By Harris Franklin Rall
The great central event in Jesus' ministry is given by Matthew in eight brief verses, in Mark and Luke by but three. So simply is the story told that it is easy to overlook its importance. But that is the character of our Gospels; they tell their wonderful tale without exclamation or comment, letting the deeds and words of Jesus speak for themselves. Their story has been far better than if they had mingled their own opinions and comments; but it needs the more thought and study on our part that we do not miss its meaning. The culmination of Jesus' ministry was the confession of his Messiahship by the disciples. How that confession came and what it meant forms the theme of this chapter.
How The Confession Came
The Lesson without Words. —We have already considered the plan of Jesus' work, and why he began with a ministry of teaching and did not announce his Messiahship at once. To have done the latter would have been to defeat his own purpose and stir to a flame the fires of religious patriotism and fanaticism that were always smoldering. To his hearers the kingdom of God meant Israel's rule and triumph, and the Messiah a leader against Rome. Jesus must first teach them what God's rule was, what the Kingdom really meant, and prepare their hearts for this. What he failed to do with the people as a whole he tried the more earnestly to accomplish with the smaller group of his disciples who should later leaven the whole lump.
But there was a second lesson that he had to teach the twelve, and that concerned himself. The kingdom of God was not simply a beautiful idea; it was the reign of God that was to be established, and Jesus was to found it. Men must learn to trust him, to obey him, to serve him. He had been silent about himself. Even after this time he did not say much about himself. But that was not because he himself had no place in his gospel or in his kingdom; it was because he wanted no outward allegiance. Here was his first goal in the training of the twelve: he wants their confession of his Messiahship, not because he has proclaimed it, but because they have seen it in him. That was why he was spending these weeks or months in quiet with them wandering far from home.
What Do Men Say? —Thus the time came to test his work by its fruits. It was on the second journey to the north. The city of Caesarea Philippi lay by a far-famed spring. To this region the company had come, traveling north from Decapolis along the east side of the lake and Jordan. The city itself Jesus had apparently avoided, stopping rather in the quiet villages where they were less likely to be disturbed. "Who do men say that the Son of man is?'* was his first question. They told him what men had been saying about him. Some had taken him for John the Baptist come to life again, as Herod Antipas had (Matt. 14. 2). The saying shows how profound the impression was that John the Baptist had made. Some held him to be Elijah, whom the Jews expected to appear before the ^Messiah's coming (Mai. 4. 5; note Matt. 11. 14). Others simply said that he was one of the prophets, either a new prophet or one of the old ones risen again. These opinions all agreed in one point: Jesus was a prophet. This had been the very first impression that he had made upon the people (Mark 1, 22), and it was as such that the disciples remembered him in the first hopeless days after his death, when they described him as "a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people" (Luke 24. 19).
What Say Ye? —Here at last was the test, and Jesus applied it under conditions that made it the more severe. These men had seen him popular, thronged by acclaiming multitudes; now he was a wanderer, his very life in peril. Nothing could have been in sharper contrast with all that was popularly associated with the name of Messiah; the Messiah was to lead the nation and to have honor; the Messiah was to have power and to overwhelm his foes. This was just their friend, in whose company they had walked and talked, had hungered and eaten, had toiled and slept, in these past months. Jesus had wrought great deeds in those days, but none of them compares with this victory in far-off Caesarea Philippi. This lonely fugitive wins from these companions of his lowly life the highest word which they as Jews could speak. They saw in him all that the prophets had looked forward to, all that their nation had longed and prayed for through the years, the Messiah of Jehovah.
The Confession. —It was Peter who spoke the word, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." Whether he spoke the common thought of all the twelve we do not know. It is probable that Jesus* word about Peter was exemplified even then; that the faith of the others rested upon this rock apostle, and that, now that he had spoken, they joined in his confession. There is a quiet, even solemn, joy and triumph in the answer of Jesus: "Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jonah: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father who is in heaven. And I also say unto thee, that thou art Peter [Rock], and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.''
The Church and Its Foundation'
A Subject of Controversy. —What did Jesus mean here by church, and how is Peter the rock upon which his church is founded? Endless controversy has raged around this passage. Upon it, together with the passage John 21. 15-17, the Roman Catholic Church has based its doctrine of the papacy. Rome declares that Peter was here given supreme authority in the church as the vicar of Christ, and that the bishops of Rome, as popes, succeeded Peter in this place and authority, Peter being accounted the first bishop of Rome. There are three questions that need to be asked here:
The Church a Fellowship. —What does Jesus mean by his church here? When the word "church" is used to-day, we are apt to think of a more or less elaborate organization. With the Roman Catholic this is especially true. For him this machinery of priest and bishop and other clergy, ending at last in the pope and summed up in him, forms the actual church. Yet words often begin with a very simple significance and gather a large and complex meaning in the course of the centuries. Thus it has been with the idea of the church. If we ask what this word meant with Jesus and his first followers, we must drop all ideas of elaborate organization, of priesthood and authority. It was simply the company of his followers of which Jesus was here speaking, the new community joined to him in loyalty and trust. Such the church was in the first days after his death, and so it appears in the letters of Paul. It would be better if we had some such word as fellowship, or communion, with which to translate it. Think how much strife about organization and authority would be eliminated if we read, "Upon this rock will I build my community (the new fellowship)."
