Rock, Paper, Kingdom

Proper 16, Year A
Exodus 1:8-2:10
Psalm 124
Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 138
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

Matthew 16:13-20
For this week, I won’t be able to give a complete analysis and preaching commentary, so instead I’ve shared a few reflections of my own and commentaries from others on particular words and phrases which are key to the passage (“Rock,” “Messiah,” Keys to the Kingdom,” etc.). I hope it will be helpful.

As a general starting point, the Gospel reading for today is joined at the hip with the one that follows next Sunday. If you tend to bounce around in your selections from the Lectionary, you probably shouldn’t do that for the next two weeks. This week, Jesus asks his disciples who the person on the street believes him to be, and Peter (after some prodding) says you are the Christ (and Jesus comments on that). Next week, Jesus goes on to say that he (the “Son of Man” in Luke and Mark) must go to Jerusalem, suffer, die, and be raised. Those two conversations are thematically and homiletically connected and should be held close in your preaching.

Let’s start with the place: “Caesarea Philippi”
“Although Luke seems uninterested in locating this event, both mark and Matthew place it at Caesarea Philippi, twenty miles north of the Sea of Galilee on the slopes of Mt. Hermon. Formerly known as Paneas,  an ancient Greek worship center. The area was now a part of the tetrarchy of Philip, one of Herod’s sons. Philip named the place for Tiberas, and it became known as Philip’s Caesarea to distinguish it from the Caesarea on the Mediteranean that Herod had built, or rather rebuilt, to honor Caesar Augustus. The population was mostly Gentile.”[1]

On the Questions that Jesus asks:
“This need to know Jesus’ identity is aimed at knowing where Jesus comes from and what his family of origin is, so as to place him in the honor scale of the times. If he is the son of a carpenter from Nazareth of Galilee then his power and status will be limited, but if he is the Messiah, the Son of the living God as Peter identifies him in v. 16, then he has all the power and honor necessary to justify his behavior. This tradition may be suggesting the church’s struggle for Christological definition in a time when the society around it was perhaps questioning such claims.”[2]

On Peter’s response:
“Matthew’s version of Peter’s confession combines the title ‘Son of God,’ used earlier at 14:33 and “Messiah,” used here for the first time. This elaboration of the confession beyond that of both Mark and Luke probably reflects the Christology of Matthew’s church.”[3]
(More on this below.)
On Peter and “the Rock”
This is going to be more lengthy, because it has a lot of history and there have been a lot of people, for centuries, who have been weighing in on the meaning of Peter and the rock.

The key to the significance of Simon Peter in the New Testament and throughout history is tied to this episode. That’s interesting, because it is found only here in Matthew and nowhere in the other Gospels. The critical piece is verse 18, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” There have been many interpretations of this down through history. Here are three:
(1) It refers to Peter as the “rock” or first bishop of the church. This was the Roman Catholic interpretation from the third century on and was employed as a proof text for apostolic succession, but it is not hinted at anywhere in the context or even in the epistles: it was not a first-century concept.
(2) The majority of Protestants since the Reformation have taken this to be a reference to the faith statement of Peter, not to the self of Peter. This is more likely, but not without its own problems. It neglects the wordplay, which is even more pronounced in Aramaic, which has only one form for “Cephas” (rock).
(3) An alternative has been to take “this rock” as a reference to Jesus himself, but to me, that’s a bit fanciful and I can’t see any evidence for that in the context.

It is clear that in the hands of Matthew the Gospel writer, Peter is not portrayed as just an individual, but as a stand-in for the entire Christian community. He represents the Hebrew concept of a “corporate identity” in which the leader was identified with the corporate body (e.g., the king or high priest representing the nation before God). This is still in keeping with the Catholic notion of the Pope representing the entire body of Christ, the biblical concept is more equalized. In Matthew 18:18-20, Jesus passes on the same authority to the church that is here given to Peter. In this view Peter--as the rock--becomes the first of the building blocks upon which Christ, the chief cornerstone (to continue the metaphor), will build his church (see Eph. 2:19-20).[4]

I would recommend for protestant preachers today that they at least share the two basic divisions in interpretation (numbers one and two above) even though there are problems with both, because today, the average Protestant knows only the Catholic interpretation and doesn’t any longer recall the four-hundred-year Protest alternative. Who knows which (if either) is correct, but it’s good for the average pew sitter to know the options.

