Pp Mark 8:27-30, Luke 9:18-21
John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah and the prophets
Jesus’ Question and Peter’s Statement
1. The Source of Peter’s Statement
2. The Rock
3. The Gates of Hades
4. Binding and Loosing
a. Legislative Aspects (Law Making)
b. Judicial Aspects (Law Enforcing)
Tell no one
I placed the incident of the discussion about the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees on the eastern shores of the Lake of Galilee, possibly not too far from the borders of the Decapolis with the tetrarchy of Philip. This was too specific to be able to be accepted as totally accurate because the Scriptures simply say that He departed from the general vicinity of Magadan on the west (Mtw 15:39) and that He went ‘to the other side’ (Mtw 16:5).
But, the first line of Mark 8:22-26 reads that Jesus and the band of disciples
‘...came to Bethsaida...’
and, as they were now headed for the region of Caesarea Philippi to the north (Mtw 16:13), it seems logical to place their location when they came ashore somewhere south of the city. This is no more than speculation, however.
The incident recorded by Mark won’t be dealt with here as it finds no parallel in Matthew but it’s interesting to note that, although Jesus is brought a blind man for Him to heal, He first removes him from the city before opening His eyes and then, after the healing has taken place, strictly charges him not to return into Bethsaida. Maybe this is to be taken as being an outworking of Jesus’ denunciation of the place in Mtw 11:21 and that no more miracles will be given to be seen by their inhabitants.
Equally possible, however, is that Jesus didn’t want another flocking to Him because His intention is to travel northwards and He doesn’t want to be delayed still further. Therefore, taking the man away from the witnessing eyes of the inhabitants, Jesus heals him privately and bids him to stay away from the city.
The journey to Caesarea Philippi is almost 25 miles due north from Bethsaida and probably followed closely the course of the Jordan river, one of whose origins began here at the sanctuary of Pan. The incident which will be dealt with here is often taken to have occurred either within the city or at the emergence of the Jordan in the foothills of Hermon, but this is far from certain.
While it adds a fitting backdrop to the scene if we place Jesus and the disciples standing by the fresh waters of the spring and gazing at the numerous idols which were placed in the niches in the rock, considering the ‘gods’ of the nations being worshipped there and so paralleling Jesus’ request to know what men made of Him, the evidence of the Scriptures is somewhat different.
Matthew’s record of the location certainly does allow for this interpretation, for Mtw 16:13 records that it occurred
‘...when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi...’
a general statement which could place it in numerous locations. It would be beneficial for the commentator to be able to define what was meant by ‘the district’ in relation to this city but it would appear that there are no contemporary records for our help. I noted on my web page dealing with the Syrophoenician woman that the word used for ‘district’ (Strongs Greek number 3313) was a term that could be employed in describing the area known as Galilee, a region which was some five hundred square miles in extent and, therefore, just how this is to be applied to Caesarea Philippi here is open to conjecture.
Mark’s account is a bit more specific in that it places the incident some way from the city and certainly before they ever reach their journey’s destination. Mark 8:27 (my italics) records that
‘...Jesus went on with His disciples [from Bethsaida] to the villages of Caesarea Philippi and on the way He asked his disciples...’
Finally, Luke 9:18 is the more illuminative for the writer records that
‘...as [Jesus] was praying alone the disciples were with Him and He asked them...’
It would appear, therefore, that, even though Jesus and the disciples had entered what was regarded as the district over which Caesarea Philippi held authority, they were still some way south of the actual city and still on their journey north. Jesus appears to have taken a break in the travelling to go aside and to pray alone with the disciples and it’s here that the incident takes place.
Indeed, if we take the Gospel accounts at face value, we’re unable to state with any certainty whatsoever that Jesus came to the predominantly Gentile city of Caesarea Philippi and resided there any length of time. While He certainly was travelling towards the villages of the place and, therefore, probably finished His journey there, whether He entered the city is open to conjecture.
However, there were numerous incidents which took place around this place which run from this passage until the close of Mtw 17:21.
The three passages in the Synoptic Gospels run closely together though there are numerous variations in the actual text and it’s Matthew alone who records the final response of Jesus concerning Peter (Mtw 16:17-19). All three writers include John the Baptist and Elijah in their list of people that Jesus was being associated with but Matthew also includes Jeremiah (a strange choice by the people, I must add) before all three summarise the other identifications as being from the list of OT prophets which they would have known about from the Scriptures.
Peter’s confession also is recorded in different ways. Matthew, retaining the fullest record of what was said possibly, writes the confession down (Mtw 16:16) as
‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’
while Mark 8:29 simply has
‘You are the Christ’
and Luke 9:20
‘The Christ of God’
These latter two records seem to be summarising the first phrase of Matthew’s account without following it on to declare that Peter thought of Jesus as being in a special and unique relationship with God Himself, a confession which is found previously firstly on the lips of satan (Mtw 4:3,6), then on the lips of demons (Mtw 8:29), before the disciples acknowledge His relationship after they witness Him walking on the Sea of Galilee in the midst of strong headwinds (Mtw 14:33).
What Peter is actually declaring here, therefore, isn’t unique but it does show that, what was surely a response because of the circumstances in Mtw 14:33 was not just something which was said and forgotten in the heat of the moment - it was something which Peter was staking his entire life on!
I have noted above that there is no definite evidence in the Scriptures to prove to us that Jesus ever entered the Gentile city of Caesarea Philippi for the NT records simply that He entered the district on His way towards the ‘villages’ of the city and it may be that His intention was no more than to remove Himself from Galilee for a time and stay generally away from the hustle and bustle of the city before His return to Galilee (Mtw 17:22) and, then onwards, to Judea and Jerusalem (Mtw 19:1).
It may seem strange to the reader that I’ve chosen to record a short article here about the city to which Jesus never came but it does provide us with at least some background to the region.
That there must have been a settlement here from the earliest of times seems fairly certain since the emerging waters of the Jordan would have represented an asset to any city. Ungers likes to see the source of the Jordan here as being initially a shrine to the god Ba’al from Judges 3:3 and I Chron 5:23 but all these verses do is to locate a settlement in the vicinity of Mount Hermon without identifying it with the site of Caesarea Philippi. George Adam Smith, quoted in Zondervan, also ascribes the worship of Ba’al to this region but, as far as I can tell, this is still simply conjectural.
However, the earliest records of a settlement being established here are, according to AEHL, from Polybius’ record of Antiochus III’s conquest of the region and from Pliny’s Natural History - both of which aren’t available to me to read. Matmor, however, probably summarises the former’s record when he notes that
‘When the Greeks came, they dedicated the shrine [where the Jordan rises] to “Pan and the Nymphs”; they called the cave “Paneion” and the area “Paneas”’
now known in the present day as Banias or Baniyas, the site still retaining it’s original label even though it’s gone through a few name changes in history. The actual spring lies slightly to the north of Paneas and may have been originally outside the ancient village.
This worship of Pan appears to have been taken as a representative symbol of the region for, as NIDBA notes, coins struck in the first century AD have various images on them
‘...the syrinx or pipe of Pan,; on a second Pan leaning on a tree and playing a flute; on a third the mouth of the sacred cavern...and Pan within...various emperors with their title Divus and the town’s own title “Caesarea - August, sacred and with rights of sanctuary - under Paneion”’
The worship of Caesar is generally thought to have continued within the white marble shrine erected by Herod here (see below) while Pan was worshipped within the shrine which lay below but the exact location of the shrine is not certain.
It was as ‘Paneas’, however, that Herod the Great received it from Caesar in 20BC and set about, as Josephus notes (War 1.21.3 - I have altered the names consistently throughout my quotes both here and subsequently to make them the same spelling to try and avoid confusing the reader), building
‘...a temple of white marble, hard by the fountains of Jordan: the place is called Paneas, where is a top of a mountain that is raised to an immense height, and at its side, beneath, or at its bottom, a dark cave opens itself; within which there is a horrible precipice, that descends abruptly to a vast depth; it contains a mighty quantity of water, which is immovable; and when any body lets down any thing to measure the depth of the earth beneath the water, no length of cord is sufficient to reach it. Now the fountains of Jordan rise at the roots of this cavity outwardly; and, as some think, this is the utmost origin of Jordan: but we shall speak of that matter more accurately in our following history’
This shrine would certainly have been dedicated to the Roman Emperor.
