Matthew 16(13–20)

Verses 13 to 17

Matthew tells us in verse 13 that the Lord and his disciples had come to the region of Caesarea Philippi, which was a city located about 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee near Mount Hermon. And it was Gentile or pagan territory. And it was there that the Lord asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ Jesus used the phrase ‘Son of man’ to refer to himself. So, he’s asking them: Who do people say I am? What does the general public think of him? What does the average man or woman on the street say about me? They’ve seen the things I’ve been doing. They’ve heard the things I’ve been teaching. What are they saying about me? And the disciples replied and told him that some say the Lord is John the Baptist. You might remember that this was the view of Herod the tetrarch, who gave the order for John the Baptist to be beheaded; and who, when he heard about the Lord Jesus, decided that he must be John the Baptist raised from the dead. And presumably other people were saying the same thing.

Others said the Lord was Elijah, the great Old Testament prophet. At the end of the book of Malachi, the Lord revealed to his people that he would send Elijah before the day of the Lord. The day of the Lord was the time when God would come to destroy his enemies and to save his people. And right before that time arrived, Elijah would come. So, some people thought that perhaps that’s who Jesus is.

Others said he was Jeremiah, perhaps because Jeremiah was the weeping prophet who spoke about God’s coming judgment on Jerusalem; and the Lord Jesus also spoke about the coming judgment. For instance, hadn’t he pronounced woes on certain Israelite cities because the people did not turn from their sins even after he performed miraculous signs in their midst?

So, some people thought he was John the Baptist. Some thought he was Elijah or Jeremiah. Others were not so specific, but they thought the Lord must be some kind of prophet. But no one among the general public really understood who he was. He was clearly someone special, but they weren’t exactly sure who or who he was.

But what about you? That’s the Lord’s next question to his disciples. I’ve asked what the general public thinks. Now I want to know what you disciples think. You’ve been with me for some time. You’ve seen what I’ve done. You’ve heard what I’ve said. You’ve heard me in public and in private. So, who do you say that I am?

And Simon Peter replied: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.’ The word ‘Christ’ means anointed and it’s not so much a name as a title. And so, ‘the Christ’ is ‘the anointed one’. He is God’s Anointed Servant-King. And since the days of the Old Testament, the people were expecting God to send the Christ, his Anointed Servant-King, to save them from their enemies. Just as in the past King David had defeated the Philistines and given them peace, so this new King would defeat their enemies and give them peace in the present. That’s what the people were expecting. And Peter now realised that Jesus is the Christ.

And he’s also the Son of the living God. I’ve said before that, in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is the Son of God in two senses. He’s the Son of God in the sense that he’s the new and better Israel. In Old Testament times, God regarded the people of Israel collectively as his son. But they were a disobedient son. For instance, when they were in the wilderness in the days of Moses, they disobeyed him repeatedly. But the Lord Jesus was a new and better Israel, because he was an obedient son who always did the will of God. For instance, when he was in the wilderness, being tempted by the Devil, he remained obedient to his Heavenly Father. So, the Lord Jesus is God’s Son in that sense. But then, by doing things which only God could do — such as feeding the 5,000 in the wilderness and calming the storm and walking on water — he revealed that he is God’s Only-Begotten Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, equal to the Father and the Spirit in glory and power. Whether at this point Peter grasped the full implication of what he was saying, he nevertheless had come to believe that Jesus was the Son of God in that sense. He was more than human. He was — in some sense — God in the flesh.

And so, Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of the Living God. And the Lord replied by calling him blessed and by saying that this was revealed to him, not by man, but by God the Father. So, this wasn’t something someone had told him, but it was something which God enabled him to know and to believe. When we were studying what John said last Sunday about God’s testimony about Christ, which believers have in our heart, I said that there are two preachers. There’s the external preacher, the minister, who addresses our ears. But then, there’s the internal preacher, the Holy Spirit, who works in our hearts and enables us to believe what we have heard. And God the Father had worked in Peter’s heart by his Spirit to enable Peter to understand who Jesus really is. Other people had seen what Peter saw. Other people had heard what Peter heard. In the previous passage, we read about the Pharisees and Sadducees. They had seen and heard what Peter had heard and seen. But while God had kept the truth from them, he had graciously revealed it to Peter.

Verse 18

And then, in verse 18, the Lord said: ‘you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades [or hell] will not overcome it.’ Now, the Greek word for Peter is petros which means rock. And so, the Lord is saying to Peter: You are rock and on this rock I will build my church.

Roman Catholics use this verse to support their view of Peter as the first Pope on whom the whole church is built. Protestant interpreters have therefore tried their best to interpret the verse in a way which avoids identifying Peter as the foundation rock of the church. And so, some have said that the rock on which the church is built is Peter’s confession about Christ. So, the truth that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of the Living God is the foundation of the church. Some interpreters have said that the Lord is referring to himself. So, you are Peter the rock and on this rock — and we’re to imagine the Lord pointing to himself — I will build my church. I am the foundation of the church.

