Why Did Jesus Say, “On This Rock I Will Build My Church”? (Matthew 16)
This article is part of the Tough Passages series.
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13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17And 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. 18And 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. 19I 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.” 20Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.
Who Am I?
In verse 13, Jesus takes the disciples aside, as he has done before. They go to Caesarea Philippi, about 25 miles (40 km) north of Capernaum and barely inside Israel’s borders. The population and ethos here was largely Gentile—“Caesarea” manifested the city’s dedication to Caesar, and the worship of Pan was common in the region. Thus the disciples confess Christ where pagans praise Caesar and Pan.
Jesus asks, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Matt. 16:13). He asks a question because he is treating the disciples as witnesses, not as reporters.1 Christians hear “Son of Man” as a title, but at the time the term had no sharp definition or expectations attached to it. For that reason, Jesus could pour his definition into it.2
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The disciples say the crowds consider him a prophet (Matt. 16:14; cf. Luke 7:16). They ignore critics who judge Jesus an insane man (Mark 3:21), a deceiving demagogue (John 11:47–48), or a minion of Satan (Matt. 12:24). Jesus presses the disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” (16:15). The Greek doubles the use of “you,” locating it first, to create great emphasis. Jesus asks in effect, “What about you? What do you say?”
Peter replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). Peter recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, God’s anointed. In the NT, “Christ” is more than Jesus’ second name; it is a title that means Messiah, or “anointed one.” This holds for Matthew (cf. Matt. 1:1; 1:17; 11:2; 22:42) and for Paul.3 In the OT, anointing prepared priests, kings, and others for strategic roles, and so they could be designated “anointed” (Ex. 29:29; Lev. 6:22; 1 Sam. 16:13). But for many people, Jesus as “Messiah” meant he was a second Son of David, a ruler who would bring God’s reign. Jews believed a messiah would one day restore Israel, although there were many views of what that might mean.4
Critics claim Matthew added the phrase “the Son of the living God,” since neither Mark nor Luke includes it in the parallel passages. But the other Gospels call Jesus the Son of God in other settings, so there is no need to propose a fabrication (Mark 3:11; 5:7; 15:39; Luke 1:35).
Peter speaks better than he knows. Given Peter’s reaction—he dares to correct Jesus when he foretells his death (Matt. 16:21–22)—he does not appreciate Jesus’ deity. Later, Peter will realize that Jesus is fully divine, the Father’s unique Son and equal.
Jesus blesses Peter’s confession, “for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 16:17). God’s revelation gives Peter “holy joy.”5 Jesus continues, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). Jesus will build his church on Peter’s confession.
“The gates of hell shall not prevail” has been taken several ways. Some call it proof that the church will never be defeated. Matthew does assume the church will endure (Matt. 28:18–20), but “gates” here has a different sense. The term has a metaphorical use at times (Job 38:17; Isa. 38:10), but normally a gate is the entry to a city, temple, or prison (Luke 7:12; Acts 3:10; 12:10). Gates are defensive structures (Gen. 22:17; Deut. 3:5).6 Thus Jesus is saying that hell’s defenses will not thwart the church’s progress. The church will advance and prevail through the confession that Jesus is Messiah and Son of God. Jesus is the church’s founder and builder, yet Peter has a role. The name “Peter” (Gk. petros; Matt. 16:18; cf. 10:2; John 1:42) means “rock” or “rocky.” Either Peter or his recent confession is foundational for the church.
The church will advance and prevail through the confession that Jesus is Messiah and Son of God.
On This Rock
When Jesus says “on this rock I will build,” he uses a slightly different word: “You are petros, and on this petra I will build . . .” This creates space between Peter and the church’s rock. Jesus does not say “On you I will build my church” but “on this rock.” “This rock” is distinct from Peter, although connected to him. We soon discover the difference between the man and the rock. After Jesus grants Peter the keys to the kingdom (see below), Jesus explains how he must die in Jerusalem (Matt. 16:21). Peter rebukes Jesus, whom he has just called the Son of God, saying, “This shall never happen to you” (Matt. 16:22). In response Jesus chastises Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me” (Matt. 16:23). “Hindrance” translates skandalon, a cause of offense, a temptation, a trap.
Notice the change. At first, Peter is the church’s rock. Now he is tempter, a foe. So Peter’s status depends on what he says. When Peter forbids the cross, he is a stumbling stone. When he proclaims Jesus as the Christ, he is a rock. Thus Peter is not the foundation of the church. Jesus in Matthew 21:42 will point to himself as the cornerstone, citing Isaiah 28:16 and Psalm 118:22. In 1 Corinthians 3:11, Paul identifies Jesus as the church’s sole foundation. Later, Paul writes that God built his “household . . . on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:19–20). Finally, Revelation 21:14 pictures the new Jerusalem with “twelve foundations” not one, and they are the “twelve apostles of the Lamb.”
After Peter’s confession, Jesus promises, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 16:19). This is future tense; Peter immediately shows that he is not yet ready for the keys Jesus promises (Matt. 16:21–23). Christ continues, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19). Some believe this means the disciples will have the authority to forbid (bind) or permit (loose) certain acts. This view fits the Jewish context, in which rabbis laid down rules of conduct. The school of Shammai was known for strictness, for binding; the school of Hillel for permissiveness, for loosing. The Greek pronouns translated “whatever” are neuter, so they could refer to ethical rulings. But this position has three points against it. First, the topic of ethics is absent from the context. Second, neuter pronouns can refer to people in Greek. Third, the parallel passage in Matthew 18:15–18 refers to people. There Jesus instructs the church to excommunicate those who claim to be disciples but persist in sin, adding, “Whatever you bind on earth . . . whatever you loose . . .” The apostles must exclude the impenitent but admit the repentant.7 In chapter 23, Jesus cries “woe” to scribes and Pharisees who “shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” (Matt. 23:13), for the Pharisees have laws but no gospel. These passages, along with Luke 11:52, show that binding and loosing refers to people, not laws.
Keys open and close doors. To bind or loose is to prevent or permit entry. The keys to the kingdom open or close its door. Peter does so in Acts 2–10 when he proclaims repentance and faith in Jesus. Thousands repent, believe, and enter the kingdom (Acts 2:14–42; 10:34–48). But refusal of Peter’s message bars one from the kingdom (Acts 4:5–31; 8:18–23).
- Everett F. Harrison, A Short Life of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968), 151.
- Stein, Method and Message, 136–139, 146–150. Stein traces OT and intertestamental uses of the term, describing the sense it might have possessed for certain readers and showing it had little of the freight of a term like Messiah or Son of David.
- Matthew W. Novenson, Christ among the Messiahs: Christ Language in Paul and Messiah Language in Ancient Judaism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). Novenson refutes the notion that Paul uses “Christ” almost as a second name for Jesus, demonstrating that it means “anointed” and functions as an honorific title, like “Epiphanes” or “Augustus.”
- James H. Charlesworth, The Messiah: Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity(Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 3–35; M. de Jonge, “The Earliest Christian Use of Christos: Some Suggestions,” NTS 32/3 (1986): 329–333.
- Morris, Matthew, 421.
- Some propose that “gates” are floodgates that threaten to drown the church by releasing water.
- Morris, Matthew, 426; G. Dalman, The Words of Jesus: Considered in the Light of Post-Biblical Jewish Writings and the Aramaic Language (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1902), 213–217.
This article is by Dan Doriani and is adapted from ESV Expository Commentary: Matthew–Luke (Volume 8) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.
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