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Life of Peter

Who Do You Say?

Matthew 16:13-20

Lesson audio

Peter and the Keys

We begin with the Scripture:

Matthew 16:13-20 NASB  Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"  (14)  And they said, "Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets."  (15)  He *said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"  (16)  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."  (17)  And Jesus said to him, "Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.  (18)  "I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.  (19)  "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven."  (20)  Then He warned the disciples that they should tell no one that He was the Christ.


Modern Views

Perhaps no portion of Scripture has inadvertently produced more division in the kingdom of heaven than this one. We may briefly summarize the problem:

·         The Roman Catholic view has hardened into the idea that only the Roman Catholic Church is the "authentic" church. This passage is used to justify the idea that only the Pope can pronounce with infallibility on the truth of the Christian faith. As you can imagine, this has made ecumenical dialogue somewhat difficult. The phrase you will hear used to describe this is "apostolic succession." It means that only the lineal descendent of Saint Peter (as Bishop of Rome) is the head of the church. This, of course, implies that the congregational method of governance is morally wrong. There is a great deal more to this; however, this summary should be sufficient for our purposes in this lesson.

·         The Eastern Orthodox and Protestant view is, as you would imagine, quite different. Their view is that the authentic church is founded upon the confession, not Peter. In other words, the bed rock of the church is the revelation that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Son of the living God. We shall trace the history of this view in a moment.

Complicating this matter is the history of something called the "Pseudo-Isadorian Decretals.” This collection of alleged church decisions is a forgery created in the ninth century. Scholars of all religious persuasions today accept the fact that this is a forgery. However, throughout most of church history the Roman Catholic Church had maintained that these are genuine, authentic documents. The original intent of the author was to strengthen the hands of the local bishops within his kingdom. He did so, however, by indicating that this was church law as confirmed by the Pope in Rome. When the papacy needed support for its claim to be the one and only ruler of the church, this forgery was very convenient. It should be noted that all the individuals involved believe that the documents were authentic; the fraud rests entirely with the author. It is ironic that the net result was not to strengthen the hand of the local bishop, but weaken it — the exact opposite of his intent. In the 15th century this document was exposed as a forgery. The man exposing it was promptly persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church. Eventually the issue became part of the Protestant Reformation, where it was seen as evidence of people duplicity. The net result was that papal infallibility was proclaimed in 1868 (retroactive to the beginning of the church) and is still part of Roman Catholic doctrine today. Since then this doctrine has been maintained as being justified on other grounds. This, too, has made ecumenical dialogue somewhat difficult.

Ancient Views

The view that this supports the Pope as the infallible head of the church is not an ancient one, but it does have its roots in antiquity. We may cite two instances which gives some idea of the development of the idea itself. The first is from Chrysostom, approximately 400 A.D.:

Chrys.: That is, On this faith and confession I will build my Church. Herein shewing that many should believe what Peter had confessed, and raising his understanding, and making him His shepherd.

(This is as quoted from the Catena Aurea by Thomas Aquinas, which would seem to imply his approval.)

The second comes from Saint Augustine, about 100 years later:

Aug., Retract., i, 21: I have said in a certain place of the Apostle Peter, that it was on him, as on a rock, that the Church was built. but I know that since that I have often explained these words of the Lord, “Thou art Peter, and on this rock will I build my Church,” as meaning upon Him whom Peter had confessed in the words, “Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God;: and so that Peter, taking his name from this rock, would represent the Church, which is built upon this rock. For it is not said to him, Thou art the rock, but, “Thou art Peter.” But the rock was Christ, [1 Cor 10:4] whom because Simon thus confessed, as the whole Church confesses Him, he was named Peter. Let the reader choose whether of these two opinions seems to him the more probable.

One might well ask why this shift in view. How is it that Chrysostom can be so certain that the passage refers to the confession, and Augustine does not? The answer lies somewhat in history. In A.D. 477 the city of Rome was sacked, and the Western Roman Empire fell. This left a power vacuum in Rome which was filled by the Pope. It was clear that the Pope's authority could not possibly be based upon the ancient Roman Empire itself, but it could be based on the idea that the Roman Empire's thought was continued in the church — and the arbiter of that thought was the Pope. If you will, the Pope needed the help at the time.

You must not think that this was a naked power grab on the part the Pope. The intention here was the unity of the church. The Bishop of Rome was already recognized as one of the five patriarchs of the church (the others being at Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem.) As it turned out, the others would eventually be overrun by Islam. This combination of historical events has led to the divergence of view referenced.

Real Issue

Underlying all this there are some real issues which still trouble the church today:

·         First, there is the unity of the church. In the mystic sense there is only one church; it is based upon the confession Peter made. That is to say, it is based on the fact that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God, the Messiah. But it is also clear that the church is greatly divided. Your author has no immediate solution to this problem.

·         Second, there is the peace of the church. The disciples of Christ are to be known by the way they love one another, not by how they squabble about doctrine.

·         Third — and this may be a new thought for evangelical Christians — there is the question of how the church is to be organized. Remember that democracy, particularly parliamentary democracy, is a relatively new development. The church is not. By what contemporary idea we are to govern the eternal church is an open question.

