Few portions of scripture have caused as great a division among believers as the verses recorded in Mathew 16:18-19. Doctrines have been created from them as well. The result of this comes from three possibilities -the correct interpretation, erred interpretation, or eisegesis with agenda. Hundreds, if not thousands of others preceding myself have tried to resolve, through explanation, this division, without success. I have no illusions to assume this article will resolve the matter, nor is this my intent; however, what I am putting forth is factually correct. The conclusions I submit in this article result from careful and systematic study from a variety of sources. It is the truth, but I leave the choice or acceptance or rejection of this truth to the reader.
Let’s reexamine the sequence of events leading up to these verses beginning at the beginning using grammatical basics. The telling of any story should define most of the following: who, what, when, where, and why—known in grammar as the five W’s, or interrogative words. Interrogative words are words used to ask questions, and those questions are the five W’s. If we use this interrogative method while seeking to understand this portion of Mathew’s Gospel, we will find the answers we seek, and it will also serve as a guide in proper interpretation. If we try to change any of these five, it changes the story’s entire point. And this portion of scripture has been the victim of eisegesis more often than exegesis.
What Mathew record’s about this event in chapter 16 begins in verse 13 and ends in verse 20. Yet the controversy starts in verse 18, “You are Peter, and upon this rock, I will build My church,” (Mathew 16:18). Using the 5 W method, we arrive at our first question -who is speaking? This first W even begs a second -who is going to build? If you change the who in verse 18 without considering the previous verses as part of the whole, you change the theme of the entire story. And this rejection of the total in favor of the portion is precisely what The Latin church has done. They’ve changed the ‘who,’ in the storyline by insisting Peter is the main character. They conclude Peter is the main character, and the ‘what,’ is the power and authority granted to him at this time by Jesus. They have ignored the context by skipping through verses 13 through 17 and landing on verse 18. And without proper context, you come to the wrong conclusions about the verse.
The Latin’s claim of being ‘the real Church, the only Church, the universal Church, founded by Peter rests mainly on their misinterpretation of verses 18 and 19. They hail Peter as being the first pope. There is no scriptural or historical evidence to support this claim other than misquoting and tradition. Tradition can be accepted as fact if it doesn’t disagree with either documented history or scriptural authority. If we find tradition at odds with either, tradition must give way to the truth of history and the supreme authority of scripture.
During the second and third centuries of Christianity, the Church in Rome was far and away the wealthiest Church in the Mediterranean region. This wealth gave them significant leverage in ‘deciding’ what was and was not the correct interpretation of hard-to-understand scripture verses. And they used this leverage to their advantage. One needs only to read the early history of the Christian Church to see this stick-and-carrot wielding of power in action.
The truth is Peter never founded any church. There is no account of Peter establishing any church in the entire book of Acts. The ‘Church’ is the universal body of believers that constitute it. The Church is not, nor has it ever been, headquartered in Rome or any other city.
We know a thriving church already existed before Peter arrived in Rome. So how can you find something that already exists? We have every reason to believe the Apostle Paul arrived in Rome before Peter, and to assume Paul did nothing regarding the body of believers in Rome until after Peter’s arrival is without merit whatsoever. Let’s return to these verses, laying aside preconceived ideas and traditions, and reexamine what is said to us and why.
Peter is not the focal point of this encounter; Jesus is. Mathew recorded this entire scenario to show that Jesus is the Christ of God, the promised Messiah and that He would build his Church upon Himself. Peter was not given any special authority or leadership role at this time -how do we know this? The Holy Spirit had not been poured out and wouldn’t be until Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension. As told in the same chapter, it is Peter who Satan would use to attempt to dissuade Jesus from His mission, earning a stern rebuke.
“But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” (Mathew 16:23)
This same powerless Peter would deny even knowing Jesus in answer to a person of no social consequence, a servant girl. This behavior was not Peter the rock, with any particular power, gift, or authority. Peter, along with the rest of the disciples, would be given direction and governance, and Peter a unique privilege, by the Holy Spirit, but not at this time.
