:4–8 (which, if written by Peter himself, is particularly telling!). But Eph 2:20 expands the metaphor to a corporate foundation of “the apostles and prophets,” with Christ as the cornerstone, and in Rev 21:14 the names of the twelve apostles are inscribed on the twelve foundations of the heavenly city. We shall see in 18:18 how the declaration of Peter’s special authority here in v. 19 will be repeated in the plural with reference to the disciples as a whole. And here, as we have noted, Peter is acting as spokesman for the whole group. Yet it is Peter, not the Twelve, who is declared to be the foundation rock. So how does this corporate apostolic foundation relate to a specific foundational role for Peter alone? Matthew has made it clear in 10:2 that Peter comes “first” among the Twelve. Throughout the gospel he is mentioned far more often than any other disciple, and regularly takes the lead. In the early chapters of Acts it is Peter who leads the disciple group in Jerusalem, and it is he who takes the initiative in the key developments which will constitute the church as a new, international body of the people of God through faith in Jesus: note especially his role in the bringing in of Samaritans (Acts 8:14–25) and Gentiles (Acts 10:1–11:18; 15:7–11). By the time James takes over as president of the Jerusalem church, the foundation has been laid. In principle all the apostles constituted the foundation, with Jesus as the cornerstone, but as a matter of historical fact it was on Peter’s leadership that the earliest phase of the church’s development would depend, and that personal role, fulfilling his name “Rock,” is appropriately celebrated by Jesus’ words here.
The metaphors of (foundation) rock and of building go together, and the latter will be used frequently in the NT for the development of the church, often linked with the idea of a new temple to replace the old one in Jerusalem (e.g. Mark 14:58; 1 Cor 3:9–17; Eph 2:19–22; 1 Peter 2:5); the metaphor of a new temple has already been introduced by Matthew in the reference to “something greater than the temple” in 12:6, and will underlie much of the language about the destruction of the temple in ch 24 and the charge that Jesus planned to destroy and rebuild the temple in 26:61; 27:40. But modern English usage, in which “church” often denotes a physical structure, is liable to obscure the way this metaphor works here. When Jesus speaks of “building his church,” the foundation rock and the verb “build” are the solid images on which the metaphor relies, but the word “church” does not contribute to the physical imagery. The Greek term ekklēsia never denotes a physical structure in the NT, but always a community of people. The new temple is not a building of literal stones, but consists of “living stones” (1 Peter 2:5).
Ekklēsia was a common Greek term for an “assembly” of people (political and social as well as religious), but in a Jewish context it would be particularly heard as echoing its frequent LXX use for the “assembly” of the people of God, which thus denotes the national community of Israel. But now Jesus speaks with extraordinary boldness of “my ekklesia”—the unusual Greek word-order draws particular attention to the “my.” The phrase encapsulates that paradoxical combination of continuity and discontinuity which runs through the NT’s understanding of Jesus and his church in relation to Israel. The word is an OT word, one proudly owned by the people of Israel as defining their identity as God’s people. But the coming of Israel’s Messiah will cause that “assembly” to be reconstituted, and the focus of its identity will not be the nation of Israel, but the Messiah himself: it is his assembly. How much of this theology of fulfillment the disciples could have been expected to grasp there at Caesarea Philippi is debatable, but for Matthew and his readers, as members of the Messiah’s ekklēsia, the phrase would aptly sum up their corporate identity as the new, international people of God.
Much is sometimes made of the fact that Matthew, here and in 18:17, is the only NT gospel-writer to use the term ekklēsia; his is therefore often dubbed “the ecclesiastical gospel.” There may be grounds for such a designation on the basis of the gospel’s contents and tone, but not in these two uses of ekklēsia. In using this familiar LXX term to describe the community which will derive from Jesus’ ministry, Matthew is developing an important typological theme of the continuity of the people of God in Old and New Testaments,30 but it conveys nothing of the formal, hierarchical structures which our word “ecclesiastical” now suggests. Indeed, as E. Schweizer has memorably shown, Matthew is remarkably free of evidence of any such formal structure in the Christian community of his time.
