Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. (Matthew 16:13-20)
Jesus Takes Responsibility for Building the Church
“I will build my church.” These are the most important five words in Matthew 16:13-20. This passage announces the good news that Jesus is going to build a church that even the power of death (“the gates of hades”) cannot defeat. That’s the gospel in this passage.
The church to which Jesus refers is not a building, but an assembly of people. The word has the same basic meaning as “synagogue”.
Importantly, Christ’s design for his people includes more than just numbers. Christ’s work is qualitative, not just quantitative. The entire New Testament witnesses to this important truth. As Edward Rommen writes in Being the Church, if something is not properly a church to begin with, it can’t be a growing “church” regardless of how many people it adds to its roles.
Nothing can stop Jesus from building his church, not even the gates of hell. That’s good news indeed for all members of denominations in deep distress. Christian institutions and denominations, like kingdoms, may rise and fall, but the church of Jesus Christ will endure until his appearing.
Church growth, then, is not first of all a human project; building the church is God’s project. Jesus builds his church according to his own plan and purpose, and unless he does so it’s not his church.
An Apostolic Church
Jesus is going to build his church on Simon Peter. There is no need to dispute Peter’s primacy here, but we still don’t get to a Roman version of the papacy. Other New Testament authors also described the first apostolic generation as a foundation for the church.
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22)
The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. (Revelation 21:14)
It is still important to recognize the place of the apostolic generation in defining what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ today. Apostolic authority is found most certainly in the writings of the New Testament, not in a particular institution or its structures.
A Confessional Church
It is also important to note what Peter is doing here when Jesus identifies him as the rock on which Jesus will build his church. Peter is making what sounds like a confession of faith, similar to the one that baptized converts would eventually come to make in the assembly of the faithful.
Matthew goes on to tell us that Peter tried to turn Jesus away from the path of the cross, that he misunderstood the nature of Christ’s glory on the mountain, that he foolishly boasted of his courage, that he failed his master in the garden and he denied him in the high priest’s courtyard. We’ve already seen Peter try to walk on water with Jesus with mixed results. Throughout the gospel, Peter doesn’t always grasp his master’s teachings. Apart from his confession of faith in Jesus, there isn’t much that would commend Peter as a rock on which Jesus could build his church, and Jesus notes that even this wasn’t something to brag about. Flesh and blood hadn’t revealed this to Peter, but Jesus’ Father in heaven.
This is significant. Of all the gospels, Matthew most identifies discipleship with following the teaching of Jesus. Yet Matthew also identifies the serial failure Peter as the foundation stone of the church Jesus is going to build. This is the only time Jesus commends Peter, and the act for which he commends him is a confession of faith.
Matthew’s location of the pericope in the gentile region of Caesarea Philippi presages to the mission to the Gentiles announced in Matthew 28:19-20. At the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus directs his apostolic band to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and to teach them everything Jesus had commanded. Presumably, baptism involved some sort of public confession of faith and identification with Jesus. In his letter to Timothy, for example, the apostle Paul appears to allude to a public confession of faith in the midst of the congregation as the foundation for entry into the church
Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 1 Timothy 6:12
The word “confess” (homologeo) has a relational aspect to it. To confess is not just to assert something as true, but to do so in agreement with another party. To confess Jesus as the messiah and the Son of God is to join your voice in agreement with the voices of Christians throughout the world and throughout the ages. Such a confession, the New Testament authors seem to say, is central to what it means to be a Christian.
that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. Romans 10:9-10
By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. 1 John 4:2-3
Nevertheless many even of the rulers believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they were not confessing Him, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue; John 12:42
Matthew himself uses the word “confess” in a way that could refer to either a Christian liturgical act or, more generally, to public acknowledgement of Christian faith and identity.
Therefore everyone who confesses me before men, I will also confess him before My Father in heaven. Matthew 10:32
I’m not sure that we have to choose between the two alternatives.
Matthew’s church, then, is both behavioral and confessional. It is a church that follows the teachings of Jesus and confesses faith in Jesus as the messiah of Israel and the son of God. A confession of faith without submissive obedience is an empty boast, devoid of meaning and saving power. Claimed obedience, apart from power of the divine love and forgiveness present in our confessed union with Christ, is delusional hubris. A living faith contains both elements.