Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, June 19th, 2024
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 16

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

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Verses 1-12

The Pharisees Request a Sign (16:1-12; see Mark 8:11-21)

The request of the Pharisees calls to mind the same form in 12:38; but this time the Sadducees that is, the priests are also mentioned. "A sign from heaven" is to be understood as some clear proof which Jesus might give of his Messiahship. Jesus replies with an image. They know well how to discern what the weather is going to be by the color of the sky and the clouds. But they cannot discern "the signs of the times." Jesus obviously refers to the Messianic time which he announces and incarnates in his own Person. The expression "adulterous generation" means what the Old Testament meant by this term a generation which has turned away from the living God and betrayed his love. For such a generation all "signs" would be in vain. For "the sign of Jonah" see 12:38-41.

Verses 5-12 confront us with a new misunderstanding on the part of the disciples. They often are decidedly "without understanding" (Matthew 15:16). Let us admire the honesty with which the Gospel writers depict this slowness in understanding the true thought of Jesus, these frequent blunders. What patience is necessary on the part of their Master! And it is into their hands that he delivers his flock! There is here both encouragement and consolation for Christians in every age.

In this particular case, Jesus speaks figuratively; but the disciples, who have in their minds the fact that they had forgotten to buy bread, take his saying literally. They are more preoccupied with their immediate and material needs than with the hostility which has once more manifested itself against their teacher. The thread of their thoughts is other than that of Jesus; this is why there is no meeting of minds. Their anxiety about bread calls in question the faithfulness of God of which they have just had evidence.

What did Jesus wish to say by the expression "the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees"? In Jewish tradition leaven is an impure ferment; it is bread without leaven which is pure (Leviticus 2:11; compare 1 Corinthians 5:7-8). The teaching of the Pharisees and the Sadducees is compared to the bad ferment which penetrates the entire batch of dough; these teachers deceive the people about what the true righteousness of God is (Matthew 5:20). They substitute the commandments of men, human securities, for that obedience which is the authentic tradition of Israel. By subtle arguments they seek to undermine the authority of Jesus and to sow doubt among those who hear him. And already, they secretly plan to destroy him.

The Apostolic Church counted some Pharisees among its members, and certain others were fair-dealing opponents (see Acts 5:33-39); but it was also from the Pharisees that the Church ran up against the most systematic opposition. Jesus was already preparing his disciples for these future struggles.

Verses 13-20


Matthew 16:13 to Matthew 23:39

Who Is Jesus? (16:13-17:27)

The Confession of Peter (Matthew 16:13-20; Mark 8:27-30; Luke 9:18-21)

We come here to a crucial moment in the ministry of Jesus, when he confronts his disciples with the decisive question: "Who do you say that I am?" The importance of the conversation which is about to take place is underlined by the fact that Jesus takes the disciples outside Galilean territory, far from the crowds, far also from the control of the suspicious Herod, in the direction of Caesarea Philippi.

Jesus poses two distinct questions: "Who do men say . . .?" and "Who do you say . . .?" Matthew has indicated several times that the crowds were "astonished"; they "marveled" both at the teaching of Jesus and at his miracles. Everybody is asking who this man is, this one who calls himself "the Son of man." Some think that he is John the Baptist brought to life again (Matthew 14:1-2); others that he is Elijah-- Elijah in his day had done some great miracles and his return at the end of the age was expected (see Malachi 4:5); others that he is Jeremiah, doubtless because of the vigor with which Jeremiah had denounced the religion of his time. They discussed at length. Men have not ceased to discuss who Jesus is for twenty centuries, and the greater part of mankind remains just there. It is a long way from admiration to commitment.

The disciples have become involved. They have lived with their Master day after day; they have believed his promises; they have obeyed his call. They have been confronted with the mystery of his Person. God has revealed to them the hidden meaning of his words (Matthew 11:27; Matthew 13:11). And now, the hour is come when Jesus calls them to confess their faith: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."

The terms which Matthew places in the mouth of Simon Peter are more explicit than those in Mark’s and Luke’s accounts (see Mark 8:29; Luke 9:20). But they have the same meaning, and they reflect an Old Testament mode of speech. God called his Anointed his "son" (see Psalms 2:2-7); God is frequently called "the living God." The high priest, in the trial of Jesus, used the same terms (Matthew 26:63). These are the standard Messianic expressions.

The declaration of Jesus which follows (vss. 17-19) is found only in the Gospel by Matthew, and people are sometimes astonished that Jesus could declare an apostle "blessed" to whom, a few moments later, he will say, "Get behind me, Satan!" They are also astonished at the unique role here given to Peter. No objections urged against this text seem convincing.

To recognize in Jesus no longer merely a prophet but the Son of God is given only to faith; and this faith can only be a gift of God. Has Jesus not said that "no one knows the Son except the Father"? (Matthew 11:27). Paul declares: "No one can say ’Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:3). The entire Apostolic Church recognized that the divinity of Jesus Christ is a mystery of faith, inaccessible to human wisdom alone, which is otherwise called, according to a classic Hebrew expression, "flesh and blood" the natural man. When Simon confesses his faith, it is God himself speaking through his mouth. Great grace is given to him, and Jesus proclaims him "blessed." Jesus calls him by his Aramaic name, "Simon Bar-Jona" (son of Jona), and gives him a new name, "Peter" (or Cephas), which means rock (see 1 Corinthians 1:12; Galatians 2:9). The play on words in verse 18 indicates the Aramaic origin of the passage. The new name contains a promise. "Simon," the fluctuating, impulsive disciple, will, by the grace of God, be the "rock" on which God will build the new community.

