This paper is focuses on the Matthew 16: 13-20, that marks an important point in Matthew’s narrative. After having followed Jesus for some time now in His Galilean ministry, Simon Peter speaking on behalf of the disciples, makes the declaration that Jesus is not merely a prophet but the Messiah and the Son of God. After this recognition of His true identity by the disciples, Jesus begins to elaborate on what being the Messiah and consequently a follower of the Messiah entails, setting His sights toward Jerusalem and His death.
Matthew was a tax collector in whom Jesus called one of the twelve apostles. Matthew’s calling is mentioned in Matthew 9:9 and 10:3 as a publican, in Capernaum receiving tax customs, there he was called to follow Jesus. His authorship of the gospel, is written in the Jewish mindset, therefore it is given to their religious and cultural understanding. To emphasize this, he starts of by giving a genealogical listing of Jesus’ genealogical lines through Abraham, thus emphasizing the messiah’s kingly line to satisfy the requirements of the messiah being from Abraham. The authority of the gospel of Matthew then is authenticated as part of the Canon.
Perhaps the most debated statement in this passage is Jesus’ declaration, “on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). Exegetes throughout church history have offered different explanations of the rock’s identity varying from Peter, to his confession of Jesus’ divine Messiahship to the person of Christ himself. In this paper, I will attempt to show that the foundational rock to which Jesus refers is and being used in building the church.
Background of the Gospel of Matthew
The gospel of Matthew is the account of the birth, life, teaching, death and resurrection of the Jesus the Messiah. It is written by Matthew the tax collector in AD 70. They collected port duties (taxes) but they also supervised or oversaw public works projects of the Roman government. Matthew, who was also called Levi, the son of Alpheus (Mk 2:14; Luke 5:27), simply left everything he owned to follow Jesus Christ and like the other disciples, would be martyred for their faith in Christ. Michael Green present “the first Gospel was written by Matthew, who was once a tax collector but who afterwards became an apostle of Jesus Christ and it was prepared for the converts from Judaism and published in the Hebrew language.” There are many theologian perspectives that we can see but the major fact is the links between gospel of Matthew and the Old Testament is many and obvious. Matthew writes “all this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet” (Matthew 1:22). Matthew’s gospel makes great play with the theme of fulfillment of the hints, predictions and prophecies of the Old Testament. For Matthew, the Kingdom of God was the priority. There is nearly a 400 year silence from God in the Scriptures between the Old Testament and the New and Matthew is the perfect ending of this silence. Matthew’s audience, even though it is applicable to the modern reader, has a special appeal to the Jews because of the genealogy of Jesus Christ which he traces all the way back to Abraham, the father of the nation of Israel. Matthew wants the Jews to understand that not only is Jesus King but He is also the long awaited and prophesied Messiah.
Literary, Structure and Unity
The structure of Matthew’s Gospel is very remarkable. The Gospel can be divided into three parts: the prologue (1:1-2:23), the body (3:1-28:15), and the epilogue (28:16-20). Matthew constructed his body around five distinct discourses: the Sermon on the Mount (5:1-7:29), the Commissioning of the Apostles (10:1-42), Parables about the Kingdom (13:1-52), Relationships in the Kingdom (18:1-35), and the Olivet Discourse (24:1-25:46). Each discourse also ends with a recognizable closing statement (7:28, 11:1, 13:53, 19:1, 26:1). Even more interesting are the intricate parallels between the first and fifth discourses, and the second and fourth discourses. This leaves the third discourse parables about the Kingdom as the focal point. Though we are not sure about the comparison of Jesus’ baptism with his death, there is a rather striking parallel between Emmanuel (Matthew 1:23) and Jesus’ last words, ‘And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age’ (28:20).
Exegesis of Matthew 16:18
Matthew 16: 13-20 marks an important point in Matthew’s narrative. It is the Galilean ministry of Jesus. Simon Peter declared that Jesus is not merely a prophet but the Messiah of the Son of God. After this recognition of His true identity by the disciples, Jesus begins to elaborate on what being the Messiah. This passage contains several well-known phrases, each of which raises questions that impact interpretation. Especially, how Jesus build His church on “the rock” (Matthew 16:18), it refer to the challenges of the kingdom of church established on the earth. What is the true meaning of this passage? Does Jesus build his church on the rock or through the Peter? The most debated statement in this passage is Jesus’ declaration “on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). Exegetes throughout church history have offered different explanations of the rock’s identity varying from Peter, to his confession of Jesus’ divine Messiahship, to the person of Christ himself.
Importance of Proper Knowledge about Rock
The identity of the rock in v.18 finds three major interpretations throughout church history. The Eastern interpretation holds that the rock is Peter’s confession of faith in Jesus’ identity as Messiah and Son of God. This view was adopted by the reformers, as it supported their anti-papal stance, and many Protestants today still advocate it. Augustine taught that the rock was Christ, based in part on Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 3:11 that Christ is the established foundation. The final major view is the Roman interpretation which holds that Peter as the first pope, and his successors in the papal office, constitute the foundation rock of the church. In order to determine which of these traditional understandings most accurate one is must consider source and tradition issues regarding the text’s authenticity points of grammar in the language used within the passage, related imagery elsewhere in the New Testament and extra-biblical factors that influenced the development of each interpretation.
