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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
Matthew 16

 

 

Verses 1-28

Chapter 16

BLIND TO THE SIGNS (Matthew 16:1-4)

16:1-4 The Pharisees and Sadducees came to him, trying to put him to the test, and asked him to show them a sign from Heaven. He answered them: "When evening comes, you say, 'It will be fine weather, because the sky is red.' And early in the morning you say, 'It will be stormy today, because the sky is red and threatening.' You know how to discern the face of the sky, but you cannot discern the signs of the times. An evil and apostate generation seeks for a sign. No sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah." And he left them and went away.

Hostility, like necessity, makes strange bedfellows. It is an extraordinary phenomenon to find a combination of the Pharisees and Sadducees. They stood for both beliefs and policies which were diametrically opposed. The Pharisees lived life according to the minutiae of the oral and the scribal law; the Sadducees rejected the oral and the scribal law completely, and accepted only the written words of the Bible as their law of life. The Pharisees believed in angels and in the resurrection of the body and the Sadducees did not, an opposition which Paul made use of when he was on trial before the Sanhedrin (Acts 23:6-10 http://www.crossbooks.com/verse.asp?ref=Ac+23%3A6-10). And--in this case most important of all--the Pharisees were not a political party and were prepared to live under any government which would allow them to observe their own religious principles; the Sadducees were the small, wealthy aristocracy, who were the collaborationist party and were quite prepared to serve and cooperate with the Roman government, in order to retain their wealth and their privileges. Further, the Pharisees looked for and longed for the Messiah; the Sadducees did not. It would have been well-nigh impossible to find two more different sects and parties; and yet they came together in their envenomed desire to eliminate Jesus. All error has this in common--that it is hostile to Christ.

The demand of the Pharisees and the Sadducees was for a sign. As we have already seen, the Jews had a way of wishing a prophet or a leader to authenticate his message by some abnormal and extraordinary sign (Matthew 12:38-40 http://www.crossbooks.com/verse.asp?ref=Mt+12%3A38-40). It is Jesus' reply that the sign was there, if they could only see it. They were weather-wise. They knew the same weather saying that we ourselves know:

"A red sky at night is the shepherd's delight;

A red sky in the morning is the shepherd's warning."

They knew very well that a red sky in the evening presaged fine weather; and that a red sky in the morning was the warning of a storm to come. But they were blind to the signs of the times.

Jesus told them that the only sign they would receive was the sign of Jonah. We have already seen what the sign of Jonah was (Matthew 12:38-40). Jonah was the prophet who converted the people of Nineveh and turned them from their evil ways towards God. Now the sign which turned the people of Nineveh to God was not the fact that Jonah was swallowed by the great sea monster. Of that they knew nothing; and Jonah never used it as a means of appeal. The sign of Jonah was Jonah himself and his message from God. It was the emergence of the prophet and the message which he brought which changed life for the people of Nineveh.

So what Jesus is saying is that God's sign is Jesus himself and his message. It is as if he said to them: "In me you are confronted with God and with the truth of God. What more could you possibly need? But you are so blind that you cannot see it." There is truth and there is warning here. Jesus Christ is God's last word. Beyond him the revelation of God cannot go. Here is God plain for all to see. Here is God's message plain for all to hear. Here is God's sign to man. It is the warning truth that, if Jesus cannot appeal to men, nothing can. If Jesus cannot convince men, no one can. If men cannot see God in Jesus, they cannot see God in anything or anyone. When we are confronted with Jesus Christ, we are confronted with God's final word and God's ultimate appeal. If that is so, what can be left for the man who throws away that last chance, who refuses to listen to that last word, who rejects that last appeal?

THE DANGEROUS LEAVEN (Matthew 16:5-12)

16:5-12 When the disciples came to the other side, they had forgotten to take loaves with them. Jesus said to them, "See that you beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees." They argued amongst themselves: "He must be saying this because we did not bring loaves." Jesus knew what they were thinking. "Why," he said, "are you arguing among yourselves, you of little faith, because you have no loaves? Do you not yet understand, and do you not remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets you took up? And do you not remember the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many hampers you took up? How is it that you do not understand that it was not about loaves that I spoke to you? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees!" Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven that is in loaves, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

We are presented here with a passage of very great difficulty. In fact, we can only guess at its meaning.

Jesus and his disciples had set out for the other side of the lake and the disciples had forgotten to take any bread with them. For some reason they were quite disproportionately worried and disturbed by this omission. Jesus said to them: "See that you beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees." Now the word leaven has two meanings. It has its physical and literal meaning, a little piece of fermented dough, without which bread cannot be baked. It was in that sense that the disciples understood Jesus to speak about leaven. With their minds fixed on the forgotten loaves, all that they could think of was that he was warning them against a certain kind of dangerous leaven. They had forgotten to bring bread which meant that, if they were to obtain any, they must buy it from the Gentiles on the other side of the lake. Now no Jew who was strictly orthodox could eat any bread which had been baked or handled by a Gentile. Therefore the problem of getting bread on the other side of the lake was insoluble. The disciples may well have thought that Jesus was saying, "You have forgotten the bread which is clean; take care when you get to the other side of the lake that you do not pollute yourselves by buying bread with defiling leaven in it."

The disciples' minds were running on nothing but bread. So Jesus asked them to remember. "Remember," he said, "the feeding of the five thousand and of the four thousand; and remember the plenty there was to eat, and the abundance which was left over. And when you remember these things, surely you will stop fussing about trifles. You have surely seen that in my presence these trifling problems have already been solved and can be solved again. Stop worrying and trust me."

