Matthew 16:17-19

THE GREAT PROMISE

Matt. 16:17-19

Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, because flesh and blood has not revealed this unto you, but my Father who is in Heaven. And I tell you, that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven; and whatever you bind on earth will remain bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth will remain loosed in heaven.”

This passage is one of the storm-centres of New Testament interpretation. It has always been difficult to approach it calmly and without prejudice, for it is the Roman Catholic foundation of the position of the Pope and of the Church. It is taken by the Roman Catholic Church to mean that to Peter were given the keys which admit or exclude a man from heaven, and that to Peter was given the power to absolve or not to absolve a man from his sins. It is further argued by the Roman Catholic Church that Peter, with these tremendous rights, became the bishop of Rome; and that this power descended to all the bishops of Rome; and that it exists today in the Pope, who is the head of the Church and the Bishop of Rome.

It is easy to see how impossible any such doctrine is for a Protestant believer; and it is also easy to see how Protestant and Roman Catholic alike may approach this passage, not with the single-hearted desire to discover its meaning, but with the determination to yield nothing of his own position, and, if possible, to destroy the position of the other. Let us then try to find its true meaning.

There is a play on words. In Greek Peter is Petros (GSN4074) and a rock is petra (GSN4073). Peter’s Aramaic name was Kephas (HSN3710), and that also is the Aramaic for a rock. In either language there is here a play upon words. Immediately Peter had made his great discovery and confession, Jesus said to him: “You are petros (GSN4074), and on this petra (GSN4073) I will build my Church.”

Whatever else this is, it is a word of tremendous praise. It is a metaphor which is by no means strange or unusual to Jewish thought.

The Rabbis applied the word rock to Abraham. They had a saying: “When the Holy One saw Abraham who was going to arise, he said, `Lo, I have discovered a rock (petra, GSN4073) to found the world upon.’ Therefore he called Abraham rock (tsuwr, HSN6697), as it is said: `Look unto the rock whence ye are hewn.'” Abraham was the rock on which the nation and the purpose of God were founded.

Even more the word rock (tsuwr, HSN6697) is again and again applied to God himself. “He is the Rock; his work is perfect” (Deut.32:4). “For their rock is not as our Rock” (Deut.32:31). “There is no rock like our God” (1Sam.2:2). “The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer” (2Sam.22:2). The same phrase occurs in Ps.18:2. “Who is a rock, except our God?” (Ps.18:31). The same phrase is in 2Sam.22:32.

One thing is clear. To call anyone a rock was the greatest of compliments; and no Jew who knew his Old Testament could ever use the phrase without his thoughts turning to God, who alone was the true rock of his defence and salvation. What then did Jesus mean when in this passage he used the word rock? To that question at least four answers have been given.

(i) Augustine took the rock to mean Jesus himself. It is as if Jesus said: “You are Peter; and on myself as rock I win found my Church; and the day will come when, as the reward of your faith, you will be great in the Church.”

(ii) The second explanation is that the rock is the truth that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God. To Peter that great truth had been divinely revealed. The fact that Jesus Christ is the Son of God is indeed the foundation stone of the Church’s faith and belief, but it hardly seems to bring out the play on words which is here.

(iii) The third explanation is that the rock is Peter’s faith. On the faith of Peter the Church is founded. That faith was the spark which was to kindle the faith of the world-wide Church. It was the initial impetus which was one day to bring the universal Church into being.

(iv) The last interpretation is still the best. It is that Peter himself is the rock, but in a special sense. He is not the rock on which the Church is founded; that rock is God. He is the first stone of the whole Church. Peter was the first man on earth to discover who Jesus was; he was the first man to make the leap of faith and see in him the Son of the living God. In other words, Peter was the first member of the Church, and, in that sense, the whole Church is built on him. It is as if Jesus said to Peter: “Peter, you are the first man to grasp who I am; you are therefore the first stone, the foundation stone, the very beginning of the Church which I am founding.” And in ages to come, everyone who makes the same discovery as Peter is another stone added into the edifice of the Church of Christ.

Two things help to make this clear.