“The gates of Hades” is a metaphor for death, which here contrasts strikingly with the phrase “the living God” in v. 16. In the OT the “gates of death” describes the place to which dead people go (Job 38:17; Ps 9:13; 107:18) and in Isa 38:10 the phrase “the gates of Sheol” is used in the same way (cf. also Job 17:16, “the bars of Sheol”). “Hades” is the NT equivalent of Sheol (see on 11:23), and the same Greek phrase as here is used in this sense in LXX Isa 38:10 as also in Wisd 16:13; Ps. Sol. 16:2; 3 Macc 5:51. The “gates” thus represent the imprisoning power of death: death will not be able to imprison and hold the church of the living God. The metaphor, when seen against its OT background, does not therefore encourage the suggestion of some interpreters that “Hades” represents not death but the demonic powers of the underworld, which are then pictured as making an eschatological assault on the church. Still less does it support the romantic imagery, sometimes derived from the traditional but incorrect translation “gates of hell,” of the church as a victorious army storming the citadel of the devil. The imagery is rather of death being unable to swallow up the new community which Jesus is building. It will never be destroyed.35
Jesus’ Response to Peter and the Disciples (16:17–20)
Jesus first addresses Peter alone: all second person pronouns and verbs in Matthew 16:17–19 are singular. His ensuing command to all the disciples (16:20) confirms that Peter spoke as their representative in verse 16. Verses 17–19 are peculiar to Matthew (16:20 has parallels in Mark 8:30 and Luke 9:21); they speak of Peter’s being granted special authority; and they contain one of the two instances of ekklēsia in the gospels (the other comes in Matt. 18:17). Despite doubts that some have therefore raised about these verses, I believe them to be authentic words of Jesus.
- The Father
‘Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” ’ (Matt. 16:17). For the first time in Matthew, Jesus addresses this disciple by name (all prior instances of Simōn and Petros are supplied by the evangelist). Here the name is ‘Simon Bar-Jonah’ (Bariōna); Jesus reserves ‘Peter’ for 16:18. Jesus’ first word to Simon is ‘blessed’—makarios, the adjective that begins each beatitude (5:3–12). Here, as there, makarios signals blessings received from God, not from men (‘flesh and blood’), and blessings presently experienced. In this instance God blesses Simon by revealing to him the truth he declares in 16:16. This text recalls and illustrates 11:25–27, and shows Simon to be one of those little children (11:25). Here, as there, (i) Jesus speaks of God as ‘my Father’ (11:27; 16:17), and as the one who reveals truth (of the four instances of the verb apokalyptō in Matthew, three occur in 11:25, 27; 16:17); and (ii) the subject of the revelation is Jesus, the Father’s only Son (11:25, 27; 16:16). This comparison confirms that 16:16 affirms the deity of Jesus.
- The apostle
Jesus continues to address Simon in 16:18–19: ‘And I [kagō] say to you [soi legō] that you are [sy ei] Petros [Petros], and on this rock [petra] I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not conquer it. I will give to you [soi] the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind [dēsēs] on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose [lysēs] on earth will have been loosed in heaven.’ The emphatic language of the preface—the use of the pronoun egō (‘I,’ here joined to the conjunction kai) together with the verb legō (‘I say’)—expresses the speaker’s great authority; cf. the repeated egō de legō hymin (‘but I say to you’) in 5:21–48. Simon’s strong words to Jesus in 16:16, Sy ei ho Christos, are matched by Jesus’ answering sy el Petros; here too the verb (from eimi) is reinforced by the personal pronoun. Note too that the apokritheis … eipen (‘answered and said’) in verse 16a (of Peter) is duplicated in verse 17a (of Jesus).
