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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 16

Dummelow's Commentary on the BibleDummelow on the Bible

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Verses 1-28

St. Peter’s great Confession

1-4. A sign from heaven demanded (Mark 8:11 cp. Luke 11:16: see on Matthew 12:38).

1. Pharisees.. Sadducees] An unnatural and unholyalliance of men whose only bond of union was hatred of Jesus. The Sadducees had probably been sent from Jerusalem by the chief priests, but some regard them as the same as the Herodians mentioned by St. Mark, and, therefore, Galileans.

From heaven] Jewish superstition held that the demons could work signs on earth, but that only God could work them in heaven.

2, 3. They professed to be able to forecast the weather, but shut their eyes to the signs of the times which denoted the speedy fulfilment of the prophecies respecting the coming of the Messiah.

The second half of Matthew 16:2 (’When it is evening,’ etc.) and all Matthew 16:3 are omitted by some important ancient authorities, but the evidence in their favour, both internal and external, is so strong that it is hazardous to reject them. J. Lightfoot says, ’The Jews were very curious in observing the seasons of the heavens, and the temper of the air,’ and gives examples of their weatherwise saws.

4. But the sign of the prophet Jonas] RV ’the sign of Jonah.’ St. Mark omits these words: See on Matthew 12:39.

5-12. The leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Mark 8:14). But the narratives are independent. This incident could only be derived from an eyewitness and an apostle. The discreditable light in which it places the Apostles goes to confirm its authenticity.

5. To the other side] i.e. the E. side. This favours the view that Magadan (Dalmanutha) was on the W. side.

6. The leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees] St. Mark says, ’of the Pharisees and of Herod.’ Herod may have been a Sadducee in spite of his superstitious belief in John’s resurrection, but, even if he was not, he exactly represented the secular, irreligious, worldly spirit of Sadduceeism. The leaven of the Pharisees is hypocrisy, ostentation, pride, formalism, scrupulosity, and the tendency to place the letter before the spirit. The leaven of the Sadducees is worldliness, and the temper of irreligious scepticism.

The disciples took Jesus’ words literally as a command to lay in a fresh stock of bread, taking special precautions to avoid all bread made with leaven from the house of a Pharisee or a Sadducee. The misunderstanding is not so absurd, if it be remembered that Gentile food and Gentile leaven were regarded by the stricter Jews as unclean. Since Jesus had pronounced the Pharisees worse than the heathen, it was quite natural (from the strictly Jewish point of view) that He should proceed to pronounce their houses, food, and, therefore, their leaven unclean. Jewish writings contain subtle discussions as to when, why, and under what circumstances heathen, Samaritan, and Christian leaven is to be regarded as unclean.

9, 10. See on Matthew 15:32.

12. Cp. Luke 12:1, and see on Matthew 16:6.

13-20. St. Peter’s confession (Mark 8:27; Luke 9:18). Jesus now undertook another distant excursion, partly to escape the hostility of the Pharisees (Matthew 16:4), but chiefly to hold private converse with His disciples, and to lead them on to the recognition of His Messiahship and divine Sonship, which was the supreme object of His ministry so far as the Twelve were concerned. What was the significance of this confession, which clearly marked a great epoch in Christ’s ministry? According to some its significance lay in the fact that He was now for the first time recognised as the Messiah. But is this so? Already He had been called the ’Son of God,’ i.e. the Messiah, by the Apostles (Matthew 14:33). He had been so designated by the Baptist (Matthew 3:11-12) and by popular acclamation (’Son of David’=the Messiah, Matthew 9:27; Matthew 12:23; Matthew 15:22). So also in the Fourth Gospel the apostles regard Him as the Messiah from the first (’We have found the Messiah,’ John 1:41; ’Rabbi, thou art the Son of God, thou art the king of Israel,’ John 1:49). The significance of Peter’s representative confession, therefore, lies in this, that what they had before received on the authority of the Baptist, and as a mere working hypothesis, which might or might not be proved by events to be true, they now deliberately ratified as their own conviction, based on their personal experience of what Jesus had shown Himself to be. Here then at last was the solid rock on which Jesus could build, not the shifting sand of possibilities and surmises, nor the weak faith which consists in mere submission to authority, but the strong conviction of earnest souls who know what they believe and why they believe it, and are willing to live by the truth they have apprehended, and, if need be, die for it.

