Jesus Works Through His Church


Lesson Focus:  This lesson is about Peter’s confession, on behalf of the disciples, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, and Jesus’ promise to be with His followers always.

Jesus’ Word Misunderstood:  Matthew 16: 13-14.

[13]  Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" [14]  And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."  [ESV]

The little group of disciples were in Gentile country with no crowds coming to them for teaching and for healing. This doubtless gave them the opportunity for quiet reflection. Jesus took advantage of the situation first to clarify their thoughts about His person, and then to teach them some important truths about messiahship and about being disciples of the Messiah. Matthew is telling us about a little interval for quiet reflection away from the crowds. This was a significant time, a time when it would be made clear to the disciples who Jesus was and what that meant in terms of rejection and suffering and death. They would be taught also a little of what discipleship means. At this point Matthew puts his emphasis on the master. Jesus came, he says, when it is clear that the whole band came. But in this section it is what Jesus says and does that dictates the action. He came to the district of Caesarea Philippi. This city was situated about twenty-five miles north of the sea of Galilee at the foot of Mount Hermon, which was largely pagan territory. Jesus asked the disciples a question about what people thought of Him. There is no indication of why He did this, and nothing in the narrative leads up to it. But He asked them who people said the Son of Man was. This, of course, was Jesus’ favorite self-designation, and it is clear that He was asking a question about how He Himself was regarded by people outside His circle. They reported a variety of opinions, but did not include any hostile views. They concentrated their answer on people who in some sense approved of Jesus, and even among them they found different views, though in one way or another all the views mentioned affirmed that Jesus was a prophet. Some people thought that Jesus was John the Baptist. John had made a profound impression, and apparently there were some who thought that his death at the hands of Herod could not be the last of him. A second group regarded Elijah as more likely. These people evidently saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophecy that Elijah would appear again [Mal. 4:5]. It is not clear why others thought of Him as Jeremiah, although Jeremiah was sometimes considered the typical prophet. Perhaps those who held this view remembered Jeremiah’s prophecies of doom and held that Jesus was Jeremiah all over again because of what He had to say about the future of the nation [see 11:21-24]. One of the prophets is a loose, general category. The people who held this view were not prepared to identify Jesus with any particular prophet, but they held that He was great enough to be numbered among the prophets. They may have agreed with the previous groups that He was the reincarnation of some great prophet of earlier days, or they may have thought of Him as a new member of the prophetic band. Clearly many people were impressed by Jesus and saw Him doing the kind of things they thought prophets would do. It is also clear that there was a good deal of discussion and that people held very varied opinions of Him.

Jesus’ Work Manifested:  Matthew 16:15-19.

[15]  He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" [16]  Simon Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." [17]  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. [18]  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. [19]  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."  [ESV]

[15-17]  But … you are two important words: But is adversative and marks a contrast, while you is emphatic. Jesus turns attention away from the general public with its casual contacts and its imperfect loyalty and understanding and asks how it was with the men who were His closest followers. They had left all and followed Him. They had been with Him now for quite some time. They had seen what He did and they had heard what He taught. In the light of all this, how did they view Him? We are apt to concentrate our attention on Peter as we reflect on this passage, but we should not forget that he is the spokesman for the Twelve as he answers a question addressed to them all. As Peter speaks for the whole band on this significant occasion, Matthew gives him his full name, Simon Peter, which is the only time Matthew does this in his gospel. Peter’s reply is, You are the Christ. It is unlikely that this is the first occasion on which the apostles thought of Jesus as Christ; some such idea was surely in their minds from the beginning, and it was because they saw Jesus in this capacity that they left their homes and followed Him. But as they lived and worked with Him, their understanding of Christ enlarged. We see this in the way Peter continued: he went on to say that Jesus was the Son of the living God. Jesus was God’s Anointed One, the One who was sent to do God’s will in a special way. It may not be easy to understand precisely what Peter thought the Anointed One would be and do, but he was certainly giving voice to an exalted view of Jesus. He could not have ascribed a higher place to Him. His words bring out the essential being of our Lord in the most comprehensive expression in the Gospels. Matthew is the only one to report this response (Mark and Luke move immediately to Jesus’ instruction not to tell anyone about His messiahship, which Matthew has in verse 20). Jesus tells Peter that he is blessed, a word that signifies godly felicity. It means not worldly happiness, but religious delight; nor does it signify gloomy piety but rather holy joy. This is the one place in the New Testament where Peter is accorded his full family name, Simon Bar-Jonah, son of Jonah. Jesus follows His pronouncing of a blessing on Peter with the reason for it. He begins by denying that what that apostle has just said is the end result of some splendid human effort; flesh and blood means any human being over against God or angels or demons. It is important to realize that this knowledge is not due to human cleverness or even profound spiritual insight. Jesus says that it is the product of divine revelation, for the source of Peter’s words was my Father who is in heaven. There is intimacy in the expression my Father; Jesus’ relationship to God is not the same as that of anyone else. He is saying something about Himself as well as about the source of Peter’s information. We should also notice that He accepted Peter’s use of the word Christ; mostly He declined to use the word (presumably because it would arouse misunderstanding of what He was and had come to do). But popular misconceptions would not flourish in the little apostolic band, and He accepts the title there.