“Gates of Hell”
Verse 18 says, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The “gates of hell” was a common Jewish euphemism for death’s inevitable and irrevocable power. Jesus is saying that Satan will not be triumphant over the church, and his sphere of operations, death, will be defeated (cf. 1 Cor. 15:26, 54-55). The church would undergo persecution and martyrdom, but the church would be triumphant.
“Keys of the Kingdom”
Verse 19 promises, “I will give you [singular] the keys of the kingdom,” which is another phrase frequently used of apostolic succession by the medieval church (each Pope inherits the “keys to the Kingdom”). But again, this may be a statement made to Peter, but intended for the entire church, and not just Peter. Peter carries a corporate identity for the whole church in Matthew. He is the central figure (even with faults) in the early church and he embodies that community in his leadership.
Who do people say…?
There’s an odd difference between the way that this story is framed in Mark and in Matthew. In Mark’s version (8:29) Jesus asks them “who do people say that I am?” But here in Matthew, he asks, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” In Mark’s gospel, this is the first time that anyone human (other than the reader) has referred to Jesus with any kind of Christological title. So, it is a breakthrough just to get the words out. Mark (therefore?) adds nothing to the name after the pronouncement. No commentary or explanation follows. In Matthew’s Gospel, on the other hand, the disciples have heard Jesus refer to himself with Christological titles already, and have even themselves once called him the “Son of God” (v. 14:33). So for Matthew’s readers the title is not the important thing here; is the interpretation of the title, which follows and gets deep into a theological Christological thicket. Matthew’s emphasis “is not on the identity of Jesus but on the formation of the church: it is the confession of faith in Jesus as messianic representative of God’s kingdom that separates the new community Jesus is forming from those who oppose and reject it….”[5]

“The phrase occurs only in Jesus’ own sayings and always with reference to himself. In each of the gospels it is his most common self-designation. It is found in all the strata and sources of the Gospel tradition. ‘Son of…’ is a Semitic way of saying ‘belonging to the category of…’ ‘Man’ is the generic collective, ‘humanity.’ ‘Son of Man’ thus means, ‘belonging to the category “human being,” member of the human race.’ The phrase was originally a Hebraic way of referring to a human being, usually in contrast to God, i.e., a ‘mortal’Daniel 7:13 is a key passage in the development of New Testament usage…”[6]

v19 “Loosed” “Bound” (Findlayson[7])
The intended meaning of this saying is allusive. Carson nicely summarizes the 5 problems areas:
i] What is the translation of the two periphrastic constructions formed by the future verb to-be and the perfect passive participle, “will be bound” and “will be loosed”, NIV?
ii] Does o}, “whatever”, refer to things or people?
iii] What do the subjective verbs dysh/V, “bind”, and lush/V, “loose”, actually mean?
iv] “Does this promise apply to Peter only, to the apostolic band, or to the church at large?”
v] “How is the contrast between heaven and earth to be understood?” We probably need to add a sixth question: for what purpose is Peter to use the keys?

[1] Fred Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year A, p. 417.
[2] Osvaldo D. Vena, Lectionary Homiletics, Vol. XIX, Number 5, p. 33.
[3] Fred Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year A, p. 417.
[4] This paragraph has been adapted from a now-unknown source.
[5] Boring and Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, p. 69.
[6] Boring and Craddock, , p.112.
[7] Brian Findlayson,

