A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert–himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt–the Divine Reason. – GK Chesterton


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Matthew #54 . Matthew 16:13-20 Part C

Jesus says something in these verses that a lot of people wish he had explained a bit more:

“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.”

Many hundreds of years later, after Christianity had become legal and the church had changed from local gatherings of Jesus-followers into a centralized, power-holding institution, these verses were used to justify the position of Pope in the Roman Catholic church. The theory goes that here, Jesus is establishing the office of “Pope,” his chief representative on earth, and installs Peter as the first one. The idea is that this passage teaches that Jesus invests Peter (and his successors) with the “keys of the kingdom.” By the way, this is where we get the popular image of Saint Peter greeting people in front of the “pearly gates;” it is because Peter supposedly has the keys.

Now, I want to point out that a lot of “interpretation” must go into it to make this passage establish the Roman Catholic Papacy. In other words, it doesn’t call Peter the “Pope” or explicitly establish the institution of the Papacy in plain, unequivocal language. I am not saying this to make Roman Catholics angry. The reason I point it out is to show, once again, that clearly, the New Testament we have today is the very same one that was written by the apostles who knew Jesus Christ personally. It was not tampered with by generations who came after the apostles. Certainly, the Roman Catholic church, if it had changed or edited the bible, would have made this passage much more clearly about the Papacy.

Though I do not agree with the Roman Catholic application of this passage, it is not my intention here to attack the Papacy. I think we have more useful things to do with this passage. So may I simply suggest some other ways to understand this passage, and apply them to our lives?

First, it is somewhat interesting to know that in Greek, Jesus is making a play on words. Let me give it to you somewhat literally with the Greek words, and then I’ll explain.

“And I say to you that you are Petros and upon this petra I will build of me the church.”

The Greek word that we translate “Peter” is “petros,” and it means rock. It is the special name that Jesus gave Jesus (prior to this point, we should remember). The second word Jesus uses is petra, which means, more or less, “rock formation.” It is not the same word as the name “Peter,” and it cannot be an affectionate nickname for him, because it is in the feminine gender.

So it seems very doubtful that it is Peter personally upon whom Jesus says he will build his church. I think it is far more likely that Jesus says “upon this rock I will build my church” because he is making a play on words. Bible commentator Matthew Henry reminds us that we don’t get to see expressions and body language in the bible. He writes:

Others, by this rock, understand Christ; “Thou art Peter, thou hast the name of a stone, but upon this rock, pointing to himself, I will build my church.” Perhaps he laid his hand on his breast, as when he said, Destroy this temple (John ii. 19), when he spoke of the temple of his body.

In other words, Jesus could have pointed to himself when he said “upon this rock.” Another possibility is that Jesus meant that he would build the church on the foundation of what Peter has just said, his confession that Jesus is Messiah and son of God, with all that means. I personally favor this interpretation, because, in fact, that is what has happened. The one thing that unifies true Christians all over the world is that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, true God, true man, who died to cleanse us from sin and rose to show his power and give us new life. That is, and always has been, the foundation of the Church (and by “the church” I do not mean any particular institution, but rather, the true spiritual fellowship of those who trust Jesus Christ, no matter where they “attend church”). I am not arguing against the Papacy (though given enough provocation, I would). I am insisting however, that the foundation of the true church is not the apostle Peter, nor the Papacy, but the true confession that Jesus is Messiah and Lord. That has always been true, and I think even most Roman Catholics would agree that without this foundational belief, the Papacy itself would be meaningless.

I want to highlight another thing here. Jesus says, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Virtually every time the New Testament uses the word “church” it is a Greek word, simply meaning, “the gathering of people with a common purpose .” (Greek: ekklesia; you may recognize that the English word, ecclesiastic comes from this term). In context, of course, it means “the gathering of people who have faith in Jesus.” At its most essential level, that is what a church is – a group of people who are connected to one another and gather together intentionally, and who have faith in Jesus. So the church that Jesus will build refers to the true spiritual fellowship that includes all who trust and obey Him as Lord and Messiah. We aren’t talking about a particular institution, denomination or congregation.

I love that Jesus promises He will build it. It reminds me a little of Psalm 127:1

Unless the LORD builds a house, its builders labor over it in vain; unless the LORD watches over a city, the watchman stays alert in vain. (Ps 127:1, HCSB)

Sometimes we get caught up in the future of the church on earth. Sometimes we are concerned about local congregations; at other times we worry about the whole thing. Jesus is the builder of the church. We can trust him to do it. And the gates of hell can’t withstand the onslaught of grace and truth that comes from those who trust and obey Jesus. This picture not one of the church defending itself while hell attacks – it is the reverse. The idea is that church will attack hell itself, and overcome it through the power of Jesus.