The most hotly contested question related to this text is the meaning of ‘this rock’ (Matt. 16:18). Is Jesus referring to: (i) his Father, (ii) himself, (iii) his teaching, (iv) Peter’s confession, or (v) Peter himself? In my judgment, the fifth view is the most likely, for the following reasons: a. The phrase epi tautē tē petra, ‘on this rock,’ is immediately preceded by the words sy ei Petros, a direct and emphatic reference to Peter himself (as noted above). Moreover, the demonstrative pronoun houtos (‘this’)—here as the dative feminine singular tautē—can accentuate an object in the spatial or temporal vicinity of a speaker or in the literary vicinity of a writer. On both counts petra more naturally points to Peter than to the more remote confession of verse 16 or to the far more remote instance of petra in 7:24–25. b. The link between sy ei Petros and epi tautē tē petra is strengthened by a play on words, or paronomasia, a practice long popular among Jewish teachers. In Jesus’ Aramaic speech (represented by Bariōna, 16:17), the connection between petra and Petros would have been yet closer if, as is probable, kēphâ’ stood behind both terms. In John 1:42 (that gospel’s closest parallel to Matt. 16:18a) ‘Jesus looked at him and said, “You are [Sy ei] Simon the son of John; you [sy] shall be called Cephas [Kēphas],” which is translated Peter [Petros].’ Matthew’s Greek makes the appropriate distinction between the masculine Petros (for the man) and the feminine petra (for ‘rock’ or ‘crag’) without losing the play on words—as would happen if the phrase were epi toutō tō lithō, ‘on this stone’ (cf. 1 Peter 2:8, where lithos and petra are parallel), or epi soi (‘on you’).
If there is good reason to believe that Jesus identifies Peter himself as ‘this rock,’ there are also safeguards against using this evidence erroneously. For Jesus is addressing Peter in a particular capacity, namely as one who possesses apostolic authority and bears apostolic witness. Matthew has twice spoken of him as ‘Simon who is called Peter’ (Simōn ho legomenos Petros, 4:18; 10:2). Significantly, in both passages, Peter’s apostolic calling is in view (4:19; 10:1, 5 et seq.), and in both he is the first apostle-designate to be named (before the other three in 4:18–22; before the other eleven in 10:2–4). Here, in 16:18, Jesus confers the name Petros on Simon as a mark of his apostolic calling. It is as apostle-in-training that Peter utters the confession of 16:16; and it is as the confessor that he is termed ‘this rock’ by Jesus the Lord. Moreover, just as Jesus here addresses Peter as representative of the disciples (see comments on v. 15), so in 18:18 he confers on all the disciples the authority promised Peter individually in 16:19. Within the circle of the twelve, Peter is primus inter pares (‘first among equals’).
Having chosen the metaphor of a rock (petra) for Peter himself, Jesus uses that of keys (kleidas) for the apostle’s exercise of authority (Matt. 16:19). The basic intent of this imagery is clear from a later saying of Jesus: he, the risen One, has ‘the key [kleis] of David’; so when he opens no one will shut, and when he shuts no one opens (Rev. 3:7; cf. 1:18; Isa. 22:22). Jesus says Peter will use the keys to ‘bind’ (the verb deō) and to ‘loose’ (the verb lyō). Behind deō stands the Hebrew ‘âsar and the Aramaic ‘asar; and behind lyō, the Hebrew hitîr and the Aramaic šerâ’. In rabbinic usage, ‘to bind’ was ‘to forbid,’ and ‘to loose’ was ‘to permit.’ Since Jesus grants Peter ‘the keys of the kingdom of heaven [tēs basileias tōn ouranōn],’ ‘binding’ will mean barring from the kingdom persons who reject the apostolic witness to Jesus, and ‘loosing’ will mean granting entry to those who embrace that witness. (By contrast, Jewish scholars of the day ‘shut [kleiete] the kingdom of heaven to people’ (23:13) by taking away ‘the key [kleida] of knowledge,’ Luke 11:52.)
