The confession: V. 15. He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?
V. 16. And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.
V. 17. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona; for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but My Father which is in heaven. V. 18. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
Here was the time of decision, for a declaration of personal faith. “This was the decisive moment in which the separation of the New Testament Church from the Old Testament theocracy was to be made. The hour had come for the utterance of a distinct Christian confession.” <Schaff, Commentary, Matthew, 294>.
The disciples met this test of their understanding and faith in a splendid manner. Simon Peter, impetuous, emotional, energetic, outspoken, gave an answer in the name of the apostles, as their spokesman, voicing, in a short declaration, their opinion and unanimous agreement: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
This was not the sense which the Jewish traditional idea connected with the word Messiah, a mere deliverer from earthly bondage, but a concise and still comprehensive confession of the Christhood, the divinity, the deity of Jesus. It expressed their faith in Him as the promised Redeemer.
It was a reply and correlate to Christ’s “Son of Man” in verse 13.
It was a decided, solemn, and deep declaration, spoken with emotion and a sense of the gravity of the circumstances.
“Therefore the entire Apostolic Creed is included in these words: ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God’; namely, that He is the Son of God, the almighty Father, the Creator of heaven and earth, and that our Lord Jesus Christ was conceived of the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, that He suffered for us, that He died and was raised from the dead, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father, because He is Son, Judge, and Lord over all; that He distributes forgiveness of sins through the Holy Ghost, unto the resurrection and to eternal life.” <Luther, 7, 281. 282.>
Jesus was highly pleased with this confession which Peter had made in the name of the apostles. He calls him happy, blessed, in the sense of possessing happiness as a given glory. Jesus was satisfied as to the quality of Peter’s faith. He addresses him in a solemn manner: Simon, the son of Jona. But He explains the blessedness by placing the credit where it properly belongs. For what Peter here had confessed as his faith was no vain, human illusion which flesh and blood, his own nature and reason, had revealed to him. It was a revelation of God Himself. The right knowledge of Jesus Christ, true faith, is God’s work and gift. It is not a deceitful, human imagination, but divine certainty. Happy, blessed, is he that makes this confession the faith of his heart.
On this rock.
The Lord adds a promise which concerns the entire Church till the end of time. Solemnly addressing Peter, the spokesman of the Twelve, He tells him, with a fine play on words, that upon his rocklike confession He will build His Church. He does not say: On thee, but: “On this rock.” The gist of the passage is: Peter-like faith in Jesus, expressed in the same bold manner, by open confession of the mouth, admits into the kingdom of heaven, into the Church of Jesus Christ.
Or, as Luther expresses it: “On this rock, understand, not which thou art; for thy person would be too weak for such foundation; but upon the confession of faith which makes thee a rock, I will build my Church. This foundation can hold and is strong enough; the devil will not be able to throw it over or throw it down.”
Against this Church, as it is built, and because it is built upon this rock, the gates of hell cannot prevail, all the powers of hell cannot conquer it. It is strong, enduring, so long as the faith in the Father and in Jesus Christ, His Son, our Redeemer, and in the Spirit, as giving this blessed certainty, reigns in it.
A special distinction: V. 19. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom, of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
In recognition of his faith, as expressed in his confession, Christ confers on Peter and on all that believe the keys of the kingdom of heaven.
The keys are an emblem of the power which admits into, or prevents any unauthorized person from entering into, a house. Christ, the Son of God, has the key of David, the power to lock and unlock the house or kingdom of God, Rev 3:7. He has earned for all sinners mercy and salvation. And this power and authority He gives to His believing disciples. Whosoever believes, has part in Christ and in all that Christ possesses. Whosoever believes is in the kingdom of heaven, has forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, and may and shall impart also to others the treasures of the kingdom.
How to Deal with an Erring Brother. Matthew 18:15-22.
V. 15. Moreover, if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone; if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. V. 16. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. V. 17. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church. But if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
Note the connection: God does not want a single one to perish, to be lost, especially not the weak and erring, whose weakness might make them a comparatively easy prey in case they are tempted. The purpose of this entire passage is to show how a weak and erring brother or sister may be won back to Christ, even if it be a matter of some difficulty, of hard work.
“Against thee”: not referring mainly to personal offenses, but rather to sins about which one has a first-hand knowledge, which have drawn attention and are sure to offend Christ and the Christian religion. Sins they must be, not personal peculiarities. The latter may make a person unfit for some office in the Church and come into consideration only in that connection. But the Lord is concerned about the former only in this passage.
“Christ now says: ‘If thy brother sin against thee,’ that is, if he bears himself thus that he publicly lives against God and His Word. For that means to sin against thee and all Christians, which is done against God’s honor, or which is done and sinned against God, as when one despises God, blasphemes His Word, or sins against the Second Table, as in stealing, robbing, hurting, lying, and deceiving.
