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When the Savior asked the disciples who they thought he was, Peter was the first to answer; and in that answer he asserted the DOCTRINE, on which the church was built; the FACT that Jesus, in whom all the prophecies centre, the archetype and substance to answer all the types and shadows of the law, and to supersede them by the sacrifice of Himself, was the Messiah, the Son of God, the Savior of sinners. Jesus then declares that this truth is a revelation made to Peter by the Father, and follows it with the words of the text.
The first difficulty in the interpretation of the text is found in determining what is the proper explication of the term Rock, on which the Savior declares his church shall be built. From the fact that the name of Peter means rock, some have referred it to Peter as the head of the church, and the vicegerent on earth of Him in whom all power resides. The great objection to this is that Peter was a fallible man, while the work imposed is that, which demands whatever of power can be exerted in favor of man. We need only to change terms to show the absurdity of this interpretation. Peter was a man, and with this fact in view the passage is reduced in the hands of these interpreters to this absurdity. Thou art Peter, and on this man I will build my church. The Savior might have said that he would make Peter an eminent instrument in building up his church on earth, and so he was. But to make Peter the foundation of that church is a flat absurdity. How is the church built upon Peter? Was Peter crucified for us? Or are we baptized in the name of Peter? It is absolutely absurd to call that a foundation, on which the structure does not and cannot rest.
Let us turn, for a moment, to other parts of the Scriptures, and see if we can find any help to the interpretation of this passage. Do we any where else find instructions respecting the foundation of the church? In the song of Moses, recorded in Deuteronomy 32, God, the Almighty, is repeatedly spoken of as the Rock, on which His redeemed people rest. “ Israel forsook God, which made him, and lightly esteemed the Rock of his salvation." And he is accused in the following words_"of the Rock that begat thee, thou art unmindful, and hast forgotten God that formed thee.” And again" How should one chase a thousand and two put ten thousand to flight, except their Rock had sold them, and the Lord had shut them up?" The same term is applied by Paul in a similiar sense to Christ in 1 Cor. 10.4“For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. Isaiah, predicting the Messiah, says by inspiration, 28:16—“Behold I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner stone, a sure foundation.” And again, 8:14, “ He shall be for a sanctuary, but for a stone of stumbling, a Rock of offence.” Hence the Savior, in his sermon on the mount, likens those who heard his sayings and kept them, to the“ man, who built his house upon a Rock.” And Paul also represents those, who are fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God, as “ built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone." "He then proceeds, in an impressive strain, to represent the whole building as depending on Christ. Why then should we seek any different explanation for the text? The connection does not require it; on the contrary, it favors our exposition. The Pharisees and Sadducees had just required a miracle, or sign from heaven, and were reproved for their unbelief in his divine character, already accredited by miracle and prophecy. This formed the absorbing subject of conversation when he retired with his diciples, Peter had just declared that Christ was the Messiah or Rock, the corner stone of the church. This is part of the work of Christ, to fou a church; the confession of Peter was a leading doctrine, on which this church was to be gathered, and in which Peter was to perform a distinguished service. Is it credible that the Savior should turn the conversation from his own character, and substitute
that of Peter? He commanded Peter to go and preach this leading doctrine of the gospel, Jesus Christ and him crucified. About to receive this
commission, it seemed natural that the Savior should give him encouragement. This he does in the declaration that he would build his church on this rock, this truth, this doctrine; that he was himself the Christ, the Son of the living God, and would prove the doctrine by accomplishing the promise.
On this interpretation, the import of what follows is very apparent, “ the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The word here rendered hell, is not that which signifies the place of torment for the wicked, but the grave, or the place of the dead in general. This is enough. The kingdom of Christ was promised to be an everlasting kingdom. The church he was to found, was to be numerous and splendid. But he well knew that before the vain expectations of his disciples respecting a temporal kingdom should be fully, disappointed, and before the promised church should begin to be known, or show itself on earth, he should be taken away by death. This, he well knew, would have a powerful influence to discourage his disciples. In anticipation of that event, this promise for their encouragement was evidently made. Though their leader be removed by death, the disciples still have the promise that the gates of hell, or death, shall not prevail against the church. As the prophecies were gradually opened to their view by this very event, and they saw it was necessary that Christ should suffer, all this would
appear plain, and excite the greater confidence and zeal. They might proceed, there fore, to preach Jesus Christ and him crucified, knowing, that although it would be to the Jews a stumbling block, and to the Greeks foolishness, it should yet prove the power of God and the wisdom of God unto salvation, to all who believed.
The same promise supported them also in view of their own dissolution, and the ravages of death, which should soon lay them all in the grave. It connected the view of a future resurrection with the promise of Christ's perpetual kingdom, which were soon after both demonstrated when he rose from the dead. This promise also presented to their minds, and his resurrection subsequently verified the fact, that he would assuredly give success to his word, and preserve a seed to serve him on earth, while those who were in successive periods, the living members of the church, should be removed to their seats in heaven. Christ has overcome death, and demonstrated, when he rose from the dead, that the gates of hell should not prevail against his church. He has also “overcome him that had the power of death, that is the devil.” Hence it is equally true, that the powers of hell or the devil shall not prevail against him. The grave has lost its victory_death is robbed of its sting-hell is despoiled of its candidates, and the power of the devil was broken, when Jesus came forth from the tomb, rose triumphant to the right hand of God, received all power, showed himself the conqueror of man's mightiest foe, and delivered them, who, through fear of death, were all their life-time subject to bondage."