This supposed origin of the Jordan is further described in War 3.10.7 and is of special interest to me simply because I visited the place which Josephus describes as Phiala (present day Birkat Ram) in 1986 on a guided tour of Israel referred to on previous web pages. To get there, we drove passed the emergence of the Jordan at Paneas and Caesarea Philippi as I stared out the coach window and whined, I recall, only to stop on the summit of the hill which overlooks it where there’s an old Crusader castle built. We then ascended up to Birkat Ram where the weather conditions were, to put it mildly, freezing, and were pointed out the lake which Josephus mentions while we ate at the most run down Arab cafe I’d seen upto that point.
Anyway, such recollections are hardly scientific but I can vouch for the belief that this water source never runs dry - how it could ever evaporate in such freezing conditions would be difficult to imagine, however! Josephus records that
‘...Paneas is thought to be the fountain of Jordan, but in reality it is carried thither after an occult manner from the place called Phiala: this place lies as you go up to Trachonitis, and is a hundred and twenty furlongs from Caesarea, and is not far out of the road on the right hand; and indeed it hath its name of Phiala [vial or bowl] very justly, from the roundness of its circumference, as being round like a wheel; its water continues always up to its edges, without either sinking or running over. And as this origin of Jordan was formerly not known, it was discovered so to be when Philip was tetrarch of Trachonitis; for he had chaff thrown into Phiala, and it was found at Paneas, where the ancients thought the fountain-head of the river was, whither it had been therefore carried [by the waters]...Now Jordan's visible stream arises from this cavern...’
From what I remember, this assertion has been proven to be incorrect by modern scientific experiments - but it’s an interesting story, nevertheless!
Upon Herod’s death, Josephus records in Antiquities 17.8.1 that He
‘...gave Gaulonitis and Trachonitis and Paneas to Philip, who was his son...’
and that Philip (War 2.9.1 - also recorded in Antiquities 18.2.1)
‘...built the city Caesarea, at the fountains of Jordan, and in the region of Paneas; as also the city Julias [Bethsaida] in the lower Gaulonitis...’
It would appear from archaeological evidence that this reconstruction of the area was put over the top of whatever buildings had been built by his father, Herod the Great, though the white marble temple was almost certainly retained within the new building work. Paneas’ name was at that time changed to Caesarea Philippi which both honoured the Emperor and Philip but, from a purely practical point of view, the latter name was necessary to distinguish it from the more important Mediterranean seaport of Caesarea which lay southwest at a distance of seventy miles as the crow flies. It was this city which ultimately became the capital of Philip’s tetrarchy.
It was to this reconstructed city that Jesus would have come near to and, judging by the description in Mark 8:27 that there were
‘...villages of Caesarea Philippi...’
it remains possible that the central building work of Philip was founded independently of the surrounding region which continued to retain its more rural setting.
Just how ornate the city had become in Philip’s time is far from certain and Josephus records that it received further attention in the days of Agrippa who (Antiquities 20.9.4 - mentioned also in War 3.10.7)
‘...built Caesarea Philippi larger than it was before, and, in honour of Nero, named it Neronias’
a name which never seems to have caught on or, if it did, it lasted only a brief while.
The Roman armies encamped here when Vespasian came into Israel to overthrow the rebellion of the Jews to Roman rule, Josephus noting that they stayed here for almost three weeks before continuing on his conquest towards Jerusalem (War 3.9.7). Titus is also recorded as staying here after the siege of Jerusalem had taken place (War 7.2.1).
It’s interesting to read that Matfran’s observations that, in the time of Jesus, Caesarea Philippi was
‘...a non-Jewish area near the headwaters of the Jordan...’
In my introduction to this web page, I called it ‘predominantly Gentile’ and this would appear to be the better description for Josephus records that, during the Jewish War, there were in Caesarea Philippi Jews who inhabited that area (Autobiography 13) and who were
‘...shut up by the order of the king’s deputy there...’
requesting that they be sent kosher oil for their lamps so that they might not transgress their traditions by using Greek sources. If these were people who were simply being held here as captives, we could assume that they were the prisoners taken a great journey away from the city and region and transported here for safe keeping, but Josephus actually records that they were inhabitants of the region and, therefore, he indirectly bears witness to the existence of some Jewish community here.
In late Roman and Byzantine texts, the city is referred to either as Caesarea Paneas or, simply, as Paneas thus showing that the demarcation of it belonging to Philip appears to have been short-lived (but still in general use at the time of Josephus’ writing) and that Neronias was largely forgotten. If it could be shown at what time during the first century AD that the city’s name reverted to Paneas, we could, perhaps, speculate as to the latest date of the writing of the original Gospel manuscripts.
John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah and the prophets
Mtw 16:13-14 Pp Mark 8:27-28, Luke 9:18-19
Jesus is recorded as referring to Himself as the ‘Son of Man’ in Matthew whereas both Mark and Luke note His words simply as asking the disciples who it is that men say that He is. We have previously noted that ‘Son of Man’ was a favourite way of Jesus to refer to Himself and that it seems to have been primarily used not as an allusion to the son of man of Daniel 7:13 but as a title which emphasised His humanity (see my notes here) thus forcing observers to face up to the fact not that Jesus was claiming to be the Son of God and, therefore, divine, but the Son of man and human.
It’s quite true that Jesus used the title ‘Son of God’ on a few occasions (John 5:25, 10:36, 11:4) but it’s more likely to be found on the lips of men and women who begin to perceive that there’s something uniquely special about Jesus even if it’s a title more often confessed by His enemies (Mtw 14:33, 26:63, 27:54, John 1:34, 1:49, 11:27, 19:7)!
I guess that it would have been the disciples rather than Jesus Himself who would have been hearing the talk of the people on the peripheral of the crowds and as they journeyed around Israel healing the sick (Mtw 10:5ff) and that, the confessions which were being mouthed at the point of healing as Jesus met their need weren’t necessarily a good representation of what the general populace considered Jesus to be.
Therefore, for whatever reason, Jesus asks the disciples who the people were saying He was.
Matthew records the fullest of the responses and we may, perhaps, picture the disciples contributing to the response individually, not just because the text records that ‘they said’ but because it seems natural that each would have felt one name or another of greater importance than one which another disciple had mentioned.
Their response is summarised by Matthew, however, as
‘...Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets’
a statement which is paralleled in Mark 6:14-15 where it’s only Jeremiah who’s omitted from the list surrounding a short discourse as to who Herod believed Jesus to be.
The mention of John the Baptist takes us back to Mtw 14:1-2 where we find Herod confessing that he regarded Jesus as being this resurrected prophet who he’d had executed in Machaerus previously. This appears to have been not just a personal belief (which indicates that Jesus only came to be known by Herod after John’s death) but one which had found its adherents throughout Israelite society even though, had it been generally known concerning Jesus’ whereabouts during John’s ministry, it would have been unlikely to have been believed.
That Jesus’ origins were hazy in the minds of the inhabitants of the land seems fairly certain if this could have been widely accepted and His initial miracles must have been performed when John was either arrested or when he was presumed to have been killed.
It’s easy to see how men and women who had not followed the events closely could have associated Jesus with a resurrected John the Baptist for they would have heard of the execution of the Baptist while, at the same time, have come to recognise that Jesus was beginning where the other had left off.
Associations with Elijah equally rely on an incomplete knowledge of Jesus’ history.
Elijah would have been the belief of many because He was one of two people who never tasted death in the OT (II Kings 2:11-12), the other being Enoch (Gen 5:24). It would have seemed natural for the crowds to assume that Elijah should return from Heaven to continue his ministry to Israel and, besides, Mal 4:5-6 seems to expect his literal return shortly before the end of the age. This appears to be the reason for Jesus’ declaration that John is none other than the fulfilment of the promise that Elijah would come (Mtw 11:13-15, 17:10-13).
Elijah also moved in miraculous power (though Elisha, his successor, is recorded as doing around twice as many miracles as he did) including the multiplication of food (I Kings 17:8-16) and the raising of the dead (I Kings 17:17-24), both of which Jesus had performed (Mtw 9:23-26, 14:13-21). Perhaps Elijah’s confrontation with the secular and religious leaders of the nation (I Kings 18:1,17-19,40, 21:17-24) could be seen to be paralleled in His attacks on the Pharisees (Mtw 12:24-32, 15:1-20, 16:1-4). Mattask summarises the similarities as being that
‘Both were men of prayer, both performed supernatural works of healing and both waged triumphant war against false religion’
But, even though these similarities were what might have caused some of the people to associate Jesus with Elijah, it necessarily meant that they either didn’t know or chose to ignore the natural birth which could have been confirmed by Mary and all his brothers.
