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Saturday, July 13th, 2024
the Week of Proper 9 / Ordinary 14
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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 16

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

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Verse 1


(1) The Pharisees also with the Sadducees.—The presence of members of the latter sect, who do not elsewhere appear in our Lord’s Galilean ministry, is noticeable. It is probably explained by St. Mark’s version of the warning in Matthew 16:6, where “the leaven of Herod” appears as equivalent to “the leaven of the Sadducees” in St. Matthew’s report. The Herodians were the Galilean Sadducees, and the union of the two hostile parties was the continuation of the alliance which had begun after our Lord’s protest against the false reverence for the Sabbath, which was common to both the parties (Mark 3:6).

That he would shew them a sign from heaven.—The signs and wonders that had been wrought on earth were not enough for the questioners. There might be collusion, or a power, like that implied in the charge of “casting out devils by Beelzebub,” preternatural, but not divine. What they asked was a sign like Samuel’s thunder from the clear blue sky (1 Samuel 12:18), or Elijah’s fire from heaven (1 Kings 18:38); or, possibly, following the train of thought suggested by the discourse at Capernaum, now definitely asking, what they hinted then (John 6:30-31), for bread, not multiplied on earth, but coming straight from heaven.

Verse 2

(2) When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather.—It is remarkable that some of the best MSS., including the Vatican and Sinaitic, omit the whole of these suggestive words. We can hardly think of them, however, looking to their singular originality of form, as interpolated by a later transcriber, and have therefore to ask how we can explain the omission. They are not found in St. Mark, and this in itself shows that there were some reports of our Lord’s answer to the Pharisees in which they did not appear. Possibly the transcriber in this case was unable to read their meaning, and the same feeling, or the wish to bring the reports in the two Gospels into closer agreement with each other, may have influenced the writers of the two MSS. in question. Turning (1) to the words as they stand in the received text, we note, as to their form, that the insertion of the words in italics somewhat mars the colloquial abruptness of the original, “Fair weather, for the sky is red”; and (2) that the use of “sky,” instead of “heaven,” hides the point of the answer. “You watch the heaven,” He in substance answers, “and are weather-wise as to coming storm or sunshine. If your eyes were open to watch the signs of the spiritual firmament, you would find tokens enough of the coming sunshine of God’s truth, the rising of the day-spring from on high—tokens enough, also, of the darkness of the coming storm, the ‘foul weather’ of God’s judgments.” Even the fact that the redness of the sky is the same in both cases is not without its significance. The flush, the glow, the excitement that pervaded men’s minds, was at once the prognostic of a brighter day following on that which was now closing, and the presage of the storm and tempest in which that day should end.

It is a singular instance of the way in which the habit of minute criticism stunts or even kills the power of discernment which depends on imagination, that Strauss should have looked on words so full of profound and suggestive meaning as “absolutely unintelligible” (Leben Jesu, II. viii. p. 85).

In the outward framework of the parable the weather-signs of Palestine seem to have been the same as those of England. The clear red evening sky is a prophecy of a bright morning. The morning red—not “red” simply, but with the indescribable threatening aspect implied in “lowering,” the frown of the sky, as it were (comp. Mark 10:22, where the same word is rendered “grieved”)—makes men look for storms.

Verse 4

(4) The sign of the prophet Jonas.—See Note on Matthew 12:39. As given by St. Mark, the answer was a more absolute refusal, “No sign” (i.e., none of the kind that was demanded) “shall be given to this generation.”

Verse 5

(5) They had forgotten.—Better, they forgot. St. Mark, with his usual precision in detail, states that they had but “one loaf” with them. Either the suddenness of their Lord’s departure had deprived them of their customary forethought, or, it may be, they were beginning to depend wrongly on the wonder-working power, as though it would be used, not as before, to supply the wants of the famished multitude, but as rendering that forethought needless for themselves.

Verse 6

(6) Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees.—The form of the warning was obviously determined by the fact just narrated. The Master saw the perplexed looks and heard the self reproaching or mutually accusing whispers of the disciples, and made them the text of a proverb which was a concentrated parable. As St. Mark gives the words, they stand, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and of the leaven of Herod,” and this, if we have to make our choice, we may believe to have been the form in which they were actually spoken; St. Matthew, or the report which he followed, substituting for the less known Herodians the better known Sadducees. The language of the tetrarch, as has been shown (see Note on Matthew 14:2), implies that Sadduceeism had been the prevailing belief of his life, and the current of Jewish political, not to say religious, sympathies, naturally led the Sadducean priests, courting (as Caiaphas did) the favour of the Roman rulers, to fraternise with the scribes who attached themselves to the party of the tetrarch. (Comp. Acts 5:17.)