In Matthew 18:18, Jesus extends the principle to judgments about persons in the church, ‘binding’ being a brother’s excommunication (18:17) and ‘loosing’ his exoneration (18:15; see those comments). Jesus’ words to the disciples in John 20:23 recall both those texts and apply to judgments about persons both within and beyond the church: ‘If you forgive [the verb aphiēmi] the sins of any, their sins are forgiven; if you retain [the verb krateō] the sins of any, their sins are retained.’ Aphiēmi, which can mean ‘let go,’ corresponds to lyō (‘loose’) in Matt. 16:19 and 18:18; krateō, which can mean ‘hold,’ corresponds to deō (‘bind’). The basis for all those judgments is truth revealed by the Father and the Son in the indicatives of the gospel and the imperatives of the law.
- The Son
The commanding figure in this passage is not Simon Peter, but Jesus the Messiah—which is to be expected after the confession of 16:16. All four verses (16:17–20) consist of his authoritative utterances, and all four witness to his supremacy.
Verse 17. ‘Blessed are you’—Makarios ei—says Jesus: Peter is ‘blessed’ because Jesus declares him to be; the utterance achieves what it declares. Moreover, in speaking of ‘my Father’ (ho patēr mou), Jesus both underscores the truth of Peter’s confession (‘you are … the Son of the living God’) and identifies himself as the one best qualified to recognize the Father’s disclosures about the Son.
Verse 18. This text testifies in three ways to the sovereignty of the Son: a. Master of the apostle. Here, as at the beginning (Matt. 4:18–22), it is Jesus who governs what Peter is to be and to do. Jesus, not Simon, chooses the names Petros and petra. Peter does not confer apostolic authority upon himself but receives it from Jesus (cf. 10:1–2). b. Master of the church. Jesus says, ‘I will build [oikodomēsō] my church [mou tēn ekklēsian]’ (16:18b). The church belongs to him (mou), not to Peter. And it is not Peter, but Jesus, who will build his church (the verb oikodomeō), drawing people from all nations into it. To that end, he commissions Peter and others to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom universally, a mission that advances and succeeds by virtue of the Son’s universal authority. The term ‘my church’ does not imply there was no OT ekklēsia, but reflects Jesus’ mission to reconstitute the people of God around his own person, as already evident from his choice of twelve apostles (10:2). The verb oikodomēsō is a true future: the commencement of the project awaits the death and resurrection of Jesus, the great commission, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. c. Master of Hades. ‘And the gates of Hades [pylai hadou] will not conquer it [ou katischysousin autēs]’ (Matt. 16:18c). ‘The gates of Hades’ is a synecdoche for hadēs itself. On the one hand, hadēs stands for the evil powers that dwell there—Satan and his demons—just as ekklēsia stands for Jesus and his people. On the other hand, hadēs denotes the realm of the dead: in the OT ‘gates of Sheol’ (MT še’ ōl; LXX hadēs) and ‘gates of death’ (MT mâwet; LXX thanatos) are equivalent expressions. The two concepts are joined in 16:18. In response to the advance of God’s rule (4:17), the infernal powers will assail the church ruthlessly and relentlessly; by their human agents they will oppose and pervert its teachings, and with the aid of death (thanatos) they will persecute and murder its people (cf. 10:16–39; 24:4–14). The intent is to bring the church under Satan’s tyranny and thereby to kill it. But that attempt will fail, says Jesus; those powers will not prevail. The gates of death ‘will never close on the new community so that it is irretrievably extinguished.’49 For Messiah who rules and builds the church will never allow it to be eradicated; the church will still be alive at his return (10:23). Then the Messiah-King, who possesses universal authority (28:18) and thus holds the keys to death and Hades (Rev. 1:18), will consign the devil and his angels to Hell’s eternal fire (Matt. 25:41) and will liberate all his people, including those martyred for their faith, from death’s prison (cf. 10:28).