Now, Jesus says some other things also. He adds: “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.” I need to teach with integrity here. In Greek, “you” is singular. In other words, Jesus directed these comments specifically to Peter, not to all the disciples. However, this is not a problem for me, nor should it be for you. God directed many promises specifically to Abraham. He made the first promise of the Messiah specifically to Eve. He made many promises directly and personally to David. This is how the Lord works throughout scriptures: He speaks to specific people at specific times and places, and yet his promises also encompass all come after, those who believe. The individuals who first received them stood as representatives of those who would come after, and believe what God had said.

So Paul writes, for example:

Just as Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness, then understand that those who have faith are Abraham’s sons. Now the Scripture saw in advance that God would justify the Gentiles by faith and told the good news ahead of time to Abraham, saying, All the nations will be blessed through you. So those who have faith are blessed with Abraham, who had faith. (Gal 3:6-9, HCSB)

Matthew Henry writes of our verses in Matthew 16:

The Old Testament promises relating to the church were given immediately to particular persons, eminent for faith and holiness, as to Abraham and David; which yet gave no supremacy to them, much less to any of their successors; so the New-Testament charter is here delivered to Peter as an agent, but to the use and behoof of the church in all ages, according to the purposes therein specified and contained.

The gift and promise here is for every believer in Jesus Christ, Son of God. Paul says, if we have the faith of Abraham, we also have the promises that were given to him. I add, if we have the faith that Peter had, we also have the promises given to him. So, yes, these words (in Matthew 16) were spoken directly and specifically to Peter. However, Jesus says almost exactly the same thing a little while later, when he is teaching about how to deal with his followers who are struggling with sin:

I assure you: Whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven. (Matt 18:18, HCSB)

The second time Jesus says it (in 18:18) the Greek “you” is plural – in other words, the next time Jesus says this, he makes it clear that he is talking to all of his disciples. John records Jesus saying something similar. John’s Greek is pretty rudimentary (though better than mine) but he makes it clear that Jesus is talking to all the disciples when he says:

Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” After saying this, He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21-23, HCSB)

So, what is this business of binding loosing that Jesus promises to Peter, the disciples and, through them, to us? To understand it, we need one more brief note about the Greek. The HCSB is the best English translation of these verses that I have found, and I have used it in this message. However, I’d like to give you the most literal rendering I can:

Whatever you might bind on earth, it shall have already been bound in heaven; whatever you might loosen on earth, it shall have already been loosened in heaven.

The point is this. It is not about us, or even Peter, telling heaven what to do. It is Peter (and us) expressing on earth what has already been decided in heaven. By the way, this is confirmed by Peter’s screw-up just a few verses later. Jesus says he has to go to Jerusalem and die. Peter, probably flush with these words of Jesus, tries to “bind” the upcoming death of Jesus.

Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, “Oh no, Lord! This will never happen to You! ”

But He turned and told Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me because you’re not thinking about God’s concerns, but man’s.” (Matt 16:22-23, HCSB)

To put it mildly, Peter’s “binding” of something contrary to God’s will did not work out very well. We can see from this incident that Jesus did not give Peter a blank check. Just because Peter wanted it or said it did not mean it was God’s will. Jesus tells him “you are not thinking about God’s concerns, but man’s.” In that case, Peter has no authority to bind or loosen anything. Nor, thankfully, does anyone else. So this authority to bind or loose is simply the authority for a human being to express the will of Heaven on earth. To the extent that we express what has already been bound or loosed in heaven, we have authority. To the extent we do not, we have no authority. Whatever we “bind” isn’t actually bound unless it is also heaven’s will. But if it is, according to the scripture, according to God’s will, we puny humans have the authority to declare it done.

Jesus is saying that he will use human instruments to do his will and work in the world. When a Christian declares the good news, it is as if Jesus himself is speaking. When a Christian preaches the law, it is as if Jesus himself is speaking.

In a way this goes beyond our typical approach of “in my humble opinion.” No, if it has already been done in heaven, then it is not just my humble opinion. My words spoken in heaven’s authority do have heaven’s authority. GK Chesterton wrote:

What we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert–himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt–the Divine Reason.

Saying “that’s just my opinion” makes you the important part of the equation: It’s your opinion. It asserts you, not the truth you are declaring. Instead, we might say, “I know I personally am nothing, but this is what the Bible says…” My opinion is not worth sharing. But the Truth? I don’t need to be reticent about that, because it is not my personal property.

All of this leads to a natural question: How do we know that what we are doing has already been done in heaven?

Jesus has already given us some clues. Remember how he taught the disciples (and us) to pray? “Your will be done, your kingdom come, on earth as it is heaven.” When we pray this way, the Lord often answers by helping us to get in step with his will and his kingdom. So, to “bind” or “loosen” correctly, we should learn to pray for the kingdom and will of heaven in our lives, and on earth.