It’s Luke alone who records that the crowds’ belief that Jesus could have been one of the other prophets was centred in a belief that the named prophet had been raised from the dead (Luke 9:19) - again, a certain demonstration that Jesus’ origins weren’t fully known or understood. Both Mark and Matthew’s record could be taken as referring to Jesus as a ‘new’ prophet but Luke seems to push us away from such a possibility.
The named men who Jesus was reputed to be were all prophets, of course, and all dead. Each of the names given to Jesus therefore rested on a resurrection incident which would have brought them back to the nation.
We could theorise on the numerous prophets attributable to Jesus as being similar either in nature or ministry but we would be going beyond what’s necessary to understand the text. It seems sure, though, that the record of the disciples’ response is a summation of various names which were offered by the disciples as an answer to Jesus’ initial question.
It’s only Matthew, however, who records the name of Jeremiah which seems a strange association to be made. Mattask, on the other hand, sees the people’s association with Jesus as being perceptive because
‘...of all the historical characters of the OT, Jeremiah approximates most closely to Jesus as an outstanding example of patient endurance [and] of undeserved suffering’
But this description of Jesus seems to be more tied up with the final outworking of His work in Jerusalem than it does with the general ministry in Galilee, even though He publicly noted that the cities where most of His mighty works had been performed still seemed to be totally given over to their own way of living and remained unconcerned to get themselves right with God (Mtw 11:20-24).
Mathag also follows this reasoning by commenting that
‘There are...a number of obvious parallels between Jesus and Jeremiah such as the preaching of judgment against the people and the temple and especially in suffering and martyrdom...’
but the last three of these four can really only be shown to have occurred after these events have taken place and we would have to presume that Matthew had included the name of Jeremiah retrospectively because he knew what had subsequently happened. His other assertion that Jeremiah could have been identified with Jesus because
‘There is no record of the death of Jeremiah in the Bible’
could be said of most of the OT prophets - after all, how could they write of their own deaths in the books which they seem to have put together as records of their prophetic declarations to the people?
Along similar lines is Matfran’s statement that
‘Jeremiah was a plausible identification, especially in that he, like Jesus, was a prophet of judgment, declaring God’s impending destruction of his own nation and therefore opposed and persecuted by its leaders’
but Jesus’ main ministry has been one of mercy and it isn’t until He arrives in Jerusalem for the final time that judgment seems to be just about everywhere.
It seems worth noting also that Isaiah and Jeremiah were considered to appear before the close of the age (II Esdras 2:18) though this tends to lead only to the question as to why Isaiah wasn’t mentioned rather than to justify the reason why some of the people considered Him to be Jeremiah. There’s also a vision of Jeremiah recorded in II Maccabees 15:13-16 but this doesn’t appear to be linked with the character or ministry of Jesus where the vision gives Judas a sword with which to slay his enemies. Finally, in II Maccabees 2:4-7, we read a statement concerning Jeremiah that
‘...being warned of God, commanded the tabernacle and the ark to go with him, as he went forth into the mountain, where Moses climbed up, and saw the heritage of God. And when Jeremiah came thither, he found a hollow cave, wherein he laid the tabernacle, and the ark, and the altar of incense, and so stopped the door. And some of those that followed him came to mark the way, but they could not find it. Which when Jeremiah perceived, he blamed them, saying “As for that place, it shall be unknown until the time that God gather his people again together, and receive them unto mercy”’
a possible association of Jeremiah the prophet with the restoration of the nation. I Esdras 1:54, unfortunately, tends to undermine this position by noting that the Ark went to Babylon!
It seems best, consequently, to follow Matmor’s assertion that
‘It is not clear why others thought of Him as Jeremiah...’
although this is clearly a cop out for many. The truth is, we can’t even be sure why Jesus would have been associated with Elijah or John the Baptist and the reasons we gave above may be no more than a vain attempt at a stab in the dark by using logical associations we can draw upon from both OT and NT writings.
All that we can say is that there appears to have been no one single and consistent opinion amongst the general people as to who Jesus was, even though they associate Him with God and as His messenger by their identification of Him consistently as being one the dead prophets.
Jesus’ Question and Peter’s Statement
Jesus’ first question (Mtw 16:13) seems to have been a preparatory one which was asked specifically to lead into the second and far more important one as it related to the disciples.
The question has enormous stress placed on the word ‘you’ which is difficult to bring out in English though it should probably be rendered with italics for emphasis. Something like
‘What about you, who do you say I am?’
would capture a little of the intent of the Greek. Neither does Jesus ask the disciples for their personal assessment of the situation and to think, for a moment, whether these might be correct. He cuts straight to the chase to ask them not what they think of the crowds’ labels but what label they would put directly on Him. Mathen writes
‘The people all around us may have various opinions about Jesus, but what do we think of Him? That is the question’
This is the intention behind Jesus’ two-stage question and it’s the same today - men may regard Jesus as a prophet, a teacher or even just as a good man. But who is He to us? What do we as individuals think of Him? The answer to this question determines whether we share the faith of the early Church or whether we’ve assimilated our own beliefs into a form of christianity which isn’t representative of the early Church.
Jesus’ question, it needs to be noted, is certainly not being asked because it’s obvious that there’s only one possible response. For example, Jesus doesn’t say
‘That’s all well and good for the crowds, but you remember how I walked on the water. So who do you think I am?’
which would have both reminded them of the miracle and also, perhaps, rekindled their own words that had come spontaneously from their lips at the conclusion of that incident that He was the Son of God (Mtw 14:33). There’s no natural and automatic reply possible here, then, which makes Peter’s response all the more surprising and, even though Mathag comments that
‘The question is asked...to elicit from the disciples an explicit confession of His messianic identity’
we should see the question as open to numerous answers rather than to demand a positive confession concerning Jesus being the Christ.
In all three Gospels, it’s only Peter who replies to Jesus’ question and it’s impossible to say whether at that time what he expressed was the general consensus of opinion among the band of the disciples. After all, while some may have regarded Him as the Messiah, others may only have thought of Him as the Messiah’s forerunner and Peter’s titling of Him as the Son of the Living God, while a sudden response by those who were in the boat on the Sea of Galilee (Mtw 14:33), may have been reconsidered over the following months until this incident occurred.
Peter may have been unique in his assessment of who Jesus was but we should, perhaps, also note that Peter is by far the most likely to have jumped in with a response in the heat of the moment before anyone else could have got a word in and his reply may be, as Matfran writes
‘...a conviction that was no doubt at least embryonic in all of them’
All that can be said here is that those who share a similar response such as Peter’s would be likely to share in the same sort of declaration which came from Jesus’ lips.
Peter’s statement is quite straightforward and, while both Mark and Luke only record the statement that the disciple regarded Jesus as being God’s promised Messiah, the Anointed One (Mark 9:29, Luke 9:20), Matthew notes that Peter’s declaration also contained the confession that he regarded Jesus as being none other than divine or, at the very least, that He was God’s Son in a special and unique way that no one before Him had ever been.
The disciple certainly didn’t fully understand what Jesus’ ‘Messiahship’ actually meant for, in a very short while, he’ll respond to Jesus’ declaration with a denial and a strong rebuke (Mtw 16:22) but, nevertheless, he has at least perceived the truth.
As such, it becomes the first rational and settled declaration of Jesus’ divinity in Matthew’s Gospel. As Mattask comments
‘Jesus was well aware that this great confession was not made by Peter on the spur of the moment as if he had been “stung by the splendour of a sudden thought”...’
where Mtw 14:33 should be contrasted as being more like a sudden knee-jerk reaction to what has just taken place before their eyes rather than as a conclusion to a series of rational thoughts which eventually can be confessed with all honesty and no doubt. Mathag describes the confession in the boat as spoken
‘...under pressure of extraordinary circumstances...’
and this certainly summarises the situation well.
For the time being, we need only to note the content of Peter’s words but, in the next section, we will go on to consider Jesus’ reaction to it and how the declaration on the lips of a believer needs to be joined with the same sort of acceptance of revelation that Peter had received from the Father.
Although the main crux of this entire passage should really centre around Peter’s confession that Jesus is
‘...the Christ, the Son of the living God’
it has necessarily been the subject of intense defence and offence seeing as the words which are now directly addressed to Peter as an individual have been used in all manner of ways to underpin and found denominational beliefs. It’s virtually impossible, therefore, to come to these three verses and not to at least attempt an interpretation which answers some of these assertions and objections face on. It certainly is impossible to cover all the grounds of disagreement and Mathen notes that
‘The literature on the interpretation of Mtw 16:17-19 as a whole or in part is vast’
citing twelve sources in his footnote as proof of his statement. It seems a shame that the Church has often been more concerned to use these verses as justification for a whole series of beliefs in Church authority when passages such as Mtw 5:27-30 which have to do with personal responsibility before God are normally covered less often.