Detailed exegesis and translation notes

Matthew 16:13-28
(Mark 8:27-33; Luke 9:18-22)
13 Now when Jesus came into the district[1] of Caesarea Philippi,[2] he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man[3] is?”[4]
14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah,[5] and still others Jeremiah[6] or one of the prophets.”
15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”[7]
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah,[8] the Son of the living God.”[9]
17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed[10] are you, Simon son of Jonah![11] For flesh and blood[12] has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.
18 And I tell you, you are Peter,[13] and on this rock[14] I will build my church,[15] and the gates[16] of Hades[17] will not prevail against it.[18] 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven,[19] and whatever you bind[20] on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”[21] 20 Then he sternly ordered[22] the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.[23]

[1] “The district” (méros), neut. noun. A part or region of something (John 21:6). Sometimes “Coast” (Matt 15:21; Matt 16:13; Acts 19:1).
[2] “Caesarea Philippi” A city in N Palestine, about twenty miles from the Sea of Galilee, on the S slopes of Mt. Hermon, near the primary source of the Jordan River. An ancient site of Baal worship by the Canaanites. With the coming of the Greeks, it became a cult center for the god Pan, and the city became known as “Paneas.” Augustus Caesar gave the town to Herod the Great, who built a temple there dedicated to the Roman emperor. Herod’s son, Philip the tetrarch, renamed the city Caesarea Philippi. It is now known as Banias. Possibly the same as Baal Gad. Matt 16:13; Mark 8:27. Given its multi-ethnic/religious history, it is a very interesting choice for Jesus’ theological discussion of who he is. “After the fall of Jerusalem, Titus and his troops returned to Caesarea, where Josephus reports he had some of the Jewish captives thrown to wild animals. (The Jewish War 3.9.7., 44-44; 7.2.1. 23-24). Matthew’s preservation of this location (dropped by Luke) may be only incidental, but since he did omit Mark’s setting on the road, Matthew may have wished to emphasize that the significant scene took place in a setting with older nationalistic and religious associations, Jewish and pagan. He brings the scene of Jesus’ confession as the Jewish Messiah into the shadow of a Caesar temple, where the Roman destroyers of Jerusalem had celebrated their victory, a revered site long associated with both pagan and Jewish revelatory events (cf. 1 Enoch 12-16)” (Eugene Boring [Matthew, New Interpreter’s Bible], p. 342).
[3] “Son of Man” (huion tou anthrōpou). Matthew differs from both Mark and Luke who have “who I am?” (See comments below for Boring and Craddock on meaning of Son of Man.) This is the first time that Jesus (whether by himself or through or Matthew, the writer) is directly identified with the SoM. Mark doesn’t do it until much later in his Gospel (Mark 8:31). The title (or role) of SoM comes from Daniel 7; 1 Enoch 14, and 4 Ezra, and was not widely understood as a messianic title in Jesus’ day. In Mark it meant both an earthly Son of man (the words can equally be translated “child of humanity”) and an apocalyptic son of man. “As the earthly Son of Man, Jesus has authority over the institution of the Sabbath, and the power to forgive sinsAs the apocalyptic Son of Man, Jesus is the final judge. In V. 13, Matt. Is identifying Jesus as the earthly Son of Man” (Osvaldo D. Vena, Lectionary Homiletics, Vol. XIX, Number 5, p. 33.
[4] “That the Son of Man is.” Some manuscripts have “That I the Son of Man is.” The word “I” was apparently added from the parallel passages in Mark 8:27 and Luke 9:18. Here in Matthew the manuscripts that include it have it in different places. Metzger notes that “Both the variety of positions of με in the witnesses that include it and the fact that in the parallel passages the word is firm indicate that it was originally absent from Matthew’s account” (United Bible Societies, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament [4th Rev. Ed.], 34 [London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994], p. 34).
[6] Jeremiah is the one name not found in the parallel versions of Luke and Mark. “Perhaps it is due to Matthew’s treatment of Jeremiah as an important prophet of Israel as suggested by the other two references to him in 2:17 and 27:9” (Osvaldo D. Vena, Lectionary Homiletics, Vol. XIX, Number 5, p. 33).
