Title: The confession of Peter
Scriptures to Read: Mark 8:27–30; Matthew 16:13–20; Luke 9:18–21
Now we come to another milestone in Jesus’ ministry. Its exam time for the apostles, and we will see His questions and their answers, and what He says to them as a result. And this section will illustrate the partial sight of the disciples that was illustrated by the two-stage healing of the blind man in the last section.
Before we continue it will be helpful to take note of the context in which this conversation occurs. And there are two elements of context that are essential to our understanding of what Jesus says here. One is about the geography of where this event takes place, and the other is about some Greek words that are used here.
The first thing to notice is that this event takes place in Caesarea Philippi (Matthew 16:13). This is not in Jewish territory but in Herod Philip’s Gentile territory, north of the Sea of Galilee. Caesarea is also at the foot of Mt Hermon, the highest peak, at 9,166 feet, in the holy land. Caesarea is built at the base of a massive cliff rock at the southern edge of Mt. Hermon. The town was built from this cliff and outward. At the base of the cliff rock is a cave that you can still see today. A river used to pour out of the cave, but an earthquake about 100 years ago changed it course. Today the river is called Banyas. It is one of the four sources that make up the Jordon River. In Jesus’ day the river used to gush out from this cave, but now it comes out to the right of it. And as it shoots out it breaks off little stones and pebbles, and as you look down at the stream it is full of little stones and pebbles that were broken off from the cliff rock where it came out.
Petra and Petros
The second thing that will be important to our understanding of what Jesus says concerns the Greek words that He will use, or that Matthew will use to record what He says. The Greek word for huge cliff-rock is “petra”. The Greek word for small stone or “pebble” is “petros.” We’ll need to be aware both of these Greek words and the geography of Caesarea Philippi as we listen to Jesus talking to Peter.
Exam time: Two important questions
Now Jesus has been teaching His disciples for a period of time, including the warning against three types of leaven which we saw in the previous section. Now it is exam time. Can they pass the test? In this examination Jesus asked them two questions. The first question is: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They answered that there was no single opinion about the Person of Jesus, but among the masses there were different opinions.
a. Some believed that Yeshua was John the Baptist, resurrected from the dead.
b. Others believed He was Elijah, the one who was to come according to Malachi 4:5-6.
c. A third opinion was that Jesus was Jeremiah the Prophet.
d. Fourthly, still others believed that He was one of the prophets, perhaps Isaiah or Ezekiel.
So concerning the first question of this examination, people generally felt that Jesus had supernatural authority and must therefore be a special Person, but they all guessed wrong in that they did not discern Him to be the Messiah Himself. This leads to the second question. He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” In the Greek it is more emphatic, and it reads: “but you, who do you say that I am.” Peter spoke for the disciples and answered the second question correctly. Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The Greek is much more emphatic here also. The Greek literally reads: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the God, the Living One!” The disciples concluded the correct answer; they passed the examination; they learned their lessons. They knew Jesus to be not merely a supernatural character; they knew Him to be the Messiah Himself.
The Response of Jesus
Since they have passed the test, Jesus now tells Peter five things.
a. The Source of Peter’s Knowledge (Matt. 16:17)
This is His first point: what Peter understood was a result of divine illumination, not something he learned from mere human reasoning.
b. The Rock and the Church (Matt. 16:18a)
As we look for the meaning of this statement, remember three things.
1. Remember where it was made and what they were looking at as He spoke. They were standing at the base of a huge cliff-rock, out of which there flowed a stream of water that broke small stones from the cliff-rock, and these stones could be seen in the bed of the stream.
2. In Greek, which Matthew was writing, the stones are called petros, and the rock from which they were broken is called petra.
3. Remember why Jesus was saying it. Peter had just passed Jesus’ exam question with flying colours by saying: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the God, the Living One!”
So Jesus said to Peter: “You are Petros (a small stone), and upon this Petra (this huge rock) I will build My church.” Now, what do you think Jesus meant when He said that? In the stream in front of them are small stones broken off from the huge cliff rock. Peter, He says, is a small stone broken from a particular huge rock – not any rock, but “this rock.” Peter’s statement is still the object in view. This rock in this sentence, and this, which was revealed by the Father, in the previous sentence both refer to the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the God, the Living One. Why does Jesus use this illustration to describe Peter? Jesus describes him as a small stone broken from this huge rock because the Father has revealed Jesus’ Messiahship to him and he has believed it. The rock is the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, and Peter’s belief that Jesus is the Messiah makes him a small stone chipped from that rock. Then He adds that this fact, this rock, is the foundation upon which He will build His church.
This use of rock as a symbol is consistent with its use throughout the Scriptures. Whenever rock is used symbolically in the Scripture, it is always a symbol of the Messiah. So the church is to be built, not upon Peter as some suppose, but upon the Messiah. And even more specifically, it is to be built upon what Peter has just said about the Messiah: You are the Messiah, the Son of the God, the living one.
