Back when they had arrived on the northeast shore of the Sea of Galilee and Jesus had told his disciples to beware the leaven of the Pharisees, the disciples misinterpreted. And Jesus said that they misinterpreted because of their little faith. We should try to understand what’s happening here through Christ’s perspective because, after all, he is the one who is driving the action. Jesus had just left the Pharisees and Sadducees after their confrontation. This confrontation was weighing heavily on his mind because he recognized the religious and political establishment growing increasingly antagonistic toward him. He recognized that the time was short. He wanted to complete his ministry especially with his disciples in teaching them of the kingdom and his own lordship as king. With this on his mind, Jesus offers the leaven comment only to see his disciple students fail again. And they fail precisely because of lack of faith—a settled rest in God as purpose, motivation, meaning, and value for every aspect of life. They left their boat and walked first to Bethsaida and then north to Caesarea Philippi—a distance of 25-30 miles, rising in altitude about 1700 feet. That trip, occurring between the 12th and 13th verses of Matthew 16 probably took at least a couple of days, depending on their hurry.
What do you suppose they discussed during these two or three days on the road? Considering Jesus’ mindset, he probably spent the entire time explaining again the kingdom message and who exactly he was. So when they arrive at Caesarea Philippi, move and mingle among the inhabitants, and then gather back together, Jesus wants to know how his teaching has affected their life and interaction. So he asks first what people say about him. But then he gets to the important question—the question that would reveal how the disciples were thinking, whether they had learned anything. “And when you hear what they say about me, what do you then tell them? Who do you say that I am?” Peter connects the dots. He jumps at the chance to show Jesus that he has learned from the kingdom teaching. “We tell them that you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Notice he doesn’t stop at Christ (Messiah). Jesus is actually the Son of God. And Peter adds—Son of the living God. Here is solid evidence that Peter understands the teaching. He demonstrates an understanding of the total foundation of life that God is and how this living God infuses all life with purpose and meaning.
Jesus is thrilled with Peter’s response. Peter understands. Just a few verses earlier Jesus told Peter and the others that they had little faith—little established trust in God. And that wasn’t the first time. Three other times Matthew had recorded Jesus telling the disciples of their little faith—in the Sermon on the Mount, in the storm on the sea, when Peter lost his step walking on the sea—all issues of trust in God. But now Peter understands faith and trust in God, demonstrated through his declaration. And not again through this record in Matthew does Jesus ever say to him again “O you of little faith” in regard to his foundational trust in God.
Jesus tells Simon that he is blessed—not that he will receive a blessing for his declaration, but rather that he is blessed in how he was able to know this truth. It was not from his parents that he learned it. He did learn it from the leavening of the Pharisees or even from the old covenant’s rabbinical teaching. It was not by flesh and blood, but rather directly from God himself. Here we see the beginning formation of the New Covenant experience. Jeremiah 31:31 and 33 state: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” In Matthew 16:17 Jesus tells Simon this exact truth—that he understands Jesus as the Son of the Living God because God has revealed it to him. And this entwining of Simon’s faith with the revealed truth of God is what has thrilled Jesus. And then he calls Simon a rock.
The rock reference is much debated. He called Peter a rock and said he would build his church on the rock. Does it mean he builds it on Peter? Is Peter truly the foundation for all the church? Do we rest on Peter? Protestants usually run to the Greek and argue that Simon is called petros (a rock or stone) while the church foundation is called petra.(a rock formation or ledge). While it may seem to offer some difference, we have to remember that at this point Jesus was probably speaking Aramaic instead of Greek, and (so far as we know) the Aramaic does not have this same kind of distinction. But the Greek is the inspired text! Why would God offer the distinction in the inspired text if he had not meant for it to be there? The answer is that in translating the Aramaic into Greek, you can’t name Simon with the feminine form of the word. The Greek had to use petros in referring to Simon while keeping petra for the equivalent church foundation.