[7] “But who do you say that I am?” (hūmeis de tina me legete einai) Note that the conjunction (but) is adversative and the personal pronoun (“you”) is emphatic. “But you, who do you say that I am?” Note too that this construction is exactly the same in all three of the synoptics. “[W]hich shows that the question was so important in the oral tradition that it needed to be passed on without any modification” (Osvaldo D. Vena, Lectionary Homiletics, Vol. XIX, Number 5, p. 33).
[8] “The Messiah” () Literally, “the Christ.” When used with the article the meaning is messiah, the anointed one, the coming one, as promised in the Old Testament.
[9] “Son of the living God.” A Jewish concept in contrast to the non living idols which Matthew’s community assumed to be common in the region (see note above on “Caesarea Philippi”).
[10] “Blessed” (makários), vb. neut. fem. Possibly “happy”, “fortunate”, but more spiritual, “favored.”
[11] “Son of Jonah” (bar-Jona). “This is the only reference to Peter’s full name. Possibly a shortened version of Johanan = John, Jn.1:42. Possibly also, “someone like Jonah” (Bryan Findlayson, C.f., John 1:42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).
[12] “Flesh and blood” (sarx kai haima) “by humans.” “Flesh and blood” was a common expression in first Century palestine meaning “human being.” The disciples did not come to this understanding by means of the instruction of a “mortal.” “Peter is not blessed because of a personal attainment of insight he has achieved. Knowledge of Jesus’ saving role comes by divine revelation, as gift, not attainment. In this, Peter is representative of Christian faith generally (see Matt. 11:25; 1 Cor. 12:3).
[13] You are Peter” (sy eimi Petros). Possibly giving Peter a special name, but more likely identifying Peter as the person who has just made this significant statement of faith. Note that “Simon” (vv 16 and 17) is an Aramaic name, but “Peter” is a Greek name (or at least a Greek word [petros=rock]).
[14] “Rock” (petra) fem. dat. of the same word as Petros; a (mass of) rock, as opposed to smaller stone or piece of rock. “As a name, Petrus, usually refers to a large stone, even a large hewn stone. Certainly, not a rock that can be thrown. The meaning of this image is unclear. Is the “rock” Peter, the confession of faith, or the content of the confession? Roman Catholic teaching is that Peter is the rock and that Peter’s successors (the Popes) therefore possess infallibility on matters of religion and exclusive authority over the church. Protestants have tended to see the “rock” as the confession of Peter, not Peter himself. The trouble is the text does say “‘on this rock,’ in the Greek is rendered ‘on this petra,’ and the immediate context has identified Peter as petros. But the play on words is only understandable in Aramaic, which has the same word for Peter (kephas) and rock (kephas)therefore it is not clear what Jesus really meant by this affirmation” (Osvaldo D. Vena, Lectionary Homiletics, Vol. XIX, Number 5, p. 34). Jesus is probably saying that Peter is the first among equals (though not superior) to the other apostles, and upon his confession of faith, Jesus will build his church. That is, Christ’s last-days community (“church”, literally “assembly”) will be built (gathered-in and prepared for reign in eternity) as others join with Peter in the acceptance of Jesus as messiah (the anointed one sent by God to establish his eternal Kingdom).” (Findlayson)
[15] “Church” (ekklēsian) from ék out, and kaléo, to call or summon.This is the first occurrence of this word in the New Testament. Originally an assembly of citizens, regularly summoned. So in New Testament, Acts 19:39. The Septuagint uses the word for the congregation of Israel, either as summoned for a definite purpose (1 Kings 8:65), or for the community of Israel collectively, regarded as a congregation (Genesis 28:3), where assembly is given for multitude in margin” (Vincent). “Matthew means by ‘church’ the renewed people of God constituted by the disciples of Jesus, the heir and continuation of imperial Israel that has forfeited its standing and role (21:43). This does not mean Matthew considered the church a replacement for Israel, but a special community of the new covenant within or alongside empirical Israel” (Boring and Craddock, p. 70). The only other place where Matthew has ekklesia is in 18:15-20. 
