Here we are going to look at the famous Matthew 16 passage and the rock that the church is built upon. I will provide the traditional Protestant and Roman Catholic interpretations then show why I am convinced that both are incorrect, based on history most of us have never been taught.
18 And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. 19 And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Matthew 16:18–19 (NKJV)
The Roman Catholic interpretation is that Peter was the first Pope and the rock the church was built upon, which is why he was given keys to bind and loose (never mind that this same authority was given to all disciples in Matthew 18:18). The general Protestant interpretation is that with Jesus’ wordplay regarding rocks Peter (petros, a rock or boulder) and upon this rock (petra, a large mass of rock) that the rock is the revelation of who Jesus is.
To actually understand this passage, we need an Old Testament context and some knowledge of the writings from the intertestamental period. It is often said that between the Old and New Testaments there were the 400 silent years. While no scripture was written they were far from silent. A great deal was written. The writing from that period informs us about the culture and context. We will get to the significance of that after we look at the location and the timeline in Jesus’ ministry.
The events took place in Caesarea Philippi, about a two day walk north of the sea of Galilee. On the surface this may not seem significant but in the region, there was a pagan temple known as the “Gate of Hell” at the foot of Mount Hermon (also referred to at times as Bashan). This was one region in Israel where the giants dwelt and scripture informs us that Og King of Bashan reigned over the area, ruled Mount Hermon and was a one of the giants (Joshua 12:4-5). The other significant fact is that the intertestamental writers said that Mount Hermon was where the rebellious sons of God descended to earth and had children with the daughters of men and there were then giants (Nephilim) in the earth and great wickedness (Genesis 6:1-5).
The gate of hell and Hermon were associated with rebellion. All cultural facts the disciples would have grown up knowing. Peter and Jude reference the events of Genesis 6 and quote Enoch (Jude 6, 14-15, 2 Peter 2:4). The scholarly consensus is that Enoch as we have it today was written in the intertestamental period. While it is not scripture it does inform us about the cultural context that the early church was familiar with. Beyond the first century, in the second century the early church fathers, notably Justin Martyr and Irenaeus affirmed the view of the rebellious angels producing offspring through human women (Genesis 6:1-5). Irenaeus is the author of the famous tome Against Heresies. He was a disciple of Polycarp who had been a disciple of the apostle John.
We are now in a position to make sense of Jesus statement “on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” The gate of hell, the place where the rebellious released great wickedness, would not prevail, would not stand up against the church. Here is the Randy paraphrased version of what Jesus said, ‘Right here, at the gate of hell, on this rock, Mount Hermon, the place of the great rebellion, I am going to build my church!’ The church need not tremble in the face of hell, just the opposite.
Knowing this we can take a closer look at the Great Commission in light of what Jesus accomplished through His death and resurrection. Though we only have snippets of it in the gospels most scholars believe Jesus quoted Psalm 22 while on the cross. Whether He did, it certainly describes what He went through in His crucifixion. The verses below are describing what Jesus experienced on the cross and we can see the significance knowing what took place at Bashan (Mount Hermon).
12 Many bulls have surrounded Me; Strong bulls of Bashan have encircled Me. 13 They gape at Me with their mouths, Like a raging and roaring lion. Psalm 22:12–13 (NKJV)
These rebellious spiritual beings surrounded Jesus on the cross and mocked Him thinking it was their victory when in actuality it signaled their defeat. In His resurrection Jesus demonstrated His victory over His spiritual enemies ‘bulls of Bashan’ (Colossians 2:15). Thus, when Jesus says we have authority and we are to ‘go’ and make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20) we can go being confident that we are helping to build the church right at the gate of hell! Like Jesus, let us be about our Father’s business.