What next follows is one of the most critical passages in all the New Testament.  Jesus asked His disciples two questions, the second of which is the most important one that can ever be posed.  What other people think of Christ is important, but it cannot save us, personally.  Others may think Jesus to be a reincarnation of John the Baptist or Elijah, but what do we think?  How we respond to this question will determine our eternal destiny.  Who do we say that Christ is?  This is the question that each of us must answer, and not simply by mouthing a heartless repetition of Peter’s grand response, but by uttering it with the same heartfelt conviction as that bold apostle.

 “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  This is the foundation of all sound doctrine.  Luther may have been correct in denominating justification by faith the article of the standing or falling church, but sure it is that our opinions of justification or any other doctrine are meaningless if we err here.  If we think Christ to be anything less than God’s eternal, co-equal Son, anything less than “God manifest in the flesh,” anything less than the utterly unique, only begotten Son of the Father, then we have destroyed the foundation of faith.  The first article of Paul’s “mystery of godliness” was that “God was manifest in the flesh.”  This is what Peter is confessing in his tremendous statement.  The Jews themselves understood Christ’s claim to be the only begotten Son of God to be a claim to deity.  We see in John 5:18 that they sought to slay Him, “because He had said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God.” 

This was the confession of faith of early believers.  When Philip offered to baptize the Ethiopian eunuch, provided he believed with all his heart, that man responded, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”  The Christian religion must begin here.  It is true, an individual or a church may have an orthodox confession of the person of Christ and still not have the Spirit of God, because they have gone far astray on other doctrines.  On the other hand, it must be stated unequivocally that no individual or church has the Spirit of God who does not believe and preach that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.  They must believe that Jesus Christ is utterly unique, that He is both God and man, possessing both natures, so that He can be the mediator between both.  I believe that no matter how perverted a church’s doctrine may have become in other areas, if they maintain this glorious confession, there yet remains hope that there may be believers within their circle.

Also of great importance is Jesus’ response to Peter’s bold confession.  He pronounces Peter to be blessed, as indeed every person is blessed who can truly confess the Lord Jesus with their mouth, and believe on Him from the heart.  But He does not credit Peter with making a new discovery or innovation in theology.  Peter had indeed made a great discovery, but not through his own cleverness or industry.  “Flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee,” said the Saviour, “but my Father which is in heaven.”  No man ever comes to see Christ as the Son of God, and embrace Him by faith as the Saviour sent from heaven, until He is revealed to our hearts by the Father.  As our Lord told the Jews in John 6:44, “No man can come unto Me, except the Father which hath sent Me draw him.”  The reason we believe on Christ and confess Him to be the Son of God is not because of the power of our intellect or the glory of our free will, but because God the Father, by His Spirit, has revealed Christ to us.

Christ’s great commendation of Peter in verses 18 and 19 have been seized upon by the Roman church to establish their doctrine of papal authority.  But it is a weak foundation upon which they build.  First and foremost, they must be able to establish an infallible claim to be the successors of St. Peter.  This they cannot possibly do.  What written document do they have to prove that Peter committed his authority to a succession of Roman bishops?  Of course, there is none.  Secondly, Christ here speaks only to Peter, and gives no indication that this authority will be passed down by link chain succession to the bishops succeeding him.  In fact, historic evidence that Peter was ever actually the bishop of the church at Rome, or any other church, is utterly lacking.  Thirdly, the authority of the keys, which here in chapter 16 appear to be given exclusively to Peter, is committed to the body of the apostles in aggregate in chapter 18.  Fourth, and finally, we never find Peter or any of his fellow apostles behaving in the arrogant manner which characterizes the Roman popes.  Peter did not go about blasting with anathemas his theological and political enemies, nor did he ever make a claim to infallibility.  Beyond this, it is extremely doubtful that he ever went about in a pointed hat, holding a scepter, with an adoring retinue in his train.  And it is beyond the powers of conception to imagine this humble Galilean fisherman demanding that his followers kiss his big toe in order to receive his favor.  When Cornelius knelt to Peter, the apostle commanded him to rise, on the grounds that he also was a man, and deserving of no worshipful adoration.  Never did Peter or any other apostle claim to be God’s vicar on earth, with authority to rule over both church and state.

The safest interpretation seems to me to be that the rock upon which Christ would build His church was not Peter himself, but Peter’s confession.  The true church of Christ is founded upon the doctrine that He is the Son of the living God.  Wherever else a congregation can go wrong and still retain their candlestick, they cannot err here.  They must abide by this blessed confession.

As for the keys of the kingdom of heaven, the common interpretation that this refers to the disciplinary powers of the church seems to be the only logical one.  Comparing scripture with scripture, we will find that this power was not given to Peter or any bishop to exercise unilaterally, but to the local bodies who meet together in Christ’s name.  Certainly the bishops of each church should take the lead in any matter of discipline, but always with the support and agreement of the body.  Binding and loosing would, then, refer to the church enacting discipline against impenitent offenders, or restoring them to fellowship, based upon their reaction to that discipline.  It does not imply that the church itself has power to forgive sins or damn men to hell.  The apostles must not have understood it this way, for they never exercised such power.  The Roman church has claimed it, not so much out of spiritual concern as from a determination to cement their own power and to use it as a political weapon to ward off potential threats to their hegemony.

Why Jesus commanded His disciples not to make known to any that He was Jesus the Christ I cannot say with precision.  It may be that this was a judgment against an unbelieving nation, which should have long ago been convinced that He was their Messiah.  At the very least, we see in it Christ acting the part of a sovereign Lord.  At His own pleasure, He can dispense or withhold the knowledge of salvation.  He does according to His will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth, and who dare say unto Him, “What doest Thou?”