With respect to Peter, the church and Hades (a.–c.), victory depends on Messiah’s power and perseverance. The NT repeatedly attests to Peter’s sins and failures, and to Jesus’ restorative grace. The church’s ‘living stones’ so readily separate themselves from each other that the edifice would surely collapse were its owner and builder not holding it together. Given its innumerable divisions, the church could never unite against the powers of Hades were it not for its commander-in-chief; and his people would forever remain in thrall to death, were he not to use those keys on their behalf.
Verse 19. Peter uses this other set of keys by authority from Jesus: ‘I will give [dōsō, from didōmi] to you.…’ so ‘whatever you bind on earth will have been bound [estai dedemenon] in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed [estai lelymenon] in heaven.’ Decisions made on earth by Peter, with the other apostles (Matt. 18:18) and their successors, will reveal and ratify the prior decisions of heaven—i.e., of God the Father (16:17) and his exalted Son (28:18). The true apostolic succession consists in the church’s faithful preservation and propagation of the apostolic word, with the rest of the biblical revelation (cf. Acts 2:41–42; 6:2, 4; 2 Tim. 3:15–4:2); this is Messiah’s chosen way of building his church (Matt. 24:14; 28:20). ‘The keys of the kingdom’ are still employed by church leaders who are committed to biblical truth and who—precisely on that basis—make judgments about persons beyond and within the church. The NT offers no support for the ideas that Peter (a married man, 8:14; 1 Cor. 9:5) was the first bishop of Rome, and that the apostolic succession is realized in the history of the papacy.
Verse 20. ‘Then he ordered [diesteilato] the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.’ This statement confirms that Peter spoke on behalf of the other disciples; that all of them are under Jesus’ command (the verb diastellomai); and that the Son who recognized the truth and the source of Peter’s confession (16:16–17) also perceives his and the other apostles’—and the people’s—defective view of Messiahship. The following verses will make plainer why Jesus gave this order, and how he addressed this misunderstanding.
16:18 you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church. Matthew highlights a wordplay as Jesus gives Simon the name “Peter” (petros) and references “this rock” (petra). Much attention has focused on whether Jesus promises to build his church upon Peter himself (a Roman Catholic view) or upon Peter’s confession (the typical Protestant perspective). If the confession is in view, it is still the case that there is a certain authority given to Peter in the subsequent words of Jesus (16:19). Alternately, if Peter is “the rock” upon which Jesus’ church will be built, the same authority given to him in 16:19 is broadened at 18:18–19 to include at least the Twelve, and, more likely, the entire church. In all the Gospels, reference to the “church” (ekklēsia) occurs only here and in 18:17 (see comments there).
the gates of Hades will not overcome it. The picture that Jesus draws is of the church having the strength to withstand the power of death. For Hades as the realm of the dead, see comments on 11:23.
Jesus continues: 18. And I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.… The interpretation of this passage varies widely. As I see it, the first three of the following views must be rejected, the fourth one appreciated, the fifth adopted:
- The passage is unauthentic. It must have been inserted or interpolated, “eingeschoben” (W. Soltau), at a later time. It was written, perhaps, to enhance the authority of Peter. It is hard to believe that Jesus himself ever spoke these words. Neither Mark nor Luke has them.
Answer. Since the passage is found in the best and earliest manuscripts as well as in those of later date it cannot be dismissed so lightly. Was it not natural for Jesus, with the cross so near, to have made predictions and issued orders concerning the future of the church? As to Mark’s omission of the praise which Jesus bestows upon Peter because of the latter’s confession, it should be borne in mind that Mark was, according to reliable tradition, “Peter’s interpreter,” and that it is reasonable to suppose that Peter, the fiery post-resurrection preacher, who had become a humble man, in telling the story of Jesus downgraded his own contribution to the memorable event described in 16:13–20. So his interpreter, Mark, does the same. And Luke, as so often, follows Mark’s account.