13. Caesarea Philippi] i.e. the Caesarea built by Philip the Tetrarch (see art. ’the Herods’), was situated at the sources of the Jordan, near the foot of Mt. Hermon (9,000 ft.), in the midst of magnificent scenery. It was a Gentile city, and was often called Paneas (now Banias), because the god Pan was worshipped there. The other Cæsarea on the sea-coast was called, for distinction, Cæsarea Palestina.

14. Cp. Matthew 14:2. Why do not the apostles mention the belief that Jesus was really the Messiah, among the current opinions? Because this belief no longer existed. Those who held it, had abandoned it because of His continued refusal to declare Himself (J n Matthew 6:15), and to do what was expected of the Messiah, viz. deliver the oppressed nation from its enemies. Though the people could not deny His miracles or His greatness, they felt that He had disappointed them, and His popularity had already begun to ebb. Elias] RV ’Elijah’: see on Matthew 17:10. Jeremias] Jewish legend represented Jeremiah as well as Elijah, as preparing the way for the Messiah. He was said to have hidden the ark when Jerusalem was captured by the Babylonians, and to have called Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses from their tombs to assist him in mourning for the destruction of the Temple. In the days of the Messiah it was said that he and Elijah would dig up the ark from the cave on Mt. Nebo in which it was concealed, and replace it in the Holy of Holies.

16. The Christ] i.e. ’the Messiah.’ So also St. Mark; but St. Luke has ’the Christ of God.’ The Son of the living God] These words, together with the next three vv., are peculiar to St. Matthew, but are nevertheless authentic. They suit the context admirably, and are so thoroughly Hebraic in spirit, that their significance can only be apprehended by going behind the Greek to the Aramaic original. Their absence from St. Mark is readily explained. In confessing that Jesus was the Christ, Peter did no more than express the general sense of the apostolic circle. But in confessing that He was the ’Son of the living God,’ he was going beyond what the others at that time believed. He, therefore, modestly suppressed his own personal confession and the special commendation with which Jesus greeted it.

’Son of God’ here is no mere equivalent of ’the Messiah,’ but a confession of Christ’s unique filial relation to God. This is shown, (1) by the deep emotion with which the speaker makes, and Jesus receives, the confession; (2) by the fact that the confession is perfectly satisfactory to Jesus, and is forthwith made the dogmatic foundation of Christianity(’Upon this rock I will build my Church’).

17. Simon Barjona] i.e. Simon, son of Jonah. The full name harmonises with the solemnity of the occasion and the emotion of the speaker. In John 1:42; Peter’s father is called ’Joanes’ (John), of which Jonah is probably a contraction. Flesh and blood] corresponds exactly to the English expression ’mortal man,’ and is often found in that sense in rabbinical writings.

18. Thou art Peter] Gk. Petros Aramaic, Kephas. Jesus had given Peter this name at their first interview (John 1:42). Peter had now realised his character, and Jesus solemnly confirmed the honourable title. And upon this rock] Gk. petra. As the Gk. word here is different, most ancient commentators deny that Peter is the rock. The Roman Catholic Launoy reckons that seventeen Fathers regard Peter as the rock; forty-four regard Peter’s confession as the rock; sixteen regard Christ Himself as the rock; while eight are of opinion that the Church is built on all the apostles. Assuming, however, with the majority of modern commentators that Peter is the rock, the interpretation still remains nearly the same, because it is upon Peter, as confessing faith in Christ’s divinity, that the Church is founded.

