Matthew 16.13-28 | Pentecost 12

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed[c] in heaven.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. [ 21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. 22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” 23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” 24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. 28 “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”]

The Gospel of the Lord

Names and name changing are all the rage these days. Not to offend – too much – and in the spirit of political incorrectness here’s my examples from sports. I have micro-aggression about references to Native Americans and persons of color. Let’s ditch Washington Redskins (done), but what about Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians, Cleveland Browns. Obviously, Carolina Panthers were named for the 60’s Oakland, CA militants. New York Yankees offend the South. Do we have a Confederate team name? No! Well. I’m offended by the preference for Roman Catholics over Protestants: New Orleans Saints, San Diego Padres. Then there are team names that glorify toxic male aggression: Oakland Raiders, Minnesota Vikings, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Pittsburgh Pirates! Finally, what about those teams that clearly send the wrong message to our children. The San Diego Chargers promote irresponsible spending habits and long term debt. New York Giants and San Francisco Giants promote a growing childhood epidemic – obesity. Cincinnati Reds promote drug addiction. Milwaukee Brewers. Wrong message to our children.

As my clumsy raid on political incorrectness demonstrates the point isn’t to focus on the name. It’s about the underlying issues. And that’s the point in our Gospel lesson this morning. Our sustained immersion into Matthew in year A brings us this morning to one of the additional episodes giving this Gospel an intensity and power not found in the others. Vs. 17-20 is that well known addition: Peter’s naming play on words. But it’s a matter of narrative context. If we only consider the lectionary’s surgical cut, vs. 13-20 then we will miss the naming interplay in the wider narrative. And that’s why you’ll notice the reading is, 16.13-28, to widen the episode’s theological  boundary. Matthew’s 4th teaching section, ch. 13.54-18.36, narrates pivotal, climactic events in Jesus’ Galilean ministry as he turns toward Jerusalem and the cross. In previous scenes through Jesus’ teaching and healing Matthew prompts disciples, crowds and us to form opinions about this one called the Son of Man. In this 4th section as Jesus interacts with the disciples, ordinary folk and the religious leaders, Matthew condenses and compresses the issues of faith, discipleship, leadership and ministry. Why? Well, the Jewish-Chrisitan community to which and for which Matthew was writing needed to know that their ministry authority had a divine foundation. But they were still vulnerable to missteps. Discipleship and leadership are sometimes “rocky”. Disciples and leaders have their ups and downs. It’s part of discipleship, leadership. 

In the first scene,16.13-20, Matthew has Jesus question all the disciples. The effect is to show us that they are engaged in the hustle/bustle around Caesarea Philippi. They’re tracking with the events and listening to the various conversations. Initially he asks them “what’s the buzz about me, the son of man? (vs. 13-14). 

In answering, the disciples name only positive opinions, like Israel’s prophet Elijah, who did miraculous deeds, who stood toe-to-toe with kings.  For these folk, even the Baptizer, who stood toe to toe with Herod Antipas, was a prophet (Mt. 11.14). Previewing the second scene (vs. 21ff), it is Matthew who inserts Jeremiah, the rejected, suffering prophet, the intercessor for Israel (2 Macc. 15.12-16). Jesus says, “OK, that’s the talk at the village gate and the synagogue, but what do you think? Surely you can do better than this. You’re close to me”. Jesus is asking for an account of what they’ve said, not an answer to a pop quiz. 

Matthew’s Peter has multiple roles: as an individual, as a stand-in for the 12 and as a representative of a wider Jewish-Christian community.  He is an example of Jewish “corporate solidarity” in which a leader represents a group, e.g., the king or high priest representing Israel before YHWH. So we’re not surprised when he takes the lead and speaks up.

The NT’s Peter has multiple names. In the 4th Gospel Jesus initially knew Peter as Simon Cephas. Simon, Hebrew after the patriarchal ancestor, and Cephas, Aramaic for “rock”  (Jn 1.35-42). Eventually the name Peter, Greek for “rock,” ( Mt 10.2) was used routinely by all Gospel writers. Notice Matthew uses the full name Simon Peter (vs. 16) just before Jesus uses the full name Simon Jonahsson (he fishes in Norway in the off season!) (vs. 17). The double name signals to us the seriousness, the gravity developing in the dialog. 

Peter identifies Jesus as “Messiah, son of the living God” but the more nuanced meaning has yet to be revealed in the second scene (vs.21ff). It is one thing to perceive a messianic identity. It is quite another matter to know precisely how it will be lived out. In our lesson, Jesus makes it clear that the prompt for Peter to identify him and his mission was of divine origin. This prompts Jesus to create a word play about Peter’s identity and mission. It sounds like this “You Petros – rock are petra – rock and on this petra – rock, Petros – rock,  I will assemble my assembly” (vs. 18a). The off the top reading of the word play is that “rock” refers to Peter himself. Peter is the person who steps forward, the corporate solidarity representative, confessing a profound identity of Jesus. Upon this “Peter”, Jesus will build his congregation. Continuing the rock metaphor, Peter becomes the first foundation rock upon which Messiah, the chief cornerstone, will build (see Eph. 2:19-20). So Peter has a foundational role. This is recorded quite effectively in Luke’s second vol. where Peter is the initial preacher about Jesus’ accomplishments to Jewish and almost Jewish folk (ch 2), to Samaritans (ch. 8) and Gentiles proper (ch 10). Here is what we can say with reasonable confidence from the NT writings – Peter had a prominent position among the 12 and after the ascension he was a prominent leader in the Jerusalem community during its earliest years (Gal 2) and was also a prominent leader in the Jewish-Christian mission.  Peter is given recognition for being the receiver of revelation but he is still only one “rock” among many. 