An incorrect interpretation
Catholicism uses this verse to teach that the church was built upon Peter, and they conclude that Peter was the first Pope. And by means of Papal succession all of the popes were the true representatives of God, having received authority from pope to pope all the way from Peter. As a result, they say that the Roman Catholic Church is the only true church. When they define this to be the meaning of verse 18, they are implying that Matthew, who wrote of the event, did not know some very simple rules of Greek grammar, which anyone in Greek 101 would quickly learn. “Petros” is a masculine noun, and “Petra” is a feminine noun, and the simple rules of Greek grammar are that a masculine modifies a masculine and a feminine modifies a feminine, and a neuter modifies a neuter. What you cannot have in Greek grammar is a feminine modifying a masculine or vise versa. That is not the way Greek grammar works. So grammatically it cannot possibly mean that the church is being built upon Peter. Now Jesus was not speaking Greek at the time but Hebrew. And exactly the same rule applies in the Hebrew grammar.
Meaning of Jesus statement
Jesus is contrasting Peter with Peter’s own statement. Peter you are a small stone like the ones in this stream, but upon the massive cliff rock out of which you are cut, I will build my church. I will build My church upon the statement you have just made about My Messiahship. So the church is going to be built on the foundation of the Messiahship of Jesus.
c. The Gates of Hell (Matt. 16:18b)
The expression “gates of Hades” refers to physical death. This is clearly what it means in places such as Job 38:17; Psalm 9:13; 107:18; Isaiah 38:10; and Jonah 2:6, where it is translated as “gates of death.” Physical death itself will not be able to defeat His building of the Church. When Jesus died it may have appeared that His program for the church was a failure, but it was by His very death, followed by His resurrection, that the foundation of the Church was laid. His death and resurrection proved His Messiahship, thus establishing Him as that massive rock that serves as the chief cornerstone of the foundation itself.
Will build my church
Notice He did not say, “I am building My Church,” as though the process were already started. He used a future tense, “I will build my church.” It was future, it had not yet begun. In fact, the Church only began to be built in Acts 2. (This contradicts the Covenant or Replacement theology teaching that the church has existed since Adam and therefore the true church was always the true Israel, and not ethnic physical Israel.) Jesus’ death and resurrection is the foundation upon which the Church is built. The death of Jesus did not prevail against the Church, but rather it laid the foundation for it.
d. The Keys of the Kingdom (Matt. 16:19a)
It is this statement that has originated all the stories, cartoons, and jokes about Peter’s standing at the “Pearly Gates,” determining who would or would not be allowed to enter into Heaven. However, that is not the meaning of this passage. Peter does not have the authority to decide who will or who will not enter into Heaven. On the contrary, that decision is made upon the basis of the acceptance or rejection of Jesus. What are keys used for? The purpose of the keys is to open and close doors. The emphasis here is on the opening of the door. In this context, it is the opening of the door of the Church (v. 18). Peter was given “the keys of the kingdom,” that is, the keys of the mystery kingdom or the Church. He was to open the door to three groups of people living in his day: the Jews, the Samaritans, and the Gentiles. It was Peter’s responsibility to open the door to each one of these groups. And once he opened the door to that particular group, it stayed open for that group. Peter used the keys to open the door for all three groups in the Book of Acts.
1. First, the door was opened to the Jews (Acts 2)
2. Next, he opened the door for the Samaritans (Acts 8).
What is interesting is that the first one to preach the gospel to the Samaritans was not Peter, but Philip. Although Philip preached the gospel, and although many of the Samaritans believed it and were baptized by water, none of them were baptized by the Spirit. Thus none of them were able to enter into the Church. The problem was not that they were not spiritual enough. Far from it! Rather, the problem was that, even though Philip preached the gospel, he did not have the keys. Later, the Jerusalem Church sent Peter to Samaria and, by the laying on of hands by the Apostle Peter, the Samaritans were baptized by the Holy Spirit and able to enter into the Body of the Messiah. From then on, the door stayed open for the Samaritans.
3. Finally, the door was opened for the Gentiles (Acts 10).
e. Binding and Loosing (Matt. 16:19b)
At this point, Peter was given the right to bind and to loose, though later it was given to the other apostles as well. What do the terms “bind” and “loose” mean? Notice that in this context, it has nothing to do with the binding or the loosing of Satan, as some are in the habit of doing today. In a legislative sense, to bind meant “to forbid something,” and to loose meant, “to permit something.” The Pharisees took upon themselves this authority. They claimed to have the authority to permit that which the Law may have forbidden and to forbid that which the Law may have permitted.
Policy of silence
Now read verse 20 of Matthew’s account. Then He warned the disciples that they should tell no one that He was the Christ. They are forbidden to proclaim His Messianic claims at this time. The confession of Peter and the response of Jesus prepared the way for the establishment of the Church and the recording of New Testament Scriptures through apostolic authority.
This section shows that the disciples do have partial sight. They understand that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the God, the Living One. The next section will show that they are also partially blind, and their understanding was incomplete at this time.