A Bible Lesson on Matthew 16:13-17:8

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

We pick up Matthew’s account of Jesus after a confrontation with Jewish religious leaders.  He is taking the disciples aside, away from the Jewish crowds, up into a predominantly gentile area.  The disciples have been with Him over 2 years at this point, growing in their understanding of who He really is.  It is time for Jesus to teach them very explicitly about who He is and what is soon to come for Him and them.  It is significant in our day of confused religious “pluralism” and secularism, where most people seem unable to see how anything could possibly be objectively and universally true, that Jesus takes the disciples to the region of Caesarea Philippi, and in that place draws from Peter the magnificent confession of Him as the Christ.  In terms of religious claims, this region was “it.”  It was a region loaded with (14!) temples of Baal worship, the Greeks maintained that the “god” Pan had been born there, and Herod the Great had built a magnificent and extremely visible white marble temple there in honor of the godhead of Caesar.   There, in the shadow of the shrines of competing pagan and secular religions, Jesus brings the disciples to the point of confessing His Messiahship.  The picture is one of 12 ordinary men, in the shadow of all the religious and secular claims of the world of their time, confessing the Lordship of Jesus.  Not a bad example for us today.

Matthew 16:13  Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

In asking this question Jesus is purposely employing the Messianic language of Daniel 7:13-14.

Daniel 7:13  “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.

14 And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.

He is implicitly claiming His place as the Christ, the anointed One.

14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

There’s general agreement that Jesus must be something out of the ordinary: maybe John come back to life, or maybe one of the prophets returned, perhaps even Elijah, the forerunner of Messiah, or perhaps Jeremiah.  The Jews had an extra-Biblical legend that just before the exile to Babylon, Jeremiah had taken the ark of the covenant and the altar of incense out of the temple and had hidden them in a cave on Mount Nebo, and that before the coming of Messiah, he would return and produce them and God’s glory would return to the nation.

15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

The issue is never what everyone else is thinking in their ignorance.  It is instead, “You’ve been graciously given a measure of light by God.  What are you personally going to do with it?”  The grammatical construction emphasizes the “you.”  YOU (plural), who do you say?

16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Peter, speaking on the behalf of all, nails it.  He clearly doesn’t understand the full implications of what he says, but he gets it exactly right.  This is not simply some Jewish prophet or even one of many competitors for the attention of man in a place of “religious diversity” like Caesarea Philippi.  This is instead the Christ/Messiah/God’s promised One, the One who has rightful claim to the throne of David, and the Holy Son of God.  This is the One who has exclusive right to the exclusive worship of every creature in the Universe.  This is a magnificent confession, completely emphatic and completely on target.  Apparently in Greek it is ten words that includes the definite article 4 times.  It is literally something like “You are the Christ, the Son of the God, the living One.”  Get this right and live consistent with it, and there is life.  Get it wrong and you have nothing.

Green commenting on the phrase title “Christ” or “anointed one” notes that 3 sorts of figures were anointed with oil in the Old Testament economy: prophets, priests, and kings.  Jesus is all of these.

17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.

It is the work of God that we come and bow the knee before His Son.  It’s absolutely essential, but not something that Peter or any of the rest of us would come to on our own.  Absolutely no human being comes to a real understanding of who Jesus is except through the revelation of the Father.  It is all of grace.  We saw that Jesus (in Matthew 11:27) said that only the Father reveals Him (Jesus) to a person, and only He (Jesus) reveals the Father to a person.  It is indeed, all of grace and all God’s doing.

18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

There is (both in Aramaic and Greek) the famous play on words here.  The meaning of Peter’s name is “rock.”  Simon, son of John, from now on, you’re “Rocky,” and with rocks such as you, I’ll build My Messianic people, My community of those called out by grace.  You’re the first to fully confess Me, and so you’re the first stone in My building to be built of living stones.  The gates of death and hell will not stand against that community of faith.  Death won’t be able to hold Me or My church.

The “gates of hell” is better rendered “the gates of death.”  The idea is that the church is an eternal one.  It will not die and be shut in by the gates of death.  The people of God, Christ’s church, will live forever.

Notice that Jesus, Messiah, is inextricably linked to His people, His assembly, His church, those who are His by virtue of their confession of who He is.  It’s significant that Jesus says it is His community.  He thereby again claims to be one with the Father.  (Otherwise it would be God’s community.)