The Significance of Its Rounding. —In rejecting the wrong interpretation, we must be careful not to miss the great meaning of this hour. Up to this time religion had always been a matter of a given city, or people, or nation. A man held a particular religion because he was a Jew or an Athenian. With all their proselytism, the Jews did not think of this matter differently from others; the man who fully accepted their faith became a Jew in so doing. With Jesus the national passes away; he had no Jewish kingdom in mind, nor the rule of any nation. He sees a company gathered from many sources, those who confess and follow him as the one sent of God to establish his rule upon the earth. An inner spirit and a common faith are to join them in a vital unity. Nothing shall overcome them, neither plotting Pharisees nor Jerusalem priests, nor Herod Antipas nor Pontius Pilate, nor any power on earth or under the earth.
Peter the Foundation. —What, then, is this "rock" upon which the church rests? In avoiding the error of the Roman Catholic Church we must not run into an" opposing extreme. The passage is plain: "Thou art Rock [Greek, petros], and upon this rock [petra] I will build my church." Protestants have sometimes said that Jesus did not mean Peter, but only Peter's faith, his confession of Jesus as Messiah. No, it was not Peter's creed on the one hand on which the church was to rest, nor Peter's office on the other hand as bishop of Rome, according to the Roman Catholic fiction. It was Peter himself, this believing, confessing man. That was what Jesus had been waiting for, such a man as this. That was the whole meaning and purpose of his work with these disciples. The new fellowship of the Kingdom was to rest, not upon outward force or authority, not upon a scheme of organization, for he gave none such. Its foundation was to be men, men who knew him and trusted him, men of vision, men with his Spirit, men who would carry his message and gather new followers.
But Not Peter Alone. —In all this Peter, of course, was not alone. The honor that comes to him, which no one can take away, lies in this, that his confession was first. It was not a mere matter of that spirit of leadership which characterized him. It was a spiritual intuition, not from flesh and blood, but through the revelation of the Father. Others were joined to him as such foundation. To begin with, the real foundation and corner stone was Christ himself (1 Cor. 3. 11). Then we read that all the apostles form such foundation, and elsewhere it is said of the apostles and prophets (Rev. 21. 14; Eph. 2. 20). Indeed, in this new building of a divine humanity all Christ's followers are stones; all rest upon the final foundation which is Christ, but all help in turn to make the building and to bear it up (1 Cor. 3. 9-16; Eph. 2. 19-22).
The Meaning of the Keys. —There is here one other word of Jesus likewise often misused: "I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." Here again Jesus uses a striking figure of speech. Because such a figure admits of varying interpretations, it is important that we hold to the spirit and principles of Jesus' teaching as elsewhere clearly evident. Peter is not now the foundation, but the housekeeper, or steward. It is his to open and close the door. It is an utter perversion of Jesus' teaching, for which this furnishes no ground, to suppose that it means that Peter or anyone else should have the authority to determine who should enter the kingdom of God and who not. There is only one door that Jesus ever suggested, and that is the forgiving mercy of God; and he pointed out but one way to enter, and that was with the humble trust of little children. But it was the high privilege of Peter and the rest by their preaching to open the door of forgiveness to penitent men, and to show how that door closed to the unbelieving and disobedient. The figure of loosing and binding suggests a similar work of teaching. These were familiar phrases with the rabbis, referring to their authority to determine what was allowed according to the law and what was forbidden. It surely does not need to be said that under a figure of speech Jesus was not introducing that system of rules and laws against which he had been fighting. And yet they were to be scribes as teachers of the Kingdom. There is another passage in which Jesus combines the ideas of scribe and householder (the latter suggested here by the keys) : "Every scribe who hath been made a disciple to the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is a householder, who bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old" (Matt. 13. 52). As teachers of the Kingdom they were to open the way of truth and shut the way of evil. And they were to do this not alone, but under divine guidance; thus it should represent the will of heaven.
Here again it is clear that Jesus is not speaking of an office with outward authority, or even limiting this to one man; for in Matthew 18. 18 he gives this same authority to all the disciples. It belongs, therefore, to men as the disciples of Christ and not as officials. All this corresponds with the faith of the early church as we find it reflected in Paul's epistles. Every disciple as such was to have the Spirit, and what he said was with authority so far as he really possessed that Spirit. The early church, as seen in the New Testament, nowhere shows that elaborate organization or autocratic power which Rome later built upon these verses.
Directions For Study
Read Matthew 16. 13-20.
By means of a map follow the course of Jesus and his company on their northern journey.
This chapter has to do with the. disciples and their training. From this point of view, review from Chapter "VII on, especially Chapter X, forming a picture of the life of the twelve with the Master. Try to realize what his teaching, his works, and his fellowship meant to them.
In the study of this chapter consider these two questions: (1) By what steps, or through what influences, were the disciples brought to this confession? (2) What did this confession mean as the beginning of a new fellowship, the Christian Church?
What is it that makes a Christian Church? Has the church any right to compel belief or to compel obedience? What is the nature of her authority?