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

  1. In the Eastern Church we have yet another view of this, probably because, like with the Protestant Church, it’s difficult to acknowledge the Pope as the lord of the church. To us Peter did not laud himself as the head of the Apostles, instead he acted as just one of the twelve. In the East we view the Apostles similar to a Board of Directors of a corporation, each in charge of their area, with the Chairman (Peter) as just another vote on the board.

    When I read “gates of Hades will not overcome it” I see it as a prediction of the community and Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus teaches the disciples that He is to die in Jerusalem at the hand of the church leaders. When messiah’s died without overcoming Rome they were considered false messiahs and the community fell apart. I see this as Jesus telling Peter, and the others, that their assembly will not end with His death but will continue on.

  2. profoundlypk says:

    This is brilliant stuff. Two gems that I took away:
    1) That “rock in Aramaic would have been the same on the two times Jesus said it. What a insightful clarification. Do you have a link or reference for that?
    2) That church means assembly or gathered community. Not organisation. I know that of course. But it’s so hard to pull away from that wrong understanding when interpreting.

    Thank you, Don.

    Best wishes,


  3. Bette Cox says:

    Thanks, Don. Gates also represent seats of authority, don’t they?

  4. Pingback: Matthew 16:18-19; a closer look, part 1 — TLP – quietmomentswithgod

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