“According to Matthew”
A study of the Gospel of Matthew
Part 17: Confession and Commitment
In our study in the life of Jesus 'According to Matthew'. Chapters 15 through 17 mark a turning point. We hear less about the kingdom and more about the Cross. In chapter 16 we see how the disciples are coming to understand not only who Jesus really was but also what the true demands of discipleship were. In this chapter we see hints of resurrection and a clear statement that the road Jesus was traveling would lead to His death. This teaching is given to those who were on the inside, those who were genuinely seeking to follow.
Matthew 16:1-4 The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested Him by asking Him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied, "When evening comes, you say, 'It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,' and in the morning, 'Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.' You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah." Jesus then left them and went away.
The hostility of the Pharisees and Sadducee's continues to grow. They are desperate to catch Jesus out. Although in the popular opinion there was accumulating a body of evidence that pointed to Him as being the Messiah, how could that be possible? He didn't fit into their narrow description of how a 'Messiah' should act, particularly in regard to their laws and traditions. He had to be exposed as the phony He really was. So they come to Jesus, in the words of Matthew Henry 'Not to be taught by Him, but to ensnare Him'.
Jesus has been healing the sick and casting out demons from among the common people. Yet still the Pharisees come to Him asking for a 'sign from heaven'. One can only presume that wonderful things taking place among the common folk was not that significant in their minds. Again Matthew Henry comments; 'They despised those signs which relieved the necessity of the sick and the sorrowful, and insisted upon some sign which would gratify the curiosity of the proud'.
Pride seems to be the root of the problem in the Pharisees understanding. They consider themselves 'above' such things as the witness of healing and deliverance. They want something more, something spectacular, something indisputable.
I was reading a recent online posting by a guy called Bill Easum, titled 'Five Reasons Western Christianity Is In Trouble While Christianity Florishes In Much Of The World'. One of the reasons he offers is that in our culture we have become too proud in our understanding to accept the simple message of the gospel, particularly when it relates to the miracles of Jesus. He comments:
'Western Christians have become too sophisticated to truly believe in miracles and if you don’t believe in miracles you can’t believe in Jesus because He IS a miracle. We are too smart to truly believe that God raised Jesus from the dead and that he now sits at the right hand of God. So if that isn’t believable nothing else is in the story from that day forward.'
Jesus is not so tolerant as to describe them as being 'sophisticated' or 'proud' but describes them as being part of a 'wicked and adulterous generation'. He confronts them with the fact that whilst they could interpret the weather, they were clueless when it came to understanding who He was. Their hearts were hard. Their minds were closed. And He is done with playing their games.
The only thing He offers them is 'the sign of Jonah'. What was the sign of Jonah?
Firstly, there was the power of Jonah's preaching. Through his preaching mission the people of Nineveh were turned around and taken from godlessness into the Kingdom. Secondly, there was Jonah's miraculous deliverance from death after three days in the belly of a large fish in the depths of the ocean.
The only sign that the Pharisees are offered from here on is the witness of Jesus words and the testimony the disciples would later give that 'Jesus died and was raised on the third day'. To move forward in faith, the Pharisees need to see that the greatest miracle was not any specific action Jesus performed, but the miracle of Jesus Himself, His life, His death, His Resurrection and Ascension.
Jesus conversation with the Pharisees and Sadducee's is over. Nothing more to say. He walks away to be with His disciples. We find that they also are struggling to make sense of the events that are unfolding around them. Was Jesus the Messiah? They certainly were not ready for the idea of death and resurrection, and were being stretched in their understanding beyond anything they had ever experienced before. So... verses 5 thru 10.
When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. "Be careful," Jesus said to them. "Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees." They discussed this among themselves and said, "It is because we didn't bring any bread." Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, "You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Don't you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? How is it you don't understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees." Then they understood that He was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Despite the fact that they are in the midst of signs and wonders, and receiving teaching from Jesus that is on a high spiritual plane, the disciples still function at the most human of levels. They are concerned about what to eat. They worry about doing the right thing. They want to make Jesus proud of them!
They'd just witnessed His confrontation with the Pharisees and Sadducee's. The comment of Jesus about 'no sign but the sign of Jonah' may well have gone right over their heads. But one thing they know. As they travel across the lake, they had forgotten to bring any thing for lunch. Verse 5 “ When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. “
So Jesus throws a comment out to them. “Watch out for the yeast (which in the original language is a very similar word to bread) of the Pharisees and Sadducee's.” Immediately they are on their guard and start talking among themselves. 'Oh my gosh. We forgot to bring the sandwiches! We should have brought some bread with us!”