That was put so bluntly and so clearly that the disciples were bound to understand. Then Jesus repeated his warning: "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees!" Leaven has a second meaning which is metaphorical and not literal and physical. It was the Jewish metaphorical expression for an evil influence. To the Jewish mind leaven was always symbolic of evil. It is fermented dough; the Jew identified fermentation with putrefaction; leaven stood for all that was rotten and bad. Leaven has the power to permeate any mass of dough into which it is inserted. Therefore leaven stood for an evil influence liable to spread through life and to corrupt it.

Now the disciples understood. They knew that Jesus was not talking about bread at all; but he was warning them against the evil influence of the teaching and the beliefs of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

What would be in Jesus' mind when he warned against the evil influence of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees? That is something which we can only surmise; but we do know the characteristics of the minds of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

(i) The Pharisees saw religion in terms of laws and commandments and rules and regulations. They saw religion in terms of outward ritual and outward purity. So Jesus is saying, "Take care lest you make your religion a series of 'thou shalt nots' in the way the Pharisees do. Take care that you do not identify religion with a series of outward actions, and forget that what matters is the state of a man's heart." This is a warning against living in legalism and caning it religion; it is a warning against a religion which looks on a man's outward actions and forgets the inner state of his heart.

(ii) The Sadducees had two characteristics, which were closely connected. They were wealthy and aristocratic, and they were deeply involved in politics. So Jesus may well have been saying, "Take care that you never identify the kingdom of heaven with outward goods, and that you never pin your hopes of bringing it in to political action." This may well be a warning against giving material things too high a place in our scheme of values and against thinking that men can be reformed by political action. Jesus may well have been reminding men that material prosperity is far from being the highest good, and that political action is far from producing the most important results. The true blessings are the blessings of the heart; and the true change is not the change of outward circumstances but the change of the hearts of men.

THE SCENE OF THE GREAT DISCOVERY (Matthew 16:13-16)

16:13-16 When Jesus had come into the districts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do men say that the Son of Man is?" They said, "Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, others Jeremiah, or one of the prophets." He said to them, "And you--who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Anointed One, the Son of the living God."

Here we have the story of another withdrawal which Jesus made. The end was coming very near and Jesus needed all the time alone with his disciples that he could gain. He had so much to say to them and so much to teach them, although there were many things which then they could not bear and could not understand.

To that end he withdrew to the districts of Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi lies about twenty-five miles north-east of the Sea of Galilee. It was outside the domain of Herod Antipas, who was the ruler of Galilee, and within the area of Philip the Tetrarch. The population was mainly non-Jewish, and there Jesus would have peace to teach the Twelve.

Confronting Jesus at this time was one clamant and demanding problem. His time was short; his days in the flesh were numbered. The problem was--was there anyone who understood him? Was there anyone who had recognized him for who and what he was? Were there any who, when he was gone from the flesh, would carry on his work, and labour for his kingdom? Obviously that was a crucial problem, for it involved the very survival of the Christian faith. If there were none who had grasped the truth, or even glimpsed it, then all his work was undone; if there were some few who realized the truth, his work was safe. So Jesus was determined to put all to the test and ask his followers who they believed him to be.

It is of the most dramatic interest to see where Jesus chose to ask this question. There can have been few districts with more religious associations than Caesarea Philippi.

(i) The area was scattered with temples of the ancient Syrian Baal worship. Thomson in The Land and the Book enumerates no fewer than fourteen such temples in the near neighbourhood. Here was an area where the breath of ancient religion was in the very atmosphere. Here was a place beneath the shadow of the ancient gods.

(ii) Not only the Syrian gods had their worship here. Hard by Caesarea Philippi there rose a great hill, in which was a deep cavern; and that cavern was said to be the birthplace of the great god Pan, the god of nature. So much was Caesarea Philippi identified with that god that its original name was Panias, and to this day the place is known as Banias. The legends of the gods of Greece gathered around Caesarea Philippi.

(iii) Further, that cave was said to be the place where the sources of the Jordan sprang to life. Josephus writes: "This is a very fine cave in a mountain, under which there is a great cavity in the earth; and the cavern is abrupt, and prodigiously deep, and full of still water. Over it hangs a vast mountain, and under the cavern arise the springs of the River Jordan." The very idea that this was the place where the River Jordan took its rise would make it redolent of all the memories of Jewish history. The ancient faith of Judaism would be in the air for anyone who was a devout and pious Jew.

(iv) But there was something more. In Caesarea Philippi there was a great temple of white marble built to the godhead of Caesar. It had been built by Herod the Great. Josephus says: "Herod adorned the place, which was already a very remarkable one, still further by the erection of this temple, which he dedicated to Caesar." In another place Josephus describes the cave and the temple: "And when Caesar had further bestowed on Herod another country, he built there also a temple of white marble, hard by the fountains of Jordan. The place is called Panium, where there is the top of a mountain which is raised to an immense height, and at its side, beneath, or at its bottom, a dark cave opens itself; within which there is a horrible precipice that descends abruptly to a vast depth. It contains a mighty quantity of water, which is immovable; and when anyone lets down anything to measure the depth of the earth beneath the water, no length of cord is sufficient to reach it." Later it was Philip, Herod's son, who further beautified and enriched the temple, changed the name of Panias to Caesarea--Caesar's town--and added his own name--Philippi, which means of Philip--to distinguish it from the Caesarea on the coasts of the Mediterranean. Still later, Herod Agrippa was to call the place Neroneas in honour of the Emperor Nero. No one could look at Caesarea Philippi, even from the distance, without seeing that pile of glistening marble, and thinking of the might and of the divinity of Rome.