- This passage (especially 16:17–19) proves that Peter was the first pope. “The pope is crowned with a triple crown, as king of heaven, of earth, and of hell.” He wields “the two swords, the spiritual and the temporal.” “The Catholic Church teaches that our Lord conferred on St. Peter the first place of honor and jurisdiction in the government of his whole church, and that same spiritual authority has always resided in the popes, or bishops of Rome, as being the successors of St. Peter. Consequently, to be true followers of Christ all Christians, both among the clergy and laity, must be in communion with the See of Rome, where Peter rules in the person of his successor.”604
Answer. The passage does not support any such bestowal of well-nigh absolute authority on a mere man or on his successors.
- The expression this rock “does not signify the apostle Peter,” since “Jesus had already finished with Peter.”
Answer. Throughout verses 17–19 Jesus is addressing someone whom he indicates by using the second person singular personal pronoun. The phrase “to you” (Greek σοί) occurs once in each of these three verses, in harmony with the pronoun “you” (σύ) in verse 18 (“You are Peter”), and with the use of the second person singular form of the verbs in the statements: “You are blessed” (verse 17), “you are Peter” (verse 18), and “you shall bind … you shall loose” (verse 19). According to verse 17 that person is “Simon Bar-Jonah”; according to verse 18, “Peter.” It is natural to assume that the subject of “you shall bind” and “you shall loose” (verse 19) is still Peter. It is hard to believe, therefore, that when Jesus said, “And upon this rock I will build my church” (verse 18) he “had already finished with Peter.”
- Jesus purposely uses two Greek words which, though not identical, are closely related in meaning. What he said was, “You are petros, and upon this petra I will build my church,” meaning, “You are a rock, and upon the rocky ledge (or: cliff) of the Christ, ‘the Son of God the living’ who was revealed to you and whom you confessed, I will build my church.” If Jesus had intended to convey the thought that he was going to build his church on Peter he would have said, “and on you I will build my church.” When it is argued that the Lord spoke these words in Aramaic and that in that language the two words petros and petra were the same, the answer is that we do not know enough about Aramaic to make this assertion. We have the inspired Greek text and we must be guided by that.
Evaluation. The argument sounds rather convincing and, in fact, as I see it, has some merit. Granted that Jesus generally addressed his audiences in Aramaic, it still cannot be proved incontrovertibly that in that language petros and petra were represented by one and the same word. It is also true that in certain contexts petra may differ in meaning from petros. What I like especially about the theory is this, that those who advocate it are deeply concerned about the danger that the man Peter or even his confession, viewed apart from God’s revelation, shall be considered the rock upon which the church is built.
My inability to accept the theory in its entirety is based on the following:
- On the basis of what is known about Aramaic it must be regarded as very probable that the same word was used in both cases. The question will be asked, “Then why not the same word in Greek?” Answer: for the simple reason that petra, the common word for stone or rock, being feminine, had to be changed to a masculine—hence to petros—to indicate the name of a male person, Peter. As to petros and petra differing in meaning, this is not always true. A very frequent meaning of petra is rock or stone. It does not always mean “rocky ground,” “rocky ledge,” or “rocky cliff.” See the entries petra, petros in L.N.T. (A. and G.), p. 660.
- Even in Greek, regardless of whether one translates petra as rock or as rocky ledge Jesus is saying, “You are Rock and on THIS rock—or rocky ledge—I will build my church.” The word THIS makes reference to anything else than the immediately preceding petros very unnatural. In the sentence, “You are Margaret [meaning pearl] and on this pearl I am about to bestow a favor,” it would be very difficult to interpret “this pearl” in any other sense than as referring to Margaret, even though the word “pearl” has more meanings than one. It indicates a gem but can also refer to a kind of printer’s type. It would be rather unnatural to conclude that “this pearl” had reference to something that someone had said to Margaret or had shown her, or to something she had just said.
