Probably the most important issue that the writers of the books that eventually were collected into the New Testament had to face was the identity of Jesus. Matthew’s gospel describes how King Herod misidentifies him with John the Baptist in chapter 14, while others marvel at his miracles and others deny his importance in the following two chapters.
Chapter 16 begins with a group of emissaries from Jerusalem’s religious elite approaching Jesus and demanding that he perform a “sign” for them. He had just finished doing a series of miracles with literally thousands of eyewitnesses around the northern areas of Galilee and the Decapolis, so their request was clearly redundant. Jesus gives them a tongue-lashing and leaves them. (Matt. 16:1-4)
Later Jesus asks his disciples who they believe him to be, and Simon jumps in with both feet, saying, “You are the Christ [Messiah], the Son of the living God.” Jesus tells him that he is blessed because only God the Father could have revealed that to him. (Matt. 16:16-17)
What he tells Peter next (verses 18-19) takes him completely by surprise.
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.”
There are a lot of things to unpack in these two sentences. Let’s look at the phrases about Peter and the rock first. Some things to notice are:
- There is a play on words as Jesus changes Simon’s name to “Peter.” Peter’s name literally means “stone” in Greek, the language the book was written in. So Jesus was saying that Peter was “stone” [petros] and that a “rock” [petra] was the foundation he would build his church on. The word-play doesn’t work as well in English. We might say something like, “you are Rocky, and on this rock I will build my church.”
- When Jesus says “this rock,” he is making a deliberate reference to a prophecy in Isaiah 28:16. “So this is what the Sovereign LORD says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation; the one who trusts will never be dismayed.”
- Jesus also refers to himself as “the stone the builders rejected” that has become “the capstone” in Matt. 21:42, a reference to Psalm 118:22-23. The idea that he himself is the foundation-stone is not foreign to Jesus himself.
- Even the Apostle Paul is familiar with Jesus as the “cornerstone” as he writes to the church in Ephesus. (Eph. 2:20)
- Since “stone” is a smaller version of “rock,” Jesus is probably calling Peter something like “a chip off the old block.” Peter’s mission will be so similar to Jesus’ mission that you could say that they are “made of the same stuff.” Peter will become closely identified with Jesus. Jesus is the foundation and Peter will build on that foundation.
The next phrase about the “gates of Hades” not prevailing against the church is often interpreted as though hell is on the offensive against the church. Students of military history realize that gates are actually a defensive emplacement, not offensive weaponry. The church will win out against “Hades,” which is the Greek word for the place of the dead, or the grave. The word is often translated “hell” in English Bibles. The idea here is that the church will succeed in saving people from the clutches of death – even if they have already died – so long as they believe in and follow Jesus. (This, of course, does not answer all of the questions we would like to have answered, such as, “What happens to those who never knew Jesus?”)
The final section is about Jesus giving Peter “the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” which enables him to “loose” and “bind” things on earth and in heaven.
- What do we normally use keys for? The most common use is for unlocking doors that have been locked. It is possible for it to mean locking up prison cells or shackles. A third, figurative use was in vogue among Jewish scholars at the time: permitting or forbidding actions according to interpretations of the Law of God.
- The “keys of the kingdom” would have brought to mind a prophecy in Isaiah 22:22. “ I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.” This statement is said to apply directly to Jesus in Revelation 3:7-8. He places an open door that no one can shut before his church, suggesting an opening for the gospel.
- A look at how Peter is used to establish the foundations of the Church in Jesus might help us see which of the uses of the keys makes the most sense. In Acts 2:14-41 it is Peter who first preaches the gospel to his own countrymen, beginning the first congregation of converts to Jesus.
- In Acts 10:1-48 Peter meets with a family group of Gentiles and preaches to them, establishing the first Gentile congregation of Christians and establishing their right to enter into the salvation intended originally for the Hebrew people.
- In this way, Peter builds the foundation of the church with both Jewish and Gentile believers, even before Paul becomes the primary Apostle to the Gentiles. The “keys” seem to be ones that open doors for entry into the Kingdom of God. Peter has used them to open the doors to Hebrew and Gentile missions.
- Nothing in Jesus’ statements to Peter imply a direct lineage of individuals who will later appropriate the power to make binding decisions about what is allowed or not allowed in the entirety of the church. Once Peter opens the doors, “no man can shut.”
As the first of the disciples to recognize Jesus’ unique identity as the Son of God and as Israel’s Messiah, Peter is commissioned to unlock the door of the gospel (“good news”) about Jesus’ Lordship through His death and resurrection to both his own Jewish people and the wider Gentile world. Once opened, those doors will not be closed again until Jesus returns and shuts them himself.
Our next post will begin to visit what Peter means about Jesus as Messiah and Son of God.