At this point in Matthew’s Gospel, we are rapidly approaching the final days of the earthly life of Jesus. In just a few months, Jesus will be in Jerusalem and on trial for His life. At this point in the story, Jesus continues to prepare His disciples for His impending death and departure from them.
This chapter opens with Jesus and His followers in Magadan (or Magdala). This is the area from which Mary Magdalene hailed. While they were there, representatives from both the Pharisees and Sadducees paid Him a visit.
These two groups were notorious rivals. The Sadducees viewed the Pharisees as “backward” traditionalists who were unwilling to embrace the times. The Pharisees viewed the Sadducees as too liberal and too rational in their theology. And the Sadducees were accused of being too close to the Romans. However, in Jesus, these two rival groups had a common enemy. They both felt threatened by Jesus.
Here in this text they ask Jesus for a “sign from heaven.” What does this mean? We don’t really know. They seem to be asking Jesus to demonstrate for them – in a way that will satisfy them – that He is truly from God. He refused to do this. Instead, He challenges them and their ability to sense God’s direction.
In Matthew 16:4, Jesus says that only the “sign of Jonah” will be given to them. What is the “sign of Jonah”? Think about it – it was just the presence of Jonah, himself! Jonah did not exhibit a sign in Nineveh. He just showed up and preached repentance. Jesus is rebuking these Jewish leaders for needing more than just His presence! He is the sign! If they were as discerning in the spiritual realm as they were in the physical realm (reading the sky) then they would realize that God was present among them in the form of His Son.
Jesus left these religious leaders and headed northeast across the Sea of Galilee. They leave the Jewish area and head towards the Gentile shore and eventually arrive at Caesarea Philippi. Along the way, Jesus decided to use this time to instruct His disciples about truth. He warned them about the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
The Pharisees were guilty of placing traditionalism at the forefront of their theological system. The Sadducees were guilty of accommodating the pagan rule of the Romans. Jesus condemned both.
Here is the focal passage for our study today. Jesus and His followers arrived in the region of Caesarea Philippi. At the heart of this region was the city that bore that name. It was located about 25 miles northeast of the Sea of Galilee.
I have actually visited this region. It is one of the most beautiful places in all of the Holy Land. The city itself was located on the top of a massive, natural stone wall. That wall is a spectacular sight even to this day.
An abundance of caves and natural springs highlights the landscape as well. It is lush and beautiful. The area was given to the tribe of Dan in ancient Israel. It was famous for its Baal worship (Baal-Gad in Joshua 11:17; 12:7; 13:5; Judges 13:5). In the Roman era, the area was dedicated to the Roman god Pan. In fact, today you can see the niches carved into the side of the massive stone wall where idols to Pan were once on display. It was known as a site of pagan worship for many years.
Herod built a massive temple there dedicated to Caesar Augustus. Thus, the city became known for housing a center for Emperor Worship as well. Finally, Philip the Tetrarch named the city (originally known as Panias) after both Caesar and himself – Caesarea Philippi.
So – here in this region, Jesus asks His disciples a famous question, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (16:13)
Here is an area that had been known for its pagan worship for centuries. Against this backdrop, Jesus asks this powerful question. With a temple dedicated to the political leader of the day (Caesar) and religious idols on display (Pan) – Jesus poses a question about Himself and presumably His kingdom.
I don’t think Jesus was seeking information. He was well-aware of what people were saying about Him. This was an opportunity to teach His disciples an unforgettable lesson. They responded to His question with answers that grew from Jewish eschatology. “Elijah” or “Jeremiah” were prophets that some Jews believed would return to announce the inauguration of the Messianic Age. Also, some people agreed with Herod Antipas (Matthew 14:2) that John the Baptist had been raised from the dead.
Jesus moved to a more direct question, “Who do you say I am?” (16:15)
Peter answered the question correctly, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” In other words, Peter proclaimed that Jesus was not connected to the pagan pantheon of false gods like Pan. He is the Son of the Living God!
Jesus commends Peter immediately. In fact, He points out that only God could have revealed this to Peter. This was God’s revelation of truth. Peter doesn’t understand the full import of this confession yet. It will take years for him to truly understand the theological truth of his statement. But – he knew enough. He trusted that Jesus was truly the Christ (Messiah) and that He was divine.
Now comes the sticky part. When Jesus commends Peter for his insight and his confession, He says this:
17 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. 18 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. 19 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.”
These are some of the most contested words in all of the New Testament. Interpreting these verses has proven to be difficult for theologians for centuries.
