When I was a boy and would put more food on my plate than I was able to eat, my mother would say, “Your eyes are bigger than your belly.” When a pastor puts Matthew 16:13-20 on his preaching plate – at least this pastor – his desire to preach might be bigger than his exegetical ability.
When Kevin asked what I was preaching this week and I told him, he said something like, “That passage is filled with interpretive landmines.” He was right. Everywhere the Bible student turns in this passage, there are difficulties. If scholars were given to violence, this passage would be the ground on which much blood was spilled. Fortunately, scholars are not these days given to violence, but I would hazard that there is not a passage in the Bible over which more ink has been spilled than this one.
Catholics have argued that this passage affirms the primacy of Peter which in turn validates the hierarchy of the Church of Rome, based as it is on apostolic succession. Protestants do their best to pull the rug of Peter’s primacy out from under Catholic feet by denying that Peter is given a special place. This passage has been a battleground since the early to mid-1500s.
So why am I preaching it? Because we are trying to understand and appreciate the church of Jesus Christ, and this passage marks the first time Jesus ever mentioned the church. Surely what he has to say about the church – even if it is difficult to understand – is important. It is not only important; it is profoundly encouraging.
Let’s read the passage, Matthew 16:13-20. When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father 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 overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
We read in verse 13 that Jesus came to the Gentile region of Caesarea Philippi. When Herod the Great died, his kingdom was divided into four regions, and this part, known as Paneas, was placed under the authority of his son Philip. Caesarea Philippi was its capitol, and Philip had built a temple there in honor of Caesar Augustus.
Before the temple to Caesar was built, there was an older kind of worship in this place. There was an ancient shrine to the Greek God Pan in a grotto near the source of the Jordan River. Pagans would offer prayers and sacrifices to the god. Caesarea Philippi was a center of idolatry, and yet Jesus took his disciples there.
The Bible does not tell us why Jesus brought them to this place, but we can hazard a guess. When Jesus was with his fellow Jews, people were constantly coming to him for help and for healing. In Mark’s gospel we learn that there were days when he and his disciples didn’t even have time to eat. Jesus had become, in spite of his best efforts, a celebrity. Had there been first century paparazzi, they would have been hounding his every step. Even without the paparazzi, it was hard for Jesus to get quality time with his disciples.
So, he brought them up here, 25 miles from the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. It was a different world here. Most people were Gentiles. There were no crowds, no people breaking in on their meals, or keeping them from his meals, or interrupting Jesus in the middle of a teaching session – all of which we read about in other places. He brought his disciples here to tell them something important.
Jesus began the conversation with a question: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” “Son of Man” was Jesus’s way of referring to himself. (It appears 88 times in the Gospels.) He chose this self-designation for a reason. “Son of Man” could refer simply to a human being – any human being. It is regularly used this was of Ezekiel.
But in the Book of Daniel, “Son of Man” referred to the messiah. By referring to himself as the “Son of Man,” Jesus kept people guessing. Was he saying that he was just an ordinary man? Or was he claiming to be the Messiah? At the conclusion of his earthly ministry, he clarified what he meant. Before the Jewish ruling council, he told the high priest, “…you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:64). That is straight out of Daniel 7. Jesus was claiming to be God’s messiah, the one to whom all authority in heaven and earth is given.
Here in Paneas, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” I suspect the question took the disciples by surprise. Jesus had never shown any interest in what people thought of him. I also suspect the question pleased the disciples, for they were deeply interested in what people thought. They stayed up to date on what people were saying, and they offered Jesus four representative answers.
Some people were saying that Jesus was John the Baptist. This seems like an odd answer – Jesus and John were contemporaries. Yet Philip’s brother Herod Antipas had murdered John the Baptist, and then feared that John had come back to life in the person of Jesus. Apparently, that belief had got around.
A second answer was that the Son of Man – Jesus – was Elijah returned to life. This idea was based in an odd prophecy from the last book of the Old Testament. Malachi wrote that God would: “…send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes (Malachi 4:5). Many Jews expected Elijah would come back and work some more miracles before the end—and here was Jesus working miracles. Could he be Elijah?
