Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” Then He warned the disciples that they should tell no one that He was the Christ. Matthew 16:13-19
Matthew – Matthew writes to the Jews, his purpose is to prove that Jesus is the Messiah and the eternal King. There are 53 direct quotes from the Old Testament and 76 other references; and is a great book to transition from the Old Testament to the New. Matthew mentions the kingdom of God 51 times, twice as much as any other Gospel writer. The kingdom is so close, but not quite here – We need Acts 1 to happen before the age of the church is ushered in by the power of the Holy Spirit. And what is the main indication of the kingdom? How do we know it is here now? By the transformation of the individual and the church. The power of God, the rule of God at work in a person’s life is what reveals the kingdom. It is fitting, then, that Mathew is the only Gospel writer to use the word “church”. Written somewhere around 60-65 AD the church was established, though still very much in its infancy.
Jesus brings his disciples to Caesarea Philippi – a pagan city. Caesarea Philippi’s location was especially unique because it stood at the base of a cliff where spring water flowed. At one time, the water ran directly from the mouth of a cave set in the bottom of the cliff. To the pagan mind, the cave at Caesarea Philippi created a gate to the underworld, where fertility gods lived during the winter. They committed detestable acts to worship these false gods.
So Jesus has already done a ton of stuff – earlier in Matthew we have the Sermon on the Mount and numerous miracles. People are confronted by the man, his message and what He has done. It is hard to remain neutral in the face of such an iconoclastic existence. Some people think He is marvelous, others think He is dangerous and should die – soon. Jesus asks the disciples who people say He is. It is a safe question and easily answered. There is no commitment to the answer, and many people would like that question. You can give Him the local chat: “They are amazed. They think you are one of the major prophets come back to life, Jesus.” We can go into the three individuals mentioned, but suffice it to say that there is recognition that Jesus is connected to what God is doing. The guy who suggested John the Baptist is out to lunch, though, for John had only died a short while before. John had baptized Jesus, so someone is obviously a little John crazy. We have just come through the season of Advent where the incarnation, the birth of Jesus has been celebrated. And just as that event was missed by so many people some 2,014 years ago, so His life, in spite of the miraculous and the teachings, was being missed as he was on the journey to the cross. Just as people today miss the importance and the meaning of Christmas, so they miss the importance of His words recorded here in the Bible. Except they don’t regard Him as a prophet come back to life, they use His name as a curse and speak foolishness out of ignorance.
But here’s the thing: Jesus doesn’t stop at the safe place. He takes one step in and invades your personal space. Jesus is talking to you. He asks the question again and directs it to the disciples in His presence. “But who do YOU say that I am?” Can you see the disciples standing there, rubbing their hands nervously and not trying to catch Jesus’ eye? John is about to speak up, because he knows the answer, but Peter beats him to it, just like he would do at the tomb down the road. Peter says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Ah. If there is one thing you should memorize in Scripture, it is that confession. Jesus remarks on it with a play on words – a pun, which must be a divine form of humor! Jesus says, “You shall be called Peter (petros – which means a stone). And upon this rock (petra – large rock, bed-rock) I will build my church.” The thing Peter blurted out was much bigger than himself. He is but a small stone, but this confession is bed-rock. Stand firm upon it. It is the guiding principle for the church – Jesus is the Anointed One, God incarnate.
Standing as they were at a literal “Gate of Hades,” the disciples may have been overwhelmed by Jesus’ challenge. They had studied under their rabbi for several years, and now he was commissioning them to a huge task: to attack evil, and to build the church on the very places that were most filled with moral corruption. Jesus presented a clear challenge with his words at Caesarea Philippi: He didn’t want his followers hiding from evil: He wanted them to storm the gates of hell. Jesus contrasts those gates of hell, which created an insurmountable barrier between life and death, with the gates of heaven. Those gates of heaven would not remain closed, because Jesus offered the keys. He is the keys – the truth, the life, and the way. Don’t look for hidden meaning – see the contrast between death and life, despair and hope, darkness and light, fear and joy. Jesus is the answer.
The concept of “binding and loosing” found in Matthew 16:19 and Matthew 18:18 was commonly used among the Jewish people in relation to the authority of the rabbis to forbid and permit certain practices. Jesus gave Peter and the apostles – the church – authority over both the doctrine and practices. Through the leading of the Holy Spirit, they would be given wisdom to know what to forbid and what to permit. This is repeated in Matthew 18 in relation to church discipline – again the context is the church. The Greek word “you” in this passage is plural. So we understand from this passage that the church is the lowest common denominator. This makes sense because it is the body of Christ, and Jesus is the head. Listen to Peter later on in his ministry:
Simon Peter, a bond-servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ: grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust.
This binding and loosing is not about denominational prerogatives – it is about the universal church – the one church God sees. These gifts and promises He has given the church are about the kingdom of God, not our own little fiefdoms. This is Matthew writing. This is a call to action. The church is going to tear down the gates of hell, snatching those perishing at the last minute it would seem, and in a short time Jesus Himself was going to enter that place. What this all means is this: stand firm in your confession of Christ, go forth in the full armor of God, and take your place in the kingdom of God. The battle is on for the souls of humanity and you and I are called to be involved