If Peter was indeed the foundational rock of the Church, the rest of the authors of the New Testament ignored the fact, which is entirely absurd. Mathew is the only Apostle who records this conversation in its entirety. The other Gospels mention the event -Peter’s confession and Jesus’s instruction, but nothing of Peter’s supposed foundational ordination.
The omission of the details of the conversation in Mark’s Gospel is telling. Why? Because most Biblical scholars believe Peter dictated the Gospel of Mark. If supreme authority, as the founder of the Church, had been granted to Peter by Jesus at this meeting, it would indeed have been not only mentioned but highlighted in Mark’s Gospel.
The Gospel of Luke makes no mention of this exchange (Luke 9:18-21) save Peter’s confession and Jesus’s instruction. John’s Gospel is also silent, and none of the New Testament epistles remotely indicate Peter as the foundational rock of the Church. We cannot deny Peter was one of the three who would form the inner circle of the Apostles and later the leaders of the Church at Jerusalem, but even with this, we find no reason to believe Peter is a foundational rock. Laying aside this incorrect who of the story, let’s return to the beginning in verse 13, where we will find the where. The where is the interrogative word which provides our context.
Mathew gives us the location (the where) in verse 13, “Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi.” Location is the context of this conversation. The where begs the question -what is so important about this location? Jesus and His disciples are in ‘the district of Caesarea Philippi.
In this district, there was a sanctuary, a park named Panias, a place of pagan worship whose origin can be traced back to 3 BC, so everyone in the district would have known its existence and purpose. Today it’s called Banias and is commonly referred to as the Sanctuary of Pan.
In this sanctuary, carved out of a mountainside, having a large flat rock-tabled area in front, which served as a type of courtyard, there are seven places of worship: three temples, two courts, a grotto (cave), and a tomb. The first Temple is the Temple of Augustus Caesar, the Roman emperor of Jesus’s day.
The second Temple was the Temple of Zeus. “Zeus is the sky and thunder god in ancient Greek mythology, who rules as king of the gods of Mount Olympus.” The Romans also highly regarded Zeus and several other Greek mythological gods.
The third Temple is the Temple of Pan and the dancing goats. “In ancient Greek religion and mythology, Pan is the god of the wild, shepherds and flocks, rustic music and impromptus, and companion of the nymphs. He has the hindquarters, legs, and horns of a goat, in the same manner as a faun or satyr.”
Those who visited this sanctuary could choose which god to worship—one or all. Since most forms of pagan idolatrous worship included entertainment, it was trendy among the people. There were two courts where you could watch or participate in debauchery dances with other people or animals (goats). One was the court of Pan & the Nymphs. Nymphs are minor Greek goddesses. Attractive women were posing as goddesses of nature (in reality, sanctuary prostitutes). And worshiping Pan by engaging in sexual pleasures only enhanced its popularity.
The second court was the court of Nemesis. Nemesis is the daughter of Zeus, represented as a winged goddess of justice and revenge.
Then there was a grotto of the god Pan, which housed an image where worshipers could offer prayers and items of dedication. In this grotto or cave, goats were sacrificed to the god Pan. Its followers recognize the cave of Pan as the entrance to the underworld or ‘the gate of hell.’
Last but not least, we find the Temple of Caesar Augustus, constructed directly in front of the grotto of Pan, which sets up a strange dynamic between the gate of hell and the worship of Caesar. Not only was Caesar’s authority to be unquestioned, but he expected worship as a god on earth. Placing Caesar’s Temple in front of the gates of hell is extreme arrogance, as if Caesar, a god on earth, controlled its entrance.
It was against this backdrop that Jesus begins the conversation, posing the question, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Mathew 16:13). Consider the relevance of this question as Jesus and the disciples stood in the vicinity, maybe even the courtyard of the park itself. A place carved out of the side of a mountain, with a solid rock courtyard, where three gods, one goddess, all mythical, and one a mere man, were worshiped.
