By Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum
It should be kept in mind that Peter’s confession – You are the Christ, the Son of the living God – in Matt 16:13-19 took place after Yeshua (Jesus) was rejected as the Messiah by the leadership and the nation of Israel in Matthew 12. After He performed one of His key messianic miracles, the leaders rejected His messianic claims on the grounds of demon possession. As a result, Jesus warned His disciples against three types of leaven (i.e. sin) between chapters 12 and 16 of Matthew: the leaven of the Pharisees, the leaven of the Sadducees, and the leaven of the Herodians (Mat. 16:5-12; Mk. 8:13-21). These three major religious groups also served as political groups. Even though they did not all say the same thing about Jesus, they all had something against Him and taught things that simply were not true.
First, the leaven of the Pharisees was that Yeshua was demon-possessed. Secondly, because Yeshua began His public ministry by overturning the tables of the money changers in the Temple Compound and by chasing out the sellers of the sacrifices (Jn. 2:16), the leaven of the Sadducees was that He was against the Temple worship service. Thirdly, the leaven of the Herodians was that Yeshua was against Roman rule through the House of Herod. After training the disciples for a period of time and warning them against these three types of leaven, Yeshua brought them to a point where He administered an examination.
Jesus asked two questions:
(1) “Who do men say that the Son of man is?”
The disciples answered that there were different opinions among the masses. In general, the people recognized His supernatural authority; they connected Him with one of these significant characters of the Old Testament or with John the Baptist of the New Testament. However, they failed to clearly discern who He really was. He was none of these; He was Yeshua the Messiah. They all guessed wrong in that they did not discern Him to be the Messianic Person.
(2) “But who say you that I am?”
The Greek text is more emphatic, “But you, who do you say that I am?” Would the disciples merely make the same wrong conclusion concerning His supernatural character that Yeshua was Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah or some other prophet? Or would they believe what the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians had said? Peter answers in v. 16:
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
The disciples passed the examination; they had learned their lessons. They knew Yeshua was not merely a supernatural character, but the Messiah Himself.
Yeshua now turned to Peter and made a series of statements about Peter. These five statements are provided only by Matthew’s gospel. They entail:
The source of Peter’s understanding was by divine illumination (v. 17)
The meaning of the “Rock” (Petros/Petra) and the Church (v. 18a)
You are Peter (petros)
and upon this rock (petra)
I will build my church
Jesus uses a play on words here. When he said: you are Peter, He used the Greek word Petros, which is a masculine noun, meaning “a small stone” or “a small pebble.” When He said: upon this rock I will build my church, He used a different word, Petra, a feminine noun, meaning “a massive rock cliff,” just like the one overshadowing Caesarea Philippi, where they were. Grammatically, it could not possibly mean that the Church would be built upon Peter. On the contrary, Jesus was contrasting Peter, a small stone, with the massive rock cliff. Yeshua was also presupposing a very important Old Testament symbol. Whenever the word rock is used symbolically in Scripture, it is always a symbol of the Messiah throughout the Old Testament. So the Church would be built, not upon Peter, but upon the Messiah; more specifically, upon what Peter had just said about the Messiah, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the God, the Living One.” It was upon this confession of Peter that Jesus would build His Church.
The meaning of the “Gates of Hades” (v. 18b)
In this statement “and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it,” Jesus pointed back to a very common Old Testament idiom for physical death (Job 38:17; Ps. 9:13; 107:18; Is. 38:10; Jon. 2:6). Upon this rock He would build His Church, and physical death would not be able to destroy it—not His death, nor the death of the apostles, nor the long history of martyrdom. According to Ephesians 2:20, the Church was built upon the foundation of New Testament Apostles and Prophets, with the Messiah being the Chief Cornerstone. Thus, the Church has prevailed and God’s intended program will be fulfilled.
The meaning of the Keys of the Kingdom (v. 19a)
All jokes and misconceptions about Peter granting access to heaven at the Pearly Gates aside, Peter does not have such authority. That decision is made solely on the basis of the acceptance or rejection of Jesus. Once again Yeshua referred to an Old Testament concept. When the word key was used symbolically in the Old Testament, it symbolized authority (Is. 22:20-24), including the authority to open and close doors. In this context, Peter was given the authority to open the door of the Church. In the gospel period, humanity was divided into three groups: Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles. Once Peter opened the door for one group, it stayed open. The Church is the Body of the Messiah (Col. 1:18), and the means of entering the Body is by Spirit baptism (I Cor. 12:13). There is an inseparable connection between Spirit baptism and the existence of the Body—one cannot exist without the other. Peter, the keys, and Spirit baptism would all come together for each of the three groups in the Book of Acts.
The meaning of “binding and loosing” (v. 19b)
At this point, only Peter was given the special authority to bind and to loose. After Yeshua’s resurrection, it was given to the other apostles as well, but it did not go beyond apostolic authority. In modern days, this verse has been pulled out of context and made to mean something other than what it meant in its Jewish frame of reference. It has often been applied to the binding and loosing of Satan or demons in spiritual warfare. However, the context here is the establishment of the Church, not Satan or demons.
The terms “binding” and “loosing” were commonly used in rabbinic writings of that day in a judicial sense and a legislative sense. In a legislative sense, to bind meant “to forbid something,” and to loose meant “to permit something.” The Pharisees claimed to have the authority to permit that which the Law may have forbidden and to forbid that which the Law may have permitted. When it was used in a judicial sense, to bind meant “to punish,” and to loose meant, “to release from punishment.”
What Yeshua gave to Peter and later to the other apostles was something unique to apostolic authority. The apostles had the authority to bind and to loose both in the area of legislation and judicial punishment. Legislatively, the apostles were given the authority to permit and to forbid. This is the authority they exercised throughout their epistles. In the New Testament Epistles, the apostles used apostolic authority to forbid things that formally were permitted, and to permit things that were formally forbidden. Because Ananias and Sapphira lied to the Holy Spirit, they were bound for punishment by Peter as an example of legislative usage in Acts 5. They died because Peter bound them for punishment, using apostolic authority.
This authority to bind and to loose in the area of legislation and judicial punishment was something that came with apostolic authority and was never passed down through apostolic succession. Later generations of the Church had no right to this kind of authority, even though the Roman Catholic Church has often claimed this type of authority for itself. That was not the intent of apostolic authority.
Thus, the confession of Peter and the response of Jesus set the stage for the establishment of the Church and the recording of New Testament Scriptures through apostolic authority.