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  • Writer's pictureTim Hemingway

On This Rock


“Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 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.”

Matthew 16:16-19

The church of the Lord Jesus Christ, which he purchased with his blood, is more essential and more significant than any other institution in the world.

It’s more important than the government. It’s more essential than the army, or the police force, or even the NHS.

All earthy institutions and organisations will die one day – they will all cease to exist. But the church of the living God will endure forever. Verse 18 says not even the gates of Hades will overcome it. That means it will never be closed down – it will never have run its course; it will never cease to have a purpose. Even when the last day arrives and the consummation of all things comes, even then Jesus is coming with his church, and his church will reign with him forever (Revelation 5:10 & 22:4).

The basis of the assertion that the church is really that important is found in these verses – verses that are not altogether straight forward. So, I want us to walk through them carefully and try to see the layers of meaning that are in them and then draw out of them some life shaping conclusions about the church of Jesus Christ.

Who Do You Say I am?

At the heart of the passage is a statement about who Jesus is. The people were thinking of him as a reincarnated prophet; Elijah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist or some such, but Jesus wanted to know how the disciples thought of him. ‘Who do you say I am’ (verse 15).

Now consider that at this time, whilst people were intrigued by Jesus and saw the miracles he performed and listened intently to the parables he told, yet his following was relatively small. Just a little band of men really.

And also consider that the most important leaders and teachers of the people from which these disciples came, were deeply suspicious of Jesus. About him they said things like, ‘It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons’ (Matthew 9:34).

It’s an easy thing to believe in a charismatic figure when he or she has a following that is numerous. But when the following is small, all kinds of doubts begin to rise in our minds.

So, it would have been quite remarkable if one of the disciples had said to Jesus, ‘you are a great teacher’ or ‘ you are a mighty prophet’. But Peter’s answer to Jesus’ question is so emphatic, so true, that it causes Jesus to marvel. Listen to what Peter says, ‘You are the Messiah’ (that literally means the anointed one – a word reserved for kings and high priests).

Remember that the woman at the well in John 4 had the notion that a Messiah was coming. And she did wonder when she returned to her town if Jesus might be that Messiah.

At this point, Peter is saying something more than the people. He is not thinking of Jesus as merely a prophet, but as the promised deliverer king. But it’s not clear whether he has in mind an earthly, human, temporary, subject-to-death type kingly deliverer or something more than that. Until, that is, he adds these words, ‘the Son of the living God’.

These additional words show that Peter has in mind not a temporary, earthly, deliver king but something on a much greater scale. A heavenly, divine, deliverer king – that’s how Peter perceives Jesus. We know Peter often got ahead of himself; often spoke too quickly or was rash, but none of that serves to undermine the fact that he was a man of faith. This statement is a declaration of faith on Peter’s part and it’s so accurate and true that it becomes the basis of a new, everlasting entity called the ‘church’.

We know that his statement is true and accurate and faithful, not only because Jesus says so, but because the phrase ‘Messiah, Son of God’ appears only one other place in the bible. It’s in Matthew and the timing of its use ratifies Peter’s belief as true and real. The occasion is Matthew 26. Jesus has been arrested and is on trial before the Sanhedrin, ‘The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”

“You have said so”, Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right had of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”’

To which I say, no human being sits at the right hand of God Almighty and comes on the cloud of heaven unless that person is the Son of the living God.

That is why Jesus said in response to Peter’s declaration, ‘flesh and blood didn’t reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven’. In other words, no one - of their own natural accord - can say the words Peter said. The people didn’t believe those things about Jesus and neither did the high priest – in fact he called it ‘blasphemy’ when Jesus affirmed them (26:65).

But with faith that originated in heaven, Peter said ‘you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’. In other words, ‘you are the divinely appointed, all powerful, God-king, deliverer’.

The fact that Peter received the faith to believe and speak that declaration is, according to Jesus, a ‘blessed’ thing. That means that anybody who shares Peter’s estimation of Jesus is a blessed one also – a divinely favoured one.

If you can say the words Peter said and believe them in your heart with gladness, then it was revealed to you not from human beings but from heaven itself, and you too are divinely favoured. That is what it is to be a Christian.

