Commentary on Matthew 16:13-23
We now reach a high point in Matthew’s narrative. More than any of the other gospels, his is a Gospel of the Church. (Mark emphasises discipleship; Luke the communication of God’s love and compassion; John unity with God through Jesus.)
We find Jesus and his disciples in the district of Caesarea Philippi. This is not the fine city of Caesarea built by Herod the Great on the shore of the Mediterranean. It was a town, rebuilt by Herod’s son Philip, who called it after the emperor Tiberius Caesar and himself. It lay just to the north of the Sea of Galilee and near the slopes of Mount Hermon. It had originally been called Paneas, after the Greek god Pan and is known today as Banias.
The area was predominantly pagan, dominated by Rome. In a sense, therefore, it was both an unexpected yet fitting place for Jesus’ identity to be proclaimed. He was, after all, not just for his own people but for the whole world.
Jesus begins by asking his disciples who people think he really is. They respond with some of the speculations that were going round: he was John the Baptist resurrected from the dead (Herod’s view, for instance) or Elijah (whose return was expected to herald the imminent coming of the Messiah) or Jeremiah or some other of the great prophets.
The Jews at this time expected a revival of the prophetic spirit which had been extinct since Malachi. John was regarded by many of the people as a prophet, although he denied that he was the expected prophet, often thought to be Elijah returned. The early Christians saw Jesus as a prophet but with the appearance of prophecy as a charism in their communities the term was dropped in his case.
Interestingly, the people did not seem to think that Jesus himself was on a par with these ‘greats’ of their history. We do tend to undervalue the leaders of our own time when compared with those of the past.
“And you,” Jesus goes on, “who do you say I am?” It was a moment of truth, a very special moment in his disciples’ relationship with their Master. Simon speaks up: “You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It is a huge step forward for Peter and his companions. As we shall see, it is not yet a total recognition of his identity or mission. But Jesus is no mere rabbi, no mere prophet, but the long-awaited Messiah and Saviour King who would deliver Israel. It is an exciting moment in their relationship with him. And it is only in Matthew that Peter calls him “Son of God”.
The focus now shifts immediately to Simon. He is praised for his insight but Jesus makes clear that it comes from divine inspiration and is not a mere deduction. A ‘mystery’, in the Scripture sense, is being uncovered.
And now comes the great promise. Simon from now on is to be called ‘Peter’, a play on the word for ‘rock’ (kepha in Aramaic, petra/petros in Greek), for he will become the rock on which the “church” will be built, a rock which will stand firm against all attacks on it. A promise which must have sounded very daring at the time it was written but which 2,000 years have again and again vindicated. ‘Peter’ in either its Aramaic or Hebrew was not a previously known personal name.
The term ‘church’ only appears twice in Matthew and not at all in the other three gospels. The Hebrew word qahal which in Greek is rendered as ekklesia (‘ekklhsia), means ‘an assembly called together’. It was used often in the Old Testament to indicate the community of the Chosen People.
“By using this term ekklesia side by side with ‘Kingdom of Heaven’, Jesus shows that this eschatological community (community of the ‘end-times’) is to have its beginnings here on earth in the form of an organised society whose leader he now appoints.” (Jerusalem Bible, loc. cit.)
And Simon is given power and authority, the “keys of the Kingdom”, all that he will need to make the Kingdom a reality. His authority and that of the ‘church’ is the authority of Jesus himself. Whatever Peter and the church formally decide is immediately ratified by God; they are his appointed agents.
Lastly, they are strictly ordered not to tell anyone else that Jesus is the Messiah. The people are not ready to hear it; they have their own expectations which are very different from the Messiah that Jesus is going to be. The disciples themselves have a totally wrong idea as becomes immediately clear in what follows.
From the moment that they recognise Jesus as Messiah, he begins to prepare them for what is going to happen. “[The Son of Man] must go to Jerusalem to suffer greatly at the hands of the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and to be put to death, and raised up on the third day.” This is the first of three ominous predictions.
After the euphoria of knowing their Master was the Messiah, all their dreams and hopes are shattered by these terrible revelations. It is hard for us to imagine the impact these words must have had. Peter, who had just covered himself in glory and been appointed leader, almost patronisingly takes Jesus aside, “God forbid that any such thing ever happen to you!”
For him and the others this was an unthinkable scenario for the Messiah they were all waiting for. How much more shocked Peter must have been at Jesus’ reaction. “Get out of my sight, you Satan! You are trying to make me trip and fall. You are not judging by God’s standards but by man’s.” The man who was just now called a Rock is accused of being Satan’s advocate! Instead of being a rock of stability, he is seen as a stumbling block in the way of Jesus.
Peter is seen as doing the very work of the devil in trying to divert Jesus from the way he was called to go, the way in which God’s love would be revealed to us, the way in which we would be liberated for the life of the Kingdom.
It will take time before Peter and the others both understand and accept the idea of a suffering and dying Messiah. It will not happen until after the resurrection. Before that the Rock will be guilty of a shameful betrayal of the Man who put such trust in him.
We too can ask ourselves to what extent we accept Jesus the rejected, suffering, dying and rising Messiah.