When man had apostatised, he was turned out of the garden, and the door of heaven was shut upon him. When Christ the Son of God appeared, by a victory over the powers of death and hell, he procured the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and prevailed to open the door. He was the only Being who could do it. · When the favored apostle, in apocalyptic vision, saw the sealed book in which the fate of man was written, no man in heaven, nor in earth, neither under the earth, was able to open the book; but the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, prevailed to open the book. Consequent upon this victory, an innumerable company of redeemed sinners fill all heaven with praise. These sinners, “ redeemed at once,” are “ born by degrees," and prepared for their “purchased possession" by a system of moral means and instrumentalities. Therefore, when the Savior “ascended upon high, leading captivity captive and receiving gifts for men, he gave some apostles, and some prophets, and some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” It is, therefore, through the ministrations of those, whom he has delegated, that the door of heaven is set open, and sinners redeemed are continually entering. “ And I will give unto thee, said the Savior to Peter, 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 shail be loosed in heaven.”
As the use of the term rock is here figurative, so is that of the keys. Peter had just acknowledged and asserted a fundamental doctrine of Christianitythat, on which all true religion was built—that Jesus was the Christ. By him the kingdom of heaven was opened to man, who had excluded himself
, opened not literally by the rise of keys, but opened by his own blood shed for sin, to satisfy the law, and obviate the insuperable difficulties which lay in the way of man's salvation. To Peter, a knowledge of these doctrines was revealed. The first had already been revealed to him, so that he was able to pronounce that Jesus was the Christ. The doctrine of justification through faith in him, and remission of sin through his blood was opened, it seemed, to his mind earlier than to the rest of the apostles; for he was the first to preach Jesus Christ and him crucified both to the Jews, and the Gentiles. Since the way to heaven is discovered only through these truths, and Peter was made a preacher of them, it may be emphatically said that he, in the official announcement of the truth, condemned or acquitted according to the decisions of the judgment day; bound or loosed on divine authority.
The confession of Peter, asserting the divinity of Jesus, was the great doctrine, on which he insisted, on which the church was built. Whenever he preached the doctrine of Christ crucified, he opened the door of heaven, and only then. This was emphatically the doctrine, which produced conviction in the hearts of sinners on the day of Pentecost, and on other subsequent occasions. As fast as men were prepared to confess this truth, that Jesus was the Christ, and believe in him, they were gathered into the church. Peter himself was a fallible man. He is not, therefore, a perfectly safe example for us. He denied his Master. We must in this avoid, not imitate him. It is only in the doctrines of the gospel, which he preached, and in his practice of them, so far as he followed Christ, that we are to regard him as the honored instrument of opening to us the way to God's right hand. He cannot dispense mercy, but declares the terms, on which God dispenses it. He cannot pronounce judgment, but teaches the doctrines, on which God awards it. That Peter was not in himself a safe man, is apparent from many infirmities, which he betrayed. He knew not what was in man; for he did not detect the hypocrisy of Simon Magus, until he thought to buy the Holy Ghost with money, a passion which would have exposed his hypocrisy to any other Christian; as it would have also betrayed in Peter the deepest hypocrisy to have sold the pardon, which was the price of blood. When he preaches the truths taught him by the Savior, or inspiration, he is to be implicitly confided in, and only then. How absurd then the conclusion that Christ really constituted Peter the rock, or foundation of his church, by conferring extraordinary powers or vicegerency. How contrary to the fact is the position assumed that he was made infallible, and that in matters of faith and doctrine, this intallibillity was transmitted to his successors.
If any thing were wanted to give additional testimony to the Scriptures against this doctrine of supremacy, it might be found in the tyranny and oppression, with which this assumed authority has been exercised; in the
notorious and pre-eminent wickedness of many of those who have exercised it; and in the absurd, ridiculous, and monstrous doctrines and practices they have taught and attempted to enforce. They have exchanged the spirituality of the gospel for more than pharisaical forms and human inventions. They have not only insisted on the meritorious worth of good works, but have even offered to dipense pardon, thereby selling the Holy Ghost, for money! Such successors of Peter effectually shut the door of heaven on the sinner. They do more than withold from him the means of salvation—the employ against him the means of damnation. They flatter him down to perdition by a show of mercy, which is fatal if they trust in it, and which diverts the mind from Christ as the simple object of faith, the only foundation of hope. Whenever this is done, the keys of the kingdom of heaven are witheld, and the soul cannot enter.
