Many Christians assume that they belong to Jesus just because they say they belong to Jesus. But many who say they belong to Jesus do not live as if they belong to Jesus. How are we supposed to know who is truly following Jesus? Has God given us a way to identify His people on the earth?
Indeed, he has. Tucked away in one of the most familiar passages in the New Testament, we learn that Jesus gave the church, not the individual, the authority to declare who is a citizen of heaven, and who is not.
In Matthew 16:15, Jesus asks His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter, as the spokesman for the Twelve, says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 16). Jesus commends Peter for his answer, but then in an effort to keep him humble, he says in verse 17 that God is the One who’s given him this revelation. Then in verses 18-19, Jesus says that He will build His church on “this rock”, that the powers of hell won’t stop it, and that He will give Peter and the disciples the “keys of the kingdom.”
In this article, I want to try to answer two questions from verses 18-19. What is the “rock” that Jesus promises to build His church on (v. 18)? And what are the “keys of the kingdom” (v. 19)?
First, what is the “rock”? Theologians have debated this question for hundreds of years. Roman Catholic theology teaches that the “rock” is the apostle Peter. Peter’s name in Greek is similar to the word for “rock” in Greek, and it is likely that Peter was the first bishop or pastor of the church in Rome. The church in Rome became the most influential church and exercised power and authority over the other churches. The bishop of Rome became known as the Pope, or the supreme and authoritative representative of Christ on earth.
Is “the rock” the apostle Peter and all who succeeded him as the bishop of Rome? The short answer is no; neither Peter nor Pope Francis are the infallible “rocks” that Jesus is building His church upon. The “house of God” is being built on the “foundation of the apostles and prophets (i.e. the Word of God), and Christ Jesus Himself is the cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:19-20).
What then is Jesus referring to in Matthew 16:18? Many Protestants argue that the “rock” is Peter’s confession that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” But can a church be built on mere words?
Confessions come from people, so the best answer to our question, “What is the ‘rock’ that Jesus is going to build His church upon?” is that Jesus will build His church on people who believe the right gospel words. Jesus is not building His church only on people or only on words. He’s building His church on people who believe the truth about Jesus, people who confess Him as “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” In other words, Jesus is building His church on true confessors.
Jesus is building His church on people who confess Him as “the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Our second question is, what are the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” mentioned in verse 19? The “keys of the kingdom” is the authority given to the church to evaluate a person’s gospel words and deeds in order to determine if they are a true gospel confessor or not.
Jesus is giving Peter and the apostles the authority to do what He had just done with them, to be God’s representative on earth for affirming true confessions and true confessors. Jesus says that Peter’s answer came from the “Father who is in heaven,” and now He gives him the authority to speak on behalf of heaven when he “binds” or “looses” on earth.
This language of “binding and loosing” was used by Rabbis when they decided whether a particular law applied to, or “bound”, a person in certain circumstances. Jesus is giving the apostles this same kind of authority. In his book Church Membership, Jonathan Leeman says that Jesus is giving the apostles “the authority to stand in front of a person, to consider his or her confession, to consider his or her life, and to announce an official judgment on heaven’s behalf.” The apostles, and by extension the church, are given the task of declaring who on earth is a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus said in verse 18 that He will build His church. Then, in verse 19, He gives His church the authority and ability to keep building itself. How do they do this? By receiving or dismissing members (see Matthew 18:17-18, where the same language of “binding and loosing” is used to refer to removing someone from the church). The church, as the body of Christ filled with the Spirit of Christ, represents Christ on the earth and functions like Christ in deciphering who true gospel confessors are.
This means that receiving and dismissing members in a local church is weightier than we probably realise. Church members are not God. We are not perfect. We do not have absolute authority. We cannot save anyone. The church cannot make a person a citizen of heaven or remove someone as a citizen of heaven. But they are called to formally affirm who the citizens of heaven are. According to Matthew 16:18-19, the church, not the individual, has heaven’s authority to declare on the earth who are the citizens of heaven.
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