I Will Build My Church

October 10, 2014 Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen Series: The Gospel of Matthew

Scripture: Matthew 16:1–16:20

Synopsis: The passage we are considering in this sermon (Matthew 16:1-20) contains what is often referred to as “Peter’s Great Confession”. What was Peter confessing and why was it so significant? And how does it relate to Jesus promise: I Will Build My Church.


The passage we are studying today brings to my mind a very old memory. The central event and paragraph in this section is often referred to as “Peter’s Confession.” I will always remember that because of an experience I had in 7th grade. I was attending a school for missionaries’ children, so we had regular Bible classes as part of our school curriculum. One day, we had been assigned a passage of Scripture to read for our homework. I failed to read it. As the class started that day, the teacher gave us a pop quiz. She wrote on the black board: “Write a brief paragraph describing Peter’s confession.” I was caught. But I decided to bluff my way out. I knew who Peter was and I knew what confession was. So I started writing about how Peter one day came to Jesus and began to confess all his sins. But the more I wrote, the worse I felt. They say that the first rule of holes is, when you’re in one, stop digging. So I crumpled up my paper and walked in embarrassment to the teacher’s desk to make my own confession – that I had not done my assignment.

What I learned that day (apart from the importance of doing my homework) was that Peter’s confession had nothing to do with sin, but rather his profession of faith in the identity of Jesus.

Matthew 16 contains one of the most pivotal, crucial and all-important passages in the Gospel of Matthew if not in the whole of Scripture. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most confusing and controversial passages in the Bible; one that has spawned endless debate and has divided Christendom into different camps. Even among evangelical Christians who share a common systematic theology, there are different opinions on how to interpret some of the details in this passage.

I say this to remind us that it is appropriate for us to approach this passage with caution and humility; seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit and yet recognizing that it is likely that, at the end of the day, we may be left with some questions and uncertainties that we are unable to resolve with any degree of dogmatism. On the other hand, while there may be uncertainties in some of the details of the text and its interpretation, the ringing declarations of this chapter form the bedrock of the Christian faith, answering the great questions: Who is Jesus and what on earth is he doing today?

The chapter opens with another controversy with the religious hierarchy of the day. In verse 1, we read: And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven.

Jesus recognizes the insincerity and hostility of their intent, and refuses to oblige. In fact, this renewed conflict leads him to withdraw from the region once again. As they are departing, Jesus warns his disciples and cautions them to beware of the Pharisees and the Sadducees and their teaching.

I am moving rather quickly over these first two paragraphs, because I want to spend most of our time on the central paragraph of the chapter. But these two paragraphs do remind us that what is about to follow is taking place in the context of rejection and hostility toward Jesus and his ministry by the Jewish leadership.
Jesus then leads his disciples about 25 miles further north, up onto the slopes of Mount Hermon, to the district of Caesarea Philippi. This was again a largely Gentile and in fact Roman area. More significantly, Caesarea Philippi was the location of a shrine to the Roman god, Pan and a center of cultic worship. It was an area that was surrounded by visual reminders of the many conflicting religious claims and worship systems of the day.

There Jesus begins to question his disciples. His first question is a general one. “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (This was Jesus’ typical way of referring to himself.) In essence, he is asking, “What are the opinion polls of the day saying about me?”

The answers vary. “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” The John the Baptist answer can be traced to the superstitious response of Herod. The other answers could be traced back to Old Testament prophecies or expectations. The answers are evidence of the confusion that existed about Jesus’ identity. But they also show how highly he was respected and the esteem in which many still held him. Jesus’ identity was the burning question of the day. Everyone had an opinion.

But then Jesus makes it much more specific and personal. He turns to his disciples and asks them point blank. “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?”

At this point, we have to keep in mind everything we have read so far in the first 15 chapters of Matthew. Both the miracles and the opposition; both the huge enthusiastic crowds, and the rejection by the Jewish leaders; both the feeding of the 5000 and the crowds that melted away when he proclaimed himself to be the Living Bread.

“What is your conclusion now?” he asked his disciples. “After all this, after all you’ve seen, after all you’ve heard, after all you’ve experienced; what do you say now? Who do you say that I am? What do you believe about me?”

