Matthew 16:13-28

Aug 21, 2010


This section of the Gospel of Matthew recounts a pivotal point in the ministry of Jesus.  A closer inspection of the account helps to reveal the reasons why this is so, both in the mind of Jesus as teacher, and in the conception of the author, Matthew.  To keep this as brief as possible, I will assume the reader will do or has done his/her homework on this portion of Scripture.  According to some chronological schemes, the disciples have been following Jesus for at least two and half years, and if tradition is correct, this event occurred about forty-six days before the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  It is at least interesting, if not also ironic, therefore, that it is at this point that Jesus says what he says.  He confirms their faith and then prepares for what, at first glance, would appear to be the destruction of all their hopes - all they had left their homes and trades and followed Christ up to now for.  However, the bigger picture, highlighted by the two parallel chiastic structures is that, in this one section, we have the full revelation of who Jesus is and both aspects of his personal identity were deemed necessary teaching by our Savior as preparation for what was to follow.  In the first structure (vs 13-20), after a few introductory questions and answers (Q & A in the outline), Peter replies with his great confession of faith (“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”) and his perception is explained by Jesus to be the result of a revelation by God the Father.  This revelation is then tied by Jesus to the future building of his church and Peter’s apostolic authority in that endeavor. Then Jesus adds a second revelation of his own. In vs 21-28 he builds upon this faith by revealing more as to his identity and work as the Son of Man coming in glory and judgment (still relating to his original question regarding the Son of Man in vs 13).  However, he does this indirectly by tying this teaching to the necessity of the way of the cross for both himself and those who would be his followers.  This, he explains in his rebuke of Peter, is the pathway that accords with the mind and will of God even though it runs counter to man’s interests and way of thinking. 

By way of note regarding the play on words in vs 18, it will first be observed that Jesus says “You are Peter” in a way parallel to Peter’s “you are the Christ...”  “Peter” is Greek for “stone” and corresponds to the Aramaic “Cephas” (“Rock”).  Peter was born “Simon, son of Jonah” but was given his surname by Jesus at the very beginning of their relationship (cf John 1:42).  In spite of his well known imperfections, Peter stands at the head of the lists of the apostles in the synoptics and Acts.  He also belonged to the inner group of Jesus’ intimate companions and he always acted as spokesman for whichever group he was in.  Additionally, he was recognized by those within and even outside the church as the leader of the Twelve.  In the interpretation of this passage, some wish to refer back to the probable original Aramaic spoken words (e.g. the Aramaic equivalent to Cephas).  Others think the play is based on a Hebrew original.  However, in the providence of God, as preserved in our canonical text, the pun appears to be based on the Greek and so that is what we will deal with. The text sets Peter (Petroß) next to petra.  The word petra means rock in the sense of “bedrock” that can be built upon.  The pun is that this “stone” will be the “bedrock” upon which the Messiah builds his church.  Peter is the first to make the formal confession (though this is certainly not the first time Jesus has been called the Christ in the Gospels).  The structure highlights that the two promises are spoken to Peter, as spokesman for the Twelve.  However, it also highlights the heavenly association with each of the promises.  That is, this promise is associated with the heavenly revelation.  The next promise is linked to the heavenly authority.  The connection between Peter and “this bedrock” can not be denied, but I believe it is purposefully constructed so as to be ambiguous enough to allow for the structural association with this revelation. Peter, by his revelation, is thus designated as the first apostolic foundation stone to be laid in the building of Christ’s church (Christ being the cornerstone, Eph 2:20).  It is thus an apostolic revelatory foundation that is laid down - and that by God himself - for the building of Christ’s church.

This promise to Peter is associated with  the first of two main promises (“I will build” and “I will give”).  Jesus will build his Messianic assembly, the church.  “Hades” is the Greek translation of the Hebrew “Sheol,” the place of the dead. “Gates” were the entry way through defensive fortifications.  This may signify those powers in control who enters and leaves Hades (and maybe, in relation with that, who enters the kingdom/church).  In fact, up to Jesus’ point in the history of redemption, the forces of sin and Satan had been successful in their enterprise of causing and keeping death in its place.  It would be Christ himself who in death would conquer death.  His church, in union with him, can do no worse.  Note that this promise of victory does not necessarily mean the church will always, at all times, prevail outwardly (on an earthly level).  God has preserved his church though and the kingdom of God has been growing since its inception.  The church will ultimately be victorious, and so we may understand this, at least in the same sense of overcoming as the martyrs of Revelation and church history (who have contested and been victorious). This is a real and ultimate victory.  It is encouraging to know that the church is and will be victorious over the forces of death, by the grace and mercy of God.