Here indeed is a dramatic picture. Here is a homeless, penniless Galilaean carpenter, with twelve very ordinary men around him. At the moment the orthodox are actually plotting and planning to destroy him as a dangerous heretic. He stands in an area littered with the temples of the Syrian gods; in a place where the ancient Greek gods looked down; in a place where the history of Israel crowded in upon the minds of men; where the white marble splendour of the home of Caesar--worship dominated the landscape and compelled the eye. And there--of all places--this amazing carpenter stands and asks men who they believe him to be, and expects the answer, The Son of God. It is as if Jesus deliberately set himself against the background of the world's religions in all their history and their splendour, and demanded to be compared with them and to have the verdict given in his favour. There are few scenes where Jesus' consciousness of his own divinity shines out with a more dazzling light.

THE INADEQUACY OF HUMAN CATEGORIES (Matthew 16:13-16 continued)

So then at Caesarea Philippi Jesus determined to demand a verdict from his disciples. He must know before he set out from Jerusalem and the Cross if anyone had even dimly grasped who and what he was. He did not ask the question directly; he led up to it. He began by asking what people were saying about him, and who they took him to be.

Some said that he was John the Baptist. Herod Antipas was not the only man who felt that John the Baptist was so great a figure that it might well be that he had come back from the dead.

Others said that he was Elijah. In doing so, they were saying two things about Jesus. They were saying that he was as great as the greatest of the prophets, for Elijah had always been looked on as the summit and the prince of the prophetic line. They were also saying that Jesus was the forerunner of the Messiah. As Malachi had it, the promise of God was: "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes" (Malachi 4:5). To this day the Jews expect the return of Elijah before the coming of the Messiah, and to this day they leave a chair vacant for Elijah when they celebrate the Passover, for when Elijah comes, the Messiah will not be far away. So the people looked on Jesus as the herald of the Messiah and the forerunner of the direct intervention of God.

Some said that Jesus was Jeremiah. Jeremiah had a curious place in the expectations of the people of Israel. It was believed that, before the people went into exile, Jeremiah had taken the ark and the altar of incense out of the Temple, and hidden them away in a lonely cave on Mount Nebo; and that, before the coming of the Messiah, he would return and produce them, and the glory of God would come to the people again (2 Maccabees 2:1-12). In 2 Esdras 2:18 the promise of God is: "For thy help I will send my servants Isaiah and Jeremiah."

There is a strange legend of the days of the Maccabaean wars. Before the battle with Nicanor, in which the Jewish commander was the great Judas Maccabaeus, Onias, the good man who had been high priest, had a vision. He prayed for victory in the battle. "This done, in like manner there appeared a man with grey hairs, and exceeding glorious, who was of a wonderful and excellent majesty. Then Onias answered saying: 'This is a lover of the brethren, who prayeth much for the people, and for the holy city, to wit, Jeremiah, the prophet of God.' Whereupon Jeremiah, holding forth his right hand, gave to Judas a sword of gold, and, in giving it to him, spake thus: 'Take this holy sword, a gift from God, with which thou shalt wound the adversaries of my people Israel'" (2 Maccabees 15:1-14). Jeremiah also was to be the forerunner of the coming of the Messiah, and his country's help in time of trouble.

When the people identified Jesus with Elijah and with Jeremiah they were, according to their lights, paying him a great compliment and setting him in a high place, for Jeremiah and Elijah were none other than the expected forerunners of the Anointed One of God. When they arrived, the Kingdom would be very near indeed.

When Jesus had heard the verdicts of the crowd, he asked the all-important question: "And you--who do you say I am?" At that question there may well have been a moment's silence, while into the minds of the disciples came thoughts which they were almost afraid to express in words; and then Peter made his great discovery and his great confession; and Jesus knew that his work was safe because there was at least someone who understood.

It is interesting to note that each of the three gospels has its own version of the saying of Peter. Matthew has:

You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.

Mark is briefest of all (Mark 8:29):

You are the Christ.

Luke is clearest of all (Luke 9:20):

You are the Christ of God.

Jesus knew now that there was at least someone who had recognized him for the Messiah, the Anointed One of God, the Son of the living God. The word Messiah and the word Christ are the same; the one is the Hebrew and the other is the Greek for The Anointed One. Kings were ordained to office by anointing, as they still are. The Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One is God's King over men.

Within this passage there are two great truths.

(i) Essentially Peter's discovery was that human categories, even the highest, are inadequate to describe Jesus Christ. When the people described Jesus as. Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets they thought they were setting Jesus in the highest category they could find. It was the belief of the Jews that for four hundred years the voice of prophecy had been silent; and they were saying that in Jesus men heard again the direct and authentic voice of God. These were great tributes; but they were not great enough; for there are no human categories which are adequate to describe Jesus Christ.

Once Napoleon gave his verdict on Jesus. "I know men," he said, "and Jesus Christ is more than a man." Doubtless Peter could not have given a theological account and a philosophic expression of what he meant when he said that Jesus was the Son of the living God; the one thing of which Peter was quite certain was that no merely human description was adequate to describe him.

(ii) This passage teaches that our discovery of Jesus Christ must be a personal discovery. Jesus' question is: "You--what do you think of me?" When Pilate asked him if he was the king of the Jews, his answer was: "Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?" (John 18:33-34).

Our knowledge of Jesus must never be at second hand. A man might know every verdict ever passed on Jesus; he might know every Christology that the mind of man had ever thought out; he might be able to give a competent summary of the teaching about Jesus of every great thinker and theologian--and still not be a Christian. Christianity never consists in knowing about Jesus; it always consists in knowing Jesus. Jesus Christ demands a personal verdict. He did not ask only Peter, he asks every man: "You--what do you think of me?"

