A very different look at a a very important part of the Bible
“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He began 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?” And Simon Peter answered and said, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-jona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say this 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.” (Mt. 16:13-19)
Few passages in God’s Word have provoked more action — and reaction — than this one. An entire religious system has been built on it; many have been built to oppose it. But Our Lord made the declaration — what did he mean by it?
One very early interpretation comes from the great Egyptian teacher and theologian Origen. His Commentary in Matthew is the oldest existing commentary on this book; it is uncluttered by the issues that cloud our understanding of this today. The following is an adaptation of the part of the Commentary that deals with this subject.
WHO DO MEN SAY THAT I AM?
Jesus began the dialog by asking his disciples the question, “Who do men say that I am?” He had two purposes in doing this.
- To bring to the surface the various opinions that people had about Him. In doing this Jesus was turning his small group of followers into a “focus group,” to find out what people were thinking. This not only included the people around them — primarily the Jews — but also the disciples themselves.
- To get the disciples to consider the impact that other people’s thinking would have on them and their mission. This was not to get the disciples to bend their mission to what was around them but to get them to have a response to it, both to what was for them and what was against them.
Any such search for people’s opinions will get some strange and frankly erroneous answers. This one was no exception. The disciples had certainly “kept their ear to the ground” and they were prepared to reproduce the rumour mill will. People’s guesses about Jesus had led them to believe a number of things about Jesus’ identity:
- Jesus was John the Baptist. Herod the Tetrarch had noised this guess to his servants, “This is John the Baptist, he has risen from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” (Mt 14:2)
- Jesus was Elijah, either having been born a second time, or living from that time in the flesh, and appearing at the present time.
- Jesus was Jeremiah. This prophet had said about Christ, “See, I have appointed you this day over the nations and over the kingdoms, to pluck up and break down; to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” (Jer 1:10) This was not fulfilled in the prophet at that time, but was beginning to be fulfilled in Jesus, a prophet to the Gentiles to whom He proclaimed the word.
- Jesus was one of the prophets. Those that supported this conceived this opinion concerning Him because of those things which had been said in the prophets as unto them, but which had not been fulfilled in their case.
Obviously there was no unity of opinion as to Jesus’ real identity. People were engaged in guessing. But Peter, not as a disciple of “flesh and blood,” but as one fit to receive the revelation of the Father in heaven, confessed that He was the Christ. With the background of people’s conjectures, Peter’s statement was indeed a great thing, but beyond that he confessed Him to be “the Son of the living God.” Peter not only proclaimed Jesus to be the Son of God but the Son of the living God, the God who had life absolutely and who could give life to those who would participate in His absolute life. For He had said through the prophets, “I live,” (Jer 22:24) and “They have forsaken Me the fountain of living waters,” (Jer 2:13) as from the Father the spring of life — and Jesus is life also, who said, “I am…the life.” (Jn 14:6)
PETER’S ANSWER – OUR PROMISE
We know what Peter’s confession was. But if we say “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and we say it not by flesh and blood revealing it unto us, but by the light from the Father in heaven shining in our heart, we too become as Peter, being pronounced blessed as he was, because that the grounds on which he was pronounced blessed apply also to us, by reason of the fact that flesh and blood have not revealed to us that Jesus is Christ, the Son of the living God, but the Father in heaven, from the very heavens. We also say this so that our citizenship may be in heaven, (Phil 3:20) revealing to us the revelation which carries up to heaven those who take away every veil from the heart, and receive “a spirit of the wisdom and revelation” of God. (Eph. 1:17) And if we too have said like Peter, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” not as if flesh and blood had revealed it unto us, but by light from the Father in heaven having shone in our heart, we become a Peter, and to us there might be said by the Word, “you are Peter,” etc. For a rock (or a Peter, which means rock) is every disciple of Christ of whom those drank who drank of the spiritual rock which followed them, (1 Cor 10:4) and upon every such rock is built every word of the church; for in each of the perfect, who have the combination of words and deeds and thoughts which fill up the blessedness, is the church built by God.
But if you suppose that upon that one Peter only the whole church is built by God, what would you say about John the son of thunder or each one of the Apostles? Shall we otherwise dare to say, that against Peter in particular the gates of Hades shall not prevail, but that they shall prevail against the other Apostles and the perfect? Does not the saying previously made, “the gates of Hades shall not overpower it,” hold in regard to all and in the case of each of them? And also the saying, “upon this rock I will build My church“? Are the keys of the kingdom of heaven given by the Lord to Peter only, and will no other of the blessed receive them?
But if this promise, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” be common to the others, how shall not all the things previously spoken of, and the things which are subjoined as having been addressed to Peter, be common to them? For in this place these words seem to be addressed as to Peter only, “whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven,” etc; but in the Gospel of John the Saviour having given the Holy Spirit unto the disciples by breathing upon them said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” (Jn 20:22-23). Many then will say to the Saviour, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” but not all who say this will say it to Him, as not at all having learned it by the revelation of flesh and blood but by the Father in heaven Himself taking away the veil that lay upon their heart, in order that after this “with unveiled face reflecting as a mirror the glory of the Lord” they may speak through the Spirit of God saying concerning Him, “Lord Jesus,” and to Him, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
And if any one says this to Him, not by flesh and blood revealing it unto Him but through the Father in heaven, he will obtain the things that were spoken according to the letter of the Gospel to Peter, but, as the spirit of the Gospel teaches, to every one who becomes such as that Peter was. For all bear the surname of “rock” who are the imitators of Christ, that is, of the spiritual rock which followed those who are being saved, that they may drink from it the spiritual draught. But these bear the surname of the rock just as Christ does. But also as members of Christ deriving their surname from Him they are called Christians, and from the rock, Peters. And taking occasion from these things you will say that the righteous bear the surname of Christ who is Righteousness, and the wise of Christ who is Wisdom. (1 Cor 1:24) And so in regard to all His other names, you will apply them by way of surname to the saints; and to all such the saying of the Saviour might be spoken, “you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it.“
But what is the “it”? Is it the rock upon which Christ builds the church, or is it the church? For the phrase is ambiguous. Or is it as if the rock and the church were one and the same? This I think to be true; for neither against the rock on which Christ builds the church, nor against the church will the gates of Hades prevail; just as the way of a serpent upon a rock, according to what is written in the Proverbs, (Prov 30:19) cannot be found. Now, if the gates of Hades prevail against any one, such an one cannot be a rock upon which Christ builds the church, nor the church built by Jesus upon the rock; for the rock is inaccessible to the serpent, and it is stronger than the gates of Hades which are opposing it, so that because of its strength the gates of Hades do not prevail against it; but the church, as a building of Christ who built His own house wisely upon the rock, (Mt. 7:24) is incapable of admitting the gates of Hades which prevail against every man who is outside the rock and the church, but have no power against it.