Verse 7

(7) It is because we have taken no bread.—There is a childish naïveté in their self-questioning which testifies to the absolute originality and truthfulness of the record, and so to the genuineness of the question which follows, and which assumes the reality of the two previous miracles. The train of thought which connected the warning and the fact was probably hardly formulated even in their own minds. It may be that they imagined that as the Pharisee would not eat of bread that had been defiled by the touch of heathen or publican, so their Master forbade them, however great their need, to receive food at the hands of either of the sects that had combined against Him.

Verse 8

(8) O ye of little faith.—Our Lord reproves not the want of discernment which made them slow to receive the meaning of the similitude, but their want of faith. The discernment depended (in part, at least) on imaginative power, or acquired culture, for the lack of which they were not responsible. But their memory of the manner in which their wants had been twice supplied might at least have taught them that no such case of extreme necessity, such as they pictured to themselves, was likely to arise while He was with them, and therefore that their gross carnal interpretation of His words could not possibly be the true one. Memory in this case should have been an aid to faith, and faith, in its turn, would have quickened spiritual discernment.

Verses 9-10

(9, 10) How many baskets.—The distinction between the two kinds of baskets—the cophini and the spurides—is, as before noticed (Note on Matthew 15:37), strictly observed here.

Verse 11

(11) How is it that ye do not understand?—True to His method of education our Lord does not Himself interpret the parable, but is, as it were, content to suggest the train of thought which led to the interpretation. And the disciples, slow of heart as they were, followed the clue thus given. “Then understood they.” Memory did at last quicken faith, and faith imparted the imaginative insight which sees its way through parables and dark sayings.

Verse 12

(12) The doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.—Better, teaching; not so much the formulated dogmas of the sect as its general drift and tendency. The leaven was (as expressly stated in Luke 12:1) “hypocrisy,” the unreality of a life respectable, rigid, outwardly religious, even earnest in its zeal, and yet wanting in the humility and love which are of the essence of true holiness. That of the Sadducees and of Herod, was, we may believe (it is not specially defined), the more open form of worldliness and self-indulgence which allied themselves with their denial of the resurrection and therefore of eternal life.

Verse 13

(13) Cæsarea Philippi.—The order of the journeyings of our Lord and His disciples would seem to have been as follows:—From the coasts of Tyre and Sidon they came, passing through Sidon, to the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee (Mark 7:31); thence by ship to Magdala and Dalmanutha, on the western shore (Matthew 15:39; Mark 8:10); thence, again crossing the lake (Mark 8:13), to the eastern Bethsaida (Mark 8:22); thence to Cæsarea Philippi. There is in all these movements an obvious withdrawal from the populous cities which had been the scene of His earlier labours, and which had practically rejected Him and cast in their lot with His enemies. This last journey took them to a district which He had apparently never before visited, and to which He now came, it would seem, not as a Preacher of the kingdom, but simply for retirement and perhaps for safety. Cæsarea Philippi (so called to distinguish it from the town of the same name on the sea-coast) does not appear (unless we identify it with Laish or Dan, and for this there is no sufficient evidence) in the history of the Old Testament. Its position at the foot of Hermon led Robinson (Researches, iii. 404, 519) to identify it with the Baal-gad of Joshua 11:17; Joshua 12:7; Joshua 13:5, or the Baal-hermon of Judges 3:3; but this also hardly extends beyond the region of conjecture. The site of the city was near the chief source of the Jordan, which flowed from a cave which, under the influence of the Greek cultus that came in with the rule of the Syrian kings, was dedicated to Pan, and the old name of the city, Paneas, bore witness to this consecration. Herod the Great built a temple there in honour of Augustus (Jos. Ant. xv. 10, § 3), and his son Philip the tetrarch (to whose province it belonged) enlarged and embellished the city, and re-named it in honour of the emperor and to perpetuate his own memory. From Agrippa II. it received the name of Neroneas, as a like compliment to the emperor to whom he owed his title; but the old local name survived these passing changes, and still exists in the modern Bâiâs. With the one exception of the journey through Sidon (Mark 7:31), it was the northern limit of our Lord’s wanderings; and belonging as it does to the same period of His ministry, His visit to it may be regarded, though not as an extension of His work beyond its self-imposed limits, as indicating something like a sympathy with the out-lying heathen who made up the bulk of its population—a sense of rest, it may be, in turning to them from the ceaseless strife and bitterness which He encountered at Capernaum and Jerusalem. How the days passed which were spent on the journey, what gracious words or acts of mercy marked His track, what communings with His Father were held in the solitude of the mountain heights—are questions which we may dwell upon in reverential silence, but must be content to leave unanswered. The incident which follows is the one event of which we have any record.

Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?—The Greek emphasises “men” by prefixing the article, so as to contrast the opinions of men, as such, with God’s revelation. The question comes before us, as possibly it did to the disciples, with a sharp abruptness. We may believe, however, that it occupied a fitting place in the spiritual education through which our Lord was leading His disciples. It was a time of, at least, seeming failure and partial desertion. “From that time,” St. John relates, speaking of what followed after the discourse at Capernaum, “many of His disciples went back, and walked no more with Him” (John 6:66). He had turned to the Twelve and asked, in tones of touching sadness, “Will ye also go away?” and had received from Peter, as the spokesman of the others, what was for the time a reassuring answer, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life;” and this had been coupled with the confession of faith which we now find repeated. But in the meantime there had been signs of wavering. He had had to rebuke them as being “of little faith” (Matthew 16:8). They had urged something like a policy of reticence in His conflict with the Pharisees (Matthew 15:12). One of the Twelve was cherishing in his soul the “devil-temper” of a betrayer (John 6:70). It was time, if we may so speak, that they should be put to a crucial test, and the alternative of faith or want of faith pressed home upon their consciences.

Verse 14

(14) And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist.—The passage is of the greatest possible interest as one of the very few that indicate the impressions shaped into beliefs that were floating among the people as to our Lord’s character and mission. They were based, it will be seen in each case, upon a popular doctrine of transmigration, to which the Pharisees had given a place in their system of teaching. The great actors of the past were still in existence. They might, at any great national crisis, reappear to continue and complete their work. Each of the answers has a further special interest of its own. (1.) The identification of our Lord with the Baptist has already met us as coming from the lips of the tetrarch Antipas, adopted, but not originated, by him as explaining our Lord’s mighty works (Matthew 14:2; Luke 9:7). (2.) The belief that Elijah had reappeared was of the same nature. He was expected as the forerunner of the Messiah (Malachi 4:5). The imagination of the people had at first seen in the Baptist the reappearance of the Tishbite, but he, though working in the spirit and power of Elijah, had disclaimed the character which was thus ascribed to him, and it was natural that the imagination of the people should now turn to One who appeared to them as simply continuing his work. The character of our Lord’s recent miracles, corresponding as it did to that which was recorded as wrought by Elijah for the widow of Sarepta (1 Kings 17:14), had probably strengthened that impression. (3.) The name of Jeremiah introduces a new train of legendary thought. The impression made by that prophet on the minds of men had led to something like a mythical after-growth. It was said that the spirit of Jeremiah had passed into Zechariah (see Note on Matthew 27:9), and on that assumption another reappearance might well seem probable. He, it was believed, had hidden the ark, and the tabernacle, and the altar of incense in a cave in “the mountain where Moses climbed up and saw the heritage of God”—i.e., in Nebo, or Pisgah (2MMalachi 2:1-7)—and was expected to come and guide the people in the time “when God should gather His people together” to the place of concealment. He had appeared to Judas Maccabeus in a vision as “a man with grey hairs, and exceeding glorious,” and as the guardian prophet of the people, praying for them and for the Holy City, had given him a golden sword as the gift of God (2Ma. 15:13-16). As the prophet who had foretold the new covenant and the coming of the Lord our Righteousness (Jeremiah 23:6; Jeremiah 31:31) he was identified, as thoroughly as Isaiah, with the Messianic expectations of the people. Something, we may add, there may have been in our Lord’s human aspect, as a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, which may have helped to suggest this identification with the prophet who was, above all others of the goodly company, a prophet of lamentations and tears and woe. (4.) The last conjecture was more vague and undefined, and was probably the resource of those who were impressed with wonder at our Lord’s words and works, and yet could not bring themselves to acknowledge Him as what He claimed to be. All the four conjectures, it will be seen, fell far short of the recognition of the Christ.

Interpreted in connection with the vision of Daniel 7:13, the words of the question, “Whom do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” did, in fact, assume His claim to be the Christ. But it remained to be seen whether the disciples had risen to their Lord’s meaning in thus speaking of Himself, and would, on their part, adopt that interpretation. The report which they made of the belief of others shows how little, at this time (whatever may have been the case earlier or later), He was regarded as the Messiah by the mass of the people.

Verse 15

(15) Whom say ye?—The pronoun is doubly emphasised in the Greek, “But ye—whom say ye . . .?” The question is, as has been said, parallel in tone, though not in form, to that of John 6:67. Had they still a distinct faith of their own? or were they, too, falling back into these popular surmises?

Verse 16

(16) Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.—The variations in the other Gospels—St. Mark giving simply, “Thou art the Christ,” and St. Luke, “The Christ of God”—are interesting in their bearing on the question of literal inspiration, but do not affect the meaning; and the fullest of the three reports may be received without hesitation as the most authentic. The confession was made by Peter, partly, we may believe, as the representative of the others, partly, as the special promise that follows implies, from the personal fervour of his character. He believed himself, and had impressed his faith on them. His words reproduced the confession of John 6:69, even verbally, if we follow the received text, but the better MSS. of that Gospel have a different reading: “Thou art the Holy One of God.” In any form they recognised to the full our Lord’s character as the Christ; they identified Him with the Son of Man in Daniel’s vision, and, more than this, they recognised in that Son of Man one who was also not “a son” only, but, in some high incommunicable sense, “the Son of the living God.”