THE GREAT PROMISE (Matthew 16:17-19)

16:17-19 Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, because flesh and blood has not revealed this unto you, but my Father who is in Heaven. And I tell you, that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven; and whatever you bind on earth will remain bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth will remain loosed in heaven."

This passage is one of the storm-centres of New Testament interpretation. It has always been difficult to approach it calmly and without prejudice, for it is the Roman Catholic foundation of the position of the Pope and of the Church. It is taken by the Roman Catholic Church to mean that to Peter were given the keys which admit or exclude a man from heaven, and that to Peter was given the power to absolve or not to absolve a man from his sins. It is further argued by the Roman Catholic Church that Peter, with these tremendous rights, became the bishop of Rome; and that this power descended to all the bishops of Rome; and that it exists today in the Pope, who is the head of the Church and the Bishop of Rome.

It is easy to see how impossible any such doctrine is for a Protestant believer; and it is also easy to see how Protestant and Roman Catholic alike may approach this passage, not with the single-hearted desire to discover its meaning, but with the determination to yield nothing of his own position, and, if possible, to destroy the position of the other. Let us then try to find its true meaning.

There is a play on words. In Greek Peter is Petros (Greek #4074) and a rock is petra (Greek #4073). Peter's Aramaic name was Kephas (Hebrew #3710), and that also is the Aramaic for a rock. In either language there is here a play upon words. Immediately Peter had made his great discovery and confession, Jesus said to him: "You are petros (Greek #4074), and on this petra (Greek #4073) I will build my Church."

Whatever else this is, it is a word of tremendous praise. It is a metaphor which is by no means strange or unusual to Jewish thought.

The Rabbis applied the word rock to Abraham. They had a saying: "When the Holy One saw Abraham who was going to arise, he said, 'Lo, I have discovered a rock (petra, Greek #4073) to found the world upon.' Therefore he called Abraham rock (tsuwr, Hebrew #6697), as it is said: 'Look unto the rock whence ye are hewn.'" Abraham was the rock on which the nation and the purpose of God were founded.

Even more the word rock (tsuwr, Hebrew #6697) is again and again applied to God himself. "He is the Rock; his work is perfect" (Deuteronomy 32:4). "For their rock is not as our Rock" (Deuteronomy 32:31). "There is no rock like our God" (1 Samuel 2:2). "The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer" (2 Samuel 22:2). The same phrase occurs in Psalms 18:2. "Who is a rock, except our God?" (Psalms 18:31). The same phrase is in 2 Samuel 22:32.

One thing is clear. To call anyone a rock was the greatest of compliments; and no Jew who knew his Old Testament could ever use the phrase without his thoughts turning to God, who alone was the true rock of his defence and salvation. What then did Jesus mean when in this passage he used the word rock? To that question at least four answers have been given.

(i) Augustine took the rock to mean Jesus himself. It is as if Jesus said: "You are Peter; and on myself as rock I will found my Church; and the day will come when, as the reward of your faith, you will be great in the Church."

(ii) The second explanation is that the rock is the truth that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God. To Peter that great truth had been divinely revealed. The fact that Jesus Christ is the Son of God is indeed the foundation stone of the Church's faith and belief, but it hardly seems to bring out the play on words which is here.

(iii) The third explanation is that the rock is Peter's faith. On the faith of Peter the Church is founded. That faith was the spark which was to kindle the faith of the world-wide Church. It was the initial impetus which was one day to bring the universal Church into being.

(iv) The last interpretation is still the best. It is that Peter himself is the rock, but in a special sense. He is not the rock on which the Church is founded; that rock is God. He is the first stone of the whole Church. Peter was the first man on earth to discover who Jesus was; he was the first man to make the leap of faith and see in him the Son of the living God. In other words, Peter was the first member of the Church, and, in that sense, the whole Church is built on him. It is as if Jesus said to Peter: "Peter, you are the first man to grasp who I am; you are therefore the first stone, the foundation stone, the very beginning of the Church which I am founding." And in ages to come, everyone who makes the same discovery as Peter is another stone added into the edifice of the Church of Christ.

Two things help to make this clear.

(i) Often the Bible uses pictures for the sake of one definite point. The details of the picture are not to be stressed; it is one point which is being made. In connection with the Church the New Testament repeatedly uses the picture of building, but it uses that picture for many purposes and from many points of view. Here Peter is the foundation, in the sense that he is the one person on whom the whole Church is built, for he was the first man to discover who Jesus was. In Ephesians 2:20 the prophets and the apostles are said to be the foundation of the Church. It is on their work and on their witness and on their fidelity that the Church on earth, humanly speaking, depends. In the same passage, Jesus Christ is the chief corner-stone; he is the force who holds the Church together. Without him the whole edifice would disintegrate and collapse. In 1 Peter 2:4-8 all Christians are living stones who are to be built into the fabric of the Church. In 1 Corinthians 3:11 Jesus is the only foundation, and no man can lay any other. It is clear to see that the New Testament writers took the picture of building and used it in many ways. But at the back of it all is always the idea that Jesus Christ is the real foundation of the Church, and the only power who holds the Church together. When Jesus said to Peter that on him he would found his Church, he did not mean that the Church depended on Peter, as it depended on himself and on God the Rock. He did mean that the Church began with Peter; in that sense Peter is the foundation of the Church; and that is an honour that no man can take from him.

