“I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my congregation.” We can see from the context and grammar that Jesus is addressing Peter here. Jesus said, “I also say to you [singular] that you [singular] are Peter and on this rock I will build my congregation.” There have been many different meanings suggested for what Jesus said. Some of these are that Peter is the rock on which Christ built the church and therefore is the first of a long line of Popes; that Peter is the rock but only in his role of leading the early church; that the confession of Christ as the Son of God was the rock; that Christ himself is the rock; and that the place where they were standing in Caesarea Philippi was the rocky cliff area where Christ would start to build his church.
To understand what Christ said, we must note that there are two words for “rock” in the verse, and the two words are different in Greek. The first is the word translated “Peter,” which is petros in Greek and is masculine and refers to a rock, a piece of stone (it could be large or small). The second word for rock is petra, and it is feminine and refers to a cliff or rocky shelf or rocky peak. It is sometimes argued that Jesus spoke Aramaic and in Aramaic there was no difference between the words, but William Hendriksen correctly argued: “…we do not know enough about Aramaic to make this assertion. We have the inspired Greek text and we must be guided by that” (New Testament Commentary: Matthew). Lenski adds, “this appeal to the Aramaic substitutes something unknown and hypothetical for what is fully known and insured as true on the basis of the inspired Greek of the holy writers themselves.” (R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel). Hendriksen adds, “If Jesus had intended to convey the thought that he was going to build his church on Peter he would have said, ‘and on you I will build my church,’” and that point is made by other scholars as well. Also, for Jesus to address Peter as “you” twice in the sentence, but then as “this” argues against Peter being the rock Jesus would build on.
Besides the grammatical evidence in Matthew 16:18 itself, there is a lot of evidence that the “rock” on which Jesus would build his church is not Peter. We must remember that Jesus made this statement in front of all the apostles and perhaps some disciples as well (Matt. 16:13-20). Yet not too long after that time the apostles were arguing about who among them was the greatest (Mark 9:33-37; Luke 9:46-48). Then, later, the mother of James and John asked Jesus if her two sons could be the number one and two men in his kingdom, something that angered the other ten apostles (Matt. 20:20-28; Mark 10:35-45). And even though Jesus tried to teach them how to be great in the Kingdom it was an important subject to them and so they argued about it again at the Last Supper (Luke 22:24). If Jesus had told Peter in front of everyone that he would build his congregation on Peter, there would have been no further argument about who was greatest, and the fact that the apostles argued about who was the greatest right up to the Last Supper shows that Jesus had not made any statement about it. Also, Ephesians 2:20 says the Church is built upon the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone. Nothing is said about the Church being built on Peter.
Also, the argument that Peter was the “rock” Jesus spoke of, but only in his role as leader of the early church, falls apart when we see that in Peter’s lifetime his role of leader of the Church vanishes. By the Jerusalem counsel (Acts 15), it was Jesus’ brother James (not the Apostle James, who was executed by Herod; Acts 12:2) who had the final word, not Peter (Acts 15:13-21). Earlier, Paul had to confront Peter about his error (Gal. 2:11), and Peter had stated that his ministry would be to the Jews, not the Gentiles (Gal. 2:6-9). So, as Jesus expanded his Church to include many Gentiles, Peter declined to go in that direction and decided to focus on the Jews. But it was the Gentiles who, after Acts 15, added the most to the early Church. So to say that the early Church was built on Peter is simply not true. Given all that, the idea that Peter is the rock on which Jesus would build his church must be rejected.
Having rejected Peter as the “rock,” there is no exact way to determine what the “rock” Jesus referred to was. Two very likely suggestions are that the “rock” Jesus referred to was Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16), and that the rock Jesus spoke of was he himself. In favor of the “rock” being the confession of Christ is the wording of Matthew 16:18, that it seems strange for Jesus to speak about a “rock” in third person if he was referring to himself, and also the fact that people join the Church by believing in and confessing Christ (cp. Rom. 10:9). In favor of Jesus himself being the rock is that the Bible refers to him as the foundation of the Church (1 Cor. 3:11). Scholars are divided on the issue, and we should also consider that Jesus might have been purposely ambiguous because he spoke in such a way as to include both meanings. In the end, the fact that we cannot figure out with certainty exactly what Jesus meant does not affect how we think about the Church. Jesus Christ is clearly the foundation of the Church, and the Church is built person by person as people confess Christ as Lord, as Peter did.