I like the way “The Message” bible pictures what happens next. Jesus knows what they are talking about and interrupts their conversation “Why all these worried whispers about forgetting bread?” He describes them as 'fledglings in the faith, baby-birds in belief' who still hadn't caught on yet where He was coming from. He reminds them of what had happened in the events of feeding the 5000 and feeding the 4000, and how much they had in leftovers.
It wasn't about food or physical needs. Hadn't they yet come to understand that He was well able to take care of all that for them? They didn't need to become all guilt ridden over forgetting their sandwiches! As again the Message Bible puts it; “Haven't you realized that bread isn't the problem? The problem is yeast. Pharisee and Sadducee yeast.' Then they get it! “He wasn't concerned about eating, but teaching – the Pharisee-Saduccee kind of teaching.”
I feel that there is a message here for those, like ourselves, who belong to traditional denominations that are in decline. We can easily become so concerned about our maintenance that we lose sight of our mission. 'Having bread with them' was a maintenance issue. It was about them, their needs and their responsibilities. They felt guilty because they weren't fulfilling them. 'It's because we didn't bring bread' they whisper to one another.
Jesus instead turns their focus to times when they reached out to others in mission. “Remember the feeding of the 5000 and the 4000. Remember what was left-over?” It was only as they recaptured that idea that their reason for being was not themselves, but about meeting the needs of others, that they suddenly get it. They have been acting like the Pharisees and Saduccee's. They have been more concerned about being right than trying to make things right in the wider world. They have been looking 'in' instead of looking 'out'.
Such was the yeast of the Pharisees. They were concerned with personal salvation and survival rather than embracing outsiders with the grace and mercy and abundance of God's love. And all of that is somehow tied up with who we believe Jesus was and what we believe His significance to really be. We move to a passage now where Jesus puts His disciples on the spot and asks them what they really believe about Him and His ministry. Verses 13-17
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets." "But what about you?" He asked. "Who do you say I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.
The way we live our lives, both individually and corporately as a congregation, all revolves around the question that this passage challenges us with. Who do we believe Jesus is? It's fascinating to see how Jesus leads the disciples towards personal confession.
First of all He asks them a very general question. 'What are people saying about me?' or actually it's even more general than that, He asks them "Who do people say the Son of Man is?". The question is phrased in the same way as a marketing survey. What's the word on the streets?
And the disciples offer some responses. 'Some say John the Baptist'. In a previous chapter Matthew speaks of how Herod feared that Jesus was the ghost of John come back to haunt him, after he had the Baptist beheaded at a boozy birthday bash. John was one of those 'out-there' characters. A holy man for sure and definitely popular with the common folk. Still today people will acknowledge Jesus as being that sort of character. A popular religious figure who eventually fell foul of the authorities.
Some say 'Elijah'. Elijah at this time in history was a figure of mythical proportions. Elijah was the one who would return before the end times or the dawn of a new-age. Jesus had even spoken of John the baptist as being the Elijah like figure who had heralded His coming. Still today people think of Jesus as a mythical hero of the past. Some even look to His coming again, not as gentle Jesus meek and mild, but warrior Jesus, riding a white horse, sword in hand, to avenge the martyrs and establish God's rule forcibly upon all creation.
Some say 'Jeremiah or one of the prophets'. The Koran pictures Jesus as 'one of the prophets'. The greatest prophet of them all, although only Mohammed is the true interpreter of His message. People throughout history have described Jesus as being the 'greatest teacher that ever lived'. Ghandi described the sermon on the mount as the greatest of all teaching. Many people, though they may not be members of the church or even believers in any particular faith, nevertheless acknowledge that Jesus was a great prophet and radical teacher. Certainly a religious figure comparable with Elijah or Jeremiah.
But then Jesus goes and makes it all personal. We do well to recognize that another persons faith cannot be a substitute for own. That other peoples opinions are not the equivalent of our own experience. He challenges them with a straightforward and pointed question. 'But what about you?" He asked. "Who do you say I am?" ' (verse 17)
I suspect there was quiet at this point. Maybe their minds were still trying to figure out how to answer such a question. Maybe some of them were afraid to say what they really believed or express their thoughts for fear they may look foolish. What Jesus is seeking from them, is what He seeks from us all, a personal confession of faith.