Now if this comes to thee, if thou noticest it, then tell him his fault between him and thee. Thou shalt not publicly expose him on the market or where thou art, before everybody, but remember that he is still thy brother, therefore keep silence in the presence of others and go to him, take him alone before thee, in a kind manner admonish and rebuke him, say: This I have heard of thee, see that thou desist therefrom, lest God punish thee. Then it may well be that he will gladly hear thee and thou gain thy brother and bring him back to the right path.” <Luther, 7, 919. 920.>
The entire manner of speaking and acting must be kindly, but emphatic, yet dignified. The hatred of sin, but the love of the sinner, must be evident. Note also: It must be a brother, a fellow-Christian, for whom this work of love is done, 1 Cor 5:10-11.
If this first attempt at serving the brother and gaining him back from his error should fail (and it may be a matter of Christian wisdom to repeat the private admonition several times), then the second measure must be adopted. A careful selection of these witnesses is also a matter of loving judgment. The injunction is based upon Deut 19:15. For a second time every effort should be made to have the erring one submit to the admonition. Patience and the object of gaining the erring brother must dictate every word, without, however, derogating from the dignity of the Word of God. Truth and righteousness must be upheld at all costs.
If, now, the full application of this measure also fail in spite of all efforts, in spite of all kindness and patience, then the last measure must be resorted to; there is no alternative. If the erring brother pays no attention to your admonition, if he shows no evidence of realizing his sin, if he refuses to be convinced in spite of clear passages of Scripture condemning his manner of acting, then the matter must be brought to the attention of the whole congregation.
This is not the Church in its totality, but, according to common Jewish usage of the word, and also according to Christ’s own explanation, verse 19, the local, visible congregation. And again shall appeal and admonition be employed with the object of winning the brother.
The length of time is not prescribed and may vary in different cases, if only the erring one may be brought back to knowledge. But finally, if all efforts are of no avail, the condition of facts must be stated. The former brother must be declared to be as an heathen man and a publican, as one that is outside of the Christian Church, by his own fault and in spite of the most painstaking care and loving search.
The power of the congregation:
V. 18. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. V. 19. Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of My Father which is in heaven. V. 20. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them.
Christ here fulfils the promise which He made to Peter and through him to all the apostles, Matthew 16: 18. In a solemn declaration He gives to them the keys of heaven. The entire congregation, of which He has just spoken as exercising the power of declaring an excommunication, has the power to bind and to loose, to forgive the sins of the penitent sinners unto them, but to retain the sins of the impenitent, so long as they do not repent.
If this power is exercised in accordance with Christ’s injunction and order, the sentence is valid before God in heaven. Every local congregation, even the smallest and poorest, has this peculiar church power. But it must never be forgotten that this power is given to edification and not to destruction, 2 Cor 13:10.
It is intended to be a wonderful means for gaining poor sinners and for comforting the weak.
“For when thy sins torment thee in thy conscience, thou mayest, in order to awaken a special joy, use the words of Christ, Matthew 18:18: ‘Whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’ If, therefore, thou hast been absolved by a servant of God or, if need be, by another pious Christian, and really art attentive to this promise of God, whereby He absolves thee from sins and receives thee into His grace, and if thou dost not run somewhere else: then thou hast found the safest haven of peace and of joy. For God does not lie and deceive; only believe thou steadfastly His promise.” <Luther, 12, 1952. >.
The fact that this power is actually vested in the Christian congregation, He explains: If two, the smallest number that can be considered a congregation, agree, consent together, come to a perfect agreement on any matter which they want to bring before God in prayer, their petition will receive the full attention of God. Such a full agreement can be wrought by the Holy Spirit only.
“The Church may commence, continue, and be reformed with two individuals. The prayer of these two humble individuals on earth brings down the gracious answer of the Father who is in heaven, thereby attesting and confirming the character of the Church.” <Schaff, Commentary, Matthew, 330>.
A significant hint: If at any time, it is especially necessary when the case of an erring brother is to be discussed that there be prayerful harmony among the brethren of the congregation, under the guidance of the Spirit. A last gracious promise: “Where,” namely, wherever, “two or three,” the minimum number composing a Christian society, are assembled, gathered as believers in Me, “there am I,” now and always, till the end of time, “in the midst of them.” This is true, above all, of the public profession of Christ and His Gospel, whether this be in church services or in other assemblies in which questions pertaining to His name and Word are discussed.
True forgiveness: V. 21. Then came Peter to Him and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?
V. 22. Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times; but, Until seventy times seven.
The entire discourse had really concerned the question of dealing with an erring brother. The need of saving the brother, if there were any possibility of doing so without denying the truth and bringing dishonor upon God, had been emphasized. But Peter now wanted to know whether there is any limit to the number of times one should forgive a repentant brother. His question implies: Is there not reason for doubting the sincerity of repentance in such a case? Or is this not at least the final limit? Peter’s estimate, he thought, was generous.
But Christ’s answer is staggering: “I say not unto thee, Until seven times.” He would not even begin with such an insignificant sum, nor would He want to be tied down to any definite sum. No number would begin to show the greatness of forgiving love that should be found in the hearts of Christians; there is no limit to the number of times that we should forgive an erring brother and reinstate him in our esteem after a transgression on his part. Christ here speaks of forgiveness of sins, and here He has no limit, the seventy times seven evidently being in place of a number beyond petty calculation. Nothing but love and forgiveness shall be in the hearts of Christians.