Matthew 16:18-19; a closer look, part 1

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. 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. 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.” Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Matthew 16:17-20

I’ve mentioned this before, but I think this is a good place to do so again: I don’t write this blog for theologians and scholars; it isn’t very “academic”. There are many wonderful blogs written for and by scholars and academics, and I doubt that one more is really needed; no sir, I write this for “regular” folks. Consequently, I avoid whenever possible, discussions of grammar and foreign languages that is fascinating to some, and quite confusing to others. I try to make the Scriptures clear and come alive for anyone who reads these posts, and I leave the academics to others, not that there is anything wrong with the academics; it’s just that they sometimes give way more information than is strictly needed for comprehension. To be sure, the style in which I write most of these posts is not the way I approached these texts as a professor in teaching seminary… but this isn’t seminary!

To a certain extent, this post will be an exception to my editorial norm, because in covering 16:18-19, there is little true comprehension of Jesus’ meaning, without some academics, but I will try to use them only as much as necessary, and not so much that your head will spin…

Our journey begins with the matter of Peter himself, and to understand his position in this text, we really need to avoid either of two extremes, and please understand that I intend neither disrespect nor offense to holders of either: On the one hand Roman Catholicism has read into these verses an elaborate doctrine of Papal succession and infallibility based upon a supposed investiture of Peter with exclusive authority and status. Protestants, on the other hand, in reaction have downplayed Peter’s central role, viewing him instead as either “just another disciple” or a being representative of all of the disciples. Setting both of the extremes aside for a moment, it is difficult for us to ignore the intensely personal way that Jesus addresses him in these verses. After Peter’s statement concerning Christ’s identity, Jesus uses the personal pronoun “you” no fewer than six times. In the process, Jesus even changes his name from Simon to Peter. You may also note the play on words between Jesus use of “you are” (sy eimi) in verse 18 with Peter’s use of the same words in verse 16 (“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”). Do you see it? “You are the Messiah…”; “you are the rock…”.

Scholars like to argue this point because in the Greek, the word for rock (petra) is feminine, but the word used for Peter has been made masculine to become a man’s name (Petros) and the result of this argument is that Peter cannot have been the “rock” upon which the church was built. I will admit that I have taught this way myself… until I considered one little detail, which really messed things up for me: Jesus was speaking Aramaic, not Greek.

In Aramaic, the word (kepha) in both cases, as in English, is the same gender. (You are kepha and on this kepha…) Thus, on Peter Jesus will build His “church”. This is the first time Matthew has used this word (ekklesia) and much has been made about Jesus building “The Church” upon Peter. What we must consider is the fact that ekklesia does not mean an organization, hierarchy or international headquarters; it simply means “assembly” or “community.”

What I take away from this is that Jesus is going to build His church (assembly/community) around Peter’s leadership, and if you skip ahead to Acts, that is exactly what happened. Peter was an apostle among other apostles, he held no office and he claimed nothing more than his apostleship, like the others. Yet we cannot miss the fact that he stepped forward and led the others during the crucial formative period of the church in Jerusalem.

The concept of “building” God’s church upon a foundation of rock comes from the idea that the people of God are a temple or a “house”; in the New Testament that “house” is called the “church”.  Thus, what we have here is a paradigm shift, from God dwelling with His people in the Temple, to God dwelling with His people in the Church; we do not have God establishing an institution on Peter’s shoulders.

After assuring Peter of his important role in building the church, Jesus goes one more step and assures him that “the gates of Hades” will not overcome it. The gates of Hades represent death; death will not overcome the church in the battles ahead, for the victory of God’s people over sin, evil and death is assured, and when the end of this world comes, the church of Jesus Christ will stand supreme.


Next time, I will complete this discussion when we take a look at “binding” and “loosing”; see you then.

About Don Merritt

A long time teacher and writer, Don hopes to share his varied life's experiences in a different way with a Christian perspective.
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19 Responses to Matthew 16:18-19; a closer look, part 1

  1. Mel Wild says:

    “Thus, what we have here is a paradigm shift, from God dwelling with His people in the Temple, to God dwelling with His people in the Church; we do not have God establishing an institution on Peter’s shoulders.” Amen. I think this is where we need to land on this issue.

    I would also agree that both takes have some validity, although I think Peter’s unique importance was taken to an extreme afterward. Peter never refers to himself as the foundational “rock,” and James seems to have been the leader (or spokesperson) in the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:13; 21:18). Furthermore, Paul saw Peter as just one of the “pillars” of the church, along with James and John (Gal.2:9).

    As you said, we can acknowledge that the short term meaning was indeed Peter’s immediate leadership after Jesus’ ascension. He was a “little rock.” The bigger picture, however, is that it is upon the revelation of Jesus Christ, our Chief Cornerstone, the Rock of our salvation, that the foundation of the church is laid. The whole New Testament affirms this view (i.e., Rom.9:33; 1 Pet.2:8; 1 Cor.3:11; 10:4). And Peter himself said that we are “living stones” with which we are being built together as His Temple, His body on the earth.

