Do you have a friend you would describe as “rock-solid”? What does that mean? Does Peter fit that description? Yet, in Matthew 16:13–20 Jesus uses Peter’s name, and says, “On this rock I will build my church!”
Share Peter’s confession. Who do you say Jesus is? Jesus had gone with his disciples to Caesarea Phillipi, a town to the north of the Sea of Galilee. He asks his disciples who the people, the crowds that had been following him, said that he, the Son of Man, was. The disciples recount the various opinions expressed by the crowds. Then Jesus ask the who they say he is. Matthew records the question because it is one you and I need to answer. In fact, it is a crucially important question with eternal consequences. Matthew is not just informing you of a bit of history (though indeed this happened). He records Peter’s confession so that you can join in that same confession. He wants you to acknowledge Jesus as the Christ, the Anointed One, the Messiah, the great King in David’s line.
Believe that Jesus is the Christ. Listen to Peter’s clear response: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Isaiah 44 contrasts the true God with idols. This God is the Rock, the one on whom his people can depend, in whom they can trust. Matthew’s Gospel proclaims the coming of the true King of Israel. The Old Testament describes the establishment of God’s kingdom, and anticipates the fullness of it. It looks forward to the trees rejoicing, the nations sounding God’s praise, the islands and deserts proclaiming God’s grace (Isaiah 42; Psalm 98). The parables focus on the kingdom. The miracles are not just “wow!” events, but they put in visible form the reality of the blessing proclaimed verbally in the teaching and preaching of the kingdom. The kingdom is present because the King himself is there. “Peter, a despised Galilean fisherman, stands before the Messiah with the chosen elders of the New Covenant. The great Shepherd gathers the remnant of his people and establishes Israel anew to confess his name. Jesus undertakes God’s own work to rebuild his people.” (Edmund P. Clowney, The Church, p. 40). That is a confession that was worked in Peter by the Father in heaven.
Understand that Peter is connected with his confession and with the apostles. What does Jesus mean when he addresses Peter as the rock on which he will build his church? Don’t separate the confession from Peter, but also, don’t separate Peter from his confession–or from the other disciples. Rome focuses on Peter. In opposition, Protestants have focused on the rock, often looking to passages such as Isaiah 44:8 that describe God as the Rock of his people. “The words ‘this rock’ can only refer to the person of Peter, but he is and has proved himself to be a rock by his confession of Jesus as the Christ, a confession he owed, not to himself, but to the revelation of the Father. Precisely for that reason Jesus promised Peter that he would build his church on Peter as the confessor of Jesus’s sonship and messiahship. Christ, accordingly, presented himself as the master builder of his church and Peter, the confessor, as the rock om which his church would rest.” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 4, p. 339) Even more important than the rock is the One who builds on it. He would use Peter, together with the other apostles, as he constructs his church. There is a reason you confess that you believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
Live as the church Christ is building. Christ builds you into his church. Jesus Christ is the architect and builder. The origin of the church is not human, but divine. Peter has just confessed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Those who share that confession are added to the church. The church may seem weak and irrelevant. At the time Jesus was speaking it consisted primarily of his twelve disciples and a few women from Galilee. Today it often appears weak and out-numbered. Yet the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. Focus on the majesty of your Savior, and be assured that he will not abandon his church to the forces of Hades. This King conquers in a most unusual way. Although popular expectations of the Messiah were for him to establish a political kingdom and to remove the Romans from rule, Jesus immediately goes on to explain his suffering, death, and resurrection. And Peter, despite his confession, despite being named as the rock on which Christ will build his church, becomes a stumbling stone, Matthew 16:23, as he tries to turn Jesus from his course. Ironically, the life giving message that the church was entrusted to proclaim rests on the death of the Savior. The triumphant power of the King grows out of his being the humble servant. The church is not just a place like-minded people to gather, or for people to gather regardless of what they believe. Rather, it is a body that belongs to its King, and her loyalty belongs there. Look at the glory that belongs to the church as the bride of Christ! “The term ekklesia is the Greek Old Testament translation of the Hebrew word qahal, and it describes an assembly. Matthew uses ekklesia in reporting Jesus’ statement to Simon Peter…. When Jesus speaks of the church… he uses a term rich with Old Testament meaning. Israel was God’s assembly in the great day when God assembled them before him at Mount Sinai to make his covenant with them. He had brought them on ‘eagles’ wings’ to himself (Ex. 19:4), The exodus redemption culminates at Sinai ‘in the day of the assembly’ (Dt. 4:10, LXX; 9:10; 10:4; 18:16). Israel was an assembly because they gathered before God, appearing in his presence (Dt. 4:10).” (Edmund P. Clowney, The Church, p. 40). Jesus builds his church by his suffering, death, and resurrection. Don’t treat the church as less important than Jesus does!
Christ is the sovereign Lord of the church. The keys are given to Peter as the representative of the church, which Christ was about to build on him. It was not limited to him personally, as Matthew 18:18 indicates. The assembly is now seen as an estate, or even a building. The keys involve proclaiming Jesus. When the church is doing that, listen! Pay attention. The kingdom grows as the risen Lord calls people into his church, as he builds it on the confession that Peter made, the confession in which you share. “Our Lord says emphatically ‘I will build,’ and thereby appropriates for himself the the objective task of calling this church into existence by his Messianic acts. Though Peter confessing be the foundation, the church is not of Peter’s or of any human making, the Lord himself will build it. And not only this, he will supremely rule in it, for out of the fullness of his authority he immediately proceeds to invest Peter with the power of the keys: ‘I will give unto thee.’” (Geerhardus Vos, The Kingdom and the Church, pp. 78-79). That power of the keys does not mean that Christ is subject to the decisions of the church. Rather, when properly used, the church is proclaiming both the mercy and justice of her King.
Live as the church that you are. Take comfort in the promise that Jesus made that the gates of Hades would not overcome the church. Be confident in your service of the King. Disciples are learners. Peter, by God’s grace, had absorbed what Jesus had been teaching. Christ calls you, his church, to continue to learn from his Word, both in public preaching and teaching, and in your own reading and study. Disciples are servants. The Messiah is the Servant of Isaiah 42. Washing the disciples’ feet may have confused them, but it set the example for their conduct. Are you following your own agenda, or are you looking for opportunities to serve the body of which you are part? Disciples are witnesses, continuing to confess the name of Jesus to those around them.
Jesus calls you to confess him, to be part of the church he is building, and to take comfort in his sacrificial care for you.