On This Rock

Now, curiously, Jesus uses Peter’s old name in verse 17, ‘Simon son of Jonah’. That’s his birth name. Evidently his biological father was a man called Jonah. But that name is contrasted with what Jesus says in verse 18. Here’s what Jesus says, ‘I tell you that you are Peter’. Jesus appears to be saying to Peter, ‘whatever your earthly name is – that identity is a thing of the past now; you have a new identity – a new identity in me because I am the one who’s giving it to you, and I say: that identity is represented in the name ‘Peter’, from whose lips those true and divinely revealed words have come.

And then Jesus speaks this tricky phrase, ‘and on this rock I will build my church’. The reason why it’s tricky is because the name Peter means ‘rock’. So, it sounds like Jesus is saying, And I tell you that you are a rock and on this rock I will build my church’.

That phrase has led one of the most influential institutions on earth – the Roman Catholic Church - to assert that it is the only true church because it claims Peter as its foundation. Thus, it cannot conceive of any other legitimate church, because none other can have Peter as it’s foundation.

That’s a mistaken view at the very least, and a heretical view at worst. The idea that a man could be so significant as to be the foundation of an eternal institution not only undermines Jesus as both the foundation and the federal head of his church, but also makes a finite being – subject to sin and death – the basis of the everlasting spotless bride of Christ.

The rest of the New Testament doesn’t bear out that view, and it’s not one we should readily give credence to.

Nevertheless, it does sound on the surface as if that is something like what Jesus is saying. But I think there are at least three better ways to understand it and it is possible for all of them to be simultaneously true and correct, if we take them in a logical order of power and importance. And that’s the order I’ll give them in.

The first possibility is that Jesus is saying, ‘you are Peter -a rock - but it’s on Christ the Rock that I am going to build my church’. So, Jesus is referring to himself as the rock. There is ample evidence in the bible that Jesus was and is the rock.

Here are a few examples:

1 Corinthians 10:4 – ‘For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.’

So, out there in the wilderness thousands of years before Jesus came on the scene, Jesus was a rock in the desert wilderness from which the Israelites drank.

Here’s another:

Romans 9:33 quoting Isaiah 28:16 – ‘See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame.’

And Peter himself quoting the same passage from Isaiah adds, ‘As you come to [Jesus] the living stone – rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood’ (1 Peter 2:8).

Now isn’t that remarkable? That when we look for Peter talking about Jesus as a ‘rock’ we find him also talking about the building of a spiritual house. We find him talking about the church. That is amazing.

So, Jesus could easily be referring to himself. ‘Your name means ‘rock’ Peter, but I am the true rock on which I will build my church’.

The second interpretation is that Jesus is saying, ‘And I tell you that you are a rock and as representative of the apostles and prophets, on this rock I will build my church’.

Ephesians 2:19-20 employs very similar language – ‘Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.’.

What that means is that God has ordained that the writings of the Apostles and Prophets are the foundations of the church. It is specifically by way of the bible, that the church understands its function, its message and its authority.

In that representative sense, Peter himself could be the rock Jesus is referring to here.

The last way of understanding Jesus’ meaning is this: ‘And I tell you that you are a rock and on the rock of the declaration about me that you just made, I will build my church.

In other words, the disciples will make the good confession about Jesus like Peter just made – ‘Messiah, the Son of the living God’ – and by that confession people will be saved and thus the church of Jesus Christ will be formed.

And, like courses of bricks being added to a building, the next generation of the church will make the same declaration and others will be added to the church and so on and so forth, until Jesus comes.

Peter himself is recorded in Acts 2 saying these words – ‘“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah”. When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other Apostles, Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”…about three thousand were added to their number that day.’ (verses 36-41).

These were the first living stones in the household of God – the church of Jesus Christ. And the pattern of the declaration about the Messiah, the Son of the living God and the divine creation of new living stones was laid down there, and it has continued through the ages and continues to be the means by which Christ’s church is built today.

I don’t see any reason why Jesus couldn’t have had all these meanings in mind when he used the words ‘and on this rock I will build my church’.

‘I will build my church on the rock that is myself as the chief cornerstone’.

‘I will build my church on the rock that is the apostles and prophets as the foundation’.

And, ‘I will build my church on the faithful declaration of who I am as the means by which living stones are added to the building’.