Here are the major interpretive options:
First – Jesus is speaking directly to Peter and affirms him as the rock upon which the church is built – This view interprets these verses to place Peter in a unique role as the leader of the disciples. He is to be the foundational stone of the church. The keys of the kingdom are given to him. In fact, because of these verses, Peter is almost exclusively represented artistically with a set of keys in his hand. This is the view of the Roman Catholic Church. This theological position has led the Roman Catholic Church to view Peter as the first pope. Further, it has led to the idea that the leaders of the church must be in the “Petrine” line to be recognized. The Cathedral Chair of the Church at Rome is referred to as the “See of Peter.”
Second – Jesus is speaking directly to Peter, but He is affirming his confession and not his person – This view espouses the idea that the Church is built upon the foundation of the confessional truth of the followers of Jesus. Peter simply represents the rest of these disciples when he proclaims this confession.
Third – Jesus is speaking directly to Peter, but He is referring to Himself when he uses “rock” the second time in v. 18 – This view interprets the passage to point to Jesus as the foundation for the church. This view highlights the Greek text of this passage and notes how it distinguishes between petros and petra in this passage (both translated “rock” in English).
Examination of the Text
Let’s look at this text more closely and see what we can learn. Bear in mind that Jesus probably spoke Aramaic and not Greek. This is important because there is only one word for “rock” in Aramaic – kephas.
In the Greek text of Matthew 16:13-20, there are several truths to note. First of all the word, “rock” needs to be examined. There are several words for “rock” in Greek. We find two of them here in this passage: petros and petra. The former is masculine and the latter is feminine. Simon Peter’s nickname was “Kephas” in Aramaic and “Petros” in Greek.
Petros – is a masculine noun that means, “stone” or “rock.” This was the Greek form of Kephas.
Petra – is a shelf of rock or a rock formation. It is a feminine noun that can also be translated with our word, “rock.”
In this text, Jesus says, “You are Peter (petros) and on this petra I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). Now, Jesus probably spoke Aramaic – so, the “kephas” may have been used in both instances in His original statement. However, Matthew wrote his Gospel in Greek and he distinguishes between “petros” and “petra.” Why would he do that?
I think the answer is because he was present when Jesus spoke these words and he intentionally distinguishes His thought in the textual transmission. Jesus seems to be indicating that the foundation of the church is not one of His disciples – but is actually Himself. We know that Simon Peter would later deny Christ in Jerusalem in his most famous failure. I am not criticizing Peter per se, however, I do think this must be taken into consideration when making such an important interpretive decision.
Further, Paul will later declare, “For no one can lay any other foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11). Further, in 1 Peter 2:4-8, Peter himself refers to Jesus as the “chief cornerstone” of the church.
So – I am a proponent of the third view. I believe Jesus Christ is the foundation of the church. He commends Peter and then refers to Himself when He declares, “Upon this rock, I will build my church.”
There are more key phrases to examine!
The gates of Hades will not overcome it (16:18) – Hades is the abode of the dead. It is the collection spot for the wicked who have died and are awaiting eternal judgment. This statement seems to indicate the victorious nature of the Church. Neither death nor judgment will be able to withstand the Church. The grace of God is operative through the Church and followers of Jesus will be saved from torment. Further, death does not hold power over the Church. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead has now guaranteed and foreshadowed the resurrection of all the saints.
I will give you the keys of the kingdom (16:19) – Keys are for unlocking. Jesus is speaking to Peter. Again – Peter seems to be representative of the disciples. These keys are used to unlock access to the Gospel. These men will be used by God to unleash the Gospel on the world.
Binding and Loosing (16:19) – This is a Hebrew parallelism rooted in Rabbinical literature that is repeated in Matthew 18:18. It utilizes a peculiar Greek grammatical structure known as the periphrastic future. Wow!
Jesus is teaching the disciples that the Gospel needs to be “loosed” on earth just as it has been “loosed” in heaven. It is the answer for the sinfulness of humanity. Instead of interpreting this as an “authoritative” role for the church – I would suggest we interpret it as a challenge to be responsible with the good news of the Gospel.
Messianic Secret (16:20) – Jesus warned His disciples to not tell anyone that He was the Messiah. This is known as the Messianic Secret. Most of us agree that this was a temporary command from Jesus that simply acknowledged there was too much misunderstanding about the Messiah for them to openly proclaim this truth yet. Jesus did not want to start a political or military rebellion. That would have been very easy to initiate because of the Jewish animosity towards Rome. He led His disciples to wait until the time was right to reveal this truth about Him.