Notes Matthew chapter 16
© copyright 1997 drs Gijs van den Brink
Asking for a Sign 16:1-4
16:1. The Pharisees and Sadducees. Pharisees and Sadducees were groups in Jewish religious and political life absolutely opposed to each other (see commentary on 3:7). But they are frequently mentioned together in the Gospel (3:7; 16:1,6,11,12; 22:34), united in their opposition to Jesus (cf. John 7:32).
asking him … a sign from heaven. Just as after the first miraculous feeding (John 6:30), so now they demanded a convincing, divine confirmation of His being the Messiah in an extraordinary sign from God, a sign from heaven. They wanted Him to declare Himself clearly and publicly to be the long-expected Messiah, so that they could get rid of Him.
The scribes had previously asked for a sign (12:38). But in contrast to that time, they now come to Jesus to tempt Him (peirazontes).
2-3. Mark tells us that Jesus sighed deeply as He said this (8:12). Evidently it was not said without feeling.
the sky is … overcast. The Greek word used here (stugnazn) means 1. dismayed, apalled and 2. to be sad, to be grieved (Bauer, s.v.). It only occurs once more in the NT, namely in Mark 10:22, where it is said of a man ‘his face fell’. Here it means sombre and threatening darkness.
Jesus wanted to make it clear to the Pharisees and Sadducees that although they were very skilled at interpreting the signs foretelling the weather, they did not see the signs of the times. This brings a special judgement on them for not recognising the signs of the new era which dawned at Jesus’ birth (cf. 11:5). They were so clearsighted as the prophets on natural things, but spiritually they were blind.
4. In conformity with the later stage of His ministry, Jesus’ answer this time was even shorter than that in 15:3-9.
A wicked and adulterous generation. Jesus used extremely strong terms to characterise these Pharisees and Sadducees. ‘Wicked’ and ‘adulterous’ are terms used by the prophets Ezekiel (16:38; 23:45) and Hosea (3:1) when they speak of Israel’s spiritual prostitution.
none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. Jesus had previously answered a request for a sign by pointing to Jonah (12:38-40). Jonah became a sign to the inhabitants of Nineveh. He was sent to them after having been three days in the belly of a fish. Jesus alluded to His resurrection by this sign, for by His resurrection He would triumph completely and prove that He was the Messiah (Rom 1:4). It would be the sign of His complete victory over all His enemies.
Jesus then left them. That Jesus left them and departed also indicates that He gave them over to the fate they had chosen by hardening their hearts.
The Leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees 16:5-12
5. The disciples had left the Jewish area for the lonely, half gentile eastern side (16:13; Mark 8:22).
the disciples forgot to take bread. They had already set out when they discovered they had forgotten to take bread with them. It would be difficult to find a Jewish baker on the other side. They must, however, still have been close to the west coast when they made the discovery. For the disciples’ lack of understanding (vv.7-8) is comprehensible only if they thought they would have to land again to buy bread, but that they had to watch for the leaven of the Pharisees, i.e., that nothing was to be bought from them.
6. the yeast of the Pharisees. The yeast or leaven is an image referring to what permeates everything (1 Cor 5:6; Gal 5:9) and what is evil (Lev 2:11; 1 Cor 5:7 ff). The yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees is their way of thinking (and the teaching which comes from it, v.12), which infected the people and led to the consequence of their not accepting Jesus’ teaching. The disciples were not to be misled by it, but keep away from them (see commentary on vv.14,15). The fact that Jesus found it His place to issue a warning may indicate that the disciples were not particularly watchful of the danger threatening them from that direction.
The Sadducees in Galilee were mainly Herodians in their political alignment (cf. Mark 8:15).
7-8. They discussed this … The disciples understood nothing of Jesus’ words. They thought they had to go ashore to buy bread and thought that Jesus was concerned that He and they would be hungry. You of little faith. Because they thought this, even though they had witnessed two miraculous feedings (vv.9-10) and had been in His company for so long a time, Jesus called them men of little faith. Here He spoke to the disciples as He spoke to Peter when he began to sink (14:31).
Between the story of Peter and his wavering faith and that of the disciples and their little faith, we read of the Canaanite woman, whose faith was great (15:28).
9-10. Jesus first shows them their lack of understanding in general and in v.11 their lack of understanding in particular.
How they perceive an occurrence or a message (v.6) depends on their faith (v.8) and their understanding (v.9a). Faith and knowledge increase in proportion as one ‘re-minds’ oneselves more of the word of God and of the Lord’s working in one’s life (vv.9b-10).
11. The reason that the spiritual knowledge of the disciples fell short of the mark is not that they lacked the capability to make it their own. It is rather that they had not been attentive to the opportunities God had given them. (See also commentary on vv.9 and 10.)
The NIV follows the Egyptian textual testimony: Jesus repeats the warning from v.6 with certain expectation that the disciples will now really understand it.
12. Then they understood … Indeed they did then understand that Jesus was speaking in a parable to indicate a spiritual matter. It is obvious that the evil yeast -the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees- is contrasted to pure bread, the true Word of God that Jesus speaks. At the same time, the warning was a call to separate oneself from the Pharisees (vv.6; 15:14).