Second, Jesus says all this to Peter after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, with all that means. We must make sure that what we “bind” or “loosen” is consistent with this confession, with who Jesus truly is.

Let me give you an example of “binding” and one of “loosening.”

Many years ago, a married man who professed to be a Christian began having an affair. When he was found out, he did not respond with repentance or sorrow for his sin. Instead, he tried to justify the affair. He invited the other woman to live with he and his wife, and told me that he wasn’t having an affair at all, he had just married a second wife, like Jacob or David. His wife, who had major self-esteem struggles at that point, went along with it, but it was a terrible, awful experience for her.

Finally, I had a very difficult conversation with him. I know what the Bible says about marriage and sex. I know what it says about sin generally, and repentance, and persisting in sin. I said to him, “You are trying to justify this, but I am here, in front of you, meeting your eyes, speaking with my voice and I am telling you, with the authority of Jesus, that you are living in sin. No one is perfect, and the Lord forgives all who repent, but you have not repented; instead, you keep on in a lifestyle of sin, claiming there is nothing wrong with it. The longer you wait to repent, the worse it will be for you. If you continue to refuse to repent, eventually your choice to hold on to sin will take you so far from God that you will be destroyed. You can’t get there by accident. You know what you are doing. Just in case you wonder, I am telling you, I am warning you, this sin will destroy you if you don’t repent.”

I grieve to tell you that this man never did repent. He was a good friend, and I cared about him deeply. He held on to his sin. He was thirty-five at the time this began, and though he smoked, and drank too much, he was in pretty good health. Quickly after this, however, his health failed, and he died within ten years.

I was “binding” his sins. In other words, I was communicating the biblical truth that if we do not repent, if we persist in an ongoing lifestyle of sin when we know better, if we refuse to even admit we are sinning, we are actually refusing the forgiveness that Jesus offers us. This is neither more nor less than what the bible says about it. I wasn’t “acting on my own authority.” I was saying what the bible says. Sometimes, hopefully not very often, we need somebody to confront us with physical presence (I do not mean violence I just mean simply being there) and a physical voice and say “knock it off! You are doing wrong and it needs to stop.” Sometimes we need somebody in front of us who can point out our self-deception and tear apart our self-serving justifications. Actually, this need is well known in secular addiction treatment, and it is called an “intervention.”

This “binding,” though necessary, is often a very difficult thing. But when you think about it, it is actually just one more way in which God can show grace to sinners. This man knew what the Bible said about sex and marriage. He knew when he started the affair that he was wrong. But through a fellow believer (in this case it was me) God was giving him yet one more chance. The Lord had every right to hold him accountable for what he knew, and yet God sent me to plead with him one more time. Far from being judgmental, this was the Lord doing all that he could to try and bring this man to repentance.

Now let me give you a happier example. Around that same time, a different young man came to me. He confessed that he was addicted to pornography. He was attending a local seminary to become a pastor, and he was sure that his sin had disqualified him from ministry; he wasn’t even sure, deep in his heart, that he was forgiven. The main difference between this guy and the first man was that this second young man was deeply broken up about his sin. He did not try to justify it. He did not want to do it any longer. He knew the bible pretty well, and so I reminded him of these verses, and then said, “OK, now look me in the eye. You can see my face, you can hear my voice. Jesus is speaking to you right now just as surely as I am. And what he says, and what I say, is that you are entirely forgiven. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8;1). You have been made clean by the word that is spoken to you (John 15). If you are in Christ, you are a new creation; the old has passed away, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5;17). Your sin was absolutely destroyed on the cross. Your real life is in heaven with God (Colossians 3), your spirit is seated with Christ in heavenly places (Ephesians 1). You are dead to sin, yes really (Col 3, Romans 6). You – are – forgiven.”

Now, obviously I was quoting various Scriptures: either verbatim or repeating the gist of it. This young man could have looked in his Bible and found the same verses and read them for himself. But there is something powerful and gracious about hearing somebody else directly tell you what the Lord says in the Bible. It is vital for us to interact with the Lord alone. But it is also vital for us to be connected to each other and to sometimes hear another person declare the truth of Scripture to you.

Some of us are very suspicious of our own motives, and so we don’t easily let our own selves off the hook. For people like that, it can be a wonderful, grace-filled experience to have someone else look you in the eye and say “You are forgiven. You truly are.” This is the gift that Jesus gives Peter, and to the whole church: that we can hear flesh and blood speak the truth to us. Jesus is saying, “I am giving you authority to speak my words to each other, so that you don’t have to wonder if it is real or not; you don’t have to question your own motives.”

So when Kathy says, “I am telling you what you are doing is a sin,” you know that you need to knock it off. And when Tom says to you, “you are forgiven,” you really are forgiven.

Let the Lord speak to you today.


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