(ii) The second point is that the very word Church (ekklesia, Greek #1577) in this passage conveys something of a wrong impression. We are apt to think of the Church as an institution and an organization with buildings and offices, and services and meetings, and organizations and all kinds of activities. The word that Jesus almost certainly used was qahal (Hebrew #6951), which is the word the Old Testament uses for the congregation of Israel, the gathering of the people of the Lord. What Jesus said to Peter was: "Peter, you are the beginning of the new Israel, the new people of the Lord, the new fellowship of those who believe in my name." Peter was the first of the fellowship of believers in Christ. It was not a Church in the human sense, still less a Church in a denominational sense, that began with Peter. What began with Peter was the fellowship of all believers in Jesus Christ, not identified with any Church and not limited to any Church, but embracing all who love the Lord.

So then we may say that the first part of this controversial passage means that Peter is the foundation stone of the Church in the sense that he was the first of that great fellowship who joyfully declare their own discovery that Jesus Christ is Lord; but that, in the ultimate sense, it is God himself who is the rock on which the Church is built.

THE GATES OF HELL (Matthew 16:17-19 continued)

Jesus goes on to say that the gates of Hades shall not prevail against his Church. What does that mean? The idea of gates prevailing is not by any means a natural or an easily understood picture. Again there is more than one explanation.

(i) It may be that the picture is the picture of a fortress. This suggestion may find support in the fact that on the top of the mountain overlooking Caesarea Philippi there stand today the ruins of a great castle which may well have stood there in all its glory in the time of Jesus. It may be that Jesus is thinking of his Church as a fortress, and the forces of evil as an opposing fortress; and is saying that the embattled might of evil will never prevail against the Church.

(ii) Richard Glover has an interesting explanation. In the ancient east the Gate was always the place, especially in the little towns and villages, where the elders and the rulers met and dispensed counsel and justice. For instance, the law is laid down that, if a man has a rebellious and disobedient son, he must bring him "to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives" (Deuteronomy 21:19), and there judgment will be given and justice done. In Deuteronomy 25:7 the man with a certain problem is told to "go up to the gate to the elders." The gate was the scene of simple justice where the elders met. So the gate may have come to mean the place of government. For long, for instance, the government of Turkey was called the Sublime Porte (porte being the French for gate). So then the phrase would mean: The powers, the government of Hades will never prevail against the Church.

(iii) There is a third possibility. Suppose we go back to the idea that the rock on which the Church is founded is the conviction that Jesus is none other than the Son of the living God. Now Hades was not the place of punishment, but the place where, in primitive Jewish belief, all the dead went. Obviously, the function of gates is to keep things in, to confine them, shut them up, control them. There was one person whom the gates of Hades could not shut in; and that was Jesus Christ. He burst the bonds of death. As the writer of Acts has it, "It was not possible for him to be held by death.... Thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades, nor let thy Holy One see corruption" (Acts 2:24; Acts 2:27). So then this may be a triumphant reference to nothing less than the coming Resurrection. Jesus may be saying: "You have discovered that I am the Son of the living God. The time will soon come when I will be crucified, and the gates of Hades will close behind me. But they are powerless to shut me in. The gates of Hades have no power against me the Son of the living God."

However we take it, this phrase triumphantly expresses the indestructibility of Christ and his Church.

THE PLACE OF PETER (Matthew 16:17-19 continued)

We now come to two phrases in which Jesus describes certain privileges which were given to and certain duties which were laid on Peter.

(i) He says that he will give to Peter the keys of the Kingdom. This is an obviously difficult phrase; and we will do well to begin by setting down the things about it of which we can be sure.

(a) The phrase always signified some kind of very special power. For instance, the Rabbis had a saying: "The keys of birth, of the rain, and of the resurrection of the dead belong to God." That is to say, only God has the power to create life, to send the rain, and to raise the dead to life again. The phrase always indicates a special power.

(b) In the New Testament this phrase is regularly attached to Jesus. It is in his hands, and no one else's, that the keys are. In Revelation 1:18 the risen Christ says: "I am the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades." Again in Revelation 3:7 the Risen Christ is described as, "The holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens." This phrase must be interpreted as indicating a certain divine right, and whatever the promise made to Peter, it cannot be taken as annulling, or infringing, a right which belongs alone to God and to the Son of God.

(c) All these New Testament pictures and usages go back to a picture in Isaiah (Isaiah 22:22). Isaiah describes Eliakim, who will have the key of the house of David on his shoulder, and who alone will open and shut. Now the duty of Eliakim was to be the faithful steward of the house. It is the steward who carries the keys of the house, who in the morning opens the door, and in the evening shuts it, and through whom visitors gain access to the royal presence. So then what Jesus is saying to Peter is that in the days to come, he wit be the steward of the Kingdom. And in the case of Peter the whole idea is that of opening, not shutting, the door of the Kingdom.

That came abundantly true. At Pentecost, Peter opened the door to three thousand souls (Acts 2:41). He opened the door to the Gentile centurion Cornelius, so that it was swinging on its hinges to admit the great Gentile world (Acts 10:1-48 ). Acts 15:1-41 tells how the Council of Jerusalem opened wide the door for the Gentiles, and how it was Peter's witness which made that possible (Acts 15:14; Simeon is Peter). The promise that Peter would have the keys to the Kingdom was the promise that Peter would be the means of opening the door to God for thousands upon thousands of people in the days to come. But it is not only Peter who has the keys of the Kingdom; every Christian has; for it is open to every one of us to open the door of the Kingdom to some other and so to enter into the great promise of Christ.

(ii) Jesus further promised Peter that what he bound would remain bound, and what he loosed would remain loosed. Richard Glover takes this to mean that Peter would lay men's sins, bind them, to men's consciences, and that he would then loose them from their sins by telling them of the love and the forgiveness of God. That is a lovely thought, and no doubt true, for such is the duty of every Christian preacher and teacher, but there is more to it than that.