At this point, Simon responded, almost blurting out the reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (verse 16). In verse 17, Jesus replies, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father which is in heaven.” This statement by Jesus brings us to an expansion of the who.
At this specific location and the question posed by Jesus, we find the point of this conversation. By His question, Jesus begins building a contrast between Himself and the idolatry of this world. The Son of the Living God in dissimilitude to Caesar and the other gods of this world. The difference between His Kingdom and the kingdoms of this world. Even His self-reference as the Son of Man is unique in Mathew’s account and is a veiled reference to the coming Messiah foretold in Daniel 7:13. In Luke’s Gospel, the question is “who do the crowds say?” and in Mark’s account the question is “who do men say?” This comparative contrast begins in verse 13, continues to the end of verse 18, and is the central theme of this account.
Jesus is the who -the King and His kingdom, not Peter. The focus on the king and kingdom is why Mathew is the only Gospel writer to record the details of this conversation. Mathew recognizes Jesus in the light of being the messianic king who would succeed David and whose kingdom will have no end. Mathew weaves the same theme throughout his entire gospel account—offering detailed proof that Jesus is the rightful king of the coming kingdom. The promised successor to the throne of David.
Mathew begins his storyline, or theme, in the very first verse of his Gospel. “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham:” (Mathew 1:1). He continues by recording not only Jesus’s complete lineage, beginning with Abraham, but His rightful claim of succession to the throne of David. By laying out the historical timeline beginning with the generations of Abraham, to David, to captivity, and finally Messiah (Mathew 1:17)
, Mathew is presenting irrefutable truth even to the most ardent of orthodox Hebrews.
He recognizes and portrays Jesus as the messianic king of the new kingdom, the rightful successor of the throne of David. The Promised Messiah, the very “Son of Man,” foretold in Daniel. The word kingdom is listed fifty-five times in Mathew’s Gospel, more than any other gospel. And as we go along, we will see every detail in this exchange, which only Mathew records, points to terms relating to the King and His kingdom. There can be no doubt Jesus is the who of this story and the what is the comparison of the two kingdoms. Any attempt to change the who from Christ to Peter is an interpretation error. Whether it’s an innocent mistake of interpretation or an intentional one, I leave it for you to decide.
“I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” (Mathew 16:18).
Within this framework of comparative contrast, we can now understand verse 18 properly. From a grammatical standpoint, the controversy centered on two words, “THIS ROCK,” resolves itself. The Latins claim Jesus was announcing He would build His Church on Peter ‘the rock.’ This interpretation is incorrect for several reasons, the first of which is evident in the first of the two words sighted above. ‘This,’ the Greek word Taute is a demonstrative pronoun, which is different from the personal pronoun ‘you.’ In short, you cannot accurately translate the verse to read or imply, ‘on you, I will build my church.’
Jesus continues the contrast, first between His kingdom and the kingdoms of this word (as indicated by location), and now between Peter, a small rock (the Greek word Petros), and Himself, a solid or native rock (the Greek word Petra). According to Souter, Petra, in this context, implies a “solid or native rock, rising up through the earth,” on which Christ would build the Church. At Peter’s answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus draws this comparative distinction. Christ did not build His Church on a man but upon Himself. We are the body of Christ, not the body of Peter. Jesus uses a similar self-reference in John 2:19-21, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” this being the indicative. So it is here.
Notice the similarity of these two examples: “you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church” and “destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
Another misinterpretation of this verse is to claim Peter’s profession of faith is the rock Jesus is referring to. No, faith is not the foundational rock of the Church; Jesus is. Faith is the action of the belief that enables one to become a citizen of this coming kingdom. This misinterpretation is as powerless as Latin Church’s claim and is perhaps one reason this disagreement remains unresolved among many Christians; both positions lack the authority of truth.