It is the essential question of faith. It is the most important question that any one of us will ever answer. What do we believe about Jesus? Who is he?

It is Peter who steps up to the challenge and answers the question for himself and, I believe, for the rest of the disciples. With divinely given insight and great clarity he answers:

“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Let’s look at this carefully. The title “Christ” means “anointed one”. It is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word “Messiah.” It is a word that Matthew has used sparingly in his Gospel up to now. There are several occurrences in his introduction and in his account of Jesus’ birth. Otherwise the word has been missing in his account, apart from one reference in Matthew 11 when John the Baptist sends messengers to inquire about Jesus’ identity, asking in some doubt: “Are you the one we are waiting for? Or should we look for someone else?”

Now Peter declares his faith, in light of all he has seen and in spite of the growing doubt, rejection and opposition from the Jews: “You are the Christ! You are the One we have been waiting for!”

He also adds: the Son of the living God. “The living God” is a phrase that takes on increased resonance in light of where they were standing. In Caesarea Philippi, formerly named Panea; there was a shrine there for pagan worship, with a large stone face with many niches carved in it, each occupied by an image to the god “Pan”. And before that, this area was a center of worship to the ancient bull god, Baal. All of this history and all of these images were there, giving testimony to man’s attempts to suppress the knowledge of the true God and to worship man-made idols who are not gods at all. In that context of religious confusion and religious pluralism, Peter declares: You are the Son of the living God. The true God. The only God.

You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. There is some debate over whether the Jews understood these two titles to go together. Did they expect the Messiah to be the Son of God? I will leave that for others to answer. But we can say with confidence that the New Testament clearly proclaims him to be so. The disciples themselves have even declared their emerging faith on an earlier occasion when Jesus walked to them on the water: “Truly, you are the Son of God!” Budding faith has now reached full flower in Peter’s declaration.

And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.

First of all, Jesus endorses Peter’s declaration by referring to God as “my Father who is in heaven.” He also clearly declares that such faith as Peter has displayed is not of any human origin. It is a divinely revealed truth. Ultimately, faith in Jesus comes as a result of divine revelation, not human logic or reason, although God may use logic and reason as one means to draw people to Jesus. But there is an “Aha!” moment when the veil drops from our spiritual eyes and we see Jesus for who he is which is a divine work of grace accomplished by the Spirit of God.

It is in Jesus’ next words that we encounter our interpretive challenges.

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell 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 in heaven.”

The interpretive difficulties are real and the opinions are many, so I proceed with both caution in my efforts and humility in my conclusions.

Let’s start with the word “church.” This is the Greek word “ekklesia” and it is the first occurrence of the word in the New Testament, and one of only two occurrences in Matthew’s gospel. We will see the other one in a couple weeks when we get to Matthew 18. The other gospel writers do not use the word at all. It is in the Book of Acts and the epistles that we find this word being used in page after page and paragraph after paragraph.

But this is the first occurrence. So this is new. This is different. This is a dramatic paradigm shift in the unfolding plan of God. The word “ekklesia” comes from root words meaning to “call out” and was used to refer to a “called out assembly.” In light of Jesus’ growing rejection by the Jewish nation which will culminate in his crucifixion, Jesus is going to do something different. He is going to build something new. He is going to build an assembly of dedicated, “called out” followers and disciples.

You are Peter. Jesus is about to make a word play off Peter’s name. Peter was actually a name that Jesus gave him when he first called him. In Greek the name is “petros” and it means “rock”.

…and on this rock I will build my church… What is “this rock” upon which Jesus will build his church? That is the key question. There are three main schools of thought or opinion on the question.

The first interpretation is that Jesus himself is the “rock” on which the church will be built. This is a theologically attractive interpretation. It certainly aligns itself with other similar Scriptures in which Jesus as the Christ is identified as the “cornerstone” of the church and the only “foundation” that can be laid. However, it does not seem to fit the grammar and imagery which Jesus is using here. In this image, Jesus is the builder of the church (“I will build my church…) rather than the “Rock” on which it is built.

