Peter and the Church: Follow up from Sermon

By January 5, 2015Blog

Matthew 16:18-19

18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock[a] I will build my church, and the gates of hell[b] shall not prevail against it. 19 I 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[c] in heaven.”

These two verses for years have been misunderstood and often time misapplied.  The most common misunderstanding with this passage is that the church is built on Peter and that this passage establishes him as the first head of the church.  This is the view of the Roman Catholic Church, which claims that Peter was the first Pope.  Furthermore, they claim that the authority given to Peter in this passage is now embodied in the succession of the Popes and Bishops of Rome since they succeed Peter.  This is a misinterpretation of this passage.

Peter is not the head of the church nor can he be.  Does he have a significant role of leadership in the church?  Absolutely.  Was he the first disciple/apostle to make this great confession?  Absolutely!  Was he the first one to preach in Acts about Jesus being the Christ?  Absolutely.  But he is not the head of the church.  Why?  Because Jesus is the head of the church (Col. 1:18).

So what does this passage mean?   Jesus is using a play on words.  In the Greek, the word Peter is literally, petros, which is Peter, pebble, rock or stone.  Then Jesus seems to change tense in the Greek and modifies the term.  He then uses the word Rock, or in the Greek, petra, which literally means rock bed.  So in one sense, Jesus is saying something like, “Peter you are a rock, but you are just one rock.  But there’s a rock bed and I’m going to build my church on that.”  What’s the rock bed?  The text and Scriptures affirm, that it is the confession that Peter just made.  If you were to read Ephesians 2:19-20, Paul writes, “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 upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus being the cornerstone.”  The apostles and the prophets were ones who too made this similar confession.  So a way of looking at this passage is to realize that the church is built on the confession of Jesus Christ as the Son of the Living God.  If Peter makes that confession, and the Apostles make that confession, and you and I make that confession, Jesus builds His church.

Jesus is going to build His church on Peter in this sense, the confession of this truth.  Not because of Peter’s office, not because of his rank within the disciples, not because he is more worthy than the others, etc.  ONLY because he was the first one to confess this truth and he did it as the representative of the other disciples.  Peter is not alone the foundation but as the confessor of the this truth, he becomes foundational to the building of the church during that time.

Today, the church is built on the same foundation.  That Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

So what about the keys?  What are the keys?  Again, doesn’t this mean that Peter is the leader of the church for all time?  No it doesn’t.  But what makes this one confusing is that the you is singular and Jesus is speaking directly to Peter.

Wilkins, in the NIV Application Commentary writes:

 The keys of the kingdom of heaven. The “keys” metaphor could point to a “generic power” given to Peter alone or to his “authority” over the house of God.43 But the building metaphor of the preceding saying more closely prepares for Jesus to pronounce Peter’s role in opening or shutting the doors to the kingdom of heaven. This saying gives a declaration about entrance to the kingdom, but authority is not too far removed: Peter is given the authority to admit entrance to the kingdom of heaven.

 In this way Peter stands in contrasts to the scribes and Pharisees, who shut off entrance to the kingdom (23:13). Peter’s mission is to give people access to the kingdom, and this mission involves especially his preaching of the gospel.46 Peter, the representative disciple who gives the first personal declaration of the Messiah’s identity, is the one in the book of Acts who opens the door of the kingdom to the Jews on Pentecost (Acts 2), to the Samaritans (Acts 8), and finally to the Gentiles (Acts 10). The entrance image is foremost in view, and therefore “the keys refer to the fact that chronologically Peter, acting as the representative of Jesus, was the first to announce the message.” Note that even though the Samaritans had “believed” through the preaching of Philip (8:4–13), Peter had to go there in order for them to receive the Holy Spirit as confirmation to the early church that God had now included the Samaritans (8:14–17). Once Peter used the keys to open the door to the kingdom of God, he passes from the scene. The door to the kingdom now stands open throughout the ages, so the keys are no longer needed.

That’s why I said earlier that Peter does have an important role.  The Church isn’t built upon Peter, nor is he the head of the church as it’s first Pope.  It’s this confession, which was revealed to him by God, is the foundation that the church is built upon.

When we handle the text, we must stay true to the text.  In the same vein, that’s how we must understand  what this binding and loosing is.  The keys, again, are not about the papacy in the church.  It’s about the church’s authority to open up the way to the kingdom of heaven based on this confession.  Also, the binding and loosing, again, can been mishandled and abused.  To stay true to the text, and true to Rabbinical teaching, the binding and loosing has to deal with sin and forgiveness/freedom.   The Rabbi’s used this language this way, “You’re bound to your sin…your loosed from your sin.  You’re bound in your sin if you don’t repent, and so on.”

The keys is the authority given to church based upon this confession of Jesus Christ.  Because of this confession, those in the church have the authority to say all people in the world – “if you turn from your sin and trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord, you will be free, loosed, from sin forever. ”  Also the opposite is true, “if you do not turn from sin and trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord, you are bound to your sin and it’s payment, eternity in hell.”

I know that this post was more academic than inspiring, but I hope that this clears up some confusion over this passage!



Brandon Zieske

Author Brandon Zieske

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Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Linda fort says:

    Thank you for explaining these passages.

  • Linda Kuhn says:

    This is so helpful, Brandon! I love hearing more about the history and Greek because, as I have told you, having grown up in the Catholic church this was not clear or explained. I appreciate you following in Pastor Rick’s footsteps in helping us learn more about scripture and the history of the church!

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