– J C Ryle –
“When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am? 14 And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. 15 He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? 16 And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. 17 And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. 18 And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 20 Then charged he his disciples that they should tell no man that he was Jesus the Christ” (Matthew 16: 13-20)
There are words in this passage which have led to painful differences and divisions among Christians. Men have striven and contended about their meaning, until they have lost sight of all charity, and yet failed to carry conviction to one another’s minds. Let it suffice us to glance briefly at the controverted words, and then pass on to more practical lessons.
What, then are we to understand, when we read that remarkable saying of our Lord’s, “That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church”? Does it mean that the apostle Peter himself was to be the foundation on which Christ’s Church was to be built? Such an interpretation, to say the least, appears exceedingly improbable. To speak of an erring, fallible child of Adam as the foundation of the spiritual temple, is very unlike the ordinary language of Scripture. Above all, no reason can be given why our Lord should not have said, “I will build my church upon you” – if such had been His meaning, instead of saying, “upon this rock I will build my church”.
The true meaning of “the rock” in this passage appears to be the truth of our Lord’s Messiahship and divinity, which Peter had just confessed. It is as though our Lord had said, “You are rightly called by the name Peter, or stone, for you have confessed that mighty truth, on which, as on a rock, I will build my church.”
But what are we to understand, when we read the promise which our Lord makes to Peter, “And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven”? Do these words mean that the right of admitting souls to heaven was to be placed in Peter’s hands? The idea is preposterous. Such an office is the special prerogative of Christ Himself (Rev. 1: 18). Do the words mean that Peter was to have any primacy or superiority over the rest of the apostles? There is not the slightest proof that such a meaning was attached to the words in the New Testament times, or that Peter had any rank or dignity above the rest of the twelve.
The true meaning of the promise to Peter appears to be, that he was to have the special privilege of first opening the door of salvation, both to the Jews and Gentiles. This was fulfilled to the letter, when he preached on the day of Pentecost to the Jews, and visited the Gentile Cornelius at his own house. On each occasion he used “the keys”, and threw open the door of faith. And of this he seems to have been sensible himself – “God”, he says, “made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe” (Acts 15: 7).
Finally, what are we to understand, when we read the words, “Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”? Does this mean that the apostle Peter was to have any power of forgiving sins, and absolving sinners? Such an idea is derogatory to Christ’s special office, as our Great High Priest. It is a power which we never find Peter, or any of the apostles, once exercising. They always refer men to Christ.
The true meaning of this promise appears to be, that Peter and his brethren, the apostles, were to be specially commissioned to teach with authority the way of salvation. As the Old Testament priest declared authoritatively whose leprosy was cleansed, so the apostles were appointed to “declare and pronounce” authoritatively, whose sins were forgiven. Beside this, they were to be specially inspired to lay down rules and regulations for the guidance of the Church on disputed questions. Some things they were to “bind” or forbid – others they were to “loose” or allow. The decision of the council at Jerusalem, that the Gentiles need not be circumcised, was one example of the exercise of this power (Acts 15: 19.)
But it was a commission specially confined to the apostles. In discharging it they had no successors. With them it began, and with them it expired.
We will leave these controverted words here. Enough perhaps has been said upon them for our personal edification. Let us only remember that, in whatever sense men take them, they have nothing to do with the Church of Rome. (… to be concluded)
(Adapted from http://gracegems.org/Ryle/m16.htm)