Take a sinner in agony under conviction of sin, and writhing under its anguish, asking for the way of life, and you attempt in vain to draw the arrow from his soul, or heal the
wound, until you preach Christ crucified. You may give him moral lessons forever and his soul will sink deeper in despair; you may demand his earthly goods or his service and life as the price of his soul; he makes the sacrifice in vain. No light comes until he receives. Jesus as the Christ, and perceives the connection between his blood as a price, and the pardon of the guilty. When Peter struck on this chord in the harmony of divine truth; when he sounded the name of Jesus, Savior—then and not till then, as if by talismanic power, the sinner is loosed from his bonds, he leaps for joy, he is redeemed, not with silver and gold, but by the blood of Christ. When the apostle preached THIS TRUTH, although in the feebleness of a man, he opened the door of heaven. He turned back the bolt which the strength of angels, mighty in power, could not move, he loosed the bonds of the penitent, and rivetted the chains of those, who either reject or pervert the doctrine of the cross.
He simply stated the only condition on which the sinner, bound in the chains of Satan, could be set free, and defined the principles, on which the decisions of the last day would be pronounced. Whatever, therefore, he bound on earth was bound in heaven, and whatever he loosed on earth was loosed in heaven.
2. We are to inquire, Whether the power, here conferred on Peter, was confined to him, or given in common to all the apostles, and ministers of Christ. In the view we have taken of the subject, this is precisely the power given to the other apostles and to all who are called to preach the gospel. To the assembled disciples, he said, “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved, and he that believeth not shall be damned.” What is this more or less than the Savior said to Peter. Go, preach the gospel. What then? It shall be. the principles, on which men shall be judged. It is the key to the kingdom of heaven. Those, who follow you, embracing the doctrines you preach, shall enter the door-the others shall be excluded. These shall be the principles, on which men shall be bound or loosed. This is the way, in which the church was built up; and on the belief and reception of the gospel, was engrafted a moral character, which prepared for the happiness and employment of heaven. Pardon is not dispensed in an arbitrary manner, irrespective of moral character. The righteousness of Christ, which procures a release of the sinner, does not screen an obstinate rebel. While it turns aside the operation of the violated law from the rebel, it pervades the soul, which it defends, and sanctifies what it saves. Hence we cannot perceive how the powers bestowed upon Peter differ from those of any other gospel minister. It is the same truth preached by both, utterly powerless in the ministry of man, irresistible always and only, under the Spirit's agency.
The church of Christ is now built up in the same way it was in the begin ning. The same means are employed, and his ministers are endowed with essentially the same powers.' They preach the same doctrines. Sinners are converted in the same way, and this same process is to go on, till all the redeemed are gathered in heaven. Invested with the ministry of the truth, the power and authority of every gospel minister is great; and on the same ground it is said that the church, in the exercise of discipline over its members, binds on earth that which shall be bound in heaven, and looses on earth what shall be loosed in heaven.
We have now given the interpretation of the text, defined the power here given to Peter as consisting simply in a revealed knowledge of gospel truths, and in the authority to preach them; and have explained the same power as committed to all the other apostles, and all the ministers of Christ of every age. Several practical reflections and inferences are obvious.
1. We are led to admit the essential equality of ministers of the gospel. The ministry was instituted for one object--to gather and edify the church. The duty is one, to seek the salvation of souls in imitation of the Savior himself. Ministers are to apply themselves laboriously to this great work. As they, therefore, have a common employment and a common object, their honor, and station, and sphere of influence, are essentially the same. The Scriptures no where give supremacy to any one minister or class of ministers under the Christian dispensation. The Savior sharply rebuked his disciples, when they contended who should be the greatest, and taught that the greatest among them should be their servant, and that there could be no superiority except what consisted in superior labors, services, and self-denials. He showed also that he was willing to set them an example in this doctrine, and condescended even to wash their feet.
We do not find that Peter either assumed or sought any superiority over the other disciples on account of the manner in which the Savior addressed him in the text. He labored equally, and with the other disciples. In the council at Jerusalem, he neither attempted nor exerted any important influence. Indeed another Apostle dared to blame him to his face. He appeared in no respect elevated above his fellows except by a more ardent zeal. If therefore an inspired apostle did not exercise the pretended authority delegated to him, how shall his successors dare to do it! In every society or association of men, ecclesiastical or civil organization is necessary to order and business; but in the church of God, we believe the gospel has given to no minister any official pre-eminence above his co-presbyters.
2. We are naturally led in this connection to notice the nature of the ministerial office. Christian ministers are an order of men appointed of God for the edification of his church on earth. They are separated from secular duties, and set apart for the ministry of the sanctuary. They are subject to similar wants with others, and are therefore to be sustained in their office, while they minister to others in spiritual things. It is not intended that ministers should have no regard to the temporal interests of their fellow men, but that they should avoid all interferences, which may interrupt a supreme devotion of themselves to the duties of the ministry.
They are to minister at the altar in holy things--therefore, it is required of them that they be holy. They stand between the living and the dead therefore, they are called to be serious. They are the messengers of God to sinners, and the advocates of men at a throne of grace-therefore, they need to be prepared for their duties by much prayer, and a lively faith.
They are debarred by the nature of their office from entering into political cares and responsibilities; they are, therefore, to have no concern with political governments except to pray for them, to pay tribute to whom tribute is