We are looking at the hard sayings and events in the life of Jesus, many of which are recorded in Matthew 16-20. Matthew 16:13-20 is an extremely controversial portion of scripture. It is a part of God’s word that has been twisted, misused, and misapplied in a number of ways. I am asking you in this lesson to set aside what you might know about this text and heard about this text and been taught about this text. I want you to come to this text with fresh eyes and new hearts to hear what Jesus is going to teach about his kingdom. So prepare your heart for another hard saying of Jesus.
Who Is Jesus? (16:13-16)
Jesus asks an interesting, yet important question to his disciples in Matthew 16:13. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” It is interesting to think about what the people in Judea and Galilee were saying about Jesus. Some people said that Jesus was John the Baptist. You might remember back in Matthew 14:2 that this is what Herod Antipas thought. Herod thought John had been raised from the dead and that he is why he was able to do miracles. Some people said that Jesus was Elijah. This comes from Malachi 4:5 where Malachi prophesied that Elijah would come before the great and awesome day of the Lord. Also consider that Elijah was one of the few miracle workers in the scriptures. So connecting Jesus to Elijah would make sense in the minds of the people. Other people say that Jesus was Jeremiah. This is a curious conclusion. There is not a prophecy for the return of Jeremiah like there was for Elijah’s return. But I wonder if this conclusion was drawn because of their similar teachings. You might remember that one of the charges against Jesus at his trial was that he would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days. Jeremiah also proclaimed that God was going to destroy his temple by the Babylonian Empire. Jeremiah was a prophet of doom to the nation. So some were hearing the teachings of Jesus and connecting him to Jeremiah. Finally, some people determine that Jesus was one of God’s prophets. The two on the road to Emmaus had drawn that conclusion (Luke 24:19). The Samaritan woman at the well drew the conclusion that Jesus was a prophet (John 4:19). The blind man in John 9:17 also understood Jesus to be a prophet.
But Jesus is not interested in taking a popularity poll. This question is set up what he wants to know from his disciples. Look at verse 15. “But who do you say that I am?” Now it is important to note that Jesus is asking this of all his disciples. The “you” is plural but in English was do not have a word for a plural you. In our day we say “you all” or “ya’ll” or something like that. The NASB 2020 updated translation tries to show this. “But who do you yourselves say that I am?” They use “yourselves” to indicate the plural you. The KJV and ASV used the word “ye” to show that it is plural. “But whom say ye that I am?”
Verse 16 is very important. Simon Peter answers that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Now I want to ask a question. Do you think Peter was the only person who believed this about Jesus or do you think Peter is answering on behalf of the apostles? I do not believe that Peter answering the question meant that the other disciples did not have an answer. Jesus asked this question for all of his disciples. Who do you all say that I am? Peter is answering on behalf of all of them. You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.
The Blessed Confession (16:17)
Jesus then praises this response in verse 17. Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven. Now what does Jesus mean by this? Does Jesus mean that when Jesus asked this question, God directly told the answer into Peter’s head and that is why he said that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God? If that is what happened, then that defeats the whole point of the question. Jesus wants to know what his disciples think about who he is. Jesus knows that the Father knows who he is.
What Jesus is praising is that this knowledge about Jesus being the Christ did not come through natural observation. Looking at Jesus and seeing his miracles did not cause people to automatically draw the conclusion that Jesus was the Christ. We know this because the Pharisees and Sadducees rejected Jesus even though they saw the signs, as noted earlier in Matthew 16. But Jesus’ question to the disciples also proves this. Who did people say Jesus was? No one answered that people were saying that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. The people were saying that Jesus was John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or another prophet. This is also proven by the fact that Jesus faces so much rejection in the cities that he goes to. Why did these disciples know who Jesus was and could make this blessed confession? They knew God and because they knew God then they drew this conclusion. This is what Jesus meant in John 6:44-45. You cannot come to Jesus unless the Father draws you. You have to know God and be taught by God to know that Jesus is the Son of God.
Jesus is praising the spiritual knowledge and spiritual awareness of these disciples. He is praising Peter for putting into words the confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Perhaps we should stop saying the disciples are dense and clueless. They have an understanding that many others do not at this point in Jesus’ ministry. This understanding and awareness is the basis for what Jesus says next. Look at verses 18-19.
Building His Kingdom (16:18-19)
Now our English causes what Jesus says next to get a little lost in translation. Remember that Peter is not his given name. Jesus reminds us of that in verse 17. “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.” But then Jesus says to Simon, “You are rock and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” Now this is the controversial part of Jesus’ words. It really should not be controversial. But there has been false teaching and false responses to the false teaching that it makes all of this text a mess. So I am going to try to simplify the mess so that we can get to the heart of the message.
The argument is over what Jesus would build his church on. Did Jesus say that he would build his church on Peter or did he say that he would build his church on the confession Peter proclaimed? The argument for teaching that Jesus would build his church on the confession comes from the teaching that if kingdom was built on Peter, then this authorizes Peter to be the first pope of the church. We need to dismiss this concern first. Nothing here says that Peter will be made the pope and a line of succession will come from him. You cannot see this in this text at all. You must read it into the text. But I would also like us to see that arguing that Jesus is referring to the church being built on Peter’s confession does not solve anything or resolve the issue. A lot has been done with the different Greek words for rock in this verse. I went into depth about that in a prior lesson. If you would like to go see that online and listen to it, it is available on the website. If you search Matthew 16 on the website you will see four others lesson given from this text. In short, different Greek words for “Peter” and “rock” does not mean anything because the Greek language uses gender. So this cannot be the basis for our explanation for this text.