Verse 17

(17) Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona.—Looking to the reality of our Lord’s human nature, its capacity for wonder (Mark 6:6, Luke 7:9), anger (Mark 3:5), sorrow (John 11:35, Luke 19:41), and other emotions, it is not over-bold to recognise in these words something like a tone of exalted joy. It is the first direct personal beatitude pronounced by Him; and, as such, presents a marked contrast to the rebukes which had been addressed to Peter, as to the others, as being “without understanding,” “of little faith,” with “their heart yet hardened.” Here, then, He had found at last the clear, unshaken, unwavering faith which was the indispensable condition for the manifestation of His kingdom as a visible society upon earth. The beatitude is solemnised (as in John 1:42) by the full utterance of the name which the disciple had borne before he was called by the new name of Cephas, or Peter, to the work of an Apostle. He was to distinguish between the old natural and the new supernatural life. (Comp. John 21:15.)

Flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee.—Better, It was not flesh and blood that revealed. The words are used in their common Hebrew meaning (as in John 1:13; 1 Corinthians 15:50; Ephesians 6:12) for human nature, human agency, in all their manifold forms. The disciple had received the faith which he now professed, not through popular rumours, not through the teaching of scribes, but by a revelation from the Father. He was led, in the strictest sense of the words, through the veil of our Lord’s human nature to recognise the divine.

Verse 18

(18) Thou art Peter, and upon this rock . . .—It is not easy, in dealing with a text which for many centuries has been the subject-matter of endless controversies, to clear our minds of those “afterthoughts of theology” which have gathered round it, and, in part at least, overlaid its meaning. It is clear, however, that we can only reach the true meaning by putting those controversies aside, at all events till we have endeavoured to realise what thoughts the words at the time actually conveyed to those who heard them, and that when we have grasped that meaning it will be our best preparation for determining what bearing they have upon the later controversies of ancient or modern times. And (1) it would seem clear that the connection between Peter and the rock (the words in the Greek differ in gender, πέτρος and πέτρα, but were identical in the Aramaic, which our Lord probably used) was meant to be brought into special prominence. Now, at last, by this confession of his faith, Peter had risen to the height of his new calling, and was worthy of his new name. (2) Whether he is to be identified with the rock of the next clause is, however, a question on which men may legitimately differ. On the one side there is the probability that in the Aramaic, in which our Lord spoke, there would be no difference between the words in the two clauses; on the other, the possibility that He may have used the Greek words, or that the Evangelist may have intended to mark the distinction which he felt by the use of the two words, which undoubtedly differ in their meaning, πέτρος being a “stone” or fragment of rock, while πέτρα is the rock itself. The Aramaic Cepha, it may be noted, has the former rather than the latter meaning. (3) On the assumption of a distinction there follows the question, What is the rock? Peter’s faith (subjective)? or the truth (objective) which he confessed? or Christ Himself? Taking all the facts of the case, the balance seems to incline in favour of the last view. (1.) Christ and not Peter is the Rock in 1 Corinthians 10:4, the Foundation in 1 Corinthians 3:11. (2.) The poetry of the Old Testament associated the idea of the Rock with the greatness and steadfastness of God, not with that of a man [Deuteronomy 32:4; Deuteronomy 32:18; 2 Samuel 22:3; 2 Samuel 23:3; Psalms 18:2; Psalms 18:31; Psalms 18:46; Isaiah 17:10; Habakkuk 1:12 (Hebrew)]. (3.) As with the words, which in their form present a parallel to these, “Destroy this temple” (John 2:19), so here, we may believe the meaning to have been indicated by significant look or gesture. The Rock on which the Church was to be built was Himself, in the mystery of that union of the Divine and the Human which had been the subject of St. Peter’s confession. Had Peter himself been meant, we may. add, the simpler form, “Thou art Peter, and on thee will I build My Church,” would have been clearer and more natural. As it is, the collocation suggests an implied contrast: “Thou art the Rock-Apostle; and yet not the Rock on which the Church is to be built. It is enough for thee to have found the Rock, and to have built on the one Foundation.” (Comp. Matthew 7:24.)