Let’s pause here and return to verse 17 to notice three essential pieces of information. There is much more to learn from this portion of scripture than the disagreement over the rock, and it would be a shame not to learn everything we can from the verses offered. The first is Peter’s recognition of who Jesus truly is and his subsequent confession revealed to him by the Holy Spirit. And this is why Jesus calls Peter blessed -because he has received this revelation. Likely, Peter didn’t fully comprehend everything in this revelation. Peter may not be fully conscience of what he blurted out. Nor did the apostles understand why Jesus instructed them to keep this to themselves. “Then He warned the disciples that they should tell no one that He was the Christ.” (Mathew 16:20).
The second bit of information in verse 17 is how Jesus addresses Peter. “Simon Bar-Jonah.” Simon Bar-Jonah means Simon, son of Jonah, so why isn’t this recorded in the exchange son of Jonah? Why is it left as Simon Bar-Jonah? It reminds us that Jesus and the disciples spoke Aramaic, not Greek. Even though the gospels and one translation of the Old Testament came down to us in Greek, Aramaic was the language spoken by Jesus and his disciples. And this tells us not only a little bit more about Mathew but that Aramaic is a factor in understanding what Jesus is saying here. Remember, Mathew is a Jew and a tax collector for Rome.
To be effective in his duties as a tax collector, he would have to be proficient in several languages. The Romans spoke Latin, while the popular language of the Mediterranean area was Greek, and the ordinary Jews, for the most part, spoke Aramaic, a form of Hebrew, but far less strict in proper grammar. Much like today, we speak English, but not precise English. You could say we use American English, yet our casual conversations are a lax form of American English.
When translating between any two languages, specific terms have no exact translation and are, therefore, best left in their native tongue. Since this conversation takes place in Aramaic, it also helps clarify the contrast between Peter and this rock. Peter being Petros, in Greek, is more accurately defined by the Aramaic term Kaypha, or small stone. And Aramaic will be of use in the proper understanding of the subsequent verses.
Mathew’s Gospel retains Aramaic terms in other places; one was Jesus committing his spirit into the hands of the father on the cross (Mathew 27:46), which is a study unto itself. In two of these other instances, we will sight. In Matthew 5:22, Jesus draws distinctions between two parallel yet different outcomes.
“And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire.” (Mathew 5:22 NKJV). Raca is an Aramaic word meaning ‘good-for-nothing’ or ‘I spit on you,’ whereas calling someone a ‘fool’ is judging someone as worthless to God and man. One draws a sentence before a council of men; the other draws a sentence before God. For no one save Jesus can rightfully judge who is and who is not of worth to God.
In Mathew 10:4, he retains Aramaic for clarification. The Aramaic word kan’an is defined as zealot so as not to be miss-translated as Canaanite. Hence we have Simon the zealot, not Simon the Canaanite. You can see how easily a mistranslation could falsely identify Simon the zealot as Simon the Canaanite. Thus we have every reason to believe Jesus is drawing the same distinction between Peter and Himself in 16:18.
The third piece of information often overlooked, while over-focused on Peter, is the first mention of the word Church in the New Testament. Here Jesus uses a new coinage, and I doubt the disciples understood its exact definition. The Greek term for Church is an assembly or body of believers. In Aramaic, it refers to a called-out assembly.’ In Exodus, we find the origin of this called-out assembly, which interestingly includes yet another reference to the kingdom.
“Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6a). At the risk of belaboring a point, to Mathew, king and kingdom is the central theme of his Gospel. Even in the Lord’s prayer, we find the phrase “Your kingdom come.” And Peter, by the time he composed his first epistle, precisely understood what Jesus relayed to him then, even if we missed it. And proof of this is found in I Peter 2:5-9.
When Jesus said, “you are Peter,” it was not a new pronouncement or revelation. Jesus had already referred to Simon as Cephas (or Kephas) at their first meeting (John 1:42). Peter, literally the stone, Jesus the rock. In scripture, rock is always associated with God when used as a direct or symbolic reference.