Further, look at verse 19. Jesus says that he will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven to Peter and whatever he found on earth would be bound in heaven and whatever he loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven. So even if someone wants to say the confession is the rock that Jesus built his kingdom on, Jesus still said that Peter was given the keys of the kingdom. So arguing over who or what the rock is will not alter the reading of verse 19. The key imagery borrows from Isaiah 22:20-22 and Jesus proclaims that he has the keys in Revelation 1:18 and Revelation 3:7. Possessing keys is a simple, timeless image. If you have a key to your house, then you have the authority over the house and authority to enter the house. If I give you the key to my house while I am on vacation, I am giving you authority to care for my house. It is not your house. It is still my house but you are being given charge of the house while I am away.
Friends, this is what is happening with Jesus and his disciples. Jesus is going to leave and take his rightful place on the throne in heaven. But he is giving the keys of the kingdom to Peter. Jesus is giving authority over his kingdom to Peter. Now this does not mean it is Peter’s kingdom and that he can do whatever he wants. It is Christ’s kingdom but Peter has charge while Jesus is away. This is the point of verse 19. Whatever he binds on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever is loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven. The New Testament repeatedly confirms this idea.
Peter always stands as the leader and representative of the apostles in the scriptures (cf. Mark 14:31). Peter’s name always comes first in the apostles’ listing (cf. Matthew 10:2). In the book of Acts, Peter’s name is always first and he is the one who speaks on behalf of the apostles (cf. Acts 1:13; 1:15; 2:14; 2:37-38; 3:6; 3:12; 4:8; 5:29; 15:7). Peter also acts as a representative on behalf of Christ for judgment. Peter condemns Ananias and Sapphire in Acts 5 and condemns Simon the sorcerer in Acts 8. I want us to be see and be comfortable with the fact that Peter is constantly displayed as first among the apostles. Peter is the one who starts the process of replacing Judas with Matthias in Acts 1.
This kingdom authority is seen very clearly in two key events in the book of Acts. When proclamation of entrance into Christ’s kingdom is given to the Jews, it is Peter who stands up with the 11 other apostles to proclaim the gospel in Acts 2:14. But please consider when the proclamation of entrance into Christ’s kingdom is given to the Gentiles, it is Peter who is the one who proclaims the gospel to Cornelius and his household in Acts 10:34-48.
Peter as representing the apostles is confirmed by the New Testament writings. Listen to how the New Testament describes the structure of the kingdom.
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. (Ephesians 2:19–21 ESV)
Please notice that Paul teaches that the kingdom of God was built on the foundation consisting of the apostles and prophets. Now Jesus is the cornerstone. It is his kingdom. But authority was given to the apostles and prophets and the kingdom is built on their work in the kingdom. In describing new Jerusalem in the book of Revelation, John said this:
And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. (Revelation 21:14 ESV)
Notice again that the apostles are described as the foundation. So we should not have any problem with Peter and the apostles described as the rock, or the foundation of the kingdom, or having authority over Christ’s kingdom. The New Testament clearly confirms this idea.
Does this make Peter the first pope and a line of succession coming from Peter? No. There is nothing in the scriptures that says this or shows this. There are many ways to show this was not the case in the scriptures. But I do not have the time in this lesson to give all the ways we could show this is not true. I will just give one example that just because Jesus spoke to Peter as the rock and was given the keys to the kingdom that this does not make him a pope with a line of succession. In Acts 15 there is a critical juncture in the history of the church whether Gentiles need to keep the works of the law, particularly circumcision, in order to belong in the kingdom. Acts 15:6-7 reveals that the apostles and elders gathered and there was much debate over the issue. If Peter is the first pope and Jesus means that Peter has the unilateral keys of the kingdom, then why doesn’t Peter just tell everyone the answer and there not be a great debate in the first place? Further, when Peter does speak in Acts 15:7-11, why doesn’t that end the debate? Why does Paul and Barnabas also speak? Why does James the brother of Jesus also speak? What Acts 15 shows is Peter represented the apostles and he was not given unilateral authority to make doctrine and decrees. It is Christ’s kingdom and Jesus is telling Peter and the apostles in Matthew 16 that they are going to have the authority to continue Jesus’ work, which is exactly what we see in the book of Acts.
But let’s get back to the message now that we have cleaned up the false things that are often said about this scripture. Listen to what Jesus is proclaiming in verse 18 about his kingdom because it is glorious. Jesus is going to build his church. This is the first time Jesus uses the word “church” and he will only use it one other place in the Gospel of Matthew. The word “church” simply means “assembly.” Jesus proclaims that on the foundation of the apostles Jesus will build his assembly of saved people. We see this in the book of Acts. As the apostles proclaim the gospel being carried along by the Holy Spirit, Jews and Gentiles are being saved and added to the Lord’s number.
Now think about what Jesus says. The gates of Hades will not overpower or overcome it. Hades stands as the power of death. Death cannot overcome Jesus’ saved people. Nothing can have victory of Christ’s kingdom and those who belong to it. The church will never be extinguished. Friends, the kingdom of God is death-defying. Even in your physical death you still belong to Christ’s kingdom because death has no power over it. Death does not have the final say. Death has no control over your outcome when you belong to Christ. Listen to Jesus’ own words:
“Don’t be afraid. I am the First and the Last, and the Living One. I was dead, but look—I am alive forever and ever, and I hold the keys of death and Hades.” (Revelation 1:17–18 CSB)
So who do you say Jesus is? The only answer this gives us this hope over death is Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. The only answer that joins us to God’s assembly of saved people is Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. For if you confess Jesus is the Christ, then you will give your life to him because he has freed you, redeemed you, saved you, and removed the power of death so that we have no reason to fear anything in this life. Now we belong in God’s house built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus our Lord as the cornerstone.
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.” (Ephesians 2:19–21 ESV)