This passage is one of the most consequential in the New Testament and marks a turning point in Matthew’s Gospel. Indeed, this is a climactic moment in the life of the apostles as Jesus both fully confirms his deity and promises to build his church upon their ministry. Central to this passage is Christology, the doctrine of Christ. Under the direct influence of God, Peter links the idea of Messiah with Divinity. That is, Peter recognizes that Jesus is the long awaited Messiah (“the Christ”) who is “the Son of the Living God.” With this God-granted confession, “Jesus confers on Peter (and the church with which he is corporately identified) the authority of the kingdom power in Jesus” (Osborn, 622).
In an effort to resist the misunderstanding of the Roman Catholic Church, many Protestants have insisted that “the rock” upon which Jesus promises to build his church is not Peter but his confession. Certainly, Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ and the Son of God is key in this passage. But we must not allow fear of Papal errors cause us to miss the most obvious reading of the passage which is that Jesus promises to build his church upon Peter. This is a promise Jesus confers upon the apostles as a whole (Matthew 18:18). But this promise is most certainly not in the sense taken by the church of Rome. Jesus is the Lord and Builder of his church. He always has been and always will be. But in the first days of the church, Jesus established his church upon the ministry of the apostles. The Book of Acts makes this clear. Peter was a “rock” not because of his character but because of how the Lord would use him in a foundational way in his church. For instance, it was Peter’s sermon at Pentecost which God used to inaugurate the first church.
Jesus’ promise to build his church in such a way that the “gates of Hades” will not prevail against her offers hope that, despite whatever opposition and failure the church will face, the Lord will ultimately deliver her to final victory. Jesus, the Lord and Builder of his church, grants his church the authority to carry out His will. And so the church goes to the world with the message of the gospel. And in proclaiming the gospel and calling all people everywhere to believe the church – by the authority of Jesus – opens, as it were, the gates of heaven for all who believe.