“congregation.” This is the translation of the word commonly translated “Church,” ekklēsia (#1577 ἐκκλησία). Ekklēsia has a wide range of meanings, but none of them refer to a physical building. The word ekklēsia refers to an assembly of people, any assembly of people for any reason. It does not have to be a religious gathering. The gathering of people in Acts 19:32 was a mob coming together with no particular ethnic or religious affiliation, in fact, the Bible says, “most of them did not know why they had come together” (ESV). In Acts 7:38 the term is used of the Jewish throng, including some Gentiles (Exod. 12:38), who were led out of Egypt by Moses. Another example is Matthew 18:17, where the “congregation” could refer to a congregation of Jews or the Church. In that verse, “congregation” has a multidispensational application. So the term ekklēsia does not solely apply to the Christian Church.
In modern English the term “Church” refers to a Christian building of worship, however this is not how the word ekklēsia is used in Scripture. Translating ekklēsia as “Church” causes some problems, primarily because almost everyone who reads “Church” thinks of the Christian Church. But, as we have seen, ekklēsia does not always refer to Christians.
We do need to recognize that the most common use of ekklēsia is referring to Christians, but as a congregation of people, not as a “church” building. This is made clear in Colossians 1:18: Christ is “the head of the body, the church,” which refers to the entire world congregation of Christians (Cp. also: Acts 5:11). The term ekklēsia can be used solely of a particular local assembly of believers (e.g., 3 John 1:10), or to specific groups, which by extension applies to the entire Church (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1; Gal. 1:2; Eph. 1:22). Lastly, ekklēsia is used in Revelation (2:1, etc.) in regard to the “congregation” after the Rapture. These are Jews and some God-fearing Gentiles, but not Christians who have been Raptured off the earth before the book of Revelation starts (see commentary on Revelation 2:1).
“gates of the grave.” This was a Semitic idiom for death. The word-picture being painted was that when a person died, he entered the world of death (Sheol = “gravedom,” the state of being dead) and the gates were shut behind him and he could not get back to the world of life. For the Hebrews who correctly believed that when a person died he was actually dead and not alive in any form, the “gates of the grave” were a picture of the permanence of death, and the only way to re-enter life was by resurrection. However, most cultures in the ancient world believed in some form of life after death, and in some of those cultures in the Middle East, dying was thought of as going through a gate or even a series of gates. The NIV Study Bible (1984 edition) text note on Job 17:16 says: “In Mesopotamian literature, all who entered the netherworld passed through a series of seven gates.”
Sheol was the Hebrew word for the state of being dead. It was not the act of dying or the grave, which was the physical place where dead bodies were, Sheol was the state of being dead. People who were dead were said to be “in Sheol,” in the state of death. The Old Testament refers to the gates of Sheol (Job 17:16; Isa. 38:10), and the “gates of death” (Job 38:17; Ps. 9:13; 107:18), and other literature of the time period does too, such as the Apocrypha. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus is speaking of building his “congregation,” which will consist of saved people from Israel and Gentiles, and he knows that some will be alive when he comes and some will be dead, so he makes the point of saying that the “gates of the grave will not prevail against it.” Jesus knew the reason that the gates of the grave would not overcome his congregation was that he would raise those who were dead back to life; the gates of the grave would open and the dead would come out. The Old Testament and Gospels have a number of clear verses about the dead being raised, including Job 19:25-26; Isaiah 26:19; Ezekiel 37:12-14; Daniel 12:2, 13; Hosea 13:14; and John 5:28, 29;
The righteous people who have died will be raised in one of the resurrections (while dead Christians will be raised in the Rapture (1 Thess. 4:13-17)). Dead people who are resurrected in the “first resurrection” (Rev. 20:5, 6), also called the “Resurrection of the Righteous” (Luke 14:14; Acts 24:15), and “the resurrection of life” (John 5:29), will be part of the Messianic Kingdom on earth and live forever with Jesus.
There are some commentators who historically have made “death” figurative for the powers of death or evil that cause death and so the way the phrase “gates of hell” is generally used in Christendom is that it means that demons and the powers of the Devil (“hell”) will not overcome the Church. However, although it is true that demons will not overcome the Church, that is not what the verse is saying. Jesus was not making the point that the Devil would not be able to overcome the Church, he was making the point that death could not defeat his Church.
[For more on Sheol, see commentary on Rev. 20:13. For more on dead people being dead, lifeless in every way, see Appendix 4, “The Dead are Dead.” For more on the Rapture and the resurrections, see commentary on Acts 24:15].