The second inner term to this chiasm is another promise of Christ to Peter about the church. It pertains to the giving of the keys and this is appropriate considering Jesus just spoke about the (assumed locked) gates of Hades.  Peter has just been singled out and called blessed, based on his confession of faith.  Peter has also been identified as the first apostolic foundation stone. It is to Peter that the keys are given to bind or loose. (The “You“ in “I will give to you” is 2nd person singular).  See especially Matt 18:15ff (and also Luke 11:52 and Rev 9 and 20) for instructive references regarding the use of “keys.”  The Lukan passage is used in a negative sense and in the opposite manner as the good use to be noted next as illustrated in the book of Acts. We see that, in the book of Acts, Peter has a key role (pun intended ;>) regarding who enters the church (2:14-39, 3:11-26) and who does not (4:11-12, 8:20-23). It involves the idea of the apostolic authority to bind/subdue demonic powers of darkness (exorcism) which, in turn, loose the believer. This interpretation would correlate with John 20.23, “If you dismiss anyone’s (guilt for) sins, they are dismissed from them; if you hold anyone’s sins (against them), they are held (against them).” This authoritative role is always played out in accordance with the preaching and principles of the Gospel (the confession of faith).  On the other hand, we also note the obvious - that the rest of the Twelve in this Matt 16 passage, are all being groomed for the same foundational apostolic role and as such, they were so regarded by the church (“built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” Eph. 2:19-20).  It is interesting that, in both main chiastic structures, the idea of authority to judge is introduced.  In this case, it is associated with Peter.  In the other case, it is associated with Christ.  This passage does not speak about any later ideas in support of a successor to Peter as sole authority over the church.  Church history shows that, though authority in the church was ceded to the bishops, they did not properly lord it over other jurisdictions.  This is seen even by the time of Acts 15, where James, as bishop in Jerusalem, elucidates the consensus even though Peter is present.  Matthew 16 speaks about the foundation, which can only be laid once.  So the conception is that the church will be built upon apostolic bedrock, initially led by Peter as first among equals - as they proclaimed the Gospel message that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

The textual positioning of the enigmatic restriction in vs 20 on the communication of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah may be explained very handily by is place as the outer term of the chiastic structure.  (Note the parallel identifying Jesus as Christ.)  The exact meaning is conjectural.  Since the big difference in the communication of the message of Jesus as the Christ occurred after the cross and the resurrection, we must assume this restriction is all part of Jesus’ overall pre-cross strategy.  This strategy partly consisted of his laying down his own life in his mission as the suffering servant lest he be taken by force and made the anointed king apart from the cross (Jn 6:15, 10:15-18).  As seen in Acts, the apostolic witness concerning Jesus, the Messiah, was powerful in its results.  It could not come earlier because it would work and this in turn would be detrimental to God’s purposes in Christ.  The apostolic witness was always intended by divine plan to be a witness regarding the risen Son of God as Lord and not merely a witness to the kingly son of David apart from his saving work.

This section comprised the first revelation (Revelation I) of God the Father concerning the identity of Jesus.  Jesus’ second revelation concerning himself comes next (Revelation II).