- The meaning is, You are Peter, that is, Rock, and upon this rock, that is, on you, Peter, I will build my church. Our Lord, speaking Aramaic, probably said, “And I say to you, you are Kepha’, and on this kepha’ I will build my church.” Jesus, then, is promising Peter that he is going to build his church on him! I accept this view.
Having said this, it is necessary to qualify this interpretation as follows. Jesus promises to build his church:
- Not on Cephas as he was by nature but on him considered as a product of grace. By nature this man was, in a sense, a weakling, very unstable, as has been indicated; see p. 602. By grace he became a most courageous, enthusiastic, and effective witness of the truth which the Father had revealed to him with respect to Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God. It was in that sense that Jesus used Peter in building—gathering and strengthening—his church.
- Not on Cephas considered all by himself, but on Cephas as “first (Matt. 10:2) among equals,” that is, on “Peter taking his stand with the eleven” (Acts 2:14). The authority which in 16:19 is entrusted to Peter is in 18:18 given to The Twelve (see also John 20:23). In fact, in the exercise of this authority the local congregation must not be ignored (18:17).
When the Lord spoke the words recorded here in 16:18, 19 he certainly did not mean that Peter could now begin to “lord it” over the other disciples. The others did not understand it in that way (18:1; 20:20–24), and Jesus definitely rejected any such interpretation (20:25–28; cf. Luke 22:24–30). If Peter himself had conceived of his own authority or that of others as being that of a dictator, how could he have written the beautiful passage 1 Peter 5:3?
- Not on Cephas as the primary foundation. In the primary or basic sense of the term there is only one foundation, and that foundation is not Peter but Jesus Christ himself (1 Cor. 3:11). But in a secondary sense it is entirely legitimate to speak of the apostles, including Peter, as the church’s foundation, for these men were always pointing away from themselves to Jesus Christ as the one and only Savior. Striking examples of this are found in Acts 3:12 and 4:12. In that secondary sense Scripture itself refers to the apostles as the church’s foundation (Eph. 2:20; Rev. 21:14).
In this connection emphasis should also be placed on the fact that in the passage now under consideration Jesus speaks of himself—not of Peter—as the Builder and Owner of the church. He says, “I will build my church.”
The figure of a building to represent the church is found also in such passages as 1 Cor. 3:9; Eph. 2:21, 22; 1 Peter 2:4, 5. Little by little the building goes up. It increases in strength, beauty, and usefulness, its members being considered “living stones.” In building his church Jesus makes use of Peter and of the other apostles. In fact, he makes use of all the living members of the church to accomplish this purpose.
The expression “my church” refers, of course, to the church universal, here especially to the entire “body of Christ” or “sum-total of all believers” in its New Testament manifestation, wherever it is truly represented on earth (cf. Acts 9:31; 1 Cor. 6:4; 12:28; Eph. 1:22, 3:10, 21; 5:22–33; Col. 1:18; Phil. 3:6). It is a great comfort that Jesus considers this church “his very own.” Did he not come from heaven in order to purchase his church “with his own blood” (Acts 20:28)?
The history of the early church as recorded in the first twelve chapters of the book of Acts abundantly proves that Christ’s prophecy regarding Peter was fulfilled. Or, phrasing it differently, it confirms the given interpretation.
In that large section of Acts the name of Peter occurs more than fifty times. Here it is found everywhere except in chapters 6 and 7, which contain the story of Stephen. Let me stress once again that I am not referring to Peter as he was in himself, nor to that apostle acting all by himself, but to him as Christ’s instrument for the establishment of his church in its New Testament manifestation, and taking his stand as one of The Twelve.
During that very early period (before Paul comes mightily to the fore, in Acts 13–28) Peter was the most powerful and effective human link between Jesus and the church, the most influential means of the latter’s inward and outward growth.