To loose and to bind were very common Jewish phrases. They were used especially of the decisions of the great teachers and the great Rabbis. Their regular sense, which any Jew would recognize was to allow and to forbid. To bind something was to declare it forbidden; to loose was to declare it allowed. These were the regular phrases for taking decisions in regard to the law. That is in fact the only thing these phrases in such a context would mean. So what Jesus is saying to Peter is: "Peter, you are going to have grave and heavy responsibilities laid upon you. You are going to have to take decisions which wig affect the welfare of the whole Church. You will be the guide and the director of the infant Church. And the decisions you give will be so important, that they will affect the souls of men in time and in eternity."

The privilege of the keys meant that Peter would be the steward of the household of God, opening the door for men to enter into the Kingdom. The duty of binding and loosing meant that Peter would have to take decisions about the Church's life and practice which would have the most far-reaching consequences. And indeed, when we read the early chapters of Acts, we see that in Jerusalem that is precisely what Peter did.

When we paraphrase this passage which has caused so much argument and controversy, we see that it deals, not with ecclesiastical forms but with the things of salvation. Jesus said to Peter: "Peter, your name means a rock, and your destiny is to be a rock. You are the first man to recognize me for what I am, and therefore you are the first stone in the edifice of the fellowship of those who are mine. Against that fellowship the embattled powers of evil will no more prevail than they will be able to hold me captive in death. And in the days to come, you must be the steward who will unlock the doors of the Kingdom that Jew and Gentile may come in; and you must be the wise administrator and guide who will solve the problems and direct the work of the infant and growing fellowship."

Peter had made the great discovery; and Peter was given the great privilege and the great responsibility. It is a discovery which everyone must make for himself; and, when he has made it, the same privilege and the same responsibility are laid upon him.

THE GREAT REBUKE (Matthew 16:20-23)

16:20-23 He gave orders to his disciples to tell no one that he was God's Anointed One. From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed and be raised on the third day. Peter caught hold of him, and began to urge upon him: "God forbid that this should happen to you! This must never come to you!" He turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are putting a stumbling-block in my way. Your ideas are not God's but men's."

Although the disciples had grasped the fact that Jesus was God's Messiah, they still had not grasped what that great fact meant. To them it meant something totally different from what it meant to Jesus. They were still thinking in terms of a conquering Messiah, a warrior king, who would sweep the Romans from Palestine and lead Israel to power. That is why Jesus commanded them to silence. If they had gone out to the people and preached their own ideas, all they would have succeeded in doing would have been to raise a tragic rebellion; they could have produced only another outbreak of violence doomed to disaster. Before they could preach that Jesus was the Messiah, they had to learn what that meant. In point of fact, Peter's reaction shows just how far the disciples were from realizing just what Jesus meant when he claimed to be the Messiah and the Son of God.

So Jesus began to seek to open their eyes to the fact that for him there was no way but the way of the Cross. He said that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer at the hands of the "elders and chief priests and scribes." These three groups of men were in fact the three groups of which the Sanhedrin was composed. The elders were the respected men of the people; the chief priests were predominantly Sadducees; and the scribes were Pharisees. In effect, Jesus is saying that he must suffer at the hands of the orthodox religious leaders of the country.

No sooner had Jesus said that than Peter reacted with violence. Peter had been brought up on the idea of a Messiah of power and glory and conquest. To him the idea of a suffering Messiah, the connection of a cross with the work of the Messiah, was incredible. He "caught hold" of Jesus. Almost certainly the meaning is that he flung a protecting arm round Jesus, as if to hold him back from a suicidal course. "This," said Peter, "must not and cannot happen to you." And then came the great rebuke which makes us catch our breath--"Get behind me, Satan!" There are certain things which we must grasp in order to understand this tragic and dramatic scene.

We must try to catch the tone of voice in which Jesus spoke. He certainly did not say it with a snarl of anger in his voice and a blaze of indignant passion in his eyes. He said it like a man wounded to the heart, with poignant grief and a kind of shuddering horror. Why should he react like that?

He did so because in that moment there came back to him with cruel force the temptations which he had faced in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry. There he had been tempted to take the way of power. "Give them bread, give them material things," said the tempter, "and they will follow you." "Give them sensations," said the tempter, "give them wonders, and they will follow you ... .. Compromise with the world," said the tempter. "Reduce your standards, and they will follow you." It was precisely the same temptations with which Peter was confronting Jesus an over again.

Nor were these temptations ever wholly absent from the mind of Jesus. Luke sees far into the heart of the Master. At the end of the temptation story, Luke writes: "And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time" (Luke 4:13). Again and again the tempter launched this attack. No one wants a cross; no one wants to die in agony; even in the Garden that same temptation came to Jesus, the temptation to take another way.

And here Peter is offering it to him now. The sharpness and the poignancy of Jesus' answer are due to the fact that Peter was urging upon him the very things which the tempter was always whispering to him, the very things against which he had to steel himself. Peter was confronting Jesus with that way of escape from the Cross which to the end beckoned to him.

That is why Peter was Satan. Satan literally means the Adversary. That is why Peter's ideas were not God's but men's. Satan is any force which seeks to deflect us from the way of God; Satan is any influence which seeks to make us turn back from the hard way that God has set before us; Satan is any power which seeks to make human desires take the place of the divine imperative.