Since I have not studied or thought through the book of Matthew in its entirety, I will not be able to place this pericope in its proper context.  I am aware of at least one theory of the Gospel’s structure that sees 13:54-ch17 as a complete section that is the first section after the central (parable) section.  It may thus be located at a rhetorical turning point as the beginning of the last half of the Gospel.  That same thesis sees this whole section (16:13-28) as belonging with the following account of the transfiguration.  In that conception, the “This is my beloved son” of the Transfiguration account would balance Peter’s great confession section (13-20).  If that is true, then the center, between those balanced sections, would be the second revelation of Jesus about himself that we are about to consider in 16:21-28.  For the sake of brevity, I will try to keep my comments focused on the structural elements of this passage.  The outline goes a long way along these lines, showing the larger design and the relation of Christ’s path to that of his followers in the outer terms.  The inner portion of the structure focuses on the differences in mind set that control one’s chosen path. The structure gets more interesting when we look at the smaller chiastic structure (vs 25-28).  Here Jesus explains why they (and we) should adopt his way of thinking and choose the way of the cross as true followers of Jesus the Messiah.  This path is not the easiest way.  It involves self denial, indeed, a refusal to even recognize one’s (old) self (importing a Pauline thought).  It involves placing one’s very life on the line for the sake of the Gospel.  The way of the cross is the path to death and there was no reason not to take Jesus literally as vs 28 would also support and history would prove.  Luke’s account adds “take up his cross daily” and possibly mitigates the message for the masses. The great apostle Paul proved himself a true follower of Christ in this regard.  He placed his life in danger for the sake of his Gospel ministry on a daily basis (“Always being given over to death” 2Cor 4:11 and “I die daily” 1Cor 15:31).  He then literally gave up his life when he was beheaded on the Apian Way.  Since life is tough enough already, why take this harder way when it is possible to live a life of relative ease and just do the minimum?  Jesus explains why the way of the cross is the only wise choice.  Surprisingly, he shapes all his reasoning in terms of his future role as the Son of Man - as the Judge of all mankind.  He points out that it will not be until the judgment that his directions all make sense.  It is only at that point that our mind set and the path we have taken in life will be shown to have made, literally, all the difference in the world.  Interestingly, his reasoning on the basis of judgment proceeds in reverse chronological order (first the verdict at the end of the judgment, then the deliberation, then the second coming, (then the “preview” reference - possibly/probably to the transfiguration).  In vs 25, the first reason why one should take the way of the cross now is that, if we don’t, we will suffer eternal loss when the verdict is given at the time of judgment.  Of course there is the other, positive, side and the hope that we can have in being able to face judgment with the confidence of saving our (eternal) life if we lose our (temporal) life for his sake now.  The loss is in gaining and the gain is in losing. So there is a reversal of expectation for the individual facing judgment that is almost paradoxical or contradictory if viewed from merely the standpoint of the natural man.  This reversed expectation is balanced in vs 28 with the prediction that some of the disciples would not taste death until they saw the son of man coming in his kingdom.  It assumes what we now know to be the case - that the majority would taste death before seeing the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.  Of course Jesus knew this when he crafted his statement and Matthew must also have understood at the time of writing.  The next reason for the individual to consider is the payment price of judgment.  If we are not true disciples now, the life we thought was valuable will be exposed as worthless at the judgment.  Jesus uses commercial language in two rhetorical questions to show the folly of having the wrong mindset and values (and thus choosing pathway in life).  If we are not careful, we will have nothing to balance with.  Gaining the whole temporal world is nothing compared to losing one’s eternal life.  The same idea is reflected in the next question where, if we do not follow Jesus, we will have nothing if the only thing of value is not ours to bargain with.  The corresponding term of the chiasm reflects this commercial motif in that Jesus will come and then he will “repay.”  The judgment is characterized as an individual judgment (“each person”) and it is also an impartial judgment (“according to what he has done”).  It will be objective.  A life lived in the Spirit and the graces of faith, hope and love will have issued in good and fruitful works.  There is nothing spoken in this passage that isn’t also spoken by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans, whether of judgment (ch 2), or of being dead to sin and alive to God (ch 6) or a combination of both for life in the Spirit (ch 8).  The very last term has already been explained in its relation to the other terms, but it stands here, not merely as a transition to what follows in the transfiguration preview of Jesus’ coming in the glory of his Father, but also as a beacon of hope in and of itself for the disciples who, no doubt needed as much encouragement as heaven could provide for what lay ahead.  Both terms of the second half of the chiasm switch focus from the individual to the Son of Man.  It is fitting that this pericope should end as it began, but now with a more perfect understanding of both the person and work of Jesus, the Messiah, who is both the Son of the living God and the Son of Man “about to come” in glory and with all authority to judge.