[16] “Gates” (πύλη, pulē). In the Old Testament the phrase “the gates of Hades” refers to death, Job.17:16, Isa.38:10 etc. When related to the assembled community of believers, built by Jesus the messiah, it probably means that the church will not fade away in the passing of time, as have other religions. Jesus may also be saying that the church will stand against the powers of darkness. Satan and his crew (“gates” - the fortress of evil) may attack the rock-fortress of the church, but will not succeed in their assault. (Brian Findlayson, “The meaning is that the realm of the dead, which no human being can conquer, is nevertheless not stronger than the church founded on the Rock, and the church will always endure to the end of history, because accompanied by its Lord (28:20)” (Boring and Craddock, p. 70).
[17] “Hades.” In the OT, Hades was known as Sheol. It is the place where the unrighteous will reside (Matt 11:23; Luke 16:23; Rev 20:13-14). Some translations render this by its modern equivalent, “hell”; others see it as a reference to the power of death. the underworld. “A conservative translation of the word would be “death.” Thus “death” will not overcome the church - it won’t die out. Still, Matthew may have in mind powers of darkness, satanic powers” (Bryan Findlayson,
[18] “Gates of Hades” The KJV has “gates of hell.” RSV: “Gates of death.” The unseen world; most likely meaning in this context, the gates of Death; in other words, “It shall never perish.” Some explain it as “the assaults of the powers of darkness”; but probably the former is the sense here.
[19] “Keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Note that nowhere in the NT is there the vestige of any authority either claimed or exercised by Peter, or conceded to him, above the rest of the apostles.
[20] “You bind” (δήσῃς), aor. subj. More like, “You may have bound.” A Jewish technical term meaning “forbid” (loose = permit) = hindered or restricted (Findlayson). “The imagery of binding and loosing has to do with the judgment and forgiveness of sins, or acceptance and excommunication from the community (see 18:15-20 where it is the whole community and not only Peter)” Vena, Lectionary Homiletics, p. 34).
[21] “Loosed in Heaven” Cf. John 20:23 “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained”; Matt. 18:18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” The binding and loosing is exercised for the admission to and/or rejection from membership in the church. “The language of binding and loosing is rabbinic terminology for authoritative teaching, for having the authority to interpret the Torah and apply it to particular cases, declaring what is permitted and what is not permitted” (Boring and Craddock, p. 70). These powers Christ now transferred, and that not in their pretension, but in their reality, to his apostles; the first, here, to  Peter, as their representative, the second, after his resurrection, to the church (John 20:23, Edersheim). “This legislative  authority conferred upon Peter can only wear an offensive aspect when it is conceived of as possessing an arbitrary character,  and as being in no way determined by the ethical influences of the Holy Spirit, and when it is regarded as being of an absolute  nature, as independent of any connection with the rest of the apostles. Since the power of binding and loosing, which is here  conferred upon Peter, is ascribed (Matthew 18:18) to the apostles generally, the power conferred upon the former is set in its  proper light, and shown to be of necessity a power of a collegiate nature, so that Peter is not to be regarded as exclusively  endowed with it, either in whole or in part, but is simply to be looked upon as first among his equals” (Meyer on Matthew 16:19; 18:18)” (Robertson, Word Pictures in the Greek New Testament).
[22] “Sternly ordered” (diastellomai) aor. mid. “He warned” - he gave orders. “Gave ... strict orders”, REB. Matthew is appropriating the Messianic secret from Mark, his source here. The notion of secrecy about who he is is seldom found in Matthew unless he is following Mark.
[23] Some mss. have Ἰησοῦς here, either before ὁ Χριστός (“Jesus the Christ”) or after ὁ Χριστός (“Christ Jesus”). Most translations today leave it out. The reason, as Metzger puts it is that “since others knew and acknowledged Jesus’ personal name, it would have been useless to deny or affirm that he was Jesus; the point under discussion was whether he was the Messiah (ὁ Χριστός).” (Metzger, Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament), p. 34.