It was Peter who preached the sermon on Pentecost, as a result of which no less than three thousand people were converted (Acts 2:41). It was again through the testimony of Peter and John (3:11; 4:1), chiefly of Peter (3:12), that two thousand were subsequently added to the membership (4:4). Other events in which Peter took a leading part were: the election of Matthias to take the place of Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:15–22), the healing of the lame begger (Acts 3:4–6), and the heroic proclamation of Jesus Christ before the Sanhedrin (4:8–12, 29). See also 5:15; 8:20; and chapters 9 and 10.
It has been pointed out earlier that in every listing of The Twelve Peter’s name occurs first of all.
Besides, according to reliable tradition, was not Mark “Peter’s interpreter”? And was not Mark’s Gospel, in turn, one of the main sources used by Matthew and Luke in writing their Gospels?
Add Peter’s epistles, in which he so beautifully sets forth the meaning of Christ’s life and death (see especially 1 Peter 2:21–25). Christ’s prophecy was fulfilled in the labors of Peter. The One whom Peter describes as “the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls” (1 Peter 2:25), “the Chief Shepherd” (1 Peter 5:4) had said to this apostle, “Feed my lambs,” “Shepherd my sheep,” “Feed my dear sheep” (John 21:15, 16, 17). That there were also sheep that did not belong to the Jewish fold (John 10:16) was going to be vividly impressed upon Peter (Acts 10:9–16, 34–48; 11:17, 18). Though in the life of this apostle there was a momentary, sad departure from the implications of the great principle “that they all may be one” (John 17:21), there is every reason to believe that Peter took Paul’s reprimand to heart (see N.T.C. on Gal. 2:11–21). He labored on faithfully until at last the Lord delivered him—according to John 21:18, 19 and early tradition (I Clement, chap. 5) by means of martyrdom—from this earthly scene and bestowed upon him the promised inheritance (1 Peter 1:4). Christ’s prophecy, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” had been amply fulfilled by means of his witness-bearing.
Continued: and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it. For the argument showing that in the Gospels “Hades” means “hell” see on 11:23, 24. Besides, those who favor the meaning “the realm of the dead” experience great difficulty in their attempt to show in what sense the gates of that realm are striving to overpower the church, and are failing in their assault. When Hades is interpreted as indicating “hell” the assurance given here by the Lord can be readily understood. “Gates of hell,” by metonymy represents Satan and his legions as it were storming out of hell’s gates in order to attack and destroy the church. What we have here is an oft-repeated promise of the victory of Christ’s church over the forces of evil. See John 16:33; Rom. 16:20; Eph. 6:10–13; Rev. 12:13–16; 17:14; 20:7–10.
Misuse is often made of this passage, as if Jesus meant, “Do not be concerned about the doctrinal purity of the denomination or congregation to which you belong. Have I not promised to see to it that the gates of hell shall never prevail against the church?” As if Jesus promised that this or that particular denomination or local congregation would never lose its doctrinal purity! The real meaning of “church” as here used has already been indicated. Jesus promised that he would always cause his people to triumph over the devil and his army. This promise is given not to lukewarm Laodiceans but to “Christian soldiers.” In the midst of the battle their consolation is:
Crowns and thrones may perish,
Kingdoms rise and wane,
But the Church of Jesus
Constant will remain;
Gates of hell can never
‘Gainst that Church prevail;
We have Christ’s own promise,
And that cannot fail.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Vol. 3, pp. 25–34). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, pp. 418–421). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 France, R. T. (2007). The Gospel of Matthew (pp. 620–625). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co.
 Chamblin, J. K. (2010). Matthew: A Mentor Commentary (pp. 818–827). Ross-shire, Great Britain: Mentor.
 Brown, J. K. (2015). Matthew. (M. L. Strauss & J. H. Walton, Eds.) (p. 186). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (Vol. 9, pp. 645–650). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.