As Presbyterians we often shy away from such personal expression, fearing that it can be ostentatious or even embarrassing. Other traditions are not so reticent. Indeed their lack of reticence partly accounts for our own. Maybe we have heard too many testimonies with words that have not been backed up by lives that showed evidence of transforming grace and love. Maybe we become a little cynical when folk offer glowing testimony of the difference Jesus has made in their lives, because sometimes their lives don't seem that different and phrases such as 'born again' or 'being saved' have become identified with particular political views or unspoken expectations.
However that may be, we still have this passage confronting us. Jesus looks straight at us and asks 'What about you. Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter is the one who gives an answer. Verse 16; 'Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."' This was huge! These were outstanding claims for a Jewish fisherman to make about anyone. To be 'THE' Messiah. To be the “Son of the living God.” This took Jesus out of the realm of being another John the Baptist or mystic or prophet or great teacher. This is Peter saying that Jesus is the real deal, the One in whom all peoples hopes and faith could be focused.
And Jesus says “Good job!” Or rather He says "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” This too is a remarkable statement. It suggests that for us to come to a personal confession requires more than just trying to figure everything out at an intellectual level, with our 'flesh and blood,' but requires that we are open to the moving and leading of the Spirit of God. Staying with verse 17 'this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.
To belong to the spiritual 'Kingdom of God' requires some kind of 'Holy Spirit' encounter that reveals to us the significance of the person of Jesus Christ. Such an encounter takes place for us as we encounter the Word of God through Scripture, through worship and through service. As we seek to practice the presence of God with others then the presence of God gets to work on our lives.
And we are not all at the same place at the same time. Peter got it. Some of the others didn't. Judas never seemed to get it. And even though it seems Peter got it right, he still had a long way to go. In a few verses time we see he is just as likely to be influenced by wrong as he is by right. But for the moment, right here 'according to Matthew', he got it totally right! And that's something that Jesus can build on. Verses 18 thru 20.
And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Then He ordered His disciples not to tell anyone that He was the Messiah.
Though some of my Roman Catholic colleagues may strongly disagree with me, this passage does not suggest that Peter was the first pope and that he was given all authority, through the church to which he held the keys, to admit people or expel them from the kingdom.
Neither do I think this passage is all about the words Peter has just spoken being the 'rock' upon which the true church is founded. It's more personal than that. Jesus makes a point of naming Peter. There is a play in words going on here. The name Peter, in both Aramaic and in Greek, meant “Rock.” And whilst it is true that in Peter's 'rock like' confession something awesome had happened, it was also the confession of a particular individual, once named Simon, whose life had been transformed by the Holy Spirit. I'll turn here, as I am inclined to do, to the words of William Barclay.
'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 upon him... and in ages to come everyone who makes the same discovery as Peter is another stone added to the edifice of the church of Christ.'
Keys represent authority. Peter would become a leader in the early church. In the early chapters of the Book of Acts, the history of the newly birthed church, the focus is upon the actions of Peter. He is the one who seeks to explain the events of Pentecost. (Acts 2:14, Acts 4:8). When Ananias deals dishonorably with the church community, it is Peter who enacts discipline. (Acts 5:3). It is to Peter that a vision of the extent of the mission to the Gentiles is revealed through a vision of clean and unclean animals. (Acts 10:4).
However, Peter does not become the sole authority. We read of others such as Stephen, Phillip, Thomas, John, James the brother of Jesus, and of course the apostle Paul who act with authority in the life of the earliest church, and as such become 'key-holders'.
The insistence of Jesus that the disciples keep things quiet is an indication of the growing opposition to the ministry of Jesus. People were having a difficult time understanding what He was about. To throw in claims of being the 'Messiah' and the 'Son of God 'could only muddy the waters even more deeply.
And this is a crucial moment in the disciples journey because Jesus is about to state quite clearly to them that His mission would involve His arrest, his murder, and His Resurrection. Hardly surprisingly, the disciples are not exactly thrilled at such a scenario and it is left to their leader, Peter the Rock, to express their horror and disbelief. Read 21 thru 23.