Who then is the rock? Some have suggested that the rock is the truth which Simon exclaimed about Jesus being the Christ, the Son of the living God. Others suggest that Jesus pointed to Simon when he called him petros and then pointed to himself when he said, “and on this rock I will build my church.” Neither of these answers seems to fit well in the context. Neither of them explains why Jesus is calling Peter a rock. I don’t believe we can manipulate the text away from the conclusion that Jesus is addressing Simon. Simon is the rock and on that rock Christ would build his church. The address seems clear. What we must decide, however, is how the context fits this address. Why suddenly does Jesus pick Peter to be the church’s foundation? He was still fallible (look forward in the chapter). Is this a prize because he was first to shout out that Jesus was God? It seems odd that this would qualify Peter to hold the entire church of God.
The context makes clear that Jesus was excited about the intertwining of God’s revelation with Peter’s faith. Based on what we know of God’s revelation and the emphasis on faith throughout the New Testament, should we not focus here on that on which Christ seems to focus? Within Simon—yes, Simon the person—Jesus recognizes this spiritual activity that God declared to Jeremiah—this revelation of God entwining with a person’s faith to settle this person in the New Covenant. It is this—the entwining of faith and revelation—which will mark the entrance into the New Covenant—the entrance into the kingdom of God. It is the entwining of faith and revelation that Paul preaches about throughout Romans and Galatians that distinguishes the true heirs of Abraham and then joint-heirs with Christ. It is this entwining of faith and revelation that distinguishes the church of God. It is this entwining of faith and revelation, then, that is the rock upon which Christ builds his church.
Yes, Jesus is speaking directly to Peter because Jesus recognizes in Peter this entwining of faith with the revelation of God. But because he is here speaking to Peter does not mean that Peter is unique in this entwining faith with the revelation of God. Surely John and James have also had this foundation of spiritual activity occur within them. Surely all those who believe the gospel have this same spiritual activity. And this is precisely how the church is built on this rock. Jesus goes on to tell Peter that the gates of hell (death) will not prevail against the church since it unites people with God through this spiritual entwinement.
The next couple of statements are also not without controversy. What does Jesus mean when he tells Peter that he will give him 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 in heaven”? Binding and loosing were terms used by in Jewish law to speak of that which was not permitted and that which was permitted. Would Peter (or, all those within whom the rock of God’s revelation with entwining faith existed) actually decide that something was permitted or not permitted and then God and heaven would follow suit? We’ll call on the Greek again. The phrase telling us of the binding and loosing in heaven is actually in the future perfect tense. Therefore, a better translation might be “whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” So, instead of the action on earth causing the action in heaven, the reverse is true. What is already permitted or not permitted in heaven will be made evident on earth through these in whom the foundational rock exists. This is again clueing us into Jeremiah’s new covenant passage. Rather than a book and a teaching, God has “put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” By this, Jesus is saying the exact thing God had said through Jeremiah.
Those “keys of the kingdom of heaven” then (in contrast with the gates of hell) are not symbols of authority by which Peter allows or disallows another person’s entrance. They stand for the free access each of us is given to come in directly before God. We freely and directly come to him (keys), and he directly speaks to our hearts (binding and loosing).
Returning in our minds to the scene, Jesus was questioning the disciples to discover whether they had learned faith—the rest and trust settled in God. Jesus wanted to know who they told others that he was. Now finding out and being thrilled with the answer they gave, Jesus immediately “strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ” (16:20). What?…But why?
The disciples had not learned it all yet. They (or at least Peter – and it seems John and James) had learned Part 1 of the kingdom teaching, but Part 2 was still to come. Jesus did not want them teaching others about Part 1 without Part 2. So, he tells them not to tell about him as the Christ, the Son of the living God, just yet. Between this point and the end of the book when Jesus does instruct the disciples to tell the world, a significant event takes place—the death and resurrection of Christ. This is Part 2—the lesson they still must learn. And, in fact, the next verse (16:21) tells us that Jesus began this teaching right away. Peter, just blessed and commended for understanding Part 1, is first to fail in understanding Part 2.