At the end of the day, it isn’t the correct interpretation of these three verses of Scripture which saves a man but an understanding of the Sermon on the Mount is much more necessary to this end!
As the reader moves through this section, they should be aware that under-currents are never far away from the surface and, where I may have opted for one particular interpretation, there will be another handful of explanations close by which some will espouse so vehemently as to make the hearer think that, far from Jesus being ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’, they consider themselves to be!
We must try and be both faithful to the text in question, therefore, and not draw conclusions which aren’t specifically stated in the text.
The problems associated with this text, as Matfran notes, has caused it to
‘...have been regarded as a late addition designed to support an early claim to the primacy of the bishop of Rome’
and Mathag is more definite when he writes that
‘Although relatively few scholars deny the historicity of Peter’s confession itself, the historicity of the special Matthean material that follows (Mtw 16:17-19) is widely regarded as dubious’
going on to note that it’s exclusion from the other two Gospels which deal with the incident, the use of the phrase ‘build My Church’ and the authority and position which appears to have been granted solely to Peter and which isn’t reflected in the life of the early Church as recorded in Acts and inferred in some of Paul’s letters, are pointers away from it being present in the original Gospel.
However, there’s no textual evidence to support its late inclusion and the commentator is left to accept the testimony of the passage even if he or she isn’t too keen on it! If we are to project a very late date for the composition of this Gospel, we would find it difficult to insist on its accuracy being so far removed from the original events and, because Mark and Luke follow the Matthean text so closely at certain points, the date of composition of these would also have to be pushed back at least into the second or third centuries AD. Besides, as Matfran notes
‘...the strongly Semitic character of the language throughout these verses points to a relatively early origin in a Palestinian environment’
and this is quite in keeping with other places within this Gospel where we’ve noted that it appears as if it’s been written from at least one manuscript which was specifically written for a predominantly Jewish fellowship of believers even if we cannot be certain that they should be taken as being resident within the land of Israel.
Any thought that this passage was meant to be either exclusively addressed to Peter or, as a consequence, to the entire group of disciples is difficult to substantiate and it seems as if any choice between the two is naturally thwart with danger and possible misinterpretation.
Certainly, the ‘you’ throughout these three verses is singular and can only be directed towards Peter - otherwise, Jesus would have spoken in the plural to include all the disciples. We noted above, also, that Peter cannot be thought of as speaking on behalf of the group of believers gathered and that it’s quite possible that it was significantly only Peter who had come to a settled decision regarding who Jesus was at that time in the ministry to Israel. I find this extremely unlikely but it is, nonetheless, possible.
But, if we accept the singular ‘you’ as being original, we have to accept also that the words were primarily - if not exclusively - directed towards Peter, and only Peter.
What does that mean?
That, if these words represent a special blessing given to the disciple, then the promise must also have stayed with him throughout his life but consequently have died with him. If it’s correct not to see the disciples who shared the revelation which Peter has received as being sharers of the promise of God - because it’s solely a blessing given to him for who he is or because of his confession - then neither can we envisage it as being transferable to a succession of papal figures from the fourth century onwards and passed on beforehand through the successive appointment of the bishops (or, better, ‘leaders’) of the church at Rome.
Unfortunately, you can’t have it both ways!
Either the promise can be passed on to others or it can’t - either men who share the blessing of Peter can receive the same promise or no one can because it was a personal promise in much the same way as John 21:18 was an assurance that there would come a time when Peter’s faith wouldn’t let him down.
Certainly, if we look at what subsequently happened in the early Church from the records we have in both Acts and the letters, it’s certain that Peter became extremely important within the Church and, quite naturally, was regarded as one of the more important of the apostles.
But, even so, Peter isn’t the one who makes the declaration concerning what obligations the believing Gentiles were under (Acts 15:13-21) and he’s only mentioned as one of those who formulates the final wording of the statement which was distributed to the Gentile fellowships (Acts 15:22-23) even though it appears to be his experience which finally persuades the Church to recognise the Gentiles as fellow believers (Acts 10:1-11:18).
And Peter is also spoken of in Gal 2:9 only as one of three believers who were committed to bringing the Gospel to the Jews. Paul writes there that
‘...when they perceived the grace that was given to me, James and Cephas [Peter] and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised’
It would appear from this statement, then, that, if Peter’s authority is to be interpreted solely as his, then it should have been handed in succession only to those who God had raised up over the Jewish believers. But, also, it’s three believers here who are reputed to be ‘pillars’ - that is, solid and stable believers upon whom the entire building is rested upon, not Peter alone who is spoken of in Mtw 16:18 as being the person upon whom the Church would be founded (if, indeed, this is the correct interpretation of that verse).
It wouldn’t be fair to categorise Peter’s documented mistakes, errors and disobediences after Jesus had ascended as disqualifying him from the position which Jesus appears to assign to him alone in Mtw 16:17-19 - but neither should we think that, if only Peter was given such authority, that everything he said was infallible (you understand the implications, right?).
Even if just this very brief pointer towards Peter’s subsequent role within the Church is accepted, it can be seen that there were a few people whose authority was equal to that apostle - even Paul whose writings are described as authoritative by Peter himself (II Peter 3:15-16).
And, if authority over the early Church was bestowed on many and its welfare founded on more than one, then it follows that the declaration of Jesus made to Peter in this Matthean passage must also be attributable to all believers who share in the revelation of Peter that Jesus is the Son of the living God - or, perhaps better, to all believers who share in Peter’s revelation and who have been granted the special authority directly by Jesus (where authority is given by Jesus, not inherited by apostolic or denominational succession).
It probably won’t surprise the reader, therefore, to learn that I intend understanding the promise given to Peter as being equally applicable to all believers who share in the revelation which Peter had that Jesus is
‘...the Christ, the Son of the Living God’
not as a credal statement of belief but as a living and dynamic personal experience. I have, consequently, presented my interpretation to the reader with this as a background and it will be clearly seen to colour my statements at certain points within my text.
1. The Source of Peter’s Statement
Jesus begins His reply by announcing Simon as ‘blessed’, described by Matfran as a ‘beatitude’ but a description which needn’t concern us too much here. That Peter is spiritually ‘happy’ or ‘fortunate’ (see my notes here) is a result of the revelation given to him directly by the Father - he isn’t fortunate and so receives the revelation but it’s the latter which necessarily brings with it its own special blessing.
We should think of this blessing, as I noted on that previous web page, in a similar way to that of Mathag who I quoted as writing that
‘Rather than happiness in its mundane sense, [blessed] refers to the deep inner joy of those who have long awaited the salvation promised by God and who now begin to experience its fulfilment’
Therefore, Simon is ‘blessed’ not because he’s received a material reward for something he’s done but because he’s accepted the revelation given to Him directly from the Father who has disclosed to him a hidden spiritual truth which had subsequently radically transformed his life from being a natural fisherman to a fisher of men.
Jesus addresses Peter as ‘Simon Barjona’, this being the only place where such a ‘surname’ occurs and which means, simply, ‘son of Jonah’. John 1:42 and 21:15, however, record Jesus as calling Simon ‘son of John’ which is demonstrably different. Mathag observes that there remains the more than likely possibility that the Matthean record is
‘...an Aramaic alternative to the Greek name John’
even though some commentators think of it, rather, as a scribal alteration. But, as no evidence exists in the manuscripts, it isn’t an option which has any foundation. Perhaps more likely than this is that, as Mathag
‘...some special meaning is in view through the association of Peter with the prophet Jonah’
but the reasons I’ve seen why this should be so are somewhat strained and it’s best to accept that Jonah and John are names which span two different languages and that, because John was writing to a predominantly Greek readership, he chose to render it with a name which was easier to recognise.
Whatever the exact reasons for the difference here, we should note that the use of ‘Barjona’ is a tool by which Jesus reminds Peter of his human origins but, as a contrast, of his reliance upon the heavenly source for his knowledge. That is, Peter is seen as having been made contact with by the Father Himself and that the knowledge that He’s now confessed has been supernaturally transmitted to him.
Though he’s seen as just a man, what he now has is something which he couldn’t have obtained from a human source, emphasised further by Jesus’ contrast between the fact that ‘flesh and blood’ is insufficient for such a knowledge but that it takes a direct revelation from God Himself to make such a fact known to him. This phrase ‘flesh and blood’, Mathag qualifies as being
‘...a Semitic expression for human agency...’
and it’s used elsewhere in the NT not just with this meaning but also to denote the human body. Therefore, Paul writes in I Cor 15:50 that
‘...flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God...’
and, in Heb 2:14, that Jesus shared in mankind’s
‘...flesh and blood...’