(i) Often the Bible uses pictures for the sake of one definite point. The details of the picture are not to be stressed; it is one point which is being made. In connection with the Church the New Testament repeatedly uses the picture of building, but it uses that picture for many purposes and from many points of view. Here Peter is the foundation, in the sense that he is the one person on whom the whole Church is built, for he was the first man to discover who Jesus was. In Eph.2:20 the prophets and the apostles are said to be the foundation of the Church. It is on their work and on their witness and on their fidelity that the Church on earth, humanly speaking, depends. In the same passage, Jesus Christ is the chief corner-stone; he is the force who holds the Church together. Without him the whole edifice would disintegrate and collapse. In 1Pet.2:4-8 all Christians are living stones who are to be built into the fabric of the Church. In 1Cor.3:11 Jesus is the only foundation, and no man can lay any other.
It is clear to see that the New Testament writers took the picture of building and used it in many ways. But at the back of it all is always the idea that Jesus Christ is the real foundation of the Church, and the only power who holds the Church together. When Jesus said to Peter that on him he would found his Church, he did not mean that the Church depended on Peter, as it depended on himself and on God the Rock. He did mean that the Church began with Peter; in that sense Peter is the foundation of the Church; and that is an honour that no man can take from him.

(ii) The second point is that the very word Church (ekklesia, GSN1577) in this passage conveys something of a wrong impression. We are apt to think of the Church as an institution and an organization with buildings and offices, and services and meetings, and organizations and all kinds of activities. The word that Jesus almost certainly used was qahal (HSN6951), which is the word the Old Testament uses for the congregation of Israel, the gathering of the people of the Lord. What Jesus said to Peter was: “Peter, you are the beginning of the new Israel, the new people of the Lord, the new fellowship of those who believe in my name.” Peter was the first of the fellowship of believers in Christ. It was not a Church in the human sense, still less a Church in a denominational sense, that began with Peter. What began with Peter was the fellowship of all believers in Jesus Christ, not identified with any Church and not limited to any Church, but embracing all who love the Lord.

So then we may say that the first part of this controversial passage means that Peter is the foundation stone of the Church in the sense that he was the first of that great fellowship who joyfully declare their own discovery that Jesus Christ is Lord; but that, in the ultimate sense, it is God himself who is the rock on which the Church is built.

THE GATES OF HELL

Matt. 16:17-19 (continued)

Jesus goes on to say that the gates of Hades shall not prevail against his Church. What does that mean? The idea of gates prevailing is not by any means a natural or an easily understood picture. Again there is more than one explanation.

(i) It may be that the picture is the picture of a fortress. This suggestion may find support in the fact that on the top of the mountain overlooking Caesarea Philippi there stand today the ruins of a great castle which may well have stood there in all its glory in the time of Jesus. It may be that Jesus is thinking of his Church as a fortress, and the forces of evil as an opposing fortress; and is saying that the embattled might of evil will never prevail against the Church.

(ii) Richard Glover has an interesting explanation. In the ancient east the Gate was always the place, especially in the little towns and villages, where the elders and the rulers met and dispensed counsel and justice. For instance, the law is laid down that, if a man has a rebellious and disobedient son, he must bring him “to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives” (Deut.21:19), and there judgment will be given and justice done. In Deut.25:7 the man with a certain problem is told to “go up to the gate to the elders.” The gate was the scene of simple justice where the elders met. So the gate may have come to mean the place of government. For long, for instance, the government of Turkey was called the Sublime Porte (porte being the French for gate). So then the phrase would mean: The powers, the government of Hades win never prevail against the Church.

(iii) There is a third possibility. Suppose we go back to the idea that the rock on which the Church is founded is the conviction that Jesus is none other than the Son of the living God. Now Hades was not the place of punishment, but the place where, in primitive Jewish belief, all the dead went. Obviously, the function of gates is to keep things in, to confine them, shut them up, control them. There was one person whom the gates of Hades could not shut in; and that was Jesus Christ. He burst the bonds of death. As the writer of Acts has it, “It was not possible for him to be held by death…. Thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades, nor let thy Holy One see corruption” (Ac.2:24,27). So then this may be a triumphant reference to nothing less than the coming Resurrection. Jesus may be saying: “You have discovered that I am the Son of the living God. The time will soon come when I will be crucified, and the gates of Hades will close behind me. But they are powerless to shut me in.
The gates of Hades have no power against me the Son of the living God.”

However we take it, this phrase triumphantly expresses the indestructibility of Christ and his Church.

THE PLACE OF PETER

Matt. 16:17-19(continued)

We now come to two phrases in which Jesus describes certain privileges which were given to and certain duties which were laid on Peter.