The Keys of Heaven

Taken in that order of importance and power, none of those meanings are superfluous, even in this age for the building of the church. Therefore, they are all relevant to our lives, as living stones in the church of the living God.

The true church of God is built in this way and we are significant participants in its construction.

Here’s how we know that we are. In verse 19 Jesus says, ‘I will give you the keys to 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’. The keys in the immediate context are going to either Peter or the church. I would argue it’s both, and especially as Peter is a fundamental part of the church. So, what are these keys?

Keys have the obvious function of opening and shutting up doors or gates. Some have argued that the keys are referring specifically to church discipline because the same ‘binding’ and ‘loosing’ language is used by Jesus in Matthew 18 in the context of dealing with sin in the church. I think there’s strength to that argument and perhaps especially as an extension of a more basic argument that sticks to the immediate context here – that being the formation of the church.

In verse 18, Jesus speaks of ‘the gates of hades’ which cannot prevail against the church. Hades refers to the realm of the dead and specifically eternal death. It’s depicted in Jesus’ language as a place with gates, which is figurative language.

In verse 19, the keys given, are the keys to the kingdom of heaven. So, figuratively speaking, heaven also has gates or doors that can be opened and shut.

So, here’s how I understand Jesus’ binding and loosing language in the context of the church, and you can test it to see if this fits with your conception.

There are two destinies for all people, one is eternal death and the other is eternal life. One is heaven and the other hell. And it is as if each has gates. They are alternative destinies. They are mutually exclusive destinies. It’s one or the other, but not both. And the decisive time in which your destiny, and indeed every human being’s destiny is determined, is in a life time – 70 or 80 years, maybe.

Whilst a person remains in unbelief and does not receive Jesus as their Lord and Saviour and Treasure, the gates of Hades are wide open and the gates of heaven and locked shut. But Jesus has given the church the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and by making the good declaration that Peter made about Jesus to people, the gates of hades can be bound shut and the gates of heaven flung wide open to those people, and they will enter in.

By that conception, I am not saying that the church is finally decisive in determining who goes to heaven. Jesus is the key-holder. Jesus is the decisive factor.

But I am saying that the church is the God-appointed means by which people hear and receive the good news about Jesus, and in that sense the keys are in its hands.

The degree to which we are faithful as the church of Jesus Christ with the keys of the kingdom, is the degree to which the gates of hades will be bound and the gates of the kingdom loosed.

That is an awesome thought. And it effects and influences the way we think about the church and our role as living stones in the church.

The purpose of the church is to bear witness to the kingdom of God and its Messiah, king-deliverer, Jesus.

The church is not the kingdom of God, but the church serves, in the purposes of God, to bring in the kingdom.

2 Thessalonians 1 says, ‘on the day Jesus comes to be glorified in his holy people [the church] and to be marvelled at among all those who have believed [the church]. This includes you because you believed our testimony to you. With this in mind we constantly pray…that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith. (verses 10-11).

Paul is saying that he and his associates testified about the Lord Jesus and the Thessalonians believed their message. And because they believed the message they were added to the church of Jesus Christ. And when Jesus returns with his angels, the Thessalonians will be part of the great throng that marvel at his appearing and glorify him on the day he comes. But until that day, the Apostle Paul and his associates pray that God in his power will bring fruit out of the Thessalonians every desire as a church for good and every deed prompted by faith.

Why do they pray that? They pray that because, the church that will marvel at the last day is not yet complete. There is more to do. There are more to be brought in. There are more stones to be added. And Jesus’ kingdom will not come to consummation until that task is completed.

Therefore, our ongoing prayer is that the church will be a witnessing church about the king of kings; about the Messiah, the Son of the living God, until the task is complete. Our prayer is that the church will be taking those keys and binding up hades and loosing the gates of heaven every year and every generation and every age, in order that many souls may also say with Peter, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’.

Why did Jesus order the disciples not to tell anybody that he was Messiah (v.20)? The people would have sought to make him an earthly king. That’s not why he came. He came to be the Messiah Peter testified to and that we testify to as the church of Jesus Christ.

To that end, we are the church of the living Christ and we are tasked, in this life-time that we’ve been given, with a mighty kingdom purpose until he returns, or we go to be with him – namely, to declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness and into his wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9).


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