Matthew 16:13-20 Commentary

God's Plan Established on Christ

The religious elite repudiated Jesus (vv. 1-4); the disciples lacked sufficient faith in him to understand his most basic warnings (vv. 5-12). But now, informed by Jesus' works (14:33) and perhaps by a new understanding of Jesus' role vis-a-vis that of their people's religious establishment (16:1-12), the disciples are on the verge of a new level of revelation. Even at this point, however, they do not fully understand their Master's mission (vv. 21-28).

The Revelation of the Gospel Occurs in Pagan Territory (16:13)

Jesus has taken his disciples northward from predominantly Jewish territory, presumably to escape the crowds and spend time privately with his disciples. They have journeyed some twenty-five miles (and seventeen hundred feet uphill) from the Lake of Galilee to the source of the Jordan near the ancient city of Dan, the northern boundary of ancient Israel. The recently renamed Caesarea Philippi was as pagan a territory as one could find. It was famous for its grotto where people worshiped the Greek god Pan; its earlier name Paneas persisted even in its modern Arabic name, Baneas (compare Jos. War 1.404), and public pagan rites reportedly continued there until a later Christian miraculously demonstrated that Jesus was more powerful (Euseb. H.E. 7.17). Following Mark, Matthew emphasizes that God moves where he wills, fitting the theme of Jesus' universal mission in his Gospel (for example, 1:3, 5-6; 2:1-12; 3:9; 4:15).

People Must Recognize Jesus as the Christ (16:14-16)Outsiders' recognition of Jesus as a prophet is inadequate (16:14); those who follow Jesus closely know him as the Christ, God's Son (vv. 15-16). Herod Antipas thought Jesus was John (14:2); many Jewish people anticipated the return of Elijah and other prophets like Baruch. Viewing Jesus in such terms thus fit him into categories of thought that already existed, rather than letting the Lord redefine their categories by his identity (see comment on 4:1-11). Christ designates Jesus as the rightful king of Israel (see introduction).

A Foundational Revelation (16:17-18)

Peter did not receive his revelation from man, literally "flesh and blood" (compare Gal 1:16), a common expression for "mortals" or "humans" (as in 1 Cor 15:50; Eph 6:12; Heb 2:14; 1 Enoch 15:4; Mek. Pisha 1.120). Peter's understanding of Jesus' identity came by divine revelation (Mt 16:17; 11:25), undoubtedly including God's revelation through Jesus' miraculous acts (14:33; compare 15:22). This revelation of Jesus' identity was foundational for God's purposes in history.

Jesus then plays on Simon's nickname, Peter, which would be roughly the English "Rocky": Peter is rocky, and on this rock Jesus will build his church (16:18). Scholars have debated precisely what Jesus means by rock. Protestants, following Augustine and Luther, have sometimes contended that the rock in this passage is only Jesus himself (references in Cullmann 1953:162 n. 13). But by Jesus' day the Greek terms petros (Peter) and petra (rock) were interchangeable, and the original Aramaic form of Peter's nickname that Jesus probably used (k h phas) means simply "rock" (Cullmann 1953:18-19; Ladd 1974b:110; Carson 1984:368; France 1985:254; Blomberg 1992:252).

Further, Jesus does not say, "You are Peter, �but on this rock I will build my church"; he says, �And on this rock I will build my church. Jesus' teaching is the ultimate foundation for our lives (7:24-27; compare 1 Cor 3:11), but here Peter functions as the foundation rock like the apostles and prophets in Ephesians 2:20-21. Jesus does not simply assign this role to Peter arbitrarily, however; Peter is the "rock" because in this context he is the one who confesses Jesus as the Christ (Mt 16:15-16; Cullmann 1953:162; Ladd 1974b:110; C. Brown 1978:386). Others who share his proclamation also share his authority in building the church (18:18 with 16:19).

