Monday, August 15, 2011

Matthew 16:13–20

Matthew 16:13–20 (ESV): Peter Confesses Jesus as the Christ


This passage starts off with Jesus asking his disciples who people say that he is. They respond by listing some of the ideas that people have about him: John the Baptist; Elijah; Jeremiah or one of the prophets. He then follows up with another question: so who do the disciples think that Jesus is? Peter answers, and his response is famous (in Christian circles):

Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (verse 16 (ESV))
Jesus is very pleased by Peter’s answer, and tells him so:

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. 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. 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 in heaven.” (verses 17–19 (ESV))
The passage ends with Jesus commanding the disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Christ.


This is a very interesting passage, and (in my mind at least) inextricably linked with the next passage in verses 21–23 (ESV) when Jesus rebukes Peter. Jesus starts in a roundabout way, by asking the disciples what others think of him before asking them what they think of him, showing the contrast between the confused opinions of the masses and the… slightly less confused opinions of the disciples.

I guess I should point out, for those who haven’t read this over and over again, that the word “Christ” means “Messiah” or “Anointed One.” (I’m not a biblical scholar, and don’t know ancient Greek, but I think we could also use the word “saviour.”) The disciples didn’t fully understand Jesus’ role—like most other people of their day they probably expected a political saviour; someone who would save the Jews from the Romans and become their new king, like King David—but they did understand that he was the one prophesied in the Old Testament. And they did understand that he is the ‘Son of the living God” (verse 16 (ESV)), so they know that he’s more than just a human man.

We should note that Jesus isn’t, strictly speaking, praising Peter for his response, so much as he’s joyously calling out the fact that God the Father has revealed this truth to him. Notice that he doesn’t say “good work, Peter!” he tells Peter that he’s blessed. God has given this knowledge to Peter, for which Jesus is rejoicing.

Now… I never really read much into this, until reading the ESV Study Bible notes, but apparently verse 18 (ESV) is “one of the most controversial and debated passages in all of Scripture.” Let’s look at it again:

“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.”
The reason for the controversy is the difference in interpretation between Catholics and Protestants; Catholics say that this verse indicates that Peter was the first pope. Protestants, of course, don’t believe in popes, so obviously they would disagree with that assertion. I don’t have the learning or the knowledge to argue for or against this position; however, the ESV Study Bible notes do point out some interesting facts:

… Protestants generally have thought that it refers to Peter in his role of confessing Jesus as the Messiah, and that the other disciples would share in that role as they made a similar confession (see Eph. 2:20 (ESV), where the church is built on all the apostles; cf. Rev. 21:14 (ESV)). Jesus’ statement did not mean that Peter would have greater authority than the other apostles (indeed, Paul corrects him publicly in Gal. 2:11–14 (ESV)), nor did it mean that he would be infallible in his teaching (Jesus rebukes him in Matt. 16:23 (ESV)), nor did it imply anything about a special office for Peter or successors to such an office. Certainly in the first half of Acts Peter appears as the spokesman and leader of the Jerusalem church, but he is still “sent” by other apostles to Samaria (Acts 8:14 (ESV)), and he has to give an account of his actions to the Jerusalem church (Acts 11:1–18 (ESV)). Peter is presented as having only one voice at the Jerusalem council, and James has the decisive final word (Acts 15:7–21 (ESV)). And, though Peter certainly has a central role in the establishment of the church, he disappears from the Acts narrative after Acts 16 (ESV). … (Part of the ESV Study Bible note on verse 18, emphasis in the original, with links to Bible verses (on Bible Gateway) added.)
The author of this note is giving the Protestant view, and then using the examples quoted from Scripture to show that in the early Church Peter didn’t seem to have any greater authority than the other Apostles.

I’m guessing that the idea of Saint Peter standing at the “pearly gates,” granting people admission into Heaven, probably comes from Jesus telling Peter in verse 19 (ESV) that he is giving him the “keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Of course I think this is much too literal of an interpretation of Jesus’ words to Peter; that decision—as to who “gets in” and who doesn’t—belongs to God the Father, and Him alone. (I suppose that’s why Saint Peter is always pictured as checking in a book, to see who is allowed in; I guess God would have written the names in that book, and Peter is simply informing people what God has already decided.) Although I think this notion of Peter standing at the gate as a heavenly bouncer is nonsense, that doesn’t mean I properly understand what Jesus is saying to Peter; the ESV Study Bible talks of Peter being given the authority to admit entrance through the preaching of the Gospel, and then goes on to say that this same authority is granted to anyone who preaches the Gospel (not just Peter), but to me that seems like a bit of a stretch of Jesus’ words. In this passage Jesus is talking to Peter, and there seems to be a specific meaning for him. It seems to me that Jesus is talking about the leadership role that Peter will take in giving the Gospel to people in the beginning days of the Church; not in a pope-like role, as the Catholics believe—the passages mentioned above show Peter having now more authoritative role than the other Apostles—but in the sense that he seems to lead the way. And he definitely does seem to be the boldest proclaimer of the Gospel in the early chapters of the book of Acts, at least until the focus is shifted to Paul.

Finally, at the end of the passage Jesus commands his disciples not to tell anyone that he’s the Christ. That always confused me, in my early days as a Christian; wasn’t the whole point of Jesus coming to the world to tell everyone that he was the Christ?!? Why is he hiding it? I mentioned above that the disciples were probably confused about the actual role of the Christ/Messiah/Anointed One, and were probably expecting more of a political saviour than a spiritual one, and if they were confused the general public would definitely be confused; the ESV Study Bible points out that Jesus was probably thinking of this confusion of the role of the Christ when he told the disciples not to tell anyone. Why confuse the situation with people thinking that Jesus was going to claim the throne of Israel, which would muddy the spiritual message(s) he was trying to convey? Added to this, I think it also simply wasn’t yet time for Jesus to go to the cross. There are numerous passages in the Gospels where Jesus tells his disciples that it’s not yet his time, and I’m thinking this might be another instance of that.

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