There is, perhaps, a dual meaning possible in Eph 6:12 where Paul notes that believers aren’t
‘...contending against flesh and blood but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places’
Both the human body and organised human institutions could be in mind here but, in Gal 1:16, Paul can only be referring to human wisdom and earthly advice with his statement that he
‘...did not confer with flesh and blood’
when he first came to understand the truth concerning Jesus Christ. In Mtw 16:17, the idea of both human effort and learning is clearly in mind. The declaration that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s Son, hasn’t come about either because Peter’s sat down to contemplate the goings on that his eyes have witnessed or because he’s been listening to the testimony of those who have been espousing their beliefs of who He is. Rather, Peter has received a direct word from Heaven itself which He’s fully believed and in which he’s fully trusting - he may not understand the full implications of just what that revelation means (Mtw 16:22), but he’s willing to confess it openly when asked.
It must be understood that this revelation isn’t automatically believed in each and every recipient and Peter, having probably declared the same sort of confession along with the other disciples in Mtw 14:33, has now had time to reflect upon whether he’s fully willing to accept what was then revealed.
But, the testimony of those who the disciples have been listening to (Mtw 16:14) has done nothing to put off his conviction that Jesus is God’s Son as revealed personally to him. Therefore, Matmor’s statement can be best understood in this light when he writes that Jesus
‘...begins by denying that what that apostle has just said is the end result of some splendid human effort...It is important to realise that this knowledge is not due to human cleverness or even profound spiritual insight’
The importance of revelation is an important characteristic of the life of a believer and one that is frequently either openly denied or swept under the carpet to be replaced by exposition and credal beliefs. But Jesus has spoken on more than one occasion for the need for revelation. In Mtw 11:25, Jesus praises the Father for hiding spiritual matters from the ‘wise and understanding’ and of choosing to reveal them to ‘babes’.
The first word of the Kingdom of heaven, therefore, is not one which emphasises man’s response but God’s action and, no matter how much we would like to think of christianity being a series of beliefs by which men purify themselves, it is now and always has been a response of men and women to a move of God in their own lives.
Although anyone may confess a verbal formulae in a church meeting - even against what they believe or live in their own lives - only by revelation can a believer truly come to terms with Jesus and who He must inevitably be.
We haven’t gone passed the age of revelation but it remains an integral part of what it means to be saved.
2. The Rock
And so we come to the most problematical verse of the passage in question, one that has been used in many different contexts and situations to substantiate all kinds of doctrinal beliefs, church structures and ecclesiastical organisations.
We must begin by reminding ourselves that Peter has just put into words the revelation he’s received directly from the Father that Jesus is
‘...the Christ, the Son of the living God’
and that Jesus has responded by announcing that Peter is blessed because of that revelation and that it’s not come about through earthly reasoning and logic. In this context, then, Jesus moves on to speak about two types of rocks, the church (which is the first occurrence of this concept as representing the body of believers in the Gospel) and of the gates of Hades, gates of hell or powers of death depending on which translation you use.
We’ll go on to look at this latter phrase very briefly after we’ve considered what the ‘Rock’ is supposed to be taken as but it does seem fair to summarise the quest for the truth of this passage as the need for an answer to the question
‘What is the rock upon which Christ will build His Church?’
a question which has yielded a great many answers! It doesn’t help the person who wishes to study the answer to this question that the commentators who deal with the verse, seem to hide away some of the problems with their own position so that the reader can’t see that there are flaws in their interpretation, leaving it for people opposed to their own view to so undermine the other’s position that, if one had to be honest, one would have to conclude that there’s nothing certain about what it means!
However, although I may be wrong, it would appear that there are three main possibilities, two of which are interrelated.
The first concerns the statement which Peter makes in Mtw 16:16 that Jesus is
‘...the Christ, the Son of the living God’
Some of the problem, so the reasoning goes, is that you wouldn’t expect Jesus to speak of ‘this rock’ as being a reference to Peter when something more along the lines of
‘...you are Peter and upon you will I build My Church...’
is what would have been expected. Therefore, the only other statement which the declaration can possibly refer to is the credal declaration which has occurred immediately prior.
The word play in the Greek also has to be considered here. ‘Peter’ in the Greek is the word ‘Petros’ which is masculine (Strongs Greek number 4074) and can mean a small rock (that is, a stone or a pebble) as well as something bigger resembling a boulder. But ‘Rock’ is ‘Petra’ which is feminine (Strongs Greek number 4073) and only has the meaning of ‘rock’.
Therefore, it’s difficult to see Jesus referring to Peter as being the rock when the two genders of the Greek words are different. Jesus’ reply is then to be read as
‘You are Peter [a small rock] and upon this rock [a large rock - that is, the revelation of who I am in verse 16] I will build My Church’
This interpretation helps the interpreter come to terms with the other NT passages where Christ is spoken of as being the foundation stone of the Church (for example, I Cor 3:11, I Peter 2:6), not Peter, and the history of the early Church is uncompromising in its statements that Peter was considered to be no more than one believer - albeit a very important one - among many.
If this interpretation is accepted, then here, in Christ’s own words, is the Church’s statement and creed - that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God - and all our attempts at fuller expressions are undermined by the declaration.
This interpretation is not without it’s difficulties, however. It’s asserted that Jesus spoke in Aramaic, not Greek, and there’s certainly evidence of this in the NT (Mark 7:34) and the statement to the disciples, being Jews, is naturally assumed to have been originally spoken in this language. Amazingly, the word play is identical in both Aramaic and Greek but, in the former, there would be no change to the masculine title of Simon as being Cephas so that it would be seen to be more likely that Jesus is referring to the disciple.
Besides, even if Jesus did speak in Greek at this point, He couldn’t have addressed Peter with a feminine title and so was forced to change the feminine ‘petra’ to the masculine ‘petros’ while still retaining the feminine ‘petra’ to speak of the object upon which He would build His Church.
Both of these are assumptions, however, but they do represent adequate doubts placed upon the logic of the argument that the construction of the Greek deny that Jesus could have been referring to the disciple upon which He would found His Church.
The argument which saw ‘this rock’ as being an unusual construction and unlikely is also more easily accepted when it’s realised that, without it, the wordplay in both Aramaic and Greek would be impossible.
Another problem would be that the Church would be seen to be founded upon a credal statement rather than upon Christ Himself, a problem of equal difficulty, if we’re honest, with the interpretation that Peter is the founding stone. The former implies that a dead confession from the lips would have been all that was necessary to gain entrance into the spiritual body of believers, something which undermines the need for a living relationship with God (John 17:3) and of being born again of the Holy Spirit (John 3:3).
For this reason, the second belief is better that Jesus’ rock doesn’t refer to a credal statement but to the acceptance of revelation to the believer as put into words by Peter in Mtw 16:16 but which Jesus is quick to point out hasn’t come through human understanding and logic (Mtw 16:17). I’ve noted above in my dealing of the previous verse that Jesus is contrasting the humanity of Peter with the divine origin of the revelation received and it’s this which is at the heart of being born again into the Church where credal statements may tell a person what another believes but they can’t tell them what that person is experiencing and living.
The teaching that the rock refers to Peter is rejected on much the same grounds as the first interpretation (and, therefore, suffers from the same objections) and this can be seen to be a far better alternative than the former because it places emphasis on revelation and, therefore, on a relationship with God based on faith.
Thirdly - and, perhaps, almost ignored by most Protestants and those who realise the dangers of such a position - is the belief that Jesus was actually referring to Peter and saying that, upon him, He was going to build His Church.
Leaving aside the problems, for a moment, that this is never what actually occurred as recorded in the NT and the problems associated with such an interpretation that has given the Roman Catholic sect a claim that there is a papal succession back to the apostle Peter himself, we should realise that this is the easiest of interpretations of the text in question. Part of the rejection of this viewpoint has, no doubt, been as a response to the Catholic position of Church authority and supremacy which has been assumed by successive popes, but it is the most obvious meaning which can be yielded from the passage in question. Therefore, Matfran calls Peter
‘...the foundation stone of Jesus’ Church’
but his following statement that it’s
‘...a matter of historic fact that Peter was the acknowledged leader of the group of disciples and of the developing church in its early years’
is incorrect. I have noted above that, although Peter experienced some events which were to change the course of the Church, it wasn’t he who was the leading believer within the Jerusalem Church and Paul was called by Jesus independently of Peter’s authority and outside of his jurisdiction, being commissioned by God to evangelise the Gentiles while Peter, John and James were given over to reaching the Jews.
