“Why Did Jesus Build His Own Church?” and Other Reflections on Matthew 16

This past Sunday’s readings were on the papacy. The First Reading was from Isaiah 22:19:23, in which the LORD to Shebna, master of the palace:

“I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station. On that day I will summon my servant Eliakim, son of Hilkiah; I will clothe him with your robe, and gird him with your sash, and give over to him your authority. He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. I will place the key of the House of David on Eliakim’s shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut when he shuts, no one shall open. I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot, to be a place of honor for his family.”

This passage makes Eliakim something like a Prime Minister in Israel. His authority is granted in the gift of the Keys. In 2 Kings 18:18,when the Assyrians show up to threaten Israel, “They called for the king; and Eliakim son of Hilkiah the palace administrator, Shebna the secretary, and Joah son of Asaph the recorder went out to them.” So Eliakim acts on behalf of the king, and is the chief administrator of the House of David.

The Gospel is from Matthew 16:13-20,

When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi He asked His Disciples, “Who do men say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven.”

Then He strictly ordered His Disciples to tell no one that He was the Messiah.

There’s a lot that can be said on this passage, and a lot which I have said over the course of this blog’s lifetime.  For now, though, four basic points will suffice.

1. The Messianic Title of “Son of Man”

Compare the two questions Jesus asks closely.

  • “Who do men say that the Son of Man is?” 
  • “But who do you say that I am?”

Jesus’ first question isn’t “Who do men say that I am?” but “Who do men say that the Son of Man is?” Obviously, the crowds would have noticed that Jesus and John the Baptist weren’t the same person by this point.  They’ve seen the two of them together (see, e.g., Matthew 3:13).  And John was quite different than Jesus (Matthew 11:18-19a):

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.”’

So the crowd wasn’t mistaking Jesus for John.  They were mistaking John for the Son of Man, while Jesus is the actual Son of Man.  This is one of the clearest implications that “Son of Man” is some sort of Messianic title: the people are trying to figure out whether this “Son of Man” had already come, or was yet to come.  Jesus’ second question, of course, reveals that He is the Son of Man.

2. The Gift of the Keys

We should play close attention to the gift of the Keys. Given what we’ve seen from Isaiah, we can see how this power will give Peter to head the Church, and to speak on behalf of the King of the Kingdom of Heaven.  He’s God’s Eliakim, if you will.  The term “Vicar of Christ” captures this image well, since a vicar is someone standing in for someone else.  Eliakim stood as King Hezekiah’s vicar in 2 Kings 18.  Peter did that for Christ in Acts 2, and throughout his ministry; Benedict does that today.

3. The Forms of Church Governance which Jesus Rejected

Abp. Fulton Sheen had a profound insight.  Jesus’ first question asks about the consensus of the crowds.  His second question asks about the episcopacy.  But the correct answer only comes from Peter speaking on behalf of the episcopacy, and even then, only because God revealed the answer through Peter.

It’s a remarkable thing that Christ begins His declaration that He will build His Church by showing which three systems of Church governance don’t work: (i) governance by the flock, (ii) governance by an unheaded episcopacy, and (iii) governance by a single Church leader without Divine protection.

If you look carefully, you’ll see each of these three in order: (i) the crowds spilt into various contradictory factions: “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets”; (ii) the Twelve, apart from Peter, don’t even venture a guess; and (iii) Peter’s own answer is possibly only because of God’s individual protection of the Chief Apostle: For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you (singular), but My Heavenly Father.”  

The comparisons to non-Catholic Christianity should be obvious.  Protestantism typically follows (i), and splits into innumerable factions as a result.  On even fundamental issues, they can’t form a unified response: some say regenerative infant Baptism, others symbolic infant Baptism; still others symbolic adult Baptism.  Orthodoxy tends to follow (ii), and like the other Eleven, largely stays quiet in the face of modern controversies. Without a unified head, it’s hard to unify and mobilize the Body, so it too often lies dormant.  Certain other groups, like Mormonism, fall into category (iii).  They have a single head, but because he’s not protected by the Holy Spirit, he can’t get the answers consistently right.