The next question is, ’Was the promise made to Peter exclusively, or did Christ address Peter as the representative of the Twelve, intending to give to all. the same powers that He gave to Peter?’ The answer can hardly be doubtful. The whole text speaks of the future. Christ says not ’I build,’ but ’I will build’; not ’I give,’ but ’I will give,’ referring to the future for the explanation. The rest of the NT. shows in what sense the words of Christ are to be understood. On the evening of Easter Day He fulfilled His promise to Peter, by giving to all the Apostles present even greater powers than those which are here promised—’As my Father hath sent me, even so send I you. And.. he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained’ (John 20:22-23). No power of any kind was then given to Peter which was not given equally to all the Apostles, and in harmony with this all the Apostles are jointly regarded in the NT. as the foundation bn which the Church is built (Matthew 19:28; Ephesians 2:20; Revelation 21:14).

The position of Peter in the Apostolic Church was entirely unlike that of a modern Pope. In Acts 11:2 he is sharply criticised for his conduct in the matter of Cornelius and makes his defence before the Church. At the council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) he plays quite a subordinate part. It is James who presides and pronounces the decision, and the decree runs in the name of the apostles and elders. St. Paul claims an authority equal to and independent of Peter’s.. He reckons himself ’not a whit behind the very chief est apostles’ (2 Corinthians 11:5), and on a celebrated occasion resists Peter and rebukes him to his face (Galatians 2:11). Moreover, the tone of St. Peter’s first and certainly genuine epistle is thoroughly unpapal. ’The elders therefore among you, I exhort, who am a fellow elder,’ etc.

What then was the nature of the primacy which Peter possessed? It was a primacy of personal character and ability. He excelled the other apostles not in office, but in zeal, courage, promptness of action, and firmness of faith. He was their leader, because he was most fitted to lead. He boldly ventured, where others hesitated. And this explains the peculiarity of the present passage, that the promise was made, in form at least, to Peter alone. The other apostles had by this time attained to the conviction that Jesus was the Messiah (see the parallel narratives), but only Peter had made the great venture of faith which is implied in the acknowledgment of the divinity of Christ.

My church, with emphasis on the My, signifying that the Church is not a human but a divine institution. In this passage the Church is identified with the Kingdom of Heaven.

The gates of hell] i.e. the gates of Hades, Heb. Sheol, the abode of the dead. As the Church is often represented as a city, so here its great adversary Death is poetically represented as a fortified city with walls and gates.

Two distinct promises are here made: (1) that the Church as an organisation shall be indestructible. No persecutions, or assaults of Satan from within or without shall destroy it, because the life which is in it is Christ’s; (2) that individual members of the Church, united to Christ and sharing in His indestructible life, shall not be held by the power of death, nor overcome by judgment, but be made ’partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light.’

19. The keys of the kingdom of heaven] i.e. the keys of the earthly Church, not of heaven itself. Peter is not here compared to the porter of a house, who has only the key of the gate, but, since he possesses all the keys, to a house-steward exercising full authority over the house and all its inmates, in the master’s name: cp. Isaiah 22:15-25. The power of the keys is, (1) the power to govern the Church; (2) the power to exercise discipline in it; (3) the power to decide who shall be admitted into it, and on what conditions (subject, of course, to the Law of Christ); (4) and indirectly, since the steward provides food for all the household, the ministry of the Word and Sacraments. Government and discipline, however, and not ministry, are the main ideas. The narrower interpretations of the power of the keys, as that it is the power to admit into the Church by the preaching of the gospel, are not so much erroneous as insufficient. The figure in Luke 11:52; (’the key of knowledge’) is different. The best NT. parallel is Revelation 3:7.

Bind.. loose] These words, unintelligible in Greek and English, become full of meaning when traced back to the original Aramaic.