[18-19]  And I tell you follows the revelation made by the Father with a solemn statement from Jesus Himself. He uses the emphatic pronoun which marks the following words as important. Peter has made a significant statement about Jesus. And Jesus proceeds to make a significant statement about Peter. When He goes on to say you are Peter, the you is also emphatic. Jesus proceeds to make His point with a play on words: the Greek words for Peter and for rock are related. On this rock I will build my church is a saying that has caused endless controversy in the church’s history. The big question is the meaning of this rock. Does it mean the man Peter? Or the faith Peter has just professed? Or is it the teaching of Jesus (as in 7:24)? Or Jesus Himself? Clearly this is a place where we must tread carefully and keep in mind the possibility of interpreting the passage in ways other than the one that appeals to us. Some scholars, especially from among the Roman Catholics, have insisted that Jesus is saying that Peter is the rock on which the whole church is to be built, and accordingly that only the church that can claim to be built on the apostle is the true church. But it is not easy to establish that the whole of the early church was built on the foundation of Peter, and what are we to say of the descendants of the non-Petrine churches? And so in later times with, for example, the churches of the Reformation that separated from the churches that professed a connection with Peter. Are we to say that because they understand this passage in a different way they are no part of the true church? Moreover, the statement that the rock is Peter is true only as we keep in mind what that apostle has just said. It is not Peter simply as Peter but Peter who has confessed Jesus as the Messiah who is the church’s foundation on whom the church is to be built. We must not separate the man from the words he has just spoken. From the earliest times it has been recognized that Peter’s faith is important for an understanding of the passage. Any interpretation that minimizes the importance of the faith that found expression in Peter’s words is to be rejected. Thus it seems that there is truth in more than one way of looking at the words. Jesus goes on to say, the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. The word gate is normally used in the New Testament for some impressive gate, such as the gate of a city [Luke 7:12], of the temple [Acts 3:10], or of a prison [Acts 12:10]; it may indicate the gate to life [Matt. 7:13-14]. Hell is the underworld, the place of the dead; it may be contrasted with heaven [Matt. 11:23]. That the gates … will not prevail (or overpower) the church is a little puzzling, since we think of gates as part of the defense rather than as a weapon of offense. But gates were important parts of fortifications in the first century and were usually flanked by bastions. Wooden gates would be overlain with bronze. They thus lend themselves to the imagery of strength. The expression may, of course, be metaphorical. Jesus is then saying that the gates of Hell are not strong enough to prevail against His church; that church will never die. There may also be the thought that though Hell is strong and the dead do not come back from it, it is not strong enough to contain Jesus and it is not strong enough to contain the Christian dead. Whether we can understand all the detailed imagery or not, it is clear that Jesus is giving His followers the assurance that nothing in this world or the next can overthrow the church. Jesus continues with the promise that He will make Peter a gift, where the future tense probably points to the time subsequent to the resurrection (about which Jesus is about to speak in verse 21). Jesus says that He will give Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom, of course, is not to be identified with the church. The kingdom has reference to the divine rule, the church to the people of God. They are closely related, but not identical. The key lends itself to metaphorical uses. It is an obvious symbol for admitting people through a door, but it was also used for exercising authority. We should understand it here in close connection with Peter’s confession of faith: it was on the basis of his confession and not on that of personal abilities that Peter was given the keys. Later in this Gospel Matthew will report that Jesus spoke of the scribes and Pharisees as shutting up the kingdom before people and thus preventing them from entering [23:13]. Peter, by contrast, was to open the way. We see him doing this in Acts 2 and 3, where his preaching brought many into the kingdom, and in Acts 10, where he opened the way for the Gentile Cornelius to come in. While the gift of the keys indicates that Peter is clearly given a certain primacy, we should not exaggerate this. The right to bind and loose, here connected with the gift of the keys, is given to the disciples as a whole in 18:18; thus we are not to think of Peter as elevated to a plane above all the others. The metaphor of binding and loosing was used by the rabbis for declaring what was forbidden or permitted. The saying could mean that the Spirit-inspired church will be able to declare authoritatively what things are forbidden and what things are permitted. In the end we must be guarded in our understanding of this passage, for there are several possibilities, and whichever view we adopt we must agree that there are quite good reasons why other people hold other opinions. But on the whole it seems that the right to bind  and loose refers primarily to the regulation of conduct, while the keys point to admission and exclusion. Good reasons may be brought forward for holding that Jesus meant that the new community would exercise divinely given authority both in regulating its internal affairs and in deciding who would be admitted to and who excluded from its membership.

Jesus’ Work Mandated:  Matthew 28:18-20.