I will build my church.—It is significant that this is the first occurrence of the word Church (Ecclesia) in the New Testament, the only passage but one (Matthew 18:17) in which it is found in the whole cycle of our Lord’s recorded teaching. Its use was every way significant. Partly, doubtless, it came with the associations which it had in the Greek of the Old Testament, as used for the “assembly” or “congregation” of the Lord (Deuteronomy 18:16; Deuteronomy 23:1; Psalms 26:12); but partly also, as soon at least as the word came in its Greek form before Greek readers, it would bring with it the associations of Greek politics. The Ecclesia was the assembly of free citizens, to which belonged judicial and legislative power, and from which aliens and slaves were alike excluded. The mere use of the term was accordingly a momentous step in the education of the disciples. They had been looking for a kingdom with the King, as its visible Head, sitting on an earthly throne. They were told that it was to be realised in a society, an assembly, like those which in earthly polities we call popular or democratic. He, the King, claimed that society as His own. He was its real Head and Founder; but, outwardly, it was to be what the word which He now chose described. And this Church He was about to build. It need hardly be said that the word ecclesia did not lend itself so readily as the English equivalent does to the idea of building. The society and the fabric in which the members of the society meet were not then, as they are now, described by the same term. The similitude was bolder than it seems to us. Like the “city set on a hill” of Matthew 5:14, like the “vine” of John 15:1, it may well have been suggested by the scenery in the midst of which the words were uttered. For there upon one rock rose the ruins of the old Canaanite city of Hazor; and on another the stately palace built by the Herodian princes, and still, as the Castle of Shubeibeh, covering an extent of ground equal to that occupied by the Castle of Heidelberg (Stanley’s Sinai and Palestine, c. 11). Once started on its way, the similitude became the fruitful source of new thoughts and phrases. The ecclesia was the “house of God” (1 Timothy 3:15); it was a “holy temple” (Ephesians 2:21). All gifts were bestowed for the work of “edifying” or building it up (1 Corinthians 14:3-4; Ephesians 4:12). Those who laboured in that work were as “wise architects or master builders” (1 Corinthians 3:10). But Christ, we must remember, claims the work of building as His own. Whatever others may do, He is the supreme Master-builder. As in His sacerdotal character, He is at once Priest and Victim, so under the aspect now presented (consistency of metaphors giving way to the necessities of spiritual truth) He is at once the Founder and the Foundation of the new society.

The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.—The gates of Hades (see Note on Matthew 11:23), not of Gehenna, the place of torment. Hades as the shadow-world of the dead, the unseen counterpart of the visible grave, all-absorbing, all-destructive, into whose jaws or gates all things human pass, and from which issue all forces that destroy, is half-idealised, half-personified, as a power, or polity of death. The very phrase, “gates of the grave, or of Hades,” meets us in Hezekiah’s elegy (Isaiah 38:10), and Wis. 16:13. In Revelation 6:8 the personification is carried still further, and Death rides upon a pale horse, and Hades follows after him, and both are in the end overthrown and cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14). And as the gates of the Eastern city were the scene at once of kingly judgment (2 Samuel 15:2) and of the council of the elders (Proverbs 31:23), they became the natural symbol of the polity which ruled there. And so the promise declared that all the powers of Hades, all the forces of destruction that attack and in the long run overpower other societies, should attack, but not overpower, the ecclesia of which Christ was the Founder. Nothing in our Lord’s teaching is, as measured by man’s judgment, more wonderful than the utterance of such a prophecy at such a time. It was, as has been said, a time of seeming failure. He was about to announce, with a clearness unknown before, His coming death as a malefactor, and yet it was at this moment that He proclaimed the perpetuity and triumph of the society which as yet, it may be said, existed only in the germs of a half-realised conception. The history of the world offers hardly any serious parallel to such a prediction, and still less to that fulfilment of it which has been witnessed through eighteen centuries of Christendom, and which does not as yet seem drawing to its close.