Every rabbi or scribe received at his ordination, which was, like that of the Christian Church, by the laying on of hands, the power to bind and to loose, i.e. to decide with authority what was lawful and unlawful to be done, or orthodox and unorthodox to be believed. To bind was to declare unlawful, to loose was to declare lawful. We read, for example, that ’Rabbi Meir loosed (i.e. permitted) the mixing of wine and oil, and the anointing of a sick man on the sabbath’; that Babbi Jochanan said, ’They necessarily loose (i.e. permit) saluting on the sabbath,’ and ’Concerning gathering wood on a feast day, the school of Shammai binds (i.e. forbids) it,—the school of Hillel looses (i.e. permits) it.’ The power, therefore, which Christ here promised to Peter and the other apostles was the power to decide with authority questions of faith and morals in the Christian Church,—the power to fix the moral standard and to determine the Christian creed. In the exercise of this authority the apostles ’loosed’ the prohibitions of the Mosaic Law first to the Gentiles (Acts 15), and finally to the Jews (Mark 7:9 RV, see on Matthew 15:1-20), decided what standard of morality should be enforced in the society, and pronounced with authority in controversies of faith.

When the Jewish rabbis differed upon an important matter of doctrine or practice, a conference was held, and the judgment of the majority was held to be authoritative. Similarly the apostolic power of ’binding and loosing’ was intended to be exercised collectively, and great deference was paid both in the apostolic and in subsequent ages to the decisions of synods (Acts 15).

In heaven] It is promised that God Himself will ratify the ’binding and loosing’ of the earthly Church, when these powers are duly and legitimately exercised. ’Binding and loosing’ is different from the power of remitting and retaining sins, for which see John 20:23.

21-23. Peter rebuked.

21. Began Jesus] There had been intimations of his death before (Matthew 9:15; Matthew 12:40; John 2:19; John 3:14; John 6:51), but now they began to be more distinct. St. Mark says expressly, ’and He was speaking the word openly.’

22. Be it far, etc.] lit. ’God have mercy on thee.’

23. Satan] The sharpness of the words indicates a strong and intense emotion. The chief of the Apostles was addressed in the selfsame terms as those which had been spoken to the tempter. St. Peters suggestion was indeed something like a renewal of the same temptation. ’In this suggestion that He might obtain the crown without the cross.. Christ saw the recurrence of the temptation which had offered Him the glory of those kingdoms on condition of His drawing back from the path which the Father had appointed for Him.’ An offence] lit. ’stumbling-block.’ A play on the word Peter, ’A stone in my path, not a foundation stone of my Church.’ Savourest] RV ’mindest.’

24-28. Exhortations to steadfastness and selfdenial in prospect of Christ’s return.

24. See on Matthew 10:38. By the cross Jesus means primarily martyrdom, either in will or act, and not merely selfdenial, though this is included.

25. Whosoever will save his life (in this world in time of persecution by denying Me) shall lose it.

26. Lose his own soul] RV ’forfeit his life.’

27. This v. refers to the Last Judgment.

28. The most probable interpretation of this v. refers it to Christ’s coming to overthrow the old dispensation by the destruction of Jerusalem, 70 a.d. The decisive phrase is, ’There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death.’ This obviously excludes the Last Judgment, and, hardly less obviously, Christs Resurrection, for it would be a truism to say that some of the disciples present would live to see an event which happened only a few months later. Whether the Transfiguration is referred to is not so clear. It was witnessed by only some of those present, but, on the other hand, it can hardly be described as the kingdom of God coming ’with power’ (Mk). Nevertheless it is not by an accident that the Transfiguration immediately followed the saying. The Transfiguration was an earnest of the greater manifestation of power shown at the destruction of Jerusalem, just as that event itself was an earnest and, as it were, a rehearsal of the final act of judgment: see farther on Matthew 24.

Taste of death] a common rabbinical expression for ’to die.’ Not in OT. The Son of man, etc.] St. Mark ’the kingdom of God come in power’; St. Luke ’the kingdom of God.’

Bibliographical Information
Dummelow, John. "Commentary on Matthew 16". "Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcb/matthew-16.html. 1909.
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