[18]  And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. [19]  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, [20]  teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."  [ESV]

Jesus was evidently at a little distance from the group, for He came. But perhaps this means that He took up a position from which He could easily address the whole group. First He made clear that in His risen state He was in a situation very different from that when He had been the penniless preacher and healer they knew so well. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me, He said, which points to an end to the time when He was in His limited human state. Now He has received the fullest possible authority and He is making clear that limitations that applied throughout the incarnation no longer apply to Him. He has supreme authority throughout the universe. We might have expected that this would lead on to His disclosure of some of the ways in which that authority would be exercised, but instead Jesus goes on to its implications for those who follow Him. Therefore leads on to the fact that this has consequences for those who follow Him here on earth. Because He is who He is and because He has the full authority He has, they are commissioned to go … make disciples. In this Gospel a disciple is both a learner and a follower; a disciple takes Jesus as his teacher and learns from Him, and a disciple also follows Jesus. The life of a disciple is different because of his attachment to Jesus. The Master is not giving a command that will merely secure nominal adherence to a group, but one that will secure wholehearted commitment to a person. Jesus’ disciples are people for whom a life has been given in ransom and who are committed to the service of the Master, who not only took time to teach His disciples but who died for them and rose again. Those who are disciples of such a leader are committed people. And, of course, this is the kind of disciple that He looks for His followers to make. They are to make disciples of all nations, which points to a worldwide scope for their mission. It took the church a little time to realize the significance of this, and in the early chapters of Acts we find the believers concentrating on proclaiming their message to the Jews. But there seems never to have been any question of admitting Gentiles, the only problem being on what conditions. Jesus goes on to speak of baptizing these new disciples in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Baptism is not the end-all of discipleship; it is no more than the beginning. The new disciple is to be baptized, but he or she is also to be taught to observe all that I have commanded you. The church’s teaching function is thus of great importance. We teach because Jesus commanded us to teach, and there is no way of diminishing the importance of an activity that owes its origin to the command of our Lord Himself. But Jesus is not speaking about education for education’s sake. He speaks of the taught as observing what Jesus has commanded. In other words, Jesus is concerned with a way of life. As we have seen throughout this Gospel, He continually urges His followers to life in a manner pleasing to God. He has objected to the sterile legalism of many in His day and has gone beyond the letter of the law to the things that are righty seen as arising from its spirit. So there is to be instruction and there is to be purity of life. We should not miss the significance of all that I have commanded. Jesus is not suggesting that His followers should make a selection from His teachings as it pleases them and neglect the rest. Since the teaching of Jesus is a unified whole, disciples are to observe all that this means. The final promise is introduced by Matthew’s characteristic and behold. This Gospel ends with Jesus’ breathtaking promise that He is with His followers always, to the end of the age. The disciple is not going to be left to serve God as well as he can in the light of what he has learned from the things Jesus has commanded. The disciple will find that he has a great companion as he goes on his way through life. This tells us something about Jesus. The Jesus of whom Matthew writes is a mighty Person who is with His followers wherever they may be. And this will last through time. He is not speaking of a temporary residence with first-century disciples, but of a presence among His followers to the very end of time. This Gospel opened with the assurance that in the coming of Jesus God was with His people [1:23], and it closes with the promise that the very presence of Jesus Christ will never be lacking to His faithful follower. This does not, of course, mean that Jesus has not been with His people before this. But when Matthew draws his Gospel to its close, he emphasizes the importance of His continuing presence and concludes his Gospel with the magnificent assurance to the followers of Jesus that that presence will never be withdrawn. He will be with them always, to the end of the world and to the end of time.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         In response to Peter’s declaration that He was the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus proclaims that flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven [17]. Why must recognition of who Jesus is come from God? What implications does this truth have: for evangelism, for your own spiritual understanding of biblical truth; for how you instruct your children in spiritual matters; for how your church designs its Christian Education programs, etc.? (The key truth here is that all Christian teaching must first be bathed in prayer and dependence upon the work of the Spirit in the heart. And, second, it must be in full agreement with God’s Word as the source of all spiritual truth which the Father will reveal to each believer’s heart.)

2.         Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:18-19 have caused endless controversy in the history of the church, especially between the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. The two key terms are rock and keys. What did Jesus mean by these two terms? Any effort to understand these terms must take into account other passages of Scripture that deal with the foundation and authority of the Church. Any study of these passages is well beyond the scope of this lesson. But insofar as this lesson is concerned, what is the connection between Peter’s confession and Jesus calling Peter this rock and the gift of the keys of the kingdom? And why does this confession provide assurance for the future of the church (the gates of hell shall not prevail against it)?

3.         What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? (Note the essence of being a disciple is wholehearted commitment to a person). The church is commanded by Jesus to make disciples of all nations. Then Jesus gives two ways in which the church is to obey this command: baptizing and teaching. Compare and contrast these two actions. (For example, baptism is a one-time event at the beginning which symbolizes the disciple’s commitment to Jesus as both Lord and Savior. While teaching is a continuous activity that has a particular purpose: observe all that Jesus commands). Why is teaching essential for being a disciple? What is to be taught? What is the goal of this teaching? What promise does Jesus give in conjunction with His command? Why is obeying the command impossible without relying upon the promise?


The Gospel of Matthew, R. T. France, NICNT, Eerdmans.

The Gospel of Matthew, Leon Morris, Pillar, Eerdmans.

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