19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Peter is here singled out for responsibility, that Jesus in Matthew 18:18 clearly indicates is also given to the rest of the 12 and the church more broadly.   (Matthew 18:18  Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.)  Peter will bind and loose in several senses.  In one sense, wherever the Gospel is preached it frees some and consigns others (via their rejection of the Truth) to eternal punishment.  Peter is the first preacher in the early church.  In another sense, Peter is called on in the early church to declare what kinds of actions are in line with the Christian revelation.  The Jewish Rabbis commonly used the terms “bind and loose” in this sense, in the sense of declaring what was forbidden and what was allowed.  Peter was in some ways “chief among equals” (in the 12 and the infant church) when questions such as what was to be required of gentile converts were discussed.  (See Acts 15 in this regard.)

The church and its God-ordained leadership must have authority in our lives.  Post-moderns resist that, to their terrible detriment.  This statement (of course) says nothing close to God being obligated to follow through with whatever Peter (or any of the rest of us) independently declares.  What it says is that what Peter (and the rest of the 12 and the church more broadly) set out in accord with the will of God in terms of prescriptions for conduct, has eternal consequences and God-given authority.  Peter and the church act as stewards of what is true and has been passed to us by the God of the Bible.

20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.

The time has not come for what they know to be spread abroad.  They must first really understand what the Messiahship of Jesus means, before blabbing it around.  They expect things quite different from the plan of God.  Think what a mess of things the masses would have made if they were “sure” that this guy Jesus was their long-awaited political liberator.  Even the disciples are not going to see the whole picture until after the resurrection.  Jesus must prepare them for His suffering as Messiah.  Green said, (the popular expectation) “… was too small, too nationalistic, too materialistic and earthbound.”

21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

Peter has correctly identified Jesus.  Now Jesus explains the nature of His sacrifice on our behalf.  This is central.  He’s Messiah. He’s the Son of God.  But if that’s all there is, you and I are doomed.  His identity is essential, it is completely necessary, but it is not sufficient for our redemption without His work.  Ryle wrote, “On matters of church government, and the form of worship, men may differ from us, and yet reach heaven in safety.  On the matter of Christ’s atoning death, as the way of peace, truth is only one.  If we are wrong here, we are ruined forever.  Error on many points is only a skin disease; error about Christ’s death is a disease of the heart.  Here let us take our stand.  Let nothing move us from this ground.  The sum of all our hopes must be that ‘Christ has died for us.’ (1Thess. 5:10) Give up that doctrine and we have no solid hope at all.”

This suffering is miles from what was the popular expectation for Messiah.  To be someone like the Isaiah “suffering servant” passages prophesy?  No way!  The Jews were looking for someone that would liberate them from the Romans and return them to national glory.  The disciples may have been slightly more enlightened by this time, but they certainly weren’t ready for Jesus to be killed.

22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.”

This is so like us and so wrong-headed.  Here’s Peter, a mere mortal, wanting to protect and give advice to the One he’s just acknowledged as the Son of God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe.  Absurd.  Peter has signed on with Jesus, but still thinks that he knows best and is in charge.  There is warning here.  Boice said, “It is easy for us to be exactly right one minute and terribly wrong the next.  One minute Peter is a prophet, a true spokesman for God.  The next minute he is advancing the agenda of the devil, not realizing that in trying to deflect Jesus from the cross, he is actually asking for his own damnation since apart from Jesus’ death neither he, nor any of us, can be saved. … If we are going to be right in spiritual things, it will only be to the extent that we study the Bible and grow in understanding.”   Green wrote, “Whatever spiritual experiences we may have had, we remain just as fallible and weak as ever before.  There is no plateau of spirituality to which we can ascend and be forever thereafter raised above the weaknesses that assail others.  Sin and failure are to be found in all the saints.  In this lifelong spiritual battle, victory is achieved only through ceaseless vigilance.”

Peter’s wrongheaded statement here is no small thing, no laughing matter, and Jesus’s reply is sharp.

23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Rocky, you’re another kind of rock at the moment.  You’re a big rock that I might trip on.  Remember that in the wilderness, Satan came to Jesus with the “easy way,” with plan B, a way that would avoid all this pain and suffering.  Jesus’s reply in the wilderness was in some of the same words He speaks here to Peter.