So Christ has just shown us why Protestantism, Orthodoxy, and Mormonism won’t work. And He’s shown us the necessity of a Divinely-protected papacy, in order to keep Christianity (i) unified, (ii) mobilized, and (iii) orthodox.  But then He does something even more remarkable: He establishes His own Church.

4. Christ Forms His Own Church

In all the controversy over whether Matthew 16:17-19 establishes the papacy (it does, as I’ve argued here and elsewhere), we can miss a more fundamental point: Christ says, “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church…” 

We shouldn’t let the controversy over the first half of that statement cause us to ignore the second half: Christ just said He was going to build His own Church. That’s huge.

Here, however, I must ask you to set aside preconceived notions about what  “Church” is and isn’t.  Certain phrases, like “Church,” “New Covenant,” and “born again,” mean one thing to Jesus, and something quite different to Protestant ministers.  This passage from Matthew 16  is one of only two times Jesus ever says the word “Church” in the Gospels, with the other being Matthew 18:17.  If we want to understand Church the way Jesus does, we should start here, and understand these two passages.  Likewise, of course, if we want to understand what the “New Covenant” is, we should read up on the only time Jesus ever uses that phrase in the Gospels (Luke 22:20), and read John 3:5-8 to understand what Jesus meant by being “born again,” and how it involves “water and the Spirit.”

With that said, ask yourselves: why did Jesus build His own Church?  The simple answer is that this is the only way that the Church would remain pure, and not fall into apostasy (Psalm 127:1):

Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain.

For the Church to survive, it must be built by Christ.  Great: the Church is built by Christ.  So the converse seems to be true as well: if the LORD built the Church, it won’t be overrun.  The Gates of Hell shall not prevail, as Christ explained.  He doesn’t create ecclesial Deism, in which He simply sets Christianity in motion and lets it run wild.  Notice also what He’s not doing: He’s not simply having believers form whatever bodies they choose. He’s not about to entrust the task of creating the New Testament Church to the crowds who can’t figure out who the Son of Man is.  He’s going to build Her Himself.

Understanding this point is vitally important.  It explains why the Church can’t just compromise on the Truth.  We didn’t create the Church.  She was created directly by God.  We have no business tinkering with Her Truths, because they’re not ours to play around with.

I also think that understanding the basics of why Jesus built the Church, and what that means for the Church, immediately makes the Catholic Church a serious contender when She claims to be the One True Church.  Because we should be able to recognize now that there is such a thing as the One True Church.  Christ didn’t build a Church to have it become One amongst many.  And a Church built by any other than the LORD isn’t His equal.


  1. -So if it’s not a catholic church, the Lord did not build it.
    -if it’s not the catholic church, it is a false church.
    -Only the papcy is divinely protected by the Holy Spirit. My pastor and the board are not.

    Do I get you so far?

  2. WRA,

    Sort of. I’m not suggesting that the Catholic Church is the true Church merely because She claims to be. I’m saying that if Jesus built a True Church, then we should be looking for a Church which claims to be… as a bare minimum.

    We know that the Lord built a Church. No Protestant denomination that I know of claims to be the Church built by Christ.

    We also know who founded each Protestant denomination, and none of those founders have names ending in “of Nazareth.” So even if they claimed to be that Church, they aren’t.

    The Catholic Church claims to be built by Jesus, and has no known mortal founder. So She’s at least worth serious consideration as a contender. What say you?

    In Christ,


  3. An interesting thought just struck me. By saying that *He* will build the Church, Christ is setting Himself up as the New Solomon. Psalm 127 is a Psalm of Solomon and it reads:

    “Unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labor in vain”

  4. Restless Pilgrim,

    Regarding your first point, we agree. We can say where the Church is, but we can’t really say where the Church isn’t.

    Regarding your second point, I’m torn. In saying He’ll build the Church Himself, Jesus seems to be positioning Himself as (a) the New Solomon, (b) the LORD, or (c) both. I’m leaning towards (c), but I hadn’t considered that angle before. Good comments!


  5. Wherever there are those who believe in Christ Jesus, there is the Church.

    There are believers and non-beli8evers in every church.

    Only Christ knows for sure who belongs to Him and who does not.

  6. Old Adam,

    I don’t understand how your first and second statement go together. Could you spell it out for me? And I agree on your third, by the way.