What made the temptation more acute was the fact that it came from one who loved him. Peter spoke as he did only because he loved Jesus so much that he could not bear to think of him treading that dreadful path and dying that awful death. The hardest temptation of all is the one which comes from protecting love. There are times when fond love seeks to deflect us from the perils of the path of God; but the real love is not the love which holds the knight at home, but the love which sends him out to obey the commandments of the chivalry which is given, not to make life easy, but to make life great. It is quite possible for love to be so protecting that it seeks to protect those it loves from the adventure of the warfare of the soldier of Christ, and from the strenuousness of the pathway of the pilgrim of God. What really wounded Jesus' heart and what really made him speak as he did, was that the tempter spoke to him that day through the fond but mistaken love of Peter's hot heart.

THE CHALLENGE BEHIND THE REBUKE (Matthew 16:20-23 continued)

Before we leave this passage, it is interesting to look at two very early interpretations of the phrase: "Get behind me, Satan!" Origen suggested that, Jesus was saying to Peter: "Peter, your place is behind me, not in front of me. It is your place to follow me in the way I choose, not to try to lead me in the way you would like me to go." If the phrase can be interpreted in that way, something at least of its sting is removed, for it does not banish Peter from Christ's presence; rather it recalls him to his proper place, as a follower walking in the footsteps of Jesus. It is true for all of us that we must ever take the way of Christ and never seek to compel him to take our way.

A further development comes when we closely examine this saying of Jesus in the light of his saying to Satan at the end of the temptations as Matthew records it in Matthew 4:10. Although in the English translations the two passages sound different they are almost, but not quite, the same. In Matthew 4:10 the Revised Standard Version translates: "Begone, Satan!" and the Greek is: "Hupage (Greek #5217) Satana (Greek #4566)." In the Revised Standard Version translation of Matthew 16:23, Jesus says to Peter: "Get behind me, Satan," and the Greek is: "Hupage (Greek #5217) opiso (Greek #3694) mou (Greek #3450), Satana (Greek #4566)."

The point is that Jesus' command to Satan is simply: "Begone!" while his command to Peter is: "Begone behind me!" that is to say, "Become my follower again." Satan is banished from the presence of Christ; Peter is recalled to be Christ's follower. The one thing that Satan could never become is a follower of Christ; in his diabolical pride he could never submit to that; that is why he is Satan. On the other hand, Peter might be mistaken and might fail and might sin, but for him there was always the challenge and the chance to become a follower again. It is as if Jesus said to Peter: "At the moment you have spoken as Satan would. But that is not the real Peter speaking. You can redeem yourself. Come behind me, and be my follower again, and even yet, all will be well." The basic difference between Peter and Satan is precisely the fact that Satan would never get behind Jesus. So long as a man is prepared to try to follow, even after he has fallen, there is still for him the hope of glory here and hereafter.

THE GREAT CHALLENGE (Matthew 16:24-26)

16:24-26 Then Jesus said to his disciples: "If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and let him follow me. For whoever wishes to keep his life safe, will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, will find it. For what shall a man be profited if he shall gain the whole world at the penalty of the price of his life? Or what will a man give in exchange for his life?"

Here we have one of the dominant and ever-recurring themes of Jesus' teaching. These are things which Jesus said to men again and again (Matthew 10:37-39; Mark 8:34-37; Luke 9:23-27; Luke 14:25-27; Luke 17:33; John 12:25). Again and again he confronted them with the challenge of the Christian life. There are three things which a man must be prepared to do, if he is to live the Christian life.

(i) He must deny himself. Ordinarily we use the word self-denial in a restricted sense. We use it to mean giving up something. For instance, a week of self-denial may be a week when we do without certain pleasures or luxuries in order to contribute to some good cause. But that is only a very small part of what Jesus meant by self-denial. To deny oneself means in every moment of life to say no to self and yes to God. To deny oneself means once, finally and for all to dethrone self and to enthrone God. To deny oneself means to obliterate self as the dominant principle of life, and to make God the ruling principle, more, the ruling passion, of life. The life of constant self-denial is the life of constant assent to God.

(ii) He must take up his cross. That is to say, he must take up the burden of sacrifice. The Christian life is the life of sacrificial service. The Christian may have to abandon personal ambition to serve Christ; it may be that he will discover that the place where he can render the greatest service to Jesus Christ is somewhere where the reward will be small and the prestige non-existent. He will certainly have to sacrifice time and leisure and pleasure in order to serve God through the service of his fellow-men.

To put it quite simply, the comfort of the fireside, the pleasure of a visit to a place of entertainment, may well have to be sacrificed for the duties of the eldership, the calls of the youth club, the visit to the home of some sad or lonely soul. He may well have to sacrifice certain things he could well afford to possess in order to give more away. The Christian life is the sacrificial life.

Luke, with a flash of sheer insight, adds one word to this command of Jesus: "Let him take up his cross daily." The really important thing is not the great moments of sacrifice, but a life lived in the constant hourly awareness of the demands of God and the need of others. The Christian life is a life which is always concerned with others more than it is concerned with itself.

(iii) He must follow Jesus Christ. That is to say, he must render to Jesus Christ a perfect obedience. When we were young we used to play a game called "Follow my Leader." Everything the leader did, however difficult, and, in the case of the game, however ridiculous, we had to copy. The Christian life is a constant following of our leader, a constant obedience in thought and word and action to Jesus Christ. The Christian walks in the footsteps of Christ, wherever he may lead.

LOSING AND FINDING LIFE (Matthew 16:24-26 continued)

There is all the difference in the world between existing and living. To exist is simply to have the lungs breathing and the heart beating; to live is to be alive in a world where everything is worth while, where there is peace in the soul, joy in the heart, and a thrill in every moment. Jesus here gives us the recipe for life as distinct from existence.