Jesus knows Peter’s weakness but entrusts his brothers to him (see Luke 22:31-34). The testimony of the Acts shows that Peter is the recognized leader of the Apostolic Church, at least at its beginning (Acts 1:15; Acts 2:14; Acts 3:12; Acts 4:8; see 1 Corinthians 15:5; Galatians 1:18; Galatians 2:7). He is the first confessor of the faith which will later become the faith of the whole Church.

Here, for the first time, we meet with the term "church" on the lips of Jesus. It appears only twice in the entire Gospel by Matthew (Matthew 18:17), never in the others. Some have concluded that this word was added by the evangelist. But it is an idea which arises naturally out of the entire Gospel. Jesus has intended to gather around him the faithful "remnant" and to lay the foundations of a new community. The choice of the Twelve gives proof of this. The Greek term for "church" used by Matthew signifies "assembly" and was at that time employed in the Greek translation of the Old Testament to designate the assembly of believers. Jesus spoke Aramaic and it is impossible to know exactly what term he employed to designate the nascent community. At the time when the evangelist edited his Gospel, the current term to designate this community was "the church."

Jesus made the promise to his Church that "the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it" (vs, 18, margin). By Hades, Jewish tradition understood the abode of the dead conceived as a place closed forever for those who entered it. Jesus here proclaims his victory over death. The scribes were thought of as retaining "the keys" of the Kingdom of God, but they had shut off access to it for men (Matthew 23:13; Luke 11:52). Jesus opens it and gives to his Church the power to open it for those who will receive his word. This word has the power of "loosing" men from the bonds of sin and of death. But it is the condemnation of those who reject it

Jesus enjoins his disciples to tell no one that he is the Christ (vs. 20; see Mark 8:30). Here we are confronted with what has been called "the Messianic secret" The hour has not come to reveal his identity: on the one hand, because his ministry is not yet completed and the public confession of his Messiahship would lead to the sentence of death (Matthew 26:62-66); on the other hand, because his nature as "Messiah" can lead to grave misunderstandings. The rest of his conversation, with his disciples gives evidence of this.

Verses 21-28

The Announcement o Suffering

(Matthew 16:21-28; Mark 8:31 to Mark 9:1; Luke 9:22-27)

Jesus chooses this moment to speak to the disciples about the sufferings which await him. He tells them openly that the leaders of his people are going to put him to death. The disciples understand only that, and not the announcement of his resurrection which follows and they are indignant Certainly the hostility to which Jesus was exposed would give them a presentiment that he would, like the prophets, meet the fate of the prophets (see Luke 13:33). But how could the Messiah, the Son of God, be at the mercy of men? God, at the last moment, will manifest his power! Such is the meaning of Peter’s protest The idea of a suffering Messiah, of a Messiah put to death, is a scandal both for Peter’s heart and for his mind. No! God will not permit that! But Jesus recognizes, in the voice of this disciple and friend, the voice of the Tempter who earlier, in the wilderness, had attempted to divert him from naked obedience to the single will of God and to lure him into easier paths. Jesus’ reply is severe: "Get behind me, Satan!" Thus, the same man may be, in the interval of a few moments, the mouthpiece of God and the mouthpiece of Satan!

The force of this reply reveals the inner struggle Jesus is going through. Just because he is truly God and truly man, he measures, as no one else can, the horror of treachery, of abandonment, and of death. But he knows also that this death, beyond all secondary and human causes, is inscribed in the eternal plan of God: "he must . . . suffer." How hidden and mysterious are the thoughts of God! Are we astonished that Peter should be perplexed? Have we also not sometimes heard the reassuring voice of a friend who tries to divert us from a difficult duty: "Surely God does not demand that!" How we could wish that he were right!

The disciples’ lack of understanding makes the way of the Passion a strange, radically solitary way for Jesus. The disciples never cease to hope for a divine intervention. Jesus goes toward the Cross, they toward glory. In order that they might understand this mystery of the Servant crucified for the salvation of men, a new revelation of God will be necessary, even the Resurrection and the descent of the Holy Spirit But Jesus informs them now that this way of the Cross is not only his; it is also theirs (vss. 24-28). Men will reject them as they have rejected him. The words of verses 24-25 should be taken literally in the first instance: Jesus is preparing his Apostles for the possibility of martyrdom. They have a secondary meaning which is spiritual: to live life for God" it is necessary to consent to the death of the self.

The natural man within us loves himself. He has a thirst for being loved, for being esteemed by man, for playing a part, for success. The life which Jesus proposes for us is a life given up, whose center and motive force are no longer our ego and its ambitions, but God and his will for the salvation of all men. It is a new mode of existence, it is true life. Everything else passes away and is only vanity. "For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?"

Under a familiar paradoxical form to save one’s life is to lose it, to lose one’s life is to save it Jesus confronts all those who desire to follow him with the final question, the question of the meaning of their existence: For whom, for what, do you live? This saying must have left a deep mark on the first disciples, for it is cited several times (see Matthew 10:38-39, and parallels).

To those who will follow him on the way of sacrifice, Jesus opens the prospect of an eternity of glory (vs. 27). The Cross is not God’s last w T ord. The Son of Man will return, and then he will be resplendent with all the glory of the Father. He will come "with his angels" as King and as Judge.

Verse 28 may be understood to refer to a coming in the near future. Did Jesus believe his return to be imminent? This saying and some other words which we have seen earlier (Matthew 10:23) seem to indicate that he did. But he is very guarded about specifying times and seasons (Matthew 24:36). It is not the time of his return that is important but the assurance of this last accomplishment. The Son of Man, the crucified, is the one to whom God has entrusted the judgment of the world, and those who have confessed him and followed him in his humiliation will know him in all the brightness of his glory.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Matthew 16". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/matthew-16.html.
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