Verse 19

(19) I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.—Two distinct trains of figurative thought are blended in the words that follow. (1.) The palace of a great king implied the presence of a chief officer, as treasurer or chamberlain, or to use the old Hebrew phrase, as “over the household.” And of this, as in the case of Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah (Isaiah 22:22), the key of office, the key of the gates and of the treasure, was the recognised symbol. In the highest sense that key of the house of David belonged to Christ Himself as the King. It was He who opened and none could shut, who shut and none could open (Revelation 3:7). But that power was now delegated to the servant whose very name, as an Apostle, marked him out as his Lord’s representative, and the after history of Peter’s work, when through him God “opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27; Acts 15:7), was the proof of his faithful discharge of the office thus assigned to him. (2.) With this there was another thought, which in the latter clause of the verse becomes the dominant one. The scribes of Israel were thought of as stewards of the treasures of divine wisdom (Matthew 13:52). When they were admitted to their office they received, as its symbol, the “key of knowledge” (Luke 11:52), which was to admit them to the treasure-chambers of the house of the interpreter, the Beth-Midrash of the Rabbis. For this work the Christ had been training His disciples, and Peter’s confession had shown that the training had so far done its work. He was qualified to be a “scribe instructed unto the kingdom of heaven, and to bring forth out of its treasures things new and old” (Matthew 13:52); and now the “key” was given to him as the token of his admission to that office. It made him not a priest (that office lay altogether outside the range of the symbolism), but a teacher and interpreter. The words that follow as to “binding” and “loosing” were the formal confirmation in words of that symbolic act. For they, too, belong to the scribe’s office and not the priest’s, and express an entirely different thought from that of retaining and forgiving sins. That power was, it is true, afterwards bestowed on Peter and his brother-apostles (see Note on John 20:23), but it is not in question here. As interpreted by the language which was familiar to the Jews (see Lightfoot, Hor. Hebr., on this verse), the words pointed primarily to legislative or interpretative functions, not to the judicial treatment of individual men. The school of Shammai, e.g., bound when it declared this or that act to be a transgression of the Sabbath law, or forbade divorce on any but the one ground of adultery; the school of Hillel loosed when it set men free from the obligations thus imposed. Here, too, the after-work of Peter was an illustration of the meaning of the words. When he resisted the attempt of the Judaisers to “put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples” (Acts 15:10), he was loosing what was also loosed in heaven. When he proclaimed, as in his Epistle, the eternal laws of righteousness, and holiness, and love, he was binding those laws on the conscience of Christendom. It must be remembered, lastly, that the power thus bestowed on him was conferred afterward (Matthew 18:18) on the whole company of the Apostles, or, more probably, on the whole body of the disciples in their collective unity, and there with an implied extension to partially judicial functions (see Note on Matthew 18:18).

A few words will, it is believed, be sufficient to set the claims and the controversies which have had their starting point in these words on their right footing. It may be briefly noted (1) that it is at least doubtful (not to claim too much for the interpretation given above) whether the man Peter was the rock on which the Church was to be built; (2) that it is doubtful (though this is not the place to discuss the question) whether Peter was ever in any real sense Bishop of the Church of Rome, or in any way connected with its foundation; (3) that there is not a syllable pointing to the transmission of the power conferred on him to his successors in that supposed Episcopate; (4) as just stated, that the power was not given to him alone, but equally to all the disciples; (5) that the power of the keys, no less than that of “binding” and “loosing,” was not sacerdotal, but belonged to the office of a scribe or teacher. As a matter of interpretation, the Romish argument from this verse stands on a level with that which sees the supremacy of the successors of St. Peter in the “two great lights” of Genesis 1:16, or the “two swords” of Luke 22:38. The claims of the Church of Rome rest, such as they are, on the greatness of her history, on her association with the imperial city, on the work done by her as the “light of the wide West” in ages of darkness, on the imposing aspect of her imagined unity; but to build them upon the promise to Peter is but the idlest of fantastic dreams, fit only to find its place in that Limbo of vanities which contains, among other abortive or morbid growths, the monstrosities of interpretation.

Verse 20

(20) Then charged he his disciples that they should tell no man.—We may venture to analyse what we may reverently call the motives of this reticence. Had the disciples gone about, not only as proclaiming the kingdom and as preachers of repentance, but sounding the watchword that the Christ had come, it might not have been difficult for them to gather round Him the homage of excited crowds. It was not such homage, however, that He sought, but that which had its root in a deeper faith. It tended to present a false aspect of His kingdom to the minds of men; it tended also to prevent the consummation to which He was now directing the thoughts of His disciples as the necessary condition of His entering on the glory of His kingdom. The zeal of the multitude to make him a king after their own fashion (John 6:15) was what He deprecated and shunned.

Verse 21

(21) From that time forth began Jesus.—The prominence given to the prediction shows that it came upon the minds of the disciples as something altogether new. They had failed to understand the mysterious hints of the future which we find in, “Destroy this temple” (John 2:19), in the Son of Man being “lifted up” (John 3:14), in the sign of the prophet “Jonas” (Matthew 12:39; Matthew 16:4). Now the veil is uplifted, and the order of events is plainly foretold—the entry into Jerusalem, the rejection, the condemnation, the death, the resurrection. It is obvious that if we accept the record as true the prediction is one which implies a foreknowledge that is at least supernatural, and is so far evidence of a divine mission, if not also of a divine nature in the speaker. And it may well be urged that in this case the incidents which surround the prediction—as, e.g., Peter’s protest, and the rebuke addressed to him in such striking contrast with the previous promise—have a character of originality and unexpectedness which negatives the hypothesis of its being a prophecy after the event. On the other hand, the fact that the disciples did not take in the meaning of the prediction as to His rising from the dead may, in its turn, be pleaded in bar of the assumption that the prophecy lingered in men’s minds, and suggested the belief in a mythical, in the absence of a real, fulfilment.

Verse 22

(22) Peter took him, and began to rebuke him.—It is obvious that the mind of the disciple dwelt on the former, not the latter part of the prediction. The death was plain and terrible to him, for he failed to grasp the idea of the resurrection. The remonstrance would perhaps have been natural at any time, but the contrast between this prediction and the tone of confidence and triumph in the previous promise doubtless intensified its vehemence. Personal love for his Lord, his own desire to share in the glory which that promise had implied, were united in his refusal to accept this as the issue towards which they were tending.