Peter and the Rock
What is the ‘rock’ upon which Jesus builds his ekklesia? Jesus said, “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16: 18-20). Then Jesus warned the disciples that they should tell no one that He was the Christ. Jesus points the characteristics of church that He builds. He speaks its foundation, authority and spirituality.
In Matthew 16:18 “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” More than fifteen hundred years the Roman Catholic Church has maintained that this passage teaches the church was built on the person of Peter, who became the first pope and bishop of Rome and from whom the Catholic papacy has since descended. Because of this supposed divinely ordained apostolic succession, the pope is considered to be the supreme and authoritative representative of Christ on earth. When a pope speaks ex cathedra, that is, in his official capacity as head of the church, he is said to speak with divine authority equal to that of God in Scripture. Peter is come from a Greek work masculine petros, it means small stone whereas rock is from petra, a different form of the same basic word, referring to a rocky mountain or peak. Perhaps the most popular interpretation is therefore that Jesus was comparing Peter, a small stone, to the great mountainous rock on which He would build His church. The antecedent of rock is taken to be Peter’s divinely inspired confession of Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 16-17).
The Builder of the Church
Christ is the builder of the church. In Matthew 16:18 he said “I will build my church.” The word my church indicate that the church is of the Lord not of any other person. After the Lord Jesus had accomplished redemption, had resurrection from the dead, and had ascended to the heavens, the building of the church began.
The Lord Jesus has two natures’ humanity which is good for the material for the building of the church and divinity which is the element of the builder. In his humanity is material for God’ building and in his divinity he is a builder. He builds the church with his person, divine and human with whatever he is gone through incarnation, human living, crucifixion and resurrection and with what he has accomplished, obtained and attained through Himself as the life giving Spirit. He does not build the church directly but indirectly through his chosen apostles and other gifts (Eph 4:11-12) and even through all the members of his body (Eph 4:16).
Considering all factors, one can conclude that “this rock” (Matthew 16:18) is indeed Peter. The play on words only makes sense if Peter and the rock are interchangeable and careful analysis overcomes common grammatical objections to their equation. However, it is not Peter as a human being apart from Christ that is the foundation but Peter as enlightened and empowered by divine revelation. When speaking out of his own human nature “flesh and blood” he is no longer a solid foundation stone but a stumbling block.
The historic Roman Catholic interpretation that the rock is Peter, goes too far however when it vests Peter’s foundational authority in an office which can be passed down to successors. There is no explicit or implicit indication in the text that Jesus had in mind anything beyond Peter’s own key role in the early church. Peter did not receive his understanding of Christ through human agency, therefore while he can proclaim the truth about Christ so that others may believe; he can personally transfer neither the divine revelation nor the authority divinely given him to another person.
Reflection of Matthew 16:18
The New Testament makes abundantly clear that Christ is the foundation (Acts 4:11, 12; 1 Corinthians 3:11) and the head (Ephesians 5:23) of the church. It is a mistake to think that He is giving either of those roles to Peter. There is a sense in which the apostles played a foundational role in the building of the church (Ephesians 2:20) but the role of primacy is reserved for Christ alone not assigned to Peter. So, Jesus’ words are best interpreted as a simple play on words in that a boulder-like truth came from the mouth of one who was called a small stone. And Christ Himself is called the “chief cornerstone” (1 Peter 2:6, 7). If Jesus declared Himself to be the cornerstone, how could Peter be the rock upon which the church was built? It is more likely that the believers are the stones which make up the church, anchored upon the Cornerstone, “and he who believes on Him will by no means be put to shame” (1 Peter 2:6).
To conclude, Jesus said, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matthew 7:24). The life, the family, and the church built upon the Rock will stand forever. Don’t build on the sandy foundation of human philosophies and ideas. Build on the Rock-Messiah. The sand foundation of human work righteousness must be rejected. Build on the rock foundation of grace righteousness, live by faith in Christ. Build on the foundation stone of Jesus. He is also the cornerstone. The cornerstone is the first stone laid when a building is constructed. Every other stone must relate to it. It is the standard that determines the orientation and strength of the building.
Christ is the living foundation stone and we are small living stones which made alive by Jesus who is the life giving Spirit. We were made alive by his resurrection. Peter says in 1 Peter 1:3, “Praise to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, in his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” He is the living stone because God raised him up, and we are living stones because Christ raises us up. The Lord adds to the church such as should be saved.
- David L. Turner. Matthew: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Michigan, Baker Academic, 2008.
- Don Fleming. Bible Knowledge Dictionary: Church. Yangon: Myanmar, CLC, Grace Printing House.
- Michael Green. The Message of Matthew. ed John R.W. Stott . England: Leicester, Inter Versity Press, 2000.
- R. T. France. It is Iimportant to Know that in Matthew’s Case. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1985.
- R. E. Nixon. The New Bible Commentary: Revised. “Matthew”. London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1970.
- Ulrich Luz. Matthew 8-20. Translated by James E. Crouch. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 2001.