The second interpretation is that the rock is Peter’s confession. There is a slight change in grammatical form here. When Jesus says “You are Peter…” the Greek word is “Petros”, a masculine noun. When Jesus says “…on this rock”, he uses “petra”, a feminine form of the word. There is also some discussion about a distinction between the meaning of the two forms of the word; that while the word “petros” refers to a stone or piece of rock, the word “petra” more commonly refers to a large, monolithic stone. So this interpretation traces “the rock” back, not to Peter himself, but to his ringing confession and faith in Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” So the rock on which the church is built is the common faith in Jesus’ identity. Once again, this is a theologically attractive interpretation. However, some Greek grammarians argue that the grammatical arguments are questionable. Something else that works against it is that Jesus was most probably speaking in Aramaic, in which case the word would have been “Cephas”, and in Aramaic there is only the one word for “rock” and no distinctive forms of the word for gender or distinctions in word meaning.

The third interpretation is the simplest and most straightforward. Peter’s name, given to him by Jesus, is “Rock” and he is the rock on which Jesus will build his church. Out of this interpretation emerge some of the key doctrines of the Roman Catholic church of Peter as the first “pope” and the doctrines of papal succession. These doctrines also go on to tie in the following verse:

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 in heaven.

This verse, added to the interpretation of Peter himself as the “rock” on which Christ is building his church has given rise to belief in the authority of the official church as constituted under papal authority to carry out heaven’s decrees on earth.

It is not my intent to engage in this ancient debate between Catholics and Protestants this morning. I only raise the issue to say that it is possible to accept the interpretation that Jesus’ words here do refer to Peter as the rock on which Jesus will build his church, without necessarily accepting all the other conclusions that have grown up around it.

Because I have come to the conclusion that this third interpretation is the strongest one. The simplest interpretation of a passage is usually to be preferred unless there is a strong case to be made against it. I believe what Jesus is saying is rather simple and straightforward. He is commending Peter most highly for his faith. In this commendation he is making a prophecy that Peter, because of his faith and in his role as the lead disciple and apostle, will play a vital role in the establishing of the church.

This is born out in the rest of the gospel record. While Peter’s name has come up only a few times so far in Matthew’s gospel, it becomes more and more frequent in the chapters that follow, and always as a leader and spokesman for the other disciples. Yes, he fumbles the ball frequently, and suffers catastrophic failure in denying Jesus on the night of his trial. But after his restoration following Jesus’ resurrection, he stands forth as the clear leader of the apostolic band. He stands up and preaches the first sermon of the “church” on the Day of Pentecost and is clearly deferred to as the leader and spokesman in the early days of the church.

What about the reference to the “binding and loosing” in verse 19? Let’s first look carefully at the grammar of this verse. The grammar here is very specific, although it does not come across clearly in our English translations. The form here is what is called a “future perfect”. I am sure that means a great deal to all of you! But it is important.

We might translate it this way: “whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” In other words, as you act on earth, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, you are simply carrying out what has already been decreed in heaven.

I believe this to be a reference to Peter’s role in the opening of the church to others in the Book of Acts. When word reaches the church in Jerusalem that Samaritans are coming to faith, whom does the church send to investigate? In Acts 8:14, we are told that “they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit.”

And of course, when God wants to fling open the doors of his church to the Gentiles, whom does he send? Once again it is Peter who receives the divine revelation and then goes to the house of Cornelius in Acts 10 to announce heaven’s decree: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34). Even in this he did not act alone but goes back to the rest of the Apostles in Jerusalem, where together they conclude: “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

By the way, the authority that Jesus seems to give to Peter alone in this verse is extended to all the apostles in John 20 and to the officially assembled authority of a local church in Matthew 18 in a passage we will look at in a couple weeks.

I believe what Jesus is announcing here is elaborated in Ephesians 2:19-22 in that great epistle on the church:

19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

The apostles, Peter chief among them, played a pivotal role in the establishing of the church on its doctrinal foundations. This, I believe, is what Jesus is prophesying in the passage before us today. Yes, Jesus is the key to it all. He is the “cornerstone” that holds it all together. And yes, faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, is the essential common ingredient among all who would become members of the Church that Jesus is building and therefore “members of the household of God.” But in this particular passage in Matthew, I believe Jesus is singling out Peter, commending his faith and prophesying about the crucial role that he will play in the forming of his church.