A third popular answer was that Jesus was a reincarnated Jeremiah. Like Jeremiah, Jesus was a man of sorrows. Like Jeremiah, he was in conflict with the religious rulers and wasn’t afraid to expose their corruption. And like Jeremiah, he foretold the downfall of Jerusalem.
The final answer is more generic: Jesus is “one of the prophets.” Whether John, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophetic corps, it seemed that popular opinion thought of Jesus as a prophet. In first century Israel, that was a very high estimate.
This complimentary assessment did not seem to impress Jesus. He really was not interested in who the general public took him to be. But he was interested in what his disciples thought. For them to misunderstand him might compromise the whole program. So, Jesus asks the twelve, “But what about you? Who do you say I am?”
Peter – impetuous, strong, bold Peter – answers on behalf of the other apostles: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” “Prophet” does not go far enough. You are the messiah, the Christ, the Son of God spoken of in Psalm 2 and elsewhere. Peter could not think of any higher appraisal of Jesus.
Jesus responds that Peter is blessed and tells him why. He is blessed because this insight into Jesus’s identity was revealed to him by the Father. Pause there for a moment. To have truth revealed to you from God is to have a God-encounter. That is not some trifling thing. If the God who created the universe reveals something directly to you, you are blessed. If the God of the universe has revealed truth to you, that is huge!
Notice again what Peter said to Jesus: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Now listen to the words Jesus spoke to Peter: “And I say you are Peter.” (Peter, petros in Greek, means “rock” or “stone.”) Peter says, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus says, “You are the Petros.” The repetition is intentional. Peter calls Jesus, “the son of God.” Jesus calls Peter, “The son of John” (or “Jonah”).
Peter made a declaration about Jesus’s identity, so Jesus made a declaration about Peter’s identity. “You are Petros” (“Rock,” like “Rock Hudson” or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), “and on this rock (petra) I will build my church.”
Some Protestant interpreters make a big deal of the difference between, “Peter” (“petros”) and “rock” (“petra”). They say that the rock on which Jesus builds his church cannot be Peter, who didn’t prove to be very rock-like. So, the rock must either be Peter’s faith or his confession of Jesus. This does not seem right to me. For one thing, Jesus could not have nicknamed Peter “Petra,” which has a feminine ending and would have been like calling him “Petrina” – a girl’s name. Besides that, if Jesus was speaking Aramaic, which is quite likely, he would have used the word Cephas both times.
I think those Protestants interpreters are wrong to try to deemphasize Peter’s importance. The “word-play,” as the very Protestant scholar R.T. France put it, “and the whole structure of the passage demands that this verse is every bit as much Jesus’s declaration about Peter as v. 16 was Peter’s declaration about Jesus.” Peter is the rock on which Jesus would build his church.
Of course, in Ephesians we learn that the other apostles – and not just Peter – are also rocks in the foundation of the church. Peter himself says that we are the “living stones” with which Christ’s church is being built. But we must admit that Peter did occupy an important place in the founding of the church. He preached the message on the Day of Pentecost when the church was born. He was Christ’s spokesmen before the religious leaders. He opened the door to take the gospel to the Gentiles. It was his voice that carried the day in the first church council.
While all that it true, it should be said that there is absolutely nothing here or anywhere else in Scripture that would suggest that Peter was the first in an unbroken succession of popes to lead the church. There is not so much as a hint about apostolic succession here or anywhere else in the Bible. Before 1560, not even Catholic interpreters felt it necessary to stress Peter’s primacy when exegeting this passage. They only began doing so in reaction to Martin Luther.
I think when the church turns these verses into a Catholic-Protestant debate, which has happened untold times, both Catholics and Protestants lose out. Every time we draw our exegetical swords, we are the ones who miss the point. Jesus the Messiah the Son of the Living God has promised to build his church! That promise is priceless.
What is his church that he promises to build? The word is used both in the Greek translation of the Old Testament and the New. It has the idea of an assembly of people that has gathered for a particular purpose: an assembly of the city’s citizens to conduct business; the assembly of fighting men to wage war; it is even used in Acts of the unlawful assembly of a riotous mob in Ephesus.
The word was often used to designate God’s people, the remnant that remained true to him, and that is the idea here. Jesus intends to build a people who are loyal to him. They will be, in Peter’s quotation from Exodus, a holy nation, a people who are God’s special possession.