Peter, although important to the early Church, was certainly not pre-eminent. If the disciples had understood Mtw 16:18 as meaning Peter would have been the leader, it makes Mtw 18:1 almost meaningless where they begin to discuss amongst themselves who’s the greatest in the Kingdom and turn to Jesus to decide the matter for them. If the appointment of Peter as their leader was fixed by Mtw 16:18, both their question and Jesus’ reply are pointless.
Matmor follows the best interpretation of Peter being referred to by Jesus as the rock upon which He will build His Church, pointing out that
‘...the statement that the rock is Peter is true only as we keep in mind what that apostle has just said...We must not separate the man from the words he has just spoken’
‘Any interpretation that minimises the importance of the faith that found expression in Peter’s words is to be rejected’
Perhaps better is the understanding that it’s not just upon faith but upon revelation as previously noted, where faith should be taken to be an acceptance and belief in that which has been revealed. Peter’s confession is rooted in a move of God in disclosing the nature of Jesus to him and it’s this which stimulates him to have to either accept or reject it.
Therefore, Peter, the rock upon which the Church was to be built, is seen not as solely a man but as a man who has received the revelation given to him directly from the Father and who has chosen to respond positively to it.
Peter is the first of many, therefore, who will come to that place of acceptance of who Jesus is and is, consequently, the person from whom it all begins. As Barclay writes, quoted in Matmor, Jesus
‘...did not mean that the Church depended on Peter as it depended on Himself and on God the Rock alone. He did mean that the Church began with Peter; in that sense Peter is the foundation of the Church’
What we need to consider, finally, is apostolic succession or, perhaps more rightly, papal succession. The reader should take note of my commentary on Mtw 7:28-29 where I’ve previously dealt with the bestowal of a person’s authority onto another who is seen to take up where the former person left off and how, although this was what the Pharisees continued, it wasn’t what Jesus had intended for His Church - even though Protestant as well as Catholic denominations have opted to follow after the methodology of the Pharisees against Jesus’ clear example and position.
But, if we take this idea of authoritative succession and try to determine whether this was what Jesus intended in our present passage, we can see that there is never an indication that this was what was expected. Therefore Matmor is adamant that
‘...there is no mention of any successors of Peter; whatever position is assigned to him is personal and not transmissible to those who would succeed him. Jesus is speaking of the apostle and not of those who followed him’
And, if the promise is given to Peter and Peter alone, then the promise must have died with him. But, far from the idea of a succession of the promise, we should, I feel, think about those who shared the promise as given to him.
If we think of Peter as the perfect type of believer who receives revelation from the Father and receives it with full acceptance and confession, we can see that the promises which follow on from the statement are equally applicable to each and every believer, beginning with the twelve apostles who are summed up in both Rev 21:14 and Eph 2:19-22 as being the foundations of the Church just as Peter is here.
The originators of the Church can be called foundational - just as the beginning of a new move of God in a generation can also be called foundational as also can be the human source from which it begins, the rock upon which it’s built.
There are only two options here - either Peter was given this promise to him alone or it was equally applicable to all who shared in the revelation he’d received and in the way he’d responded to it. Personally, I opt for the second interpretation or else most of what we’ll be discussing below is entirely irrelevant to the present day believer.
3. The gates of Hades
The title I’ve used for this section is the marginal note of the RSV which notes that this is the literal translation of the Greek, even though it renders the phrase as ‘the powers of death’, a phrase which is much more in keeping with the actual meaning.
The term ‘Hades’ (Strongs Greek number 86), as opposed to ‘Gehenna’ (Strongs Greek number 1067), is the temporary place of punishment after death for all those who will be judged at the Great White Throne (Rev 20:11-15). For a detailed explanation, the reader should turn to my notes on ‘Eternal Habitations’ section 3d.
As such, the phrase used simply means ‘the place of the dead’ - it doesn’t refer to satan’s dominion which is frequently and erroneously called ‘hell’, a title used for the final destination of all those who stand opposed to the will of God.
Where this belief actually came from and at what time in Church history, I have no idea. But I seem to recall that Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ uses it this way and it must have surely been a well entrenched belief for it to have been fully understood - that the AV unwittingly gave fuel to this belief is certain by it’s translation ‘gates of hell’ but whether this represents the belief of the translators is uncertain (though likely). It probably wouldn’t do us a lot of good to attempt to trace its usage back to one source but we must come to terms with the fact that ‘hell’ is simply a place of punishment over which God has authority and into which satan himself will be cast as punishment, rather than as seeing it as a place where satan rules and where he inflicts punishment on those who are given over to him by God.
Neither should we think of ‘hell’ as a present dominion over which he rules for, according to the Bible, although hell is the final dwelling place of the disobedient, it isn’t yet in existence - and won’t be until Hades gives up its dead and judgment takes place (see my notes as linked above to ‘Eternal Habitations’).
Therefore, although songs such as Graham Kendrick’s ‘I will build My Church’ are a very real point of focus for the Church to concentrate its attentions on coming against the forces of darkness within their own culture and society, the lyrics which run
‘I will build My Church
‘And the gates of Hell
‘Shall not prevail against it.
‘So, you powers in the heavens above bow down...’
are actually using a Scripture against the original meaning of the words!
There are two interpretations which appear possible from Mtw 16:18 concerning the ‘gates of death’ and both of which I’ve stated individually on two separate web pages on this web site as being the correct interpretation (double-minded? What do you mean?!).
Firstly, Jesus could have meant that His Church would never die. That is, the Church would not fade out into oblivion and irrelevance, but would continue to be in existence throughout the age as God’s vessel of all rule and authority (demonstrated in the idea of ‘binding’ and ‘loosing’ which follows).
Alternatively, there may be the meaning which relies upon the OT passage of Is 38:10-11 where king Hezekiah is recorded as saying (my italics)
‘In the noontide of my days I must depart; I am consigned to the gates of Sheol for the rest of my years. I said, I shall not see the Lord in the land of the living; I shall look upon man no more among the inhabitants of the world’
where the phrase means a state of death while alive (no - not the supernatural ‘living dead’ of Hollywood films!). So here Jesus would be saying that a characteristic of His Church will be that it’s spiritually alive and, therefore, the test of a local church to see if it’s representative of Jesus’' purpose on earth is whether it’s alive to the things of God, or doesn’t know Him and His ways.
With the contrast in this Gospel between dead religion which can’t know God (the Pharisaical way) and the new Way of knowing God through the ministry of Jesus and the mercy of God, it’s this latter which is the most probable but, even so, it shouldn’t be accepted to the detriment of the former - hence my justification for keeping both interpretations within my notes on different web pages!
4. Binding and Loosing
Here, we need to determine what Jesus meant by speaking of ‘the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven’ and of the twin concepts of ‘binding’ and ‘loosing’ which follow as a consequence and outworking of the keys.
It seems best that we leave an interpretation of the keys until we’ve dealt with the latter subject, seeing as a correct understanding of their function is necessary before we can ever hope to get the interpretation of the keys correct.
Similarly to the previous verse, this has been the subject of much misunderstanding and misinterpretation but also of correct application without any definitive exposition which underpins it. So, for the modern day charismatic evangelical christian, ‘binding and loosing’ is primarily to do with the advance of the Kingdom of God into the world by removing satan’s influence from the world (the ‘binding’) and of releasing men and women from his control (the ‘loosing’).
There is a semblance of truth in this but, unless we found the principle and application for it directly into Scripture, the best we can hope for is to have hit the nail on the head rather fortuitously and to not be able to understand how the verse which we take as meaning one thing actually has a range of meaning that we need to equally adopt and accept.
Binding and loosing is not a new concept to the times of the NT and is one which was commonly understood amongst the people of Jesus’ day. It wasn’t that Jesus used ambiguous terms from ordinary life and gave them a spiritual application but that these were terms which already were being used by the Rabbinical authorities in their dealings with religious matters.