From that time on Jesus began to explain to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that He must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. "Never, Lord!" he said. "This shall never happen to you!" Jesus turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns."
Jesus talks less about the Kingdom and more about His cross and His betrayal. Matthew is quite deliberate in pointing out that it is those who hold the keys of religious power that betray Jesus. Sometimes it is said that the 'Jews killed Jesus.' We can easily forget that it was only Jews who first became disciples of Jesus and even forget that Jesus Himself was a Jew.
Anti-Semitism remains a serious problem in today's world. The death of Jesus came at the hands of the religious and political elite of His day, both Jew and Gentile, and whilst the climate of opinion was against Him at the time of His crucifixion (even those closest to Him deserted Him) it is not helpful to carelessly throw around phrases such as 'Jesus was killed by the Jews.' Matthew is careful not to do so, maybe particularly as he is writing for a Jewish audience!
Peter, expressing the disciples horror at what Jesus has told them, takes Jesus aside to have a quiet word with Him. “Listen Lord, we are not going to let something like this happen to you!' But this was a matter of destiny. This was why Jesus had come. To offer His life for the salvation of the world. Matthew uses here the phrase 'He must go to Jerusalem”. The Greek word used here for 'must' has the meaning 'it is necessary, there is need of, it behooves, it is right and proper' that He goes to Jerusalem. And Jesus firmly puts Peter right on this score. "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me”
It was in the earlier temptations in the wilderness that Satan sought to persuade Jesus from taking the road to Jerusalem. The Devil is still up to his old tricks, this time using the words of Peter, the rock upon whom the church is going to be founded, to talk Jesus out of doing the will of His Father.
There is another play on words here. Jesus uses the phrase 'stumbling-block' to describe Peter. He's saying that the Rock upon which the church was to be founded had become a rock that was attempting to trip Him up! The King James Bible translates 'stumbling-block' as 'offense' because the word in Greek is 'skandalon', which is where we get the English word 'scandal' from. To suggest to Jesus that He now abandoned His mission was a scandalous temptation that the disciples needed to put behind them. 'Get thee behind me!'
There's a children's chorus, that in times of temptation can actually be quite effective, that goes;
“Get thee behind me Satan, get thee away,
Don't want anything to do with you today,
SO... get thee behind me Satan, get thee away,
Cos I'm a christian soldier and I'm learning how to pray.
I'm a christian soldier and learning how to pray.”
As He teaches about the cross He must face, Jesus teaches the disciples that they will be challenged to fulfill their own destiny; a destiny linked to His ultimate victory. Verses 24-28.
Then Jesus said to His disciples, "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in His Father's glory with His angels, and then He will reward each person according to what they have done. "Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom."
To quote from the New Interpreters Bible Commentary:-
“This call to discipleship is based on faith in Christ and confidence in the future victory of God; it is not a matter merely of high human ideals or noble principles. That is, the life called for here is not based upon on a reasoned conclusion based upon how things are...but on faith that something has happened that makes everything different”
That 'something' is the death and resurrection of Jesus, the central acts of the Good News of the gospel. Without His death there is no message of redemption, without His resurrection there is no hope of eternal life. These two central events make all the difference in the world.
In this world we can either exist or live. We are either on a journey from the womb to the tomb or living a life from before the womb to beyond the tomb. Either we believe that we are born, we get by and then we die, or we frame our life in the terms of Scripture... that before we were even born God had us in mind, that we are here on this planet for a purpose that God alone can fulfill in us as we seek to live as children of the Kingdom and that beyond this life there are dimensions that our minds can hardly fathom.
Either we believe that the world is a cruel and uncaring place and we need to just make the most of the miserable time we have before blind chance destroys us or we can adopt the attitude that every day is a blessing given to us by God and that the greatest use of our life is to spend it in tasks that outlast it.
And the difference revolves around what we believe about Jesus, about why He came and who He was. Which throws us right back to the central verses of chapter 16, the moment Jesus turns to His disciples and puts them on the spot, verse 15 "But what about you?" He asked. "Who do you say I am?"
How we answer that question determines how we live our lives!
In our next chapter we are taken to the mountaintop and given a glimpse of glory, we witness the disciples fledgling attempts at Kingdom work in the casting out of evil, we hear Jesus again stating His intention to travel to Jerusalem and we will finish by coming right down to earth.... with a question about paying taxes. But all of that next time.