    I’ve encountered this argument before.  It really depends on what you mean by “Body.”  Body can mean an organized structure (like a human body), in which case I think that interpretation is right on.  Certainly, it’s how Paul envisions the Church in 1 Corinthians.

    But many Protestants use the term “Body,” but mean nothing more than “the sum total of Christians.”  That’s how Old Adam appears to be using the term “Church” in the first sentence of his comment (although I’ll wait to see if that’s right).   I’d say that this latter use of “Body of believers” (or “Church”) doesn’t match up with 1 Corinthians, and doesn’t make a lot of sense — at least, not to me.  What would it mean in the context of Matthew 16?  Upon this Rock, I will build the sum total of Christians? What?

    Both here and in Matthew 18:17, Jesus seems to have in mind a visible Church (that’s particularly obvious in Matthew 18, where they expel those who won’t turn away from sin), and a structured Church (Something that requires building).

    Now, having said that, it’s possible to be invisibly connected to the visible Institution.  An American travelling abroad, for example, is still an American via some invisible connection to his homeland.  This is all the more true for his spiritual homeland.  So all the saved are connected to, and saved through, the Church.  But the Church isn’t simply the sum of the saved, or She wouldn’t contain wheat and weeds.

  7. You plce a lot of stock upon a sinful person. Great as he was.

    We place a lot of stock in the One to whom he was confessing. Christ.

    That is the Rock.

    Peter’s confession of faith is the Rock. Not Peter the man.

  8. Old Adam,

    We trust sinful Peter because we trust Christ. Christ says (1) that Peter’s able to answer not because of his own merits, but because of Jesus’ Father in Heaven, and (2)that He’s going to build His Church upon Peter.

    Jesus chose Twelve Apostles and sets them as a Foundation of His Church, with Himself as the Chief Cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20). You can’t say that you’re going to reject the Foundation, because it’s twelve sinful men, so you can better focus on the Chief Cornerstone. Jesus and the Apostles are a package deal.

    This is particularly true of Peter, the only Disciple Who Jesus refers to with Himself as “We” (Mt. 17:27). It’s nothing to be proud of that you drive a wedge between Christ and Peter.

    In Christ,


    P.S. As for your last claim, it’s debunked by the fact that Simon, the man, is renamed “Peter,” Rock., and that he maintains this name in his good times and bad.

  9. WRA

    “How’s this? “Upon this rock, I will build my body of believers, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against my body of believers.”

    True if you mean a collective body, but even a physical body is made up of a head, arms, legs, hands, feet all connected to the body, all one. You cannot have a body with a arm, leg, hand, or foot that is disconnected from it. That part will no longer belong to the body, just as Christians are disconnected from each other. Jesus prayed that we may all be one as He is One with the Father!

  10. “You plce a lot of stock upon a sinful person. Great as he was.”

    Old Adam, do you hold the same opinion to yourself concerning your personal belief against the notion of “Peter as rock” despite all the evidence against your belief presented to you on this website and of which you have as yet been unable to refute? Do you believe true Christianity and the Faith it taught no longer exists error free due to not being protected by Christ (because it was left fully to sinful humans and to ultimately fail)?

    Either the Truth (aka the Word aka the Christ aka the Gospel) is solid and has been with us from the beginning and therefore protected by Christ (His Universal (Catholic) Church aka the fullness of Christianity), or there is no faith that we can rely on due to us sinful humans. We can continue protesting under our personal relativism through a faith founded not on Christ but a bias based on our sinfulness and personal wishes in conforming Christ to ourselves, or we can conform ourselves to Christ with complete trust that He knew and knows today what He is doing.

    From the way I have understood your comments, you are preaching that Truth is unknowable today as it is tainted by human sin. Your belief that we can only be saved through Christ, which we believe also, can be taken from a reading of your words as unknowable to be the truth as it a belief that has existed in the domain of human taint. Even the Holy Scriptures themselves is unreliable in your view. In other words one is incapable of putting their faith in Jesus Christ due to what they have taken to believe about Him is itself tainted by human sin personally and from generations past and therefore that faith in ‘Christ’ is inevitably a faith in what is not Christ.

    Or we can simply choose to trust the work of Christ and where that ultimately leads, the Catholic (Universal) Christian Church with Christ the King of Kings ruling over it.

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