But there is a word play here. Word plays are always slippery.  Community and kingdom are bound in Matthew’s conception of Jesus’ mission. The necessity of something unified – a rock – in the newly forming community involves wider recognition. So Jesus begins outlining the authority for the last days messianic congregation. Only after the resurrection/ascension will the community be fully formed, sent on its mission and death’s grip be broken. The “gates of hades” was a common euphemism for death. It’s gripping power.  I realize we often take this to mean that death cannot assault the church.  Gates, however, in the ANE are defensive, protective when closed.  So what Jesus’ resurrection/ascension means here is: the locks on death’s gates have been picked. The gates have been flung open and the Son of the Living God has rushed in to liberate captives. Where once there was the fear of death, there is now life – triumphant resurrection life.

So confessing Jesus as Messiah, son of the living God, not only changes names. It is a world-changing reality. A synchronicity has formed between what happens on earth and what happens in the Lord’s presence. “Keys” and “Binding what has already been bound” and “untying what has already been loosed” in a Jewish context refers to Wisdom’s guidance in discerning the effectiveness in instructing, passing on, interpreting Jesus’ teachings in the congregation. Peter is a “key holder” (Mk 13:34) but he is neither “master” nor “Father” (cf. a close reading of Isa. 22; also Mt 23:9). Staying in my lane, speaking as a licensed contractor, I consider Peter’s role foundational. In a construction project, a foundation is laid down one time and once the forms are removed and the building is constructed it is no longer seen. So I suggest, as a licensed contractor, that Peter’s role is the foundation’s concrete rock pour, so to speak. And staying with the building imagery, keys are to lock and unlock a building property. Once the certificate of occupancy door is unlocked there is no need to keep keys (vs. 19). It’s up to the new tenants.  At the tip of Matthew’s stylus, Peter is disciple, spokesman for the disciples and an integral person to the development and formation of Jesus’ last days community. 

In the second scene, 16.21-28 Matthew again shows us the disciples are engaged with Jesus’ conversations. His ministry is swinging around toward Jerusalem. So He begins to speak about the road ahead “I must go to Jerusalem and suffer much from the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law. I will be put to death, but three days later I will be raised to life” (vs. 21).

A little further in the narrative vs. 24 “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”. Followed by the famous paradox vs. 25  “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it”. The high point of acknowledging Jesus as Messiah (vs. 16) is now muddied by his talk of dying – everybody dying. Matthew has arranged this scene to follow the previous one in order to shatter any imagined messianic triumph with the difficult path that lies ahead. The disciples fail to perceive any way YHWH’s will could be accomplished by death. For Peter it doesn’t fit easily with his revelation – mysterious, clouded, even contradictory. So great is his astonishment, he recoils rebuking Jesus “May YHWH prevent this from happening” Like a lightning bolt, Jesus rejects Peter’s refusal to accept his understanding with the same forcefulness he had to use in the Wilderness test in ch. 4 (vs. 1-11) “Get back, who appointed you, my adversarial opponent Satan”? This time there was no divine, no revealing prompt from the Father or if there was – he didn’t hear it.

As I’ve noted word plays are always slippery. So Matthew tempers Peter’s dependable role in the first “rock” word play (vs. 18a) with a rock slide. Jesus’  “you’re a stumbling block” can be translated as “stones “(vs. 23). Peter has become loose, slippery gravel on the road to the cross. Whatever the merits of Peter’s revelation – and there are many- vs. 21ff makes clear it is incomplete without consideration of the Son of Man’s, the Son of the living God’s suffering, death and resurrection. Notice the naming set up in the puzzling “son of man” questions (vs. 13-14) has now arched over to scene closing naming – the “ son of man coming as judge” (vs. 28).  But note carefully it is the “suffering Jesus” (vs. 21) that is the linchpin between the Messianic son of man (vs. 13, 16) and the reigning monarch (vs. 28). Messiah was a nationalistic term implying making Israel great again – economically, politically, militarily. Messiah was David’s anointed heir. But this Jesus, this ”son of man” is not a new, improved David, a more powerful political, military king. No, this messianic son of man is the “son of the living God”  “Living” is applied only to YHWH in Israel. Only YHWH has life in and of himself (Ex. 3.14-16). This “son” stands with, shares “living” so completely that in his suffering, death and resurrection he can assure the congregation he is organizing that even death will be pushed back (vs. 18b)

“If anyone wants to follow me….” Jesus wants complete allegiance, loyalty to his kingdom (vs. 24-26).  Disciples must give themselves up, dying to a self-directing life. No more “What’s in it for me? I’ll do it if it doesn’t interfere with family or my own interests” All self-interested paths are to be closed off. The gate to a cross kind of discipleship opens to a narrow path.  

The two questions that Jesus poses  – “Who do people say I am?” and “Who do you say I am?” are questions that everyone who would be a disciple has to face at some time in their lives. They are questions that we have to keep returning to as we learn more – and change throughout the course of our lives. Matthew’s point for disciples: they/ you/I should be teachable, that is, open to a divine prompt, a new direction, a new instruction, and correction – sometimes. This episode shows every disciple that Peter and the others are wrapped up in limitations and understanding, which in itself is not a negative thing, just a normal thing, a disciple thing.

Like Peter and the others, we still hear all sorts of things about Jesus. Eventually, everyone will have to decide what they believe. Biblical faith involves getting things right about him. Certainly things change and grow as we change and grow – indeed, they should. Biblical faith begins, however, by confessing Jesus as the “son of man, the messiah, the son of the living God, who was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate; who suffered death and was buried: who on the third day rose again according to the Scriptures: who ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father: who will come again in glory, to judge both the living and the dead; and whose kingdom will have no end. That is solid rock! Anything else is a millstone that drowns you or grinds you to powder. Who do you say Jesus is?

May the Lord richly bless your confession, my beloved.

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