By Bill Warren, NOBTS
Question: What did Jesus mean in Matthew 16 when he talked about the rock, building his church, and binding and loosing stuff?
Bill Warren responds: In Matthew 16:16-20, after Peter proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus congratulates him for this divine insight, followed by the statements related to your question. In verse 18, Jesus declares “you are Peter” (“Peter” in Greek = “rock”), and then says “on this rock I’ll build my church.”
So what is the “rock” Jesus is going to build upon? Is it Peter, or does the Greek word “petros” refer to a small rock versus a large rock “petra” that is the foundation, or is the rock Peter’s confession? In the first century, the word “Peter” (“petros” = masculine) would have been normal for referring to a man, but the word translated “rock” (“petra” = feminine) was the normal word for a rock. Later the masculine form came to refer to a small rock, but that was not a first century common usage.
In other words, Jesus is indeed referring to Peter with both words, but of course he is referring to Peter as one with divine insight into the person of Jesus as the Messiah. But this same Peter in verses 22 and 23 fails to understand what Jesus being the Messiah really means.The text in no way says that this type of role is restricted to Peter or given uniquely to his successors.
The word translated “church” in verse 18 is used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) and means “the assembly of God’s people.” The promise is that not even death (hades) will be able to stop what God is doing in Jesus. Such is exactly the case as Jesus is killed, but then resurrected in three days and his messianic community continues, something that failed to happen with any other messianic movement after the leader’s death. Jesus clarifies this meaning in verse 21 as he explains that he is going to be killed and then raised on the third day.
Lastly, the phrase “binding and loosing” in verse 19 refers to the Jewish practice of “permitting and forbidding” certain practices in the community. The elders at the gate would decide if something was going to be bound (prohibited) in their community or if it was going to be loosed (permitted). Peter and those like him played key roles in proclaiming what heaven (God) had already decided about the standards for this new Messianic community as seen in Acts when half-Jewish Samaritans are allowed to be part of the Messianic community as well as non-Jewish Gentiles.
Bill Warren PhD at NOBTS is professor of New Testament and Greek in the Landrum P. Leavell, II, Chair of NT Studies, Founding Director of the H. Milton Haggard Center of New Testament Textual Studies.