NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 18: So I tell you, you are a small stone. But upon this rock, I will build My house of prayer, and the power of death will not be able to keep it from happening.”
There has been a lot of discussion over the centuries as to what rock Jesus is talking about. When we put it into context, with what Peter just said, then we might conclude that the rock is the revelation Peter received from God that Jesus is the Son of the Living God, the one true Savior of mankind. It is upon that confession, that serves as a foundation, Christ intended to build to the glory of His Father.
That immediately brings up the next question. What was He going to build on that foundation, and why is it called His “church?” The word for “build” in the Greek means: “to establish.” When something is established, it infers that it never existed before in this form. Let’s remember when Jesus overthrew the money changer’s tables in the Temple He declared that it was to be called a “House of Prayer,” but they had turned it into a den of thieves. Jesus then said that this Temple would be torn down, but in three days He would rebuild it.1 John said this meant His body.2
So then, was not His body to become the new Temple in which the Father was worshiped? Listen to what the apostle Paul said: “A husband is the head of his wife, just as Christ is the head of the church. Christ is the Savior of the church, which is His body.”3 Then, “I gladly accept my part of those sufferings in my body for the good of His body, the church.”4 Therefore, since His body is the new Temple, should it not also be called a house of prayer?
Here in this verse, the oldest Hebrew version of Matthew’s gospel renders the word “church” as “house of prayer.” In the Complete Jewish Bible, it is translated as “community.” As such, instead of the word “church” being used here in the English text, based on what Jesus said it would be permissible to substitute “temple,” and mean the same thing. The first mention in the English text of the gathering of believers as “church” is found in Acts 5:11. This is a translation of the Greek word “ekklēsia” which means “assembly or gathering.” This Greek word is rendered in English as “church” 115 times and as “assembly” 3 times in the King James Version. So when Jesus used “ekklēsia”He was not referring to a material building, but a living entity made up of believers.
As I said before, the term “rock,” and how it has been interpreted to identify the foundation for Christ’s “community of believers,” has been in debate for centuries. The English translation is inexpressive at two crucial points. Only a clear paraphrase can suffice in this case. Remember, Peter had just given the answer that the Father had revealed to him, that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. We notice that Jesus referred to His disciple as Simeon son of Jonah. Jesus now says, “I am going to tell you something,” pointing at Simeon, “your Greek name is Petros, (a masculine proper noun meaning a small bolder), “and on this Petra (a feminine noun, referring to a rock like Gibraltar) “I am going to build my community and not even the power of the grave can keep it from happening.”
So we can see, the huge Rock upon which this community of believers was to be built was much larger than this small boulder whom God used to reveal that Jesus was the Son of the Living God. Peter, like the rest of us, was one small stone and part of that massive Rock, His body. This is in harmony with what we read: Therefore here is what Adonai Elohim says: “Look, I am laying in Zion a tested stone, a costly cornerstone, a firm foundation-stone; he who trusts [in Him] will not rush here and there.”5 No one can gather from these verses that Jesus was talking about the Roman Catholic Church, which would not be founded for another 300 years. Christ is the Rock upon which the new Temple would be built, not man. So no matter what the people said about Him, Jesus wanted His disciples to know what God said about Him.
Theodore of Mopsuestia, a great theologian and church bishop in the 4th century had this to say: “This is not the property of Peter alone, but it came about on behalf of every human being. Having said that Peter’s confession is a rock, He stated that upon this rock I will build my church. This means He will build His church upon this same confession and faith. It was from this confession, which was going to become the common property of all believers, that He bestowed upon him this name, the rock. By this He shows, in consequence, that this is the common good of the church since also the common element of the confession was to come through Peter.”6
After Peter rightly identifies Him as the Son of the Living God, Jesus continues: “And the authority at death’s gates will not keep it from happening.” The city gates, in those days, is where courts convened, debates held, and people were confronted with charges and asked to repent, or were given accolades and everyone rejoiced.7 Isaiah comments on this practice, “Then He will give wisdom to the judges who rule His people. He will give strength to the people who are in conflict at the city gates.”8 The Psalmist tells how fortunate the man is who has a healthy, well-behaved family, “He will never be defeated when he opposes his opponent at the city gates.”9 But our Lord knew, He had battles at several gates which He would one day proclaim victory over.10 And one of those was when He would enter through the gate of death, which, for all people, was then locked behind them so they could not return unless someone with greater power was able to reopen those gates.
Then our Lord echoes what the prophet Isaiah said about Him, “I will put the key to David’s house around His neck. If He opens a door, no one will be able to close it. If He closes a door, no one will be able to open it.”11 But the question now arises as to what Jesus meant when He said: “gates of Hades.” The Aramaic Version reads: “gates of Sheol” as does the Complete Jewish Bible. One of the earliest Hebrew versions of Matthew renders it: “gates of Gehenna.” British theologian J. B. Phillips renders it: “powers of death,” and Young’s Literal Translation reads “gates of Hades.” So what is the difference between Hades (or Gehenna) and Hell? There are some simple explanations: Hades is a non-permanent place where all disembodied souls go to await the resurrection; Hell is a permanent place where condemned souls will go for eternal punishment.