Every time a child, a man, or a woman comes to believe in Jesus, it is because the Messiah, the Son of God has been at work building his church. We, if we are Christ’s, have been built into his special people, the holy nation, God’s special possession. And Christ will continue to build his church, and nothing will stop him.
There have been times in the history of the church when Jesus’s people have needed to know this. It’s something that Jesus’s people need to know now. From our perspective, the church is under threat. People outside the church are constantly criticizing. The church is portrayed in society as unloving, irrelevant, and outdated. Christian sexual ethics are attacked in courts of law and in the court of public opinion.
Inside the church it is worse. In the U.S. in 2019, 4,500 Protestant churches closed while only 3,000 churches were started. Only one out of four Gen-Z people attend church at least once a month. Over half of adults and teens say they have experienced doubts about their beliefs – that does not worry me – but 83% of those link their doubts to past experiences with a religious institution. Instead of saying that the church has helped them through their doubts, they say the church has caused their doubts!
The Methodist Church, which shaped the American frontier, has been engaged in a civil war over sexual ethics. The Roman Catholic church has lost about 3 million adults. In 2021 alone, the Episcopal church lost 60,000 members. Even before Covid, giving across denominational lines was decreasing. Only 10 to 25 percent of church members actually tithe.
I expect that the day is coming – perhaps sooner than we think – when the tax deduction for charitable giving will be withdrawn from churches. Will people then stop giving altogether? And before that happens, will the IRS be politically weaponized to punish churches that maintain their biblical convictions? Will there even be a church in fifty years? In twenty-five years?
Yes, there will be a church, for the Messiah Jesus, the Son of the Living God has promised. He will build his church. The IRS will not stop him. Gen Z won’t delay him. Neither will my Boomer generation. Christ will build his church and he will complete it. He is unstoppable!
A fanatical zealot named Saul tried to destroy the infant church in the mid-thirties of the first century. Jesus transformed him into the Apostle Paul. Claudius tried to wipe out the church a few years after that, then Nero. Jesus turned Rome into the center of world Christianity. Over and over, evil has fought against Christ’s church: Julian the Apostate banned Christians from all teaching positions. The Communists expelled or imprisoned all priests and ministers from Albania and turned churches into movie theaters and dance halls. In Russia, tens of thousands of churches were destroyed, and a half a million Christians were murdered. Under Chairman Mao, Christians were persecuted, churches closed, and clergy imprisoned. Christians are still being harassed in China today, yet the Protestant church there grew by 73 percent in one decade. Jesus always wins.
And he will win here! Neither government persecution, nor the apostasy of many, nor the apathy of others, nor the departure of a long-time pastor will not stop Jesus from building his church. Even the gates of hades, which speaks of the intractability of death, is no match for Jesus and his church. Think of it. Both Sts. Peter and Paul were executed around 67 AD. The church went on. With John’s death near the end of the first century, all the apostles were gone, but the church went on. The church’s foundation was buried but the construction carried on. A Polycarp arose. A Clement. A Cyprian. An Origen. An Augustine, and so it has been right on down to today.
Death has not and will not stop Jesus from building his church. Neither will the one who holds the power of death. Jesus says that the gates of hades will not overcome the church and that is a little hard to understand. Is the church on the offense or on the defense? Pastors will sometimes say that the church is attacking the gates of hades, but the original language is against it. When the verb is used in this way, it is always active, not passive. It means vanquish, not withstand.
Jesus knew that the threat of death would be used against his church – and it was from almost the first day. Stephen the deacon was martyred by stoning. The apostle James was martyred by beheading. The one who holds the power of death tried to drive the young church behind its unbreakable gates, or to coerce its members into silence by the threat of death.
That didn’t work for two reasons. First, for every Christian that was killed (and there were many), a dozen new ones took his or her place. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Second, and more importantly, Christians didn’t fear death. Even though they could never break it brass gates and iron bars, they knew they didn’t need to: their savior has the key!
In the first chapter of the Book of Revelation, the Jesus who said, “The gates of hades will not overcome my church,” also said, “I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades” (Revelation 1:18).
The nations may rage at the church and its king, they may harass and bluster, they may imprison and even kill, but the church will succeed—not because we are tough, or crafty, or clever, but because we are Christ’s, and nothing can stop him.