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THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW - Chapter 16 - Verse 18
Verse 18. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter. The word Peter, in Greek, means a rock. It was given to Simon by Christ when he called him to be a disciple, Joh 1:42. Cephas is a Syriac word, meaning the same as Peter—a rock, or stone. The meaning of this phrase may be thus expressed: "Thou, in saying that I am the Son of God, hast called me by a name expressive of my true character. I, also, have given to thee a name expressive of your character. I have called you Peter, a rock, denoting firmness, solidity; and your confession has shown that the name is appropriate. I see that you are worthy of the name, and will be a distinguished support of my religion.
And upon this rock, etc. This passage has given rise to many different interpretations. Some have supposed that the word ROCK refers to Peter's confession; and that he meant to say, upon this rock— this truth that thou hast confessed, that I am the Messiah—and upon confessions of this from all believers, I will build my church. Confessions like this shall be the test of piety; and in such confessions shall my church stand amidst the flames of persecution—the fury of the gates of hell. Others have thought that he referred to himself. Christ is called a rock, Isa 28:16; 1 Pe 2:8. And it has been thought that he turned from Peter to himself, and said: "Upon this rock, this truth that I am the Messiah—upon myself as the Messiah—I will build my church." Both these interpretations, though plausible, seem forced upon the passage to avoid the main difficulty in it. Another interpretation is, that the word rock refers to Peter himself. This is the obvious meaning of the passage; and had it not been that the church of Rome has abused it, and applied it to what was never intended, no other would have been sought for. "Thou art a rock. Thou hast shown thyself firm in and fit for the work of laying the foundation of the church. Upon thee will I build it. Thou shalt be highly honoured; thou shalt be first in making known the gospel to both Jews and Gentiles." This was accomplished. See Ac 2:14-36, where he first preached to the Jews, and Ac 10:1 and following, where he preached the gospel to Cornelius and his neighbours, who were Gentiles. Peter had thus the honour of laying the foundation of the church among the Jews and Gentiles. And this is the plain meaning of this passage. See also Ga 2:9. But Christ did not mean, as the Roman Catholics say he did, to exalt Peter to supreme authority above all the other apostles, or to say that he was the only one on whom he would rear his church. See Acts 15, where the advice of James, and not of Peter, was followed. See also Ga 2:11, where Paul withstood Peter to his face, because he was to be blamed—a thing which could not have happened if Christ, as the Roman Catholics say, meant that Peter should be absolute and infallible. More than all, it is not said here or anywhere else in the Bible, that Peter should have infallible successors who should be the vicegerents of Christ, and the head of the church. The whole meaning of the passage is this:
"I will make you the honoured instrument of making known
my gospel first to Jews and Gentiles, and will make you
a firm and distinguished preacher in building my church."
The word church means, literally, those called out, and often means an assembly or congregation. See Ac 19:32; Gr.; Ac 7:38. It is applied to Christians as being called out from the world. It means, sometimes, the whole body of believers, Ep 1:22; 1 Co 10:32. This is its meaning in this place. It means, also, a particular society of believers, worshipping in one place, Ac 8:1; 9:31; 1 Co 1:2, etc. Sometimes, also, a society in a single house, as Ro 16:5. In common language, it means the church visible—ie. all who profess religion; or invisible, i.e. all who are real Christians, professors or not.
And the gates of hell, etc. Ancient cities were surrounded by walls. In the gates, by which they were entered, were the principal places for holding courts, transacting business, and deliberating on public matters. See Barnes "Mt 7:13".
The word gates, therefore, is used for counsels, designs, machinations, evil purposes. Hell means, here, the place of departed spirits, particularly evil spirits. And the meaning of the passage is, that all the plots, stratagems, and machinations, of the enemies of the church, should not be able to overcome it—a promise that has been remarkably fulfilled.
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