(i) He says that he will give to Peter the keys of the Kingdom. This is an obviously difficult phrase; and we will do well to begin by setting down the things about it of which we can be sure.

(a) The phrase always signified some kind of very special power. For instance, the Rabbis had a saying: “The keys of birth, of the rain, and of the resurrection of the dead belong to God.” That is to say, only God has the power to create life, to send the rain, and to raise the dead to life again. The phrase always indicates a special power.

(b) In the New Testament this phrase is regularly attached to Jesus. It is in his hands, and no one else’s, that the keys are. In Rev.1:18 the risen Christ says: “I am the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” Again in Rev.3:7 the Risen Christ is described as, “The holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens.” This phrase must be interpreted as indicating a certain divine right, and whatever the promise made to Peter, it cannot be taken as annulling, or infringing, a right which belongs alone to God and to the Son of God.

(c) All these New Testament pictures and usages go back to a picture in Isaiah (Isa.22:22). Isaiah describes Eliakim, who will have the key of the house of David on his shoulder, and who alone will open and shut. Now the duty of Eliakim was to be the faithful steward of the house. It is the steward who carries the keys of the house, who in the morning opens the door, and in the evening shuts it, and through whom visitors gain access to the royal presence. So then what Jesus is saying to Peter is that in the days to come, he wit be the steward of the Kingdom. And in the case of Peter the whole idea is that of opening, not shutting, the door of the Kingdom.

That came abundantly true. At Pentecost, Peter opened the door to three thousand souls (Ac.2:41). He opened the door to the Gentile centurion Cornelius, so that it was swinging on its hinges to admit the great Gentile world (Ac.10). Ac.15 tells how the Council of Jerusalem opened wide the door for the Gentiles, and how it was Peter’s witness which made that possible (Ac.15:14; Simeon is Peter). The promise that Peter would have the keys to the Kingdom was the promise that Peter would be the means of opening the door to God for thousands upon thousands of people in the days to come. But it is not only Peter who has the keys of the Kingdom; every Christian has; for it is open to every one of us to open the door of the Kingdom to some other and so to enter into the great promise of Christ.

(ii) Jesus further promised Peter that what he bound would remain bound, and what he loosed would remain loosed. Richard Glover takes this to mean that Peter would lay men’s sins, bind them, to men’s consciences, and that he would then loose them from their sins by telling them of the love and the forgiveness of God. That is a lovely thought, and no doubt true, for such is the duty of every Christian preacher and teacher, but there is more to it than that.

To loose and to bind were very common Jewish phrases. They were used especially of the decisions of the great teachers and the great Rabbis. Their regular sense, which any Jew would recognize was to allow and to forbid. To bind something was to declare it forbidden; to loose was to declare it allowed. These were the regular phrases for taking decisions in regard to the law. That is in fact the only thing these phrases in such a context would mean. So what Jesus is saying to Peter is: “Peter, you are going to have grave and heavy responsibilities laid upon you. You are going to have to take decisions which wig affect the welfare of the whole Church. You will be the guide and the director of the infant Church. And the decisions you give will be so important, that they will affect the souls of men in time and in eternity.”

The privilege of the keys meant that Peter would be the steward of the household of God, opening the door for men to enter into the Kingdom. The duty of binding and loosing meant that Peter would have to take decisions about the Church’s life and practice which would have the most far-reaching consequences. And indeed, when we read the early chapters of Acts, we see that in Jerusalem that is precisely what Peter did.

When we paraphrase this passage which has caused so much argument and controversy, we see that it deals, not with ecclesiastical forms but with the things of salvation. Jesus said to Peter: “Peter, your name means a rock, and your destiny is to be a rock. You are the first man to recognize me for what I am, and therefore you are the first stone in the edifice of the fellowship of those who are mine. Against that fellowship the embattled powers of evil will no more prevail than they will be able to hold me captive in death. And in the days to come, you must be the steward who will unlock the doors of the Kingdom that Jew and Gentile may come in; and you must be the wise administrator and guide who will solve the problems and direct the work of the infant and growing fellowship.”

Peter had made the great discovery; and Peter was given the great privilege and the great responsibility. It is a discovery which everyone must make for himself; and, when he has made it, the same privilege and the same responsibility are laid upon him.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW (Chapters 11-28)

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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