Be it far from thee, Lord.—The words are a paraphrase rather than a translation of the original. Literally, the words are an abbreviated prayer, “(God be) merciful to Thee,” the name of God, as in our colloquial “Mercy on us!” being omitted. The phrase is of frequent occurrence in the Greek version of the Old Testament, as, e.g., in Exodus 32:12; Numbers 14:19; Deuteronomy 21:8. It is almost idle to attempt to trace a distinctly formulated thought in the sudden utterance of sorrow and alarm, but so far as the words go they seem of the nature of a protest against what seemed to the disciple a causeless despondency, a dark view of the future, at variance alike with his own expectations and what seemed to him the meaning of his Master’s previous words. The words that followed were, however, more than a prayer, “This shall not be unto Thee,” as though his power to bind and to loose extended even to the region of his Master’s work and the means by which it was to be accomplished.

Verse 23

(23) He turned, and said to Peter.—St. Mark adds, significantly, “when He had turned about and looked on His disciples.” They, we may believe, stood behind, watching the effect of the remonstrance which Peter had uttered as their spokesman, and therefore, the Lord reading their thoughts, the rebuke, though addressed to him, was spoken so that they too might hear.

Get thee behind me, Satan.—The sharpness of the words indicates a strong and intense emotion. The chief of the Apostles was addressed in the self-same terms as those which had been spoken to the Tempter (see Note on Matthew 4:10). It was, indeed, nothing less than a renewal of the same temptation. In this suggestion, that He might gain the crown without the cross, and attain a kingdom of this world as the princes of the world obtain their kingdoms, the 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, with the associations that had gathered round its original.

Thou art an offence unto me.—The Greek word is, of course, to be taken as meaning a stumbling block, an impediment. So taken, it presents a suggestive contrast to the previous promise. Peter is still a stone, but it is as “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence” (Isaiah 8:14; 1 Peter 2:8). He is hindering, not forwarding his Master’s work. For one who loved his Lord as Peter did—his very love in this instance prompting the rash words—this was at once the sharpest and yet the tenderest, and therefore the most effective, rebuke that could have been uttered.

Thou savourest not the things that be of God.—The verb, though found in all English versions from Wiclif downwards, and suggested by the sapis of the Vulgate, was never a very happy one, and is now so archaic as to be misleading. It may help us to understand it, to remember that our savour and the French savoir are both forms derived from the Latin sapere, and that the translators were so far justified in using it to describe a mental state, or rather act. Elsewhere the word is rendered “mind,” or “set affection on,” as, e.g.,mind the things of the flesh,” or “of the spirit” (Romans 8:5), and “set your affection on things above” (Colossians 3:2); and this is obviously a more satisfactory rendering. Peter’s sin lay in the fact that his mind was set on the things of earth, its outward pomp and pageantry, measuring the future by a human not a divine standard.

It is hardly a needless divergence from the work of mere interpretation to suggest that the weakness of Peter has been again and again reproduced in the history of Christendom at large, most conspicuously in the history of the Church which rests its claims on the greatness of the Apostle’s name. The annals of the Papacy, from the colossal sovereignty, which formed the ideal of Hildebrand, down to the last struggle for temporal power, is but the record of the zeal not according to knowledge of those who “savoured not the things that be of God, but those that be of man.” So far as this was so, they were working, though they knew it not, for evil and not for good, even as the chief of the Apostles when he thus became of one mind with the spirit of the world, which is also the spirit of the Tempter, placed himself for the moment on a level with the disciple whom our Lord had hinted at as a “devil,” because the seeds of treachery and greed of gain were already working in his soul (John 6:70).

Verse 24

(24) Then said Jesus unto his disciples.—St. Mark adds that He “called the multitude with the disciples,” and St. Luke’s “he said unto all “implies something of the same kind. The teaching as to the unworldliness of His kingdom which the disciples so much needed was to be generalised in its widest possible extent. Those who were following Him, as many did, in idle wonder, or with the desire of earthly greatness, must do so knowing its conditions.

If any man will come after me.—The “will” is more than a mere auxiliary; “willeth,” “desireth” to come after.

Let him deny himself, and take up his cross.—Our common thoughts of “self-denial,” i.e., the denial to ourselves of some pleasure or profit, fall far short of the meaning of the Greek. The man is to deny his whole self, all his natural motives and impulses, so far as they come into conflict with the claims of Christ. If he does not so deny himself, he is in danger, as Peter was (it is significant that the same word is used in both instances), of denying his Lord. The self-denial here commanded has, accordingly, its highest type and pattern in the act by which the Son of God, in becoming man, “emptied Himself (see Note on Philippians 2:7) of all that constituted, if we may so speak, the “self” of His divine nature. The words “take up his cross,” which the disciples had heard before (see Note on Matthew 10:38), were now clothed with a new and more distinct meaning, by the words that spoke so clearly of the death of which the cross was to be the instrument.