And having said this, I humbly admit that there is room for differences of opinion on these details of interpretation. But as quickly as I say that, let me hasten to add that there are some clear pronouncements here in this text upon which there is no room for equivocation.

There is the first clear declaration of Jesus as to his purposes on earth. I will build my church. This is what Jesus is doing on earth, and has been doing since the Day of Pentecost. He is building his church, his assembly of called out ones, disciples who believe in him as Savior and follow him as Lord. Whether they assemble in the grandest of cathedrals, or meet in the sparse shade of a thorn tree to escape the heat of the desert sun, or worship with silent hymns in the depths of the Catacombs, wherever followers of Jesus come together in assembly to worship, study the Scriptures and encourage one another in the walk of faith – Jesus is building his church. Every time a new person comes to faith and is baptized as a testimony to that faith, a living stone is added to the church.

And I love what comes next: And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. What is the promise Jesus is making here? “The gates of hell” should be translated “the gates of Hades.” Hades refers to the place of the dead, and the “gates of Hades” was the common euphemism to refer to death. So we can literally translate these words of Jesus as: “I will build my church and death itself shall not prevail against it.”
Whose death? Jesus’ own death to start with. Jesus died. But on the third day he rose from the dead. He conquered death by the power of his resurrection. Death could not prevail against Jesus and because of his resurrection, death cannot prevail against his church, because we shall be raised as well. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:54-57:

54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55 “O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

And some day the whole church will be assembled, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!” (Revelations 7:9-10)

This is what Jesus was announcing that day to his disciples. I will build my church, and the gates of Hades (death itself) shall not prevail against it.” Because death is a conquered enemy.

But the vital question for us today is, who will be included in that “great multitude” described in Revelation? Who is included in this church that Jesus is building and how do we enter it? For the answer to this question, we come back to Peter’s confession and my answer and your answer to the question Jesus asked his disciples that day:

“But you…who do you say that I am?”

Are we ready to confess, along with Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”? It is the most important question that we will ever answer.

Lest we think that this is simply an academic question of theology, listen to how the Apostle John presents it. In his first epistle, John is defining and describing the person who knows God and who has eternal life. He presents three tests by which we can know whether we have eternal life or not. And the first of the three tests is the Belief Test and the key to the Belief Test is what we believe about Jesus. In his clear and typical black and white categories, John lays it out.

In 1 John 5:1 he writes: Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God…

He continues in a similar vein in verse 4-5:

4 For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. 5 Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

John summarizes in verses 9-11:

9 If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son. 10 Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. 11 And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.

And then John concludes this train of thought with these words in verse 13:

13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.

That’s why I say that this is the most important question that you and I will ever answer. And Jesus is still asking the question today: “Who do you say that I am?”
What will your confession be?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Read Matthew 16:1-20
  2. Why do you think Jesus did not honor the Pharisees and Sadducees request for a sign? What was the sign of Jonah Jesus referred to in verse 4?
  3. What lessons is Jesus trying to teach his disciples in verses 5-12?
  4. How does the fact that the exchange in verses 13-20 took place in Caesarea Philippi (a center of cultic worship) add extra impact to Peter’s confession?
  5. Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the three interpretations of the “rock” in verse 18. (e.g. the rock is Jesus, the rock is Peter’s confession and the rock is Peter himself). Note: remember, at the end of the discussion you may have to agree to disagree – hopefully amicably!
  6. Pastor Cam pointed out in the sermon that the “gates of hell” should be translated the “gates of Hades” and it was a common euphemism for death. How does this interpretation affect our understanding of this statement?
  7. Why do you think Jesus did not want the disciples to tell people that he was the Christ?
  8. Why is what we believe about Jesus so vital? (For cross-reference, see 1 John 5:1, 4-5, 9-13)

More in The Gospel of Matthew

November 14, 2014

We Beheld His Glory!

October 17, 2014

To Follow Jesus

October 3, 2014

Reflections on Children, Dogs and Bread