I’ve never found those interpretations to be convincing. And, as Don Carson says in his commentary, ‘if it were not for Protestant reactions against extremes of Roman Catholic interpretations, it is doubtful whether many would have taken ‘rock’ to be anything or anyone other than Peter.’ In other words, the most obvious interpretation of the Lord’s words is that Peter is the foundation rock. However, he’s the foundation rock, not in the Roman Catholic sense, but in the sense that he had a prominent role in the early church. It was Peter who stood up on the Day of Pentecost and who preached the gospel and 3,000 people were added to the church all at once. And he clearly has a prominent role in the first twelve chapters of the book of Acts. And it was Peter who was chosen by God to bring the gospel to Cornelius, the Gentile. The Lord did not make Peter Pope, but the Lord did give Peter an important role in the early church. And, of course, this is not something he deserved or earned, but it was an honour which the Lord graciously and freely bestowed on him.

And notice what the Lord went on to say. He said, ‘I will build my church’. When we studied the book of Acts ages ago, I pointed out that, in the first verse of Acts, Luke wrote that in his former book — that is, in the gospel of Luke — he wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven. So, the gospel records what the Lord began to do. And the book of Acts records what he continued to do. And therefore the book of Acts is about how, from his throne in heaven, the Lord Jesus is building his church, here on earth.

And, of course, we learn too from the book of Acts that he builds his church through the reading and preaching of his word, because wherever the apostles went, they proclaimed the message of Christ. Many of those who heard, did not believe. But many who heard believed. And they believed because the Lord Jesus, from his throne in heaven, blessed the reading and preaching of his word and made it effective. And even though the message of the cross seems foolish and weak to many, the Lord Jesus has chosen to use this foolish and weak message to build his church on the earth.

And he re-assures us that the gates of Hades or hell will not overcome it. This saying has been interpreted in a number of ways. Some take it that the phrase ‘the gates of hell’ refers to the power of Satan and his demons. And so, we’re to imagine Satan attacking the church. However, no matter what he does to us, he will not succeed. He will not be able to destroy the church.

Others say that the gates represent the entrance to Satan’s dominion; and the church is able to break through the gates in order to rescue sinners from Satan’s grip. Satan will not be able stand up to the power of God.

Others take it that the phrase ‘the gates of hell’ refers to the place of the dead. In that case, the Lord is saying that death cannot defeat the members of Christ’s church. Though we die and are buried, nevertheless we will live because of Christ, who died but who conquered death.

So, the phrase has been interpreted in different ways. I think it’s safest to take it as simply as possible and to say that the Lord is making the point that the church will never be destroyed, but it will continue to exist in the world until Christ comes again. Individual congregations may come and go, but Christ’s church will continue to exist in the world. And though the church may appear to be in decline in the west, it is growing in other parts of the world. In an article I read just the other day, it said that in 2022 there are an estimated 2.8 billion Christians in the world. The Lord is building his church.

Verse 19

And the Lord said to Peter in verse 19 that he will give him the keys of the kingdom of heaven, so that whatever he binds on earth will be bound in heaven; and whatever he looses on earth will be loosed in heaven.

We all know what keys are for, don’t we? They are for opening and closing. The door of your house is locked; and you open it by using a key. The door of your house is open; and you lock it with a key. You open the door to let in your family and friends; and you close it to keep out strangers and thieves. And the Lord is giving to Peter and the church the keys to the kingdom of heaven so that the kingdom is opened to some and closed to others.

And do you know what the keys of the kingdom are? The keys of the kingdom are the preaching of the gospel and church discipline. When the gospel is preached, some hear and believe; while some hear and do not believe. And the preacher is able to announce in the name of Christ that all who believe receive forgiveness and eternal life in God’s everlasting kingdom. And the preacher is able to announce in the name of Christ that all who do not believe will be condemned and shut out of God’s everlasting kingdom. And when church discipline is required, some repent and some do not. And to those who repent, the elders are able to say in the name of Christ that their sins are forgiven and they can look forward to eternal life in God’s everlasting kingdom. And to those who do not repent, the elders are able to say in the name of Christ that they can have no assurance of forgiveness or eternal life. And what happens on earth matches what happens in heaven, because in heaven God has promised that whoever repents and believes receives forgiveness and eternal life in the presence of God; and he has warned that whoever does not repent and believe will be condemned and shut out of the presence of God forever.

Verse 20

And today’s passage ends with the Lord warning his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ. In other words, the time had not yet come for them to proclaim this news. But later, after his resurrection, he would command them to make him known. But later they would be able to proclaim that, not only is Jesus the Christ and the Son of the Living God, but he is the one who gave up his life for sinners and who was raised from the dead to live forever. And they would be able to proclaim that whoever believes in him receives forgiveness and eternal life in God’s everlasting kingdom.