Verse 25

(25) Whosoever will save his life, . . . whosoever will lose his life. . . .—There is a subtle distinction between the two clauses in the Greek which the English fails to represent. “Whoso ever willethi.e., wishes—to save his life” (the construction being the same as in Matthew 16:24) in the first clause, “Whosoever shall lose his life” in the second. It is as though it was felt that no man could wish to lose his life for the sake of losing it, though he might be ready, if called on, to surrender it. The word rendered “life” is the same as “the soul” of the next verse. For the most part, it means the former rather than the latter with its modern associations, and is never used as a simple equivalent for the spirit of man as the heir of immortality. Strictly speaking, it is the animating principle of the natural as distinguished from the spiritual life. Man, in the fuller trichotomy of the New Testament, consists of “body, soul, and spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:23), the soul being the connecting-link between the other two. The truth is, of course, put in the form of a paradox, and hence, with a contrast between the two aspects of the soul, or psyche. To be bent on saving it in its relation to the body, is to lose it in its relation to the higher life of spirit; to be content to part with it in its lower aspect, is to gain it back again in the higher.

Verse 26

(26) what is a man profited . . .?—It is not without a purpose that what may be called the argument of expediency is here brought in. Even the self-denial of Matthew 16:24 does not exclude the thought, for those who are still within the range of its influence, of what, in the long-run, will profit us most. There is a self-love which, in spite of the strained language of an exaggerated and unreal philanthropy, is ennobling and not debasing.

In exchange for his soul.—The English introduces an apparent antithesis of language (as has just been noticed) in place of the identity of the original. It would be better to keep “life” in both verses. If there is no profit in bartering even the lower life for the whole world, how much less in bartering the higher,

‘Et propter vitam vivendi perdere causas!

And when that forfeiture has been incurred, what price can he then pay to buy it back again? No. “It costs more to redeem their souls, so that he must let that alone for ever” (Psalms 49:8, Prayer Book version).

Verse 27

(27) For the Son of man shall come.—The fact stands in a logical relation to the preceding verse. The fact that the Son of Man is about to come to execute judgment, clothes its abstract statement with an awful certainty. No bribe can be offered to the Eternal Judge to change the sentence of forfeiture if that forfeiture has been rightfully incurred. From first to last in our Lord’s teaching (e.g., for its earlier stages, Matthew 7:23-24; John 5:26-27) this claim to be the future Judge of all men is never absent. It is asserted in every great discourse, implied in almost every parable.

With his angels.—We are justified by Matthew 25:31 in referring the possessive pronoun to Christ rather than the Father. “All things that the Father hath are Mine” (John 16:15), and among these the angels that do His pleasure.

His works.—The better MSS. give a word in the singular, his doing or conduct. The sentence is made to depend on the collective character of what has been done rather than on the multitude of individual acts.

Verse 28

(28) There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death . . .—The immediate sequence of the vision of the Son of Man transfigured from the low estate in which He then lived and moved, into the “excellent glory” which met the gaze of the three disciples, has led not a few interpreters to see in that vision the fulfilment of this prediction. A closer scrutiny of the words must, however, lead us to set aside that interpretation, except so far as the Transfiguration bore witness to what had till then been the latent possibilities of His greatness. To speak of something that was to take place within six days as to occur before some of those who heard the words should taste of death (comp. John 8:52, Hebrews 2:9, for the form of the expression) would hardly have been natural; nor does the vision, as such, satisfy the meaning of the words “coming in His kingdom.” The solution of the problem is to be found in the great prophecy of Matthew 24:0. In a sense which was real, though partial, the judgment which fell upon the Jewish Church, the destruction of the Holy City and the Temple, the onward march of the Church of Christ, was as the coming of the Son of Man in His kingdom. His people felt that He was not far off from every one of them. He had come to them in “spirit and in power,” and that advent was at once the earnest and the foreshadowing of the “great far-off event,” the day and hour of which were hidden from the angels of God, and even from the Son of Man Himself (Mark 13:32). The words find their parallel in those that declared that “This generation shall not pass away till all be fulfilled” (Matthew 24:34). That such words should have been recorded and published by the Evangelists is a proof either that they accepted that interpretation, if they wrote after the destruction of Jerusalem, or, if we assume that they were led by them to look for the “end of all things” as near at hand, that they wrote before the generation of those who then stood by had passed away; and so the very difficulty that has perplexed men becomes a proof of the early date of the three Gospels that contain the record.

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Matthew 16". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/matthew-16.html. 1905.
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