Matthew 4:10  Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'”

It is important for us to see, however, the difference between Jesus’s reply to Satan and His reply to Peter.  To Satan He says “be gone.”  To Peter He says “be gone behind me.”  The first banishes Satan from His presence.  The second tells Peter, who has been thinking and talking like Satan, to fall in behind Him like the follower he is, rather than to continue to assert his independence.  Satan is beyond redemption.  Fallen men who will repent and assume their right place as creatures are redeemable.

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

Hendricksen’s paraphrase (paying special attention to the tenses) is: Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wishes to be (counted as) an adherent of mine, he must once and for all say farewell to self, decisively accept pain, shame, and persecution for my sake and in my cause, and must then follow and keep on following me as my disciple.”  Green commented, “… No fight, no victory; no cross, no crown.  Followers of Jesus must not forget that there is inevitably a lifelong battle to fight.  They are called to follow their Master in suffering, but are promised a share in his triumph.”

25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?

As part of this whole sequence of events, these verses make perfect sense.  Jesus has said to the disciples that for Him to submit Himself to the will of the Father will result in suffering and death at the hands of the Jewish leaders.  Peter has exemplified our human rebellion and said that he has a better idea.  Jesus rebukes him and now says, “If you’re to have any part of me, you must submit your will entirely to God, put your own selfish ambitions to death, and follow Me as I obey the Father.”  This is not popular stuff, but is but the only way.  In any other way lies destruction.

This “deny yourself” business is not to be heard to be as trivial as abstaining from this or that for a period.  The point is rather one of obliterating “self” as the ruling principle of one’s life, and putting in its place the will of God.  That’s the kind of stuff that made Jesus willing to suffer and die.  That same stuff is required of real disciples, and if we will see clearly, it is the only attitude that makes any sense in the light of God’s great mercy toward us sinful creatures.

Think again of the call of this very same Matthew that is writing here.  Jesus came by the tax collection station and said “Matthew, drop everything and right now run along after me, no questions asked …”  And that is exactly what Matthew did.  He completely obliterated “self” as the ruling principle of his life, and ran along after Jesus.  That is true of every real disciple of Christ.

The taking up the cross is not simply bearing the hard things that come to all of us in life.  It is rather, voluntarily taking on death to our apparent temporal self-interests.  It is purposely taking the hard way for the glory of God and the benefit of others.

27 For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.

Christ will repay each person according to what he has done.  These are not matters of idle philosophy, but rather matters of reality.  We will either truly believe that Jesus is both Christ and God and come along after Him, living consistently with His own self-denial, or we will not.  That real choice will be seen in actions.  Post-modern foolishness attempts to substitute warm feelings and “knowledge” for right actions, “thinking”/”feeling” one way while “acting” another, having it both ways.  That is a delusion.

Verses 25 and 26 say that while to some degree it is possible live skillfully in temporal self-interest and more or less “come out ahead” in this life, dying with the most stuff, that it’s a bad bargain.  Human beings can’t both live for self and for God.  It’s one or the other, and the former perhaps “works” for a few years, but then turns to eternal misery.  The latter is joy eternal.

Matthew 17:1  And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.

The best guess seems to be that they are on one of the lower peaks of Mount Hermon, near Caesarea Philippi.  Luke tells us that Jesus is now here to pray.  We’ve just heard Peter first make the magnificent confession of Jesus as both Christ and God, followed by his foolish suggestion that Jesus shouldn’t suffer, for which Jesus rebukes him and tells him that both Christ and His followers will of necessity put to death their own selfish interests and choose the will of God.  France commented, “The one who is to suffer is God’s chosen Messiah, his Son, whose true nature is revealed in divine glory.” Ryle wrote, “The corner of the veil was lifted up, to show them their Master’s true dignity.”  Calvin quite eloquently made the point that this episode will later serve to highlight for the disciples the truth that Jesus went willingly to the cross, that this is the glorious One, who indeed could have completely obliterated all opposition if that was His way.  He was going to suffer, but not out of weakness, but rather strength.

2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.

He was “transfigured”/transformed/changed.  Mark and Luke say:

Mark 9:3  and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them.