The apostle Peter, who heard our Lord say this to him, later on in a sermon gave his understanding by saying: “My brothers, I can tell you for sure about David, our great ancestor. He died, was buried, and his tomb is still here with us today. He was a prophet and knew something that God had said. God had promised David that someone from his own family would sit on David’s throne as king. David knew this before it happened. That is why he said this about that future king: ‘He was not left in the place of death. His body did not rot in the grave.’ David was talking about the Messiah rising from death.”12
Therefore, when Jesus said that the gates of Hades would not keep His church from being victorious, He was talking about His victory over death and being brought back to life by His heavenly Father, and this same promise of the ultimate resurrection would be made to all who followed and believed in Him. What a difference it makes when we preach on this text and use Hades (the grave) instead of Hell.
Verse 19: “I will give you the keys to God’s kingdom. When you speak judgment here on earth, that judgment will be God’s judgment. When you promise forgiveness here on earth, that forgiveness will be God’s forgiveness.”
Now the Master then tells His disciples that the day would come when He would share that authority with them. But we must see the figurative meaning in what our Lord is saying. Such as we find in apocalyptic writings: “Moreover, you priests, take the keys of the sanctuary, and throw them into the high heavens,”13 as well as: “We cannot enter until Michael comes, who holds the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven; but wait and you will see the glory of God.”14 An oft-quoted Rabbi once said: “Every man who possesses learning without the fear of Heaven is like a treasurer who is entrusted with the keys to the vault but not with the keys to the front door: how is he supposed to get in?”15
Therefore, nothing any minister or organization does here on earth, no matter how holy it may seem to be, will ever change or alter what already exists in heaven. Therefore, the true meaning here is this: “Whatever is bound or loosed on earth by Christ’s disciples will be the same as that already forbidden or permitted in His heavenly kingdom by Christ Himself.” Furthermore, “keys” here do not mean keys to a literal gate or door, Christ is the only door and gate to the kingdom. Rather, keys is used here metaphorically in the sense of being enlightenment. In other words, Christ was saying that those whom He calls will be given the enlightenment to understanding the Kingdom of Heaven so you can to explain to those in darkness what it is all about.
As such, this authority given to the church will be exercised within the church. Declaring something right or wrong was restricted to the body of Christ, it was not political power over the world. In the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church attempted to see it that way with the pope being the successor to St. Peter. But there is nothing anywhere in the Scriptures to support that point of view.
Theodore of Mopsuestia, who we quoted in the last verse, goes on to say: “This then is what Jesus says, that in the church would be the key to the kingdom of heaven. If anyone holds the key to this, to the church, in the same way, he will also hold it for all heavenly things. He who is counted as belonging to the church and is recognized as its member is a partaker and an inheritor of heaven. He who is a stranger to it, whatever his status may be, will have no communion in heavenly things. To this very day, the priests of the church have expelled those who are unworthy by this saying and admitted those who have become worthy by repentance.”16
And Epiphanius, a scholar, and bishop in the 5th century had this to contribute: “For Christ is a rock which is never moved or worn away. Therefore, Peter gladly received his name from Christ to signify the established and unshaken faith of the church…The devil is the gateway of death who always hurries to stir up against the church calamities and temptations and persecutions. But the faith of the apostle, which was founded upon the rock of Christ, abides always unconquered and unshaken. And the very keys of the kingdom of the heavens have been handed down so that one whom he has bound on earth has been bound in heaven and one whom he has set free on earth he has also set free in heaven.”17
So as we can see, from the earliest days of the church that it was Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Son of the Living God, who came to earth to be our Lord and Savior, was the foundation upon which the community of believers would be built. Therefore, since Jesus is the subject of this confession, then He is the Rock in that confession. And just like death could not keep Him from being resurrected, so the grave will not be able to hold back all those who make this confession and believe in Him from being resurrected to meet their Master and Redeemer in the sky.
5Isaiah 28:16 – Complete Jewish Bible
6Theodore of Mopsuestia: Commentary fragment 92
7Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Eiruvin, folio 19a
12Acts of the Apostles 2:29-30
13The Apocalypse of Baruch ben Neriah, 2 Baruch 10:18
14Ibid., 3 Baruch 11:2,3
15Rabbi ben Rabbi Huna Babylonian Talmud, Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Shabbath, folio 31a-b
16Theodore of Mopsuestia, ibid.
17Epiphanius the Latin: Interpretation of the Gospels, 28