(i) The man who plays for safety loses life. Matthew was writing somewhere between A.D. 80 and 90. He was therefore writing in some of the bitterest days of persecution. He was saying: "The time may well come when you can save your life by abandoning your faith; but if you do, so far from saving life, in the real sense of the term you are losing life." The man who is faithful may die but he dies to live; the man who abandons his faith for safety may live, but he lives to die.

In our day and generation it is not likely to be a question of martyrdom, but it still remains a fact that, if we meet life in the constant search for safety, security, ease and comfort, if every decision is taken from worldly-wise and prudential motives, we are losing all that makes life worth while. Life becomes a soft and flabby thing, when it might have been an adventure. Life becomes a selfish thing, when it might have been radiant with service. Life becomes an earthbound thing when it might have been reaching for the stars. Someone once wrote a bitter epitaph on a man: "He was born a man and died a grocer." Any trade or profession might be substituted for the word grocer. The man who plays for safety ceases to be a man, for man is made in the image of God.

(ii) The man who risks all--and maybe looks as if he had lost all--for Christ, finds life. It is the simple lesson of history that it has always been the adventurous souls, bidding farewell to security and safety, who wrote their names on history and greatly helped the world of men. Unless there had been those prepared to take risks, many a medical cure would not exist. Unless there had been those prepared to take risks, many of the machines which make life easier would never have been invented. Unless there were mothers prepared to take risks, no child would ever be born. It is the man who is prepared "to bet his life that there is a God" who in the end finds life.

(iii) Then Jesus speaks with warning: "Suppose a man plays for safety; suppose he gains the whole world; then suppose that he finds that life is not worth living, what can he give to get life back again?" And the grim truth is that he cannot get life back again. In every decision of life we are doing something to ourselves; we are making ourselves a certain kind of person; we are building up steadily and inevitably a certain kind of character; we are making ourselves able to do certain things and quite unable to do others. It is perfectly possible for a man to gain all the things he set his heart upon, and then to awaken one morning to find that he has missed the most important things of all.

The world stands for material things as opposed to God; and of all material things there are three things to be said. (a) No one can take them with him at the end; he can take only himself; and if he degraded himself in order to get them, his regret will be bitter. (b) They cannot help a man in the shattering days of life. Material things will never mend a broken heart or cheer a lonely soul. (c) If by any chance a man gained his material possessions in a way that is dishonourable, there will come a day when conscience will speak, and he will know hell on this side of the grave.

The world is full of voices crying out that he is a fool who sells real life for material things.

(iv) Finally Jesus asks: "What will a man give in exchange for his soul?" The Greek is, "What antallagma (Greek #465) will a man give for his soul?" Antallagma (Greek #465) is an interesting word. In the book of Ecclesiasticus we read: "There is no antallagma (Greek #465) for a faithful friend," and, "There is no antallagma (Greek #465) for a disciplined soul" (Ecc 6:15; Ecc 26:14). It means that there is no price which will buy a faithful friend or a disciplined soul. So then this final saying of Jesus can mean two things.

(a) It can mean: Once a man has lost his real life, because of his desire for security and for material things, there is no price that he can pay to get it back again. He has done something to himself which cannot ever be fully obliterated.

(b) It can mean: A man owes himself and everything else to Jesus Christ; and there is nothing that a man can give to Christ in place of his life. It is quite possible for a man to try to give his money to Christ and to withhold his life. It is still more possible for a man to give lip-service to Christ and to withhold his life. Many a person gives his weekly freewill offering to the Church, but does not attend; obviously that does not satisfy the demands of church membership. The only possible gift to the Church is ourselves; and the only possible gift to Christ is our whole life. There is no substitute for it. Nothing less will do.

THE WARNING AND THE PROMISE (Matthew 16:27-28)

16:27-28 "For the Son of Man will come with the glory of his Father, with his angels, and then he will render to each man in accordance with his way of action. This is the truth I tell you--there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death, until they see the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom."

There are two quite distinct sayings here.

(i) The first is a warning, the warning of inevitable judgment. Life is going somewhere--and life is going to judgment. In any sphere of life there inevitably comes the day of reckoning. There is no escape from the fact that Christianity teaches that after life there comes the judgment; and when we take this passage in conjunction with the passage which goes before, we see at once what the standard of judgment is. The man who selfishly hugs life to himself, the man whose first concern is his own safety, his own security and his own comfort, is in heaven's eyes the failure, however rich and successful and prosperous he may seem to be. The man who spends himself for others, and who lives life as a gallant adventure, is the man who receives heaven's praise and God's reward.

(ii) The second is a promise. As Matthew records this phrase, it reads as if Jesus spoke as if he expected his own visible return in the lifetime of some of those who were listening to him. If Jesus said that he was mistaken. But we see the real meaning of what Jesus said when we turn to Mark's record of it. Mark has: And he said to them, "Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God come with power" (Mark 9:1).

It is of the mighty working of his Kingdom that Jesus is speaking; and what he said came most divinely true. There were those standing there who saw the coming of Jesus in the coming, of the Spirit at the day of Pentecost. There were those who were to see Gentile and Jew swept into the Kingdom; they were to see the tide of the Christian message sweep across Asia Minor and cover Europe until it reached Rome. Well within the life-time of those who heard Jesus speak, the Kingdom came with power.

Again, this is to be taken closely with what goes before. Jesus warned his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, and that there he must suffer many things and die. That was the shame; but the shame was not the end. After the Cross there came the Resurrection. The Cross was not to be the end; it was to be the beginning of the unleashing of that power which was to surge throughout the whole world. This is a promise to the disciples of Jesus Christ that nothing men can do can hinder the expansion of the Kingdom of God.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Matthew 16:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/matthew-16.html. 1956-1959.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, October 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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