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 the rest. 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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23 Responses to Matthew 16:18-19; a closer look, part 1

  1. Well, he gave those same keys to the other apostles in the next chapter. Or am I jumping ahead?

  2. I appreciate the way you teach us and explain

  3. vw1212 says:

    Always had a serious thoughts on this theory of “building on a rock”. vw

  4. Barton Jahn says:

    Brilliant…I need to start reading your post more often!

  5. Mel Wild says:

    Good word. I appreciate you pointing out the word usage. Matthew was originally written in Aramaic. Peter’s name is Cephas in Aramaic, which is what Jesus would’ve called him.

    Your statement here is important for us to understand about the church:
    “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.”

  6. Pingback: “Matthew 16:18-19; a closer look, part 1” 10/28/2017 Posted by Don Merritt for “The Life Project” | God's group

  7. Like you, this section bothered me. I have problems with the concept of a Jesus building his followers based on a single person. If that was how it was to be, then why assemble twelve (eleven) followers out of the hundreds and give them special training if only one of them was to be the focus. After reading this passage in several translations, along with the Greek, my thought process came to this, please correct any errors.

    The Greek for “rock” does not refer to a rock you could pick up and throw, or use as a lawn edging, it was a boulder upon which a mountain was built, a foundation stone. With that in mind I look not to Peter, but to what Peter said that was the “rock” upon which the assembly was to be built, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This is the foundation on which everything was to be built, for if Jesus was not the Son of God then his sacrifice on the cross could not have atoned for the sin of Adam. Only someone who was both man and God could reunite man to God.

  8. Citizen Tom says:

    Makes sense.

    I was raised as a Catholic. Catholics make the argument that this passage somehow helps to justify the succession of bishops and popes. Seems like a stretch when Jesus just spoke to Peter about Peter. Yet the Catholic church is still carrying on this tradition. Amazing, when we consider the number of years.

    • I come from the Eastern tradition where the succession of bishops is accepted, but the reasoning / understanding is different. We see it as a continuation of the leadership in Jerusalem, but scattered after the fall of Jerusalem. No one leader is greater than another, it is through a consensus that the will of the Holy Spirit is divined. Sometimes that divination has been wrong and was corrected, after all, we are only human trying to grasp the will of the Divine,

      • Citizen Tom says:

        “We are only human….” I tend to regard the schisms among Christians as being due to that problem. I doubt any Christian sect has the theology completely right. The Bible is fairly clear about some points. Others, less important, we foul up either because we prefer to believe the wrong thing or we don’t know any better. I think the essence of Christianity is that Jesus is God, and He died for our sins. If we are willing to put our faith in Him, He will save us somehow, some way.

  9. Steve B says:

    Sorry Don but I have to challenge you on this explanation. I am not doing this to bring you down but to clear the fog.
    It doesn’t matter what Jesus said to the disciples in Aramaic. The scriptures are given to us in Greek. This being the case why did Matthew use Petros and Petra. When Matthew wrote the Gospel neither Petros nor Petra were common Greek words for rock, Lithos was the commonly used word. When you dig into it Petros means a moveable rock whereas Petra is an immovable slab of rock. For example Ayres Rock here in Australia is a Petra.
    If you go even deeper into it there is only one story in classical Greek that I could find that uses both of these words. The author is Thucydides and is the History of the Peloponnesian War It describes a battle between to companies of soldiers where the defenders are on a rise with a Petra (cliff) behind them and they rolled Petros (rocks) down the hill on the attackers.

    Again we need to ask the question, why did Matthew use these two uncommon words in this passage? He could have very easily used Lithos. I don’t agree that Peter built the church in any form at all. What has built the church over the millenia is revelation and specifically the revelation that Jesus is the Son of God. When Peter preached the first sermon, he revealed to the crowd that they had indirectly killed the Son of God. The Holy Spirit would have been busy revealing this truth to that crowd. Evangelism would be useless with the Holy Spirit revealing to the listeners that Jesus is the Son of God. In my own case I was given the gospel in 1975 but it was not until 1980 that the Father spoke to me revealing Himself and that Jesus was His Son. We can also see the damage the RCC has caused by claiming that Peter is the first pope and the church is built on them. In my humble and revealed opinion the church is built on revelation (Petra) not Peter (Petros).

    BTW Don I think you should be sacked from the INTP union 🙂 🙂

    • Don Merritt says:

      Steve, I haven’t said that the church was built on Peter, I said it was built on his statement that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God”.


      …that Peter would play a leading role in its founding.

      Which is exactly what happened.

  10. Amen! That awesome promise! No matter what the circumstances around us look like – God is in control. And not even the gates of hell can defeat our Lord Jesus Christ.

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