The Community Built on This Foundation Will Prevail (16:18)

Ancient teachers from Greek philosophers to Qumran's founding teacher established communities of followers to perpetuate their teachings (as in Culpepper 1975:123; compare Albright and Mann 1971:195; Flusser 1988:35). The Qumran community described themselves as the qahal, the Hebrew word for God's congregation in the exodus narrative, which the Greek versions sometimes translate as ekkl h sia or "church." Jesus thus depicts his followers, his church, as the true, faithful remnant of God's people in continuity with the Old Testament covenant community (Ridderbos 1975:328; F. Bruce 1963:84). What marked it as new, however, was Jesus' specific designation "my community" (Ladd 1974b:110; France 1985:255).

Biblical tradition had often spoken of "building up" the community of God (as in Ps 51:18; 69:35; Jer 24:6; 31:4, 28). The gates of Hades is a familiar Semitic expression for the threshold of the realm of death. The words used here suggest that death itself assaults Christ's church, but death cannot crush us (Ladd 1974b:116). The church will endure until Christ's return, and no opposition, even widespread martyrdom of Christians or the oppression of the final antichrist (compare Jeremias 1968:927), can prevent the ultimate triumph of God's purposes in history.

Jesus Authorizes His Agents to Admit People to the Kingdom (16:19)

The authority belongs not only to Peter (v. 19) but to all who share his proclamation of Jesus' identity (18:18). The realm of heaven here contrasts strikingly with the powers of Hades, or "Sheol," the realm of the dead thought to lie beneath the earth (16:18; compare Heb 2:14; Rev 1:18). Keys opened locked doors or gates, but the carrying of keys especially symbolized the authority of the person who bore them. One who carried keys to a royal palace was the majordomo, as in Isaiah 22:22 and Revelation 3:7. Supervisors held the keys to the temple courts among Jesus' contemporaries (as in ARN 7, 21B), and in Jewish lore prominent angels carried certain keys (for example, 3 Baruch 1:2; compare b. Ta`anit 2a).

Whether Peter thus acts as "prime minister" for the kingdom (see Brown, Donfried and Reumann 1973:96-97) or perhaps as a "chief rabbi" making halakhic rulings based on Jesus' teachings (Meier in Brown and Meier 1983:67), he clearly acts with enough delegated authority (compare Acts 10:44; Gal 2:7). Whereas Israel's religious elite was shutting people out of the kingdom (23:13; compare Lk 11:52), those who confessed Jesus' identity along with Peter were authorized to usher people into God's kingdom.

Scholars have proposed many interpretations of "binding and loosing," but in Jewish texts these terms ('asar and hittir or sera') could refer to authority to interpret the law, hence to evaluate individuals' fidelity to the law as in 18:18 (see comment there). In this context, however, the nuance may be somewhat different from 18:18: Peter and those who share his role (others share it in 18:18) evaluate not those who are in the community, but those who would enter it (10:14-15, 40; this is a role assigned to overseers in the Qumran community-compare 1QS 5.20-21; 6:13-14). In both functions-evaluating entrants and evaluating those already within the church-God's people must evaluate on the authority of the heavenly court. The verb tenses allow (and according to some scholars even suggest) that they merely ratify the heavenly decree (see comment on 18:18; compare Mantey 1973 and 1981; Keener 1987).

Peter must thus accept into the church only those who share his confession of Jesus' true identity (16:16). Of course the church should emulate Jesus' practice of welcoming the unconverted (9:10), but this is not the same as acting as if all comers were true disciples of Christ regardless of their commitment. Today some churches both admit into membership the unconverted and fail to take the message of Jesus' identity to the unconverted outside their walls. The danger of building a church on those not committed to Christ's agendas is that in time the church will reflect more of the world's values than Christ's; this was one way some originally abolitionist churches compromised with the slave trade (Usry and Keener 1996:102-5).

Jesus Admonishes the Disciples Not to Reveal His Identity (16:20)

The context suggests why Jesus admonished his disciples to keep his identity secret. Until after the resurrection (17:9) the disciples were unprepared to understand the cross; and apart from the cross they could not understand the real nature of Jesus' messianic mission (16:21-28).

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