Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.
– Matthew 16:13-21
Biblical scholars have debated for centuries about why Jesus would have ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. The most obvious reason, though, is apparent once we strip away the accretions of church dogma: Jesus never intended that anyone outside the church should think of him that way.
This is, as I’ve said before, one of only two places in all the four gospels that Jesus says anything about church. Jesus’ blessing Peter for making the assertion and tying that assertion to Peter’s cornerstone foundational position in the building of the indestructible church indicates that the messianic understanding of Jesus is tied specifically to the church. It was never intended that it should apply to anyone else’s. Jesus is specifically the church’s messiah, who in turn passes exclusive messianic power to the church.
The consequence of this connection is, however, that the only legitimate basis for the church’s existence is the community carrying out the messianic purpose of God’s. In today’s world, that messianic purpose is often misunderstood, even by the communities claiming to be the church. (Indeed, it’s an open question, given Peter’s objection to Jesus’ next pronouncement about going to Jerusalem to suffer and be killed, whether even Peter knew what he was talking about.) God’s messianic purpose is misconstrued to confer powers and privileges that are unintended.
Inasmuch as Jesus embodies God’s messianic purpose, that purpose is self-sacrificial, as his subsequent statement indicates. Therefore, the church referred to here, unlike most churches we’re familiar with in North America, is the community that really and correctly understands its basis for existence in its self-sacrifice. Over the years, the so-called marks of the true church have been misplaced in piddling arguments about correct worship and observation of rites and sacraments and ordinances and all manner of arguing over polity. On the basis of this passage, some have claimed that to really be the church there has to be some kind of linear decent from Peter. It’s all crap.
The only way to tell that a church is really the church in the sense Matthew’s Jesus is talking about is when you see it die to give life to someone else.
It’s not glorious or triumphant. It makes no claims about what anyone else should do to achieve salvation. It seeks no worldly recognition or consideration or privilege. Nor does it ask for anyone’s approval. It simply goes wherever people need saving and gives everything it has away in the faith that binding what it does on earth, it will find its reward in heaven. A church that really understands messianic power doesn’t talk about it. It just does it.