And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.
(Matthew 16:17-20 ESV)
Yesterday Peter made the highly accurate observation that Jesus was God. In response Jesus tells him (addressing him by his given name; Bar Jonah means “son of Jonah”) that he is blessed because (for) it was Jesus’ Father (God) who revealed this to Peter. The concept that God would come to earth and live among His own creation to save them from their fate is not something that the human mind (flesh and blood) would ever have invented. To receive such insight from God is truly a blessing. In fact, the gospel cannot be understood without divine intervention [1 Corinthians 2:14].
The rest of today’s passage is quite complex. Arriving at a definitive conclusion is difficult.
Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter and goes on to say that on this rock He will build His church. He also states that He will give Peter the keys to heaven along with some authority to bind (forbid) and loose (permit).
The meaning of Jesus’ words hinge on the what He intended as the antecedent for the word “this”.
The Catholic church claims that “this” refers back to Peter and that Jesus is therefore giving Peter authority over the entire Christian faith. As such they claim this passage is proof that Peter was the first Pope and is also now standing at the gates of heaven, controlling who gets in. Such a conclusion is unlikely for a few reasons.
First, while the word for “Peter” in Greek, Pετροσ (pronounced: pet’-ros), does mean “rock”, it is a masculine noun. The word Jesus uses for “this rock” is πετρα (pronounced: pet’-ra), a feminine noun. Since these words disagree in gender they cannot be referring to the same subject (nouns have gender in Greek just like Spanish and French).
Second, the disciples did not see this as a reference to Peter’s superiority because they continued to argue over who was greatest and Jesus did not correct them by pointing to Peter as the leader [Matthew 18:1, 20:20-21]. Third, Peter never claimed sole authority over Christianity. In fact, he claimed just the opposite [1 Peter 5:1; 2 Peter 1:1].
It’s more likely that the antecedent for “this” is Peter’s confession that Jesus is God, which we studied yesterday [Matthew 16:13-16]. The church (which in this context simply refers to all believers all over the world and throughout time) is built on the fact that Jesus is God. Peter was the first person to acknowledge Jesus’ deity so he is the first “rock” of the church. The church is metaphorically referred to by God as a building composed of many rocks with Jesus being the cornerstone [Ephesians 2:19-22].
This community of believers, built upon Jesus, shall not be prevailed against by the gates of hell. Death has no power over God’s family. Jesus conquered death and the associated penalty of eternity in hell.
As far as the keys to the kingdom and the binding and loosing… these are more difficult phrases. Seemingly Jesus is referring to the earthly leadership role Peter will have after Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Peter was the main teacher in the early years of the church, as recorded by the book of Acts [Acts 1:15-22, 2:14-40 et. al].
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