Therefore, if you’d used the word ‘binding’ or ‘loosing’ to a first century Jew, you would have expected him to have understood you in one way and one way only. It seems unlikely that Jesus took the common words and attributed a different meaning to them - as has been suggested by some commentators - for Jesus was a man in His time who used the words, concepts and experiences of His time to convey spiritual truth. When Edersheim writes that
‘...no other terms were in more constant use in Rabbinic Canon-law than those of “binding” and “loosing”’
we should note the truth of the statement. What we understand as being the first century Jewish and Rabbinic meaning, then, should largely govern our exposition of the passage. To quote just two commentators here to offer a simplistic definition of the words is perhaps the best way forward, seeing as it will allow us to at least have a concept which we can apply in the situations which we will discuss below. Mathen attempts a summary by stating clearly that
‘Binding and loosing are rabbinical terms, meaning forbidding and permitting’
while Matfran, applying this principal both to the authority of the keys of the Kingdom and to the first century context, writes that
‘The authority is exercised in binding and loosing which were technical terms for the pronouncement of Rabbis on what was or was not permitted’
These concepts of forbidding (binding) and permitting (loosing) are never far from their meaning when used in a first century context. It would have been good to have been able to refer to specific Rabbinic sources and so to settle in my own mind that these concepts are justifiable by first hand evidence but, unfortunately, most of the commentators have relied on a similar source book which deals with them and, therefore, appears to be using their conclusions rather than attempt to formulate their own theory based on primary sources.
To Edersheim, there were just two aspects of binding and loosing which were used amongst the Rabbis and which we’ll apply in the next two subsections after a brief overview of the definition here. Firstly, there’s the legislative aspect - that is, in the laws and regulations which were laid down as obligatory upon Israel. If they were restrictions or prohibitions they were a binding (for instance, ‘You shall not steal’) but if they allowed or commanded a thing to be done they were a loosing (for instance, ‘You shall love the Lord your God...’).
Edersheim, however, sees the legislative aspect as being solely ‘binding’ and as forbidding actions rather than of legislating a course of action which was obligatory. I disagree with him here but it has to be noted that he cites three Rabbinic sources from the Talmud to support his assertion and, because I can’t check them out, it may be that this is exactly what the Rabbis felt that their interpretations did - in practice, however, it appears that there were times when their decisions were mandatory. This is also the position adopted by Zondervans.
Secondly, there were the judicial aspects. By this, I mean the enforcement of the legislative decisions outworked as case law before the courts of Israel. People were declared guilty (bound) or not guilty (loosed) with the corresponding punishment, freedom, compensation or liability. These were more like magisterial decisions but the words were equally important in defining the outcome of a legal hearing.
We’ll look at these two aspects under their respective headers in a moment and I shall subtitle them ‘law making’ and ‘law enforcing’ but we should note that Zondervans notes two other applications. Of the first they write
‘...less frequently the terms are used in a disciplinary sense - that is, to expel from or to receive back into the congregation [of Israel]’
which would place an interpretation squarely into the Church’s court as having the authority to declare whose sins were both forgiven or retained (John 20:23) and, therefore, who belonged to the Body of Christ and who didn’t. There may even be a case here for seeing an application in the life of the local church who could put outside from their fellowship those people who were living plainly contrary to the revealed will of God. However, this strikes me as being an outworking of the legislative powers of law making and so I shan’t be taking it as a separate concept.
Once the legislative and judicial aspects are considered in the next two subsections, it should be straightforward enough to be able to apply the principles to this situation though, it has to be said, the Church in its history has often been too flippant with its assumed authority than it should have been.
Secondly, Zondervan states that
‘...the terms are used also in a magical sense - that is, to “come under” or “be freed from” the power of a sorcerer, god or spirit’
and the application for those who like to see themselves as exercising the role of an exorcist should be immediately applicable. Not that the keys should be seen as in any sense ‘magical’ but that the Church has the authority to both commit a person (to bind) into the power of the enemy (I Cor 5:5) and also to ‘loose’ them from their influence (Acts 16:18).
But, again, this strikes me as an outworking of both legislative and judicial aspects where the Church decides on a matter (albeit on an individual basis) and so enforces the authority received from Jesus. I shall specifically deal with this principle, therefore, not as a separate subject but will include it as an application under both subsections which follow.
Finally, the reader will probably have noticed that I’ve used the authority of both binding and loosing above as being attributable to the Church in general rather than as solely the right of Peter as applied by Jesus here.
The reason for this is simply that both aspects are given to the disciples as a whole in Mtw 18:18 where we get an almost identical phrase in the context of Church discipline. This should lead us to the inference, as I’ve already noted above, that the promise given to Peter is equally applicable to all who share the revelation of the disciple and who have responded correctly to it.
It’s not that the one who stands in succession to Peter is he who commands the authority - this would be to clearly deny the teaching of Jesus first noted on my web page which dealt with Mtw 7:28-29 and which was subsequently reapplied when I dealt with Mtw 9:35-10:4.
Rather, a share in the God-given revelation of who the Son is and the correct response to it is what is being implied. The bestowal of the ‘keys’ - which we’ll consider at the end of the next two subsections - should also be understood as being bestowed upon those who are of like spirituality to Peter.
a. Legislative aspects (Law Making)
Before we begin both the legislative and judicial aspects of Law, we have to realise that what’s enjoined upon Peter has nothing to do with the whims and fancies of legalistic authorities as it came to be regarded with the Rabbis.
The RSV translation runs that
‘...whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven’
and it’s more than likely that most people who read the words would naturally read it as saying that, once a decision has been made on earth, Heaven will get itself in line with the decision made and enable it to be enforced by its own power and authority. But this isn’t how the Greek actually runs at this point. Matfran notes that both verbs used in connection with Heaven
‘...are literally future perfects (“shall have been bound” and “shall have been loosed”) and as the future perfect sounds as stilted in Greek as in English, the tense is apparently deliberate’
What Jesus is actually saying, then, is not that Peter will be making decisions that Heaven will follow but that he must make decisions which have already been ratified in heaven - that is, there is the onus laid upon him to make sure that he hears from Heaven what is the will of God in any given situation or in any matter and so pronounce the verdict based upon what he’s instructed.
In this way, Heaven comes down to earth and the Kingdom of God is re-established on earth.
‘Law making’, then, is declaring what is right and wrong as viewed by Heaven itself. There’s no thought that rules and regulations will be made which are the particular whim of a ruler who wants to see whether a people under him are willing to obey, but are an open declaration of the will of God.
It does not necessarily imply that what has been legislated will or won’t take place - for Law doesn’t bring righteousness, it can only point towards it - but that the statement of morality has been laid down for a situation as being an open revelation of what it is that God requires and desires.
Even though the NT believer is not under Law and is not obligated to live according to a written code, there is the necessity that they know what the will of God is so that He can be obeyed. Even in two similar situations, a different course of action may be required by God so that listening to what is necessary becomes fundamentally important for the believer.
With regard to Church discipline and procedure, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is a gold mine for various laws laid down for the local church, some of which are also necessarily binding upon the universal one. Paul speaks concerning marriage (7:1-40), of food offered to idols (8:1-13), of head coverings (11:2-16), of the communion of the Lord’s supper (11:17-34) and of spiritual gifts (chapters 12-14) - in each one, giving what he felt was the Lord’s mind on the matter that the fellowship might be careful to obey not his words but the words which came from Heaven itself. He also comments in I Cor 7:12 that what he’s about to write is a settled consideration which he personally has but which he’s not aware is the direct command of God, an indication that believers in similar situations should be careful to distinguish between our own reasoned opinion and a direct revelation from God.
Acts 15:1-29 is also a relevant passage where the early Church needed to deal with the question of the relationship of the Gentiles and the OT Mosaic Law and, what the Jerusalem church decided, was taken around all the fellowships so that they could be obedient to it. Here, though, notice the sparsity of their commands where the absolute minimum of obligation is laid upon the new believers - a case which should prompt us to consider what burdens we ourselves lay upon the new convert when we first try to help them to grow in and be obedient to Christ!
As many fellowships have used this passage in spiritual warfare, so, too, we should apply it as an aspect of Law which is necessary before the judicial aspect of Law enforcement is considered in the next section.
The believer doesn’t ‘make’ laws in spiritual warfare just as men and women are not called upon to dream legislation up for the Church to observe, but must be concerned to know what the will of Heaven is so that it might be declared on earth. It’s all very well shouting at a situation for satan to let go of it - and it can be an upbuilding experience that releases a lot of pent up emotion! - but if the will of God isn’t to deliver that situation in the here and now, it won’t ultimately achieve anything.
What God requires has already been provided for through the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Christ (Col 2:15, John 16:11, Eph 3:10, John 12:31) and, although there’s the need to declare the ‘law’ that is heard from Heaven, there is always the provision of authority to enforce it wherever it applies - so long as what’s being enforced is the will of God as revealed.