Romans 9:33, “Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, and he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.”
I Corinthians 10:4, “and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ.”
Peter would become a rock after the resurrection and filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. We must not dismiss Peter’s role in the coming months, for during this exchange, Jesus would assign Peter the privilege of being the first to use the ‘keys to the kingdom’ in verse 19, which we will get to shortly.
Continuing in verse 18, the declaration of our Lord, “and the gates of Hell will not overpower it,” has a two-fold meaning. One, while standing in the area of the very cave of Pan, the gate of Hades. Indeed our Lord is foretelling His victory. Today none of the temples, grottos, and courts of Banias remain, all destroyed to their foundations, but the foundation on which our faith anchors to still stands. The living water still flows from Herman, supplying the Jordan, as the Holy Spirit continually nourishes us today.
Another analogy to the gate’s inability to withstand refers to the ancient manner of the conquest of strongholds or walled cities in Biblical times. The success of conquering a city hinged on the ability of the attackers to destroy the gates. The walls could not be breached or assailed without significant cost, even failure, so the target was always the gates. Destroy the gates, and conquest is assured. Much like the spiritual gates of Hades would not be able to withstand or overpower the power of the Gospel.
There is more to learn from the words recorded by Mathew. In verse 19, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” Let’s look at this verse in two parts. But before we do, we need to consider another matter that will give us a broader understanding of these verses.
It is tense, not tense referring to a condition, but tense in the sense of time and manner of speech. For example, it is past tense if we read, ‘he said.’ In verses 18 and 19, “I will build” and “I will give you” -future tense. Not I have given, nor here are, but will -at the appropriate time in the future. To those present, Jesus gave nothing save further instruction. Jesus gave no authority, privilege, rank, or order of hierarchy to anyone because what was to be given was not yet given. We further conclude this to be the case by Jesus’s command in verse 20; “Then He commanded His disciples that they were to tell no one that He was Jesus the Christ.” Jesus, until He completed His mission, forbade them from telling everyone who He was. Once it was, then the keys to the kingdom would be at their disposal.
Examining the first part of the verse, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”
What are the ‘keys’ to the kingdom Jesus will give? In short, we know the kingdom is the kingdom of God, and a key is required to open the door to that kingdom. This key is the Gospel. The book of Acts records the first use of the keys, and Peter would be the first to use them, preaching the first sermon in Acts 2:14-36. We must not overlook the fact keys are plural.
These symbolic keys are somewhat different from what we are accustomed to. We typically use them for both locking and unlocking. Such is not the case with the keys given to Peter. The sole purpose of these keys is to open the door to salvation. This door, once opened, can never again be shut. Jesus declares their ability to open, and no man, nay not even the gates of hell, could resist their use nor forbid entrance through the door leading to salvation.
Remember, “so faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word (the gospel) of Christ.” (Romans 10:17).
The doorway to the kingdom of Heaven opened using the keys of the Gospel, is still open today, and no power on earth has been able to stop it. Even after centuries of persecution and death, many are continually added to the Church daily. Jesus reminds the Church in Revelation 3:7, “He who is holy, who is true, who has the key of David, who opens and no one
will shut, and who shuts and no one opens, says this:”
Before continuing, one other issue to consider is assuming that all of these instructions are for Peter alone. Surely Peter would be the first to use the keys of the kingdom, but after Pentecost, the keys are at the disposal of all the Apostles. They all would preach the Gospel, unlocking the door to salvation, as born out in the book of Acts, and those same keys are at our disposal today. So there is little doubt Peter was the only one who heard these words. We know of a certainty Mathew listened to these words, for he is the one who recorded them.
The second part of the verse, “and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” Jesus is not talking about ropes and knots here. Binding and loosing is a Rabbinical idiom for “forbidding and permitting.” In religious matters of Mosaic Law, the Pharisees claimed the sole authority to binding and loosing. Josephus tells us this power originated from Queen Alexandra of Judah, whose brother Simeon ben Shetach just happened to be the chief of the Pharisees of their day.