Binding and Loosing

The Problem

The problem may be seen in verse 19:

Matthew 16:19 ISV  I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you prohibit on earth will have been prohibited in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will have been permitted in heaven."


I have quoted this from an unusual version of the Bible, which is still being translated. If you look at the second sentence you will see that the verb tenses are different than in most translations. As best as my commentaries have it, this would be the most accurate literal translation. It gives us a little bit of light on the basic problem:

·         Clearly, authority on Earth is given to the church. In particular, the authority to forgive sins is given to the church on behalf of Christ. It is of course a major debate as to how that authority is to be exercised. It is also debate as to how far that authority extends; for example, with what authority should the church speak on the subject of contraception?

·         Just as clearly, the church is in submission to Jesus Christ. She is therefore not permitted to run off into new doctrine at her own whim, but the follow the commandments of her Lord. The question immediately arises how that is to be done.

·         So, just what is it that the church is authorized to do?

Concepts to Ponder

The problem is not at all trivial. Let me give you three examples of how this question of the authority of the church plays out:

·         Is the church perfect? Is your doctrine such that it can have no mistakes? The classic solution to this problem is what is called indefectibility. Simply put, it means that the Holy Spirit will not allow the church to remain in error. In other words, eventually the ship turns to the right course. This still leaves us with the problem of recognizing the right course.

·         There is also the concept of the will of God. Does this mean merely what God wants, or does it mean that whatever happens is the will of God? What happens when we follow what we think is the right doctrine and get the wrong results?

·         For that matter, can we change what God does? Is the universe deterministic, or is there free will? Are human beings just moist robots? We are taught to pray; James tells us that prayer is effective. So have we changed God's mind when we pray?

Perhaps the question of the authority of the church is not so trivial as we make it.

Do What You Can Do

If you think that this author is going to solve all those problems for you in the next paragraph, you are on the wrong webpage. But there are certain things that we can do to good effect:

·         The first is to be obedient to Christ, as revealed to us in the Scriptures. Sometimes the best thing to do is to let somebody else worry about the theology.

·         Be as cooperative as you can (at peace with all men, as far as it is within you.) As the writer of Hebrews put it:

Hebrews 13:17 NASB  Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.

·         On the premise that prayer does change things, ask God for a light for your path. It's tough enough to walk the path in light.

It is difficult enough to maintain the unity of the church in the face of grave doctrinal splits; we should certainly not divide the church over trivial ones.


We must now deal with the center of the passage: who do you say that He is?

Who Do Men Say?

It's been 2000 years and the answer that question has changed a little bit. But we still have some very wrong ideas about who this man Jesus of Nazareth is:

·         It's still a common opinion that Jesus is some sort of myth. The theory is largely discredited among scholars (except the Jesus Seminar), but it's still popular with people who don't want to investigate anything. It relieves them of the responsibility of facing the truth.

·         Perhaps you never thought of it this way, but many people see Jesus as a talisman. Somehow having a crucifix or other image of Jesus magically protects you from evil. This usually goes along with the idea that you must recite certain prayers word for word. What you're doing is chanting a magic formula in front of your magic icon. Neither works.

·         The most common idea, and perhaps the most ignorant, is that Jesus was a good teacher, a good man — but nothing like God. The only problem with this thought is that it is patently, obviously false.

The simple form of dealing with that last bullet came from C. S. Lewis. It is usually shortened to the phrase, "liar, lunatic or Lord." Either Jesus of Nazareth was the greatest liar of all time (which for all practical purposes makes him Satan), or he was a nut case beyond any imagining today, or he is who he claims he is: the Son of the Living God. He did not give you any other choices, and he did not intend to.

Who Do You Say?

The disciples, of course, knew Jesus much better than the crowd did. It is fitting that Peter, the de facto leader of the disciples, answers for the rest of them. In his reply, Jesus tells us something about the nature of truth: it is first revealed. We might take it in three steps:

·         Concerning spiritual things, the truth is first revealed. It is given to us by God because there is no other way to get it right. We can get close with our understanding of the universe, but understand really what God is telling us — well, He has to tell us. The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug.

·         Once it is revealed, it must be taught. This is simple enough because God usually reveals his truth only to one person at a time — and then charges that person was teaching the rest of us.

·         As any teacher can tell you, once the truth is taught it must be experienced. You have to go out and live the truth, otherwise you have wasted your time and missed the point entirely.

Revelation can be a blessing. Anyone who's ever taken algebra knows that having the answers to have the problems in the back of the book makes solving the other half a lot easier.

What is the revelation?

Permit me, then, to finish this lesson by stating what I believe this revelation is. Here is the core of the Christian faith in the Great Confession:

·         Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Messiah, the one promised to deliver the Jewish nation from the oldest pages of the Old Testament.

·         He is, in addition, God in the flesh, the Son of God.

·         If we might look ahead, and it would only be one verse, this Jesus was crucified so that you and I might have salvation by grace.

·         That's not the end of the story: the resurrection is just the first event of the new creation which will arrive with his second coming.

This I believe; this I will defend; this I will die for.

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