The Church’s problem today is not so much its attempt to use the principles of binding and loosing in spiritual warfare, but the realisation of when they should be used. Spiritual warfare will regress into verbal formulae that are devoid of power if it’s attempted when no revelation has been received.
b. Judicial aspects (Law Enforcing)
For a nation to have laws laid down but without a body that will enforce them to see that justice is done, means that it will be in a similar state of moral disorder as a nation that has no such laws. ‘Law’ doesn’t morally cleanse a nation - it only shows it what is right and wrong. It is the job of the enforcement agencies throughout the land - whether they be individuals (as it appears the nation of Israel were initially empowered to be) or whether the authority has been committed into the hands of a body of specialised people as in most of the western nations, there still must be an enforcing of Law if righteousness according to the Law is to be brought about or adequately maintained.
Again, it’s important for us to realise that the believer doesn’t serve God under rules and regulations which must be observed in situations and which dictate the person’s conduct, but that what’s heard from Heaven as relevant for a situation is what needs to be enforced, alive and with the provision of God upon the words of God to bring about His will.
In Christ, and in His Kingdom, there must be a body that will enforce Heavenly Law so that God’s will is seen to be done, rather than for it to be simply a source of nice ideas which have no outworking on earth.
Church discipline and procedure must again be in mind here - not least because Mtw 18:18 applies the words of Jesus about binding and loosing to a situation which would become necessary in the emerging Church after the ascension and Day of Pentecost.
So, in Acts 16:4, we read of the enforcement of the decisions of the Jerusalem Church Council and, in I Cor 5:1-13, of the dispelling of a christian from a fellowship because of gross sin. Even in Mtw 18:16-17 which concludes with the binding and loosing terminology, we read of a method given by Jesus to give a fellow believer every opportunity to turn from his ways and back into fellowship both with a believer and with God Himself. As such, authority of excommunication must necessarily be a part of such a command of Jesus but again we must point out that enforcement is a matter of hearing what Heaven has to say on the matter and of allying oneself with it - some of the people who have been dispelled from the established and visible church in history have been excommunicated against the will of God but in total accordance with the whims and fancies of a leadership who have been more concerned with maintaining their own authoritative position than of serving God.
Spiritual warfare is also applicable here. In Acts 16:16-18 we read of a spirit of divination being cast out and, in Acts 13:4-12, Elymas the magician is made blind because of his opposition to the word of the Gospel being proclaimed by both Paul and Barnabas.
In general, spiritual warfare aims to bind Satan’s hold on certain areas (forbidding him to continue to have his will done by exercising the authority of Christ into specific situations that are heard about from Heaven), and it looses the Spirit of God into those same areas (speaking the power and provision of God into those situations that become vacated, God bringing another area of the universe under His control and sovereignty - not commanding the Spirit to move but giving Him the freedom to do so).
Although Mtw 12:43-45 was spoken specifically about the nation of Israel in relation to the work of God that was being done in their midst through Jesus, the principle seems to be relevant here also. Both procedures of binding and loosing - of forbidding and allowing - are necessary aspects in spiritual warfare for, in just removing, a vacuum is created which can be retaken at a future date.
But in all these situations, as has been previously noted, the origin of action begins with God. A believer must hear from Heaven first before He will be in a position to effectively both ‘bind’ and ‘loose’. Not only is it important that one comes to recognise Jesus for who He is by revelation (Mtw 16:17), but binding and loosing will only be effectively done by those believers who continue to move in revelation - that is, they hear the word from the very lips of God and declare them into the situations around them.
To try to achieve these twin concepts in both areas of law making and law enforcement with no revelation will only bring deathly legalism.
Finally a word on the ‘keys of the Kingdom of Heaven’ which begin Mtw 16:19. I noted above that it was important that we firstly define what was meant by both binding and loosing and so allow our understanding of the keys to be coloured by what they’re used for.
Many commentators begin from the position of trying to define the key before going on to speak of the uses to which they’re put and so there’s a vast array of differing interpretations both within the Scriptures and in first century Judaism which may be relevant.
However, if we take the definitions of binding and loosing as above, we can say, very simply, that the key represents the authority by which both these aspects are carried out. However, this isn’t all it’s been taken to represent. Matmor, although not following the interpretation he notes, writes that the keys are
‘...an obvious symbol for admitting people through a door...’
while Mathen sees the possessor of the keys as the one who
‘...determines who should be admitted and who must be refused admission [to the Church?]’
Mathag seems to be torn between the idea of authority and one of admission and mentions both but he speaks of Peter having the keys as granting him
‘...the right to admit or deny admittance into the Kingdom’
Hence, I presume, the worldly view that the apostle Peter stands at the Pearly Gates to allow or to refuse admission to all who’ve died. However, what must be noted here is that the keys spoken of (and it’s definitely a figurative use) aren’t labelled ‘the keys of the Church’ but the ‘keys of the Kingdom of Heaven’.
If admission is the intended meaning here, we must take it as referring to admission into the Kingdom not the Church and, in that case, the meaning becomes nonsensical for, as we’ve previously noted, the world is God’s Kingdom (Mtw 13:24,38,41) and God’s Kingdom comes into a situation when God gets His will done on earth as it is in Heaven (Mtw 6:10). How would it be possible to grant or deny entrance into something a person is already living in? All that needs to be done is for the will of God to be done for the Kingdom to be realised.
Better is Matfran’s observation that the keys are symbols of
‘...an authority derived from a delegation of God’s sovereignty’
and Mathag that they’re
‘...above all a symbol of authority...’
Rather than see the keys as representing the right of admission, they should be taken to be representative of the authority of Heaven - that is, the authority of God Himself - in situations which need God’s will bringing about. Otherwise, the idea of opening and shutting admission into the Church is seen to be in disharmony with the concept of binding and loosing which follows.
Finally, it bears repeating that Mtw 18:18 speaks of binding and loosing as being a function of all the disciples and, consequently, of all the followers down through the ages who move in the same revelation as Peter (Mtw 16:17). That the ‘keys’ aren’t mentioned here shouldn’t concern us for the right to both bind and loose are dependant upon having the authority to outwork them effectively.
Even if no ‘key’ was mentioned in Mtw 16:19, therefore, authority would still be implied by the type of work which is being committed to Peter. We should therefore, I feel, not limit the promise to Peter as being personal and ending with the apostle’s death but applicable to all believers who move in the same sort of revelation as he did and who respond in the same manner.
Tell no one
All three Gospel writers mention that Jesus ordered the disciples to tell no one that He was the Messiah (Mtw 16:20, Mark 8:30, Luke 9:21) after the latter two have been silent on the statement of Jesus directed to Peter. Luke uses the statement to lead on to the first open declaration to the disciples of His imminent death and resurrection (Luke 9:21-22), an indication that Matthew’s ‘from that time’ in 16:21, although speaking of a parallel event, should be taken as something which occurred immediately following the declaration of the revelation of Peter concerning Jesus’ identity.
Whatever, that Jesus instantly ordered the disciples not to make Him known is certain and is inkeeping with His general attitude of not wanting to have His identity proclaimed.
Therefore, He orders the evil spirits not to ‘make Him known’ (Mark 3:11-12) which seems to be centred around the application of the label ‘Son of God’ rather than of ‘Messiah’ and He withdraws from the crowds when He perceives that they would be coming to raise Him up as King over them (John 6:15). Even the title He chose for Himself - Son of man - emphasises His humanity at the expense of divinity (Mtw 8:20).
Besides, what Jesus is now making known to the disciples (Mtw 16:21) would be seriously hindered if the proclamation of His Messiahship be openly made known. In that case, it would be likely that something similar to John 6:15 would take place but, this time, there would be little which could stop them from fulfilling their wishes.
While Jesus remained silent as to whether He was the Messiah or not, there must always have remained an element of doubt in the people’s minds. If He were to begin to declare who He was, it would seriously hinder the final outworking of God’s purposes for Him and of His necessary death on the cross in Jerusalem.
Even the disciples show that their concept of what the Messiah was to do was in error in the immediately subsequent verses in the shape of Peter’s confession (Mtw 16:22). How much more would the ordinary people who saw the miracles and heard the teaching rise up to Jesus’ defence and arm themselves to deliver Him from the hands of their religious leaders and Roman authorities once He’d been arrested that coming Passover? As Matmor comments
‘To know that Jesus was the Messiah was one thing; to understand what Messiahship really meant was quite another’
Therefore, Jesus’ Messiahship must remain as hidden as possible until after the resurrection and ascension when the full revelation of the new Kingdom would be made known to the Jews through the preaching of the disciples.
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