  2. Eliza says:

    I think it is good to just look at the text without worrying about all of the superfluous stuff. What did God say and how should I respond? Thank you for writing about what God has said. Very encouraging. This is very important when we consider that Paul said the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone. Their testimony to the truth about Jesus Christ is the foundation for our testimony of faith in Jesus Christ. I really like what you did. Praise God for His grace to us in Christ Jesus and the faithful Word of God which bears witness to the Son of God.
    Thank you for reading my latest post on holdingforthhisword. May we exalt in our God and Savior. Amen!

  3. TangentSpace says:

    I have read somewhere, when God changes the names of people, it means a new mission in life..a unique one..

  4. Hi. interesting post, but I find myself unconvinced by the Aramaic argument. It was used of old by Roman Catholic theologians when confronted with the Greek text, but it is the NT autographs that are authoritative, not any imagined Aramaic word use. Furthermore, Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:11 says that “no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ”, and even Peter speaks of Jesus as the stone which the builders rejected which has become the chief corner stone. Just a little more; I do not see the gates of Hades as attacking the church, but the church taking out the strongholds of Satan. Sorry to be contrary, but this passage is an important one. What is really interesting to me is the fact that Peter was probably not converted at this time. He flatly rejects the gospel message in a few versus time. Even in Matt 18, where the disciples argue over who will be the greatest, Jesus tells them that unless they are changed, and become like little children, there is no way these disciples will enter the Kingdom. Their converstion is chapters away yet. All the best,

  5. Interesting points, Don. We always have to consider the exact words Jesus used and compare them to later translations to understand His intent. I’m always edified by your explanations of NT text and often, you move my thinking forward. Thank you.

  6. Here’s a non-academic explanation for what the “rock” of Matthew 16 is:

    If the rest of the scriptures can be understood by looking at the Greek then Matthew 16 should be no different.

    Many times in the scriptures (especially Matthew’s gospel – 63 times), when Jesus would talk to people he would directly say, “I say to you…” and then follow up with the point.

    Now in Matthew 16:18 this is exactly what happened, and you even pointed this out.

    Jesus says something to Peter (…And I say to you that you are Peter...) but then the thought gets changed from a person to a principle (…and on this rock will my church be based…). The translation there is the Bible in Basic English btw.

    If Jesus were talking about Peter when he talked about the rock that his church would be built upon, he would have said, as the rest of Matthew’s letter shows, “And I say to you that you are Peter, and on [you] will my church be based”, but that’s not even close to what Jesus said.

    Again, whether you’re talking Greek or Aramaic, Jesus didn’t say,”I will build my church on you“…he said, “…on this rock….”

    I agree with your understanding that the gates of Hades is death. And that’s why I say that the rock that Jesus’ church is built on is the sonship of Jesus which was proven to be true by his resurrection from the dead. Hence, Paul would say, “But [Jesus] was marked out as Son of God in power by the Holy Spirit through the coming to life again of the dead; Jesus Christ our Lord,” (Romans 1:4 – BBE)

    I think it’s really that simple. Jesus is always the foundation (think footer) of the church (because of him being the authoritative son of God – Matthew 17:5) while the apostles and prophets became the building rocks/blocks that the rest of the church joined (1 Peter 2:5-8).

    For there is no other base for the building but that which has been put down, which is Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 3:11) (And this just so happens to be a verse set in a context of Paul correcting Christians for saying that their faith was built upon Paul, Apollo, Peter and Jesus – 1 Corinthians 1:12).

  7. A good work, Don.

    The concept of “building” God’s church upon a foundation of rock comes from the idea that the people of God are a temple or a “house”; in the New Testament that “house” is called the “church”. Thus, what we have here is a paradigm shift, from God dwelling with His people in the Temple, to God dwelling with His people in the Church; we do not have God establishing an institution on Peter’s shoulders.

    This fits very well with Jesus’ comments to the Samaritan woman, where He tells her that soon worship will be neither on their mountain or in the Temple at Jerusalem, but from the Spirit. Consider that this is a move backwards to before the tent in which he dwelt during the Exodus, when God was worshiped wherever believers gathered. That we will no longer worship (as necessity) in a building, as an institution, but as followers, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

  8. Michael Andrew Williams says:

    Thanks for sharing out of your conviction. Perhaps you will find this a path to further explore and grasp: Throughout the Scriptures, the “Rock” is Jesus himself (the way, the truth, the life, the resurrection); and the “new foundation” is operation by the Holy Spirit (the Comforter, the Spirit of Prophecy, the Spirit of Truth). Thus, many mature Christian believers understand, “upon this truth–flesh and blood will not reveal, the Holy Ghost must endow. Be encouraged!

  9. Andrea Frazer says:

    Hi – I’d love to know what some of your favorite books are that talk about the history of the church and the Greek vs. Aramaic. I appreciate your post, too!

    • Don Merritt says:

      Here are a few leads for you:

      1. “A History of the Exegesis of Matthew 16:17-19 from 1781 to 1965” by J. A. Burgess

      2. If you can get it, J.A. Fitzmeyer wrote an interesting study: Aramaic Kepha and Peter’s Name in the New Testament” in To Advance the Gospel: New Testament Studies(New York, Crossroad, 1981)

      …and it also helps if you can read those languages 🙂

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