Luke 9:29  And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white.

What can one say?  The disciples must have had their breath taken away.  It’s one thing to have some understanding that Jesus is the Messiah and even see him do the miraculous.  But it’s quite another to see Him take on a completely unworldly appearance.

3 And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.

Moses was the law giver, the one that led the people of Israel out of bondage in Egypt.  He was the one that met God face to face in a cloud on Mount Sinai.  Elijah was the prophet widely held by the Jews to have been the greatest of the prophets, the one that was to appear to prepare the way for Messiah.  He was the one that didn’t suffer death, but was taken up to God’s presence in a chariot of fire.  These are the ones talking with Jesus.

Luke says:

Luke 9:30  And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah,

31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

Jesus, the fulfiller of the Law and the Prophets is talking with Moses and Elijah about His impending Passion.  The word “departure” is the word “exodus.”  Moses, the leader of the exodus from Egypt is speaking with the Son of God about His provision for us, an exodus from our bondage to sin, hell and the grave.

Peter again blurts out.  Luke indicates that it was as Moses and Elijah were leaving that Peter jumps in.  There’s a whole lesson in itself there about our human desire to remain forever on the mountaintop.

4 And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

Peter is babbling.  What he proposes is just silly.  What real purpose could it serve?  Besides, it is just wrong-headed.

Mark 9:6  For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified.

He wants to prolong this experience, but in his babbling, he says something really quite inappropriate.  He is presumptuous in even figuring that he has a place to butt in here.  He really ought to be in a “speak when spoken to” mode.  But even worse, Peter unthinkingly lumps Jesus together with Moses and Elijah.  Should he make three lean-to’s on the mountainside?  There are three important people here, right?  The answer of the Father is clear.

5 He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”

Here is the Shekinah glory of God, the visible presence of the Father that led the Israelites in the wilderness and filled Solomon’s temple at its dedication.  And the voice says “It’s my Son that you ought to be paying attention to here!”  This is not Jesus and two equals discussing strategy here.  These are representatives of the Law and Prophets speaking as creatures, with the very fulfillment of the Law and Prophets.  The Father speaks of Jesus in exactly the terms used at His baptism in Matthew 3:17 and then adds “listen to Him.”

Ryle wrote this: ” ‘Hear ye Him.’ Let us see, in these words, a striking lesson to the whole Church of Christ. There is a constant tendency in human nature to ‘hear man.’  Bishops, priests, deacons, popes, cardinals, councils, Presbyterian preachers, and independent ministers, are continually exalted to a place which God never intended them to fill, and made practically to usurp the honour of Christ.  Against this tendency let us all watch, and be on our guard.  Let these solemn words of the vision ever ring in our ears: ‘Hear ye Christ.’

The best of men, are only men at their very best. Patriarchs, prophets, and apostles,—martyrs, fathers, reformers, puritans,—all, all are sinners, who need a Saviour: holy, useful, honourable in their place,—but sinners after all.  They must never be allowed to stand between us and Christ. He alone is ‘the Son, in whom the Father is well pleased;’ He alone is sealed and appointed to give the bread of life; He alone has the keys in His hands: ‘God over all, blessed forever.’ (Romans 9:5.)  Let us take heed that we hear His voice, and follow Him; let us value all religious teaching just in proportion as it leads us to Jesus.  The sum and substance of saving religion is to ‘hear Christ.'”

This is consistent with what God told the people of Israel long before through Moses.

Deuteronomy 18:15  “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers–it is to him you shall listen–

6 When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified.

No kidding?  Do you think one might remember this for a while?  We hear about it from the pens of both Peter and John.

John 1:14  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

2Peter 1:16  For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

17 For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,”

18 we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.

Post-moderns are generally too casual in their thinking about being in the presence of God.  Indeed except for the presence and sponsorship of our Savior the Lord Jesus, it would be a completely terrifying prospect.

7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.”

“Rise and have no fear.”  Unless Jesus is divine, this is empty.  He must supply what is needed here, or this is really no help.  Thank God, He has the goods and has compassion for us His sheep.

8 And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.

This is loaded with symbolism.  They see only Jesus, not Moses, not Elijah.  It is He who is supreme and it is He who can bring them safely into the presence of the Father.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

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