They were also very superstitious people who thought that binding, forbidding, and allowing things in the spiritual world were the same as the physical world and vice versa, reminiscent of certain secret societies. The Pharisees thought they had the power to bind people to the laws they instituted and issue releases from the bonds of the created laws. Binding and loosing also imply declaring what is lawful and what is not.
In the same presumptive manner, they had the earthly authority to decide who was clean and unclean, spiritually pure, and who was not. They used these declarations and considered it well within their control to determine who could and couldn’t approach God and find forgiveness of sins. They forbade people from entering the Temple by physical or pronunciation of uncleanness. Hence, the proclamation of our Lord is in verse 19.
Jesus challenged and condemned the Pharisees and their self-appointed rule of God’s kingdom throughout His earthly ministry. I will sight but two instances of this:
Mathew 12:5, “Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are innocent?”
Mathew 23:2-4 “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.”
This self-appointed earthly power to bind and loose, to forbid or allow, results in a damning woe pronounced upon them. And after you conclude this study, I recommend you read Mathew 23 in its entirety. By doing so, you will feel the power in the words of Jesus’s condemnation.
Mathew 23:13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.”
In this light, Jesus tells His disciples the authority over these decisions was not theirs but His. And you, my disciples, will proclaim this to all the world. The power of binding and loosing, of allowing and forbidding, would be placed under the authority of the Holy Spirit. No man or organization would ever have this authority, not then and not now.
This power, this authority, would be dictated by the direction of the Holy Spirit after Pentecost. The Holy Spirit would then and forever determine what was lawful or forbidden. The importance of tense is also born out in this portion of the verse -whatever you bind on earth will have already been bound in Heaven, as expressed by the Holy Spirit.
Sadly, the Latin Church has assumed the same self-appointed authority of binding and loosing as the Pharisees of Jesus’s day. They proclaim the power to allow or forbid access to Christ for the remission of sins. Thinking they have the authority even to forgive sins is a lie, as was the pharisaic one, using spells, incantations, rites, and sacraments to defeat spiritual enemies. Because of this, they have invited upon themselves the same woe Jesus directed upon the Pharisees, of which crimes they are guilty.
No man possesses the authority to forgive sins. That power rests only in the hands of our Lord Jesus. Nowhere is it recorded in scripture that any Apostle, disciple, teacher, or preacher is ever recorded saying ‘your sins are forgiven.’ Neither is it recorded in any of the Epistles. Leaders of the Church, mainly the deacons and pastors, have the authority to dismiss an unrepentant person from the congregation, but this is far different than claiming the ability to forgive or impute one’s sin.
Jesus was very calculating in every word He spoke; each had a specific meaning within the context in which He uttered them. I have given you what is and is not in this portion of scripture. When you read this section of Mathew, I would invite you to begin where it begins, in verse 13. And continue until you reach verse 20, not allowing yourself to snatch verses 18 and 19 out of their original setting and using them to create a doctrine that is not biblical.
While we could spend much more time on binding and loosing, having made our point sufficiently, we won’t. Binding and loosing is a matter which deserves its own inquiry since its roots go back to Genesis. This determination brings us to the end of our study of these verses. The tragedy of ignoring the context of any verse or verses of scripture while interpreting in haste is two-fold. One, it draws the wrong conclusions. And two, it blinds us to the other truths it contains.
In summation, we have correctly identified the who of the story -Jesus Christ, the rock. The what -the foretelling of the foundation of the Church. The where -in the district of Caesarea Philippi. Then the when -upon the completion of Jesus’s mission. His sacrifice on the cross, His resurrection, ascension, and finally, His assumption of the throne of David. The one remaining interrogative -the why is best summed up by the Apostle John.
“For God so love the world, the He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16).