Peter’s Confession of Faith 16:13-20
13. Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi. The town was formerly called Paneas (Banjas today) and lay in the far north of Jewish territory at the foot of Mount Hermon. A cave in the neighbourhood was dedicated to the Greek god Pan, which is how the town got its name. The tetrarch Philip (Luke 3:1) rebuilt the town and renamed it Caesarea (Caesar’s town) in honour of the Emperor. To differentiate this place from the other, the better known Caesarea on the coast, the town gained the additional name of Philippi from Philip.
Who do people say the Son of Man is? Jesus asked the disciples how the people in general regarded Him, not according to the opinions of the Pharisees and Sadducees (9:34; 12:24). This was in preparation for the question as to who they considered Him to be (v.15). It is fundamentally important to know who Jesus is. If one has no clarity on this point, one will never have clarity on anything else relating to the Kingdom of God.
For the title ‘Son of Man’ see commentary on 8:20.
14. John the Baptist … Elijah … Jeremiah … The three great personalities named here show that the people had a high opinion of Jesus, but they did not perceive that He was the Messiah.
When stating the people’s ideas, the opinion of Herod and the court was mentioned first (14:2). The prophet Malachi (4:5) had prophesied that Elijah would return as a forerunner of the Messiah. Jeremiah was the prophet who looked most like Jesus: the combination of divine authority and suffering characterizes them both. Moreover, there were all kinds of legends circulating about him (2 Macc 2:1-9; 15:12-16) and it was also said of him that he would be sent as a forerunner of the Messiah (4 Ezra 2:18).
15. Who do you say I am? The question was posed to all the disciples, who answered, as so frequently they did, by the mouth of Peter (v.16).
Jesus does not only ask for faith in the heart, but He also wants confession with the mouth (cf. Rom 10:10). For this reason the disciples who knew Him were admonished, in contrast to the people (‘but what about you’ in contrast to the non-disciples, v.13), to give the correct confession of who He was.
16. You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. Peter’s confession took but a few words, but it was a turning point in the history of salvation. He spoke on behalf of all the disciples (cf. vv. 15 and 20) and of all believers with great power and emphasis.
The title of Messiah (Christ) describes Jesus’ whole ministry. ‘The Son of the living God’ means that Jesus was the Son of the living (as opposed to dead and dumb idols) God in a unique sense, that God reveals Himself in and through Jesus.
17. Blessed are you … this was not revealed to you by man. Jesus’ answer reminds us of His witness to Himself (11:25-27). Here Peter attained the same height. Jesus praised Peter without denying that he spoke on behalf of all the disciples and without excluding anyone who makes the same confession of faith. Peter is praised because of his confession (not because of who he is). He is blessed (blessed for ever) because the divine mystery of who Jesus is (11:27) has been revealed to him (cf. John 17:3).
son of Jonah. Apparently we must accept that Jonah (Gk. Ina) is here an abbreviation for Inas, if we accept the Egyptian readings of John 1:42, where Peter is called the ‘son of John’ as giving the correct reading (cf. the Greek Ianas and Inas).
18. you are Peter. After Peter had said ‘You are the Christ’ (v.16), Jesus in His turn said to him: ‘you are Peter’. Jesus had called Simon ‘Peter’ at their first meeting (John 1:42). Here it was confirmed that Peter is what his second name says he is.
on this rock I will build my church. Three different explanations are put forward. Firstly, that Peter is the rock; secondly, that his confession of Jesus is the rock (‘rock’ points to v.17); and thirdly, that Christ Himself is the rock (cf. 1 Peter 2:8). The last two explanations are based on the difference between petros and petra. But since there is no difference of gender in Aramaic between the proper name and the terminology for rock, the first explanation seems to us to be the correct one. Peter himself is the block of stone (not the cornerstone! see 21:42), i.e., the first stone needed for building a house, through which all other stones will be placed in position. For he was the first to speak out the church’s confession of faith. Peter is the prtos, the first (cf. Matt 10:2; Acts 1-15), but he is not the sole foundation (cf. v.17; Eph Eph 2:20-22; 1 Peter 2:4-6).
Here ‘church’ does not mean the earthly institutions, but the universal church, the new people of God, which exists of all true believers of all times and all places. This church is constructed as a building of God by Jesus the Master Builder.
the gates of hades:Already used in Isa 38:10; Job 38:17; Ps 107:18. This is a figure of speech (synecdoche) for ‘the underworld’. Jesus prophesies that the powers of the underworld, which will attack His Church, will not succeed in destroying it (cf. Rev 6:8; 9:5ff; 20:7ff.).
19. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. The image of the key is already to be found in Isa 22:12 (also Rev 3:7). Giving the keys to the major-domo symbolises handing over authority. The major-domo, the steward, has then the same power as the master of the house.
whatever you bind … and whatever you loose. ‘Binding and loosing’ (cf. 18:18) deals with the same power, which will be affirmed in heaven, i.e. by God. As with offering the peace of God, shaking dust from off one’s feet (10:11-15) and also the forgiving and not forgiving of sins (John 20:23), it indicates the rights of a judge to set someone free or to declare him guilty. In Semitic usage the contrasts describe a totality, so that the word order is not important. It concerns the authority to share salvation, redemption and to pass judgement. On the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) we see that Peter is the first (not the only one, cf. 18:18) to be given this authority, when he again opens the Kingdom of God with its powers for the Jews and for the heathen in the house of Cornelius.
In this authority, a function which the disciples (including all believers) will fulfil with the Lord Jesus when the Kingdom comes in glory, has already been brought about in the current, temporary form of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt 19:28; Rev 20:4).
20. he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ. Before they were able to preach that Jesus was the Messiah, they first had to understand what that meant. Peter’s ‘reaction’ (v.22) shows that they had not yet understood that the Messiah must suffer. As the Jews connected the title of Messiah with all kinds of miraculous political concepts and as Jesus had not yet died and risen again, the time was not yet ripe for open preaching (v.21:17:9). For this reason Jesus warned them strongly not to speak about it (cf. Mark 8:30).
The first Intimation of Suffering 16:21-23
21. Jesus began to explain … that he must … suffer many things. Here Jesus foretells His death for the first time, in unmistakable terms. Previously there had only been hints. Suffering did not come as a surprise to Him. He knew that he had to die, why He had to die, and the manner of His death. That everything had to happen (in connection with the divine plan of salvation) for the redemption of mankind.
The disciples had to undergo further instruction in the way of the Messiah. Jesus’ words about the bridegroom who would be taken from them (9:15) or about the Son of Man who would be three days and nights in the heart of the earth (12:40) had not been understood.
‘Suffer’ is not a synonym for ‘die’, but has a wider meaning (‘many things’), i.e., Jesus’ being persecuted and rejected by the Jews (Ps 118:22; Isa 53).
the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law. The chief priests (the Sadducean spiritual nobility), the (Pharisaic) teachers and the elders (the wordly aristocracy, Luke 19:47) are the three groups comprising the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish authority of Roman times.
he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Jesus will be rejected and killed by the Jews, but will be raised again by God on the third day, i.e., justified and glorified. ‘The third day’, see commentary on 17:23.
22. Peter … began to rebuke him. Peter, who had just made such a beautiful confession of faith (v.16), and had been called ‘rock’ (v.18), now became a stumbling stone, an obstacle. Perhaps Peter was more outspoken than before on account of the recognition afforded him (vv.17-19).
‘Began to rebuke him’ has overtones of persistence and vehemence. Peter literally says: ‘May He (God) be gracious to you’, which goes so far as to mean: God forbid, may that absolutely not happen. We therefore see that love can bring us on the wrong way when it is not coupled with insight (Phil 1:9).
23. Get behind me, Satan! Peter had just had a divine inspiration (v.17), but once it had passed he became a vehicle for Satan by thinking in the wrong direction. Satan wished to seduce Jesus into taking an easier way (4:9).
you do not have in mind the things of God. Peter’s mistake laid in being overcome by an earthly, human manner of thinking and not directing his thoughts on what is from God (cf. Phil 2:2 ff; 3:19-20; Col 3:2). Jesus put Peter right (Mark 8:33) and at the same time rebuked the devil, as He had previously done (4:10, ‘go away’).
For the Jews, the cross is a cause of offence (1 Cor 1:23), but those who reject it are an offence to Christ. For it was God’s intention that the Messiah must (Gk. dei, to have to) suffer.
‘If anyone will follow Me…’ 16:24-28
24. Instead of standing in Jesus’ way (v.23) the disciples (and the people too, Mark 8:34) have to follow Him. He who would follow Jesus must deny himself, i.e., say farewell to all personal interests and ambitions and take up his cross (see commentary on 10:13).
True knowledge, which Peter did not have at that time (v.22), begins with denying oneself, wherein the will is involved.
25. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it. Cf. commentary on Matt 10:30
Losing one’s life is in fact losing a lower level of life in order to gain a higher. For the world, the cross is only a form of capital punishment, but for Christ and His disciples it means finding life through death. One’s life is won by giving it to Christ, and is lost by trying to win it in a selfish way.
26. if he gains the whole world, speaks about obtaining everything imaginable in the material way. Loss of life, which is the true focal point, is set in sharp contrast to it: everyone who does not now willingly give up his life for Jesus’ sake, will lose it when Jesus returns and the Judgement takes place (v.27). Nobody can buy true life (cf. Ps 49:7-8). Jesus Christ alone can give it.
yet forfeits his soul. The Greek word for both ‘soul’ and ‘life’ is psuch, and it has a far-reaching connotation. It is used for life in all its forms of existence, from the vegetable to the highest forms of intellectual and even spiritual life.
27. For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory. For the first time here Jesus foretells His return in glory. When Jesus returns (24:30; 26:64) He will return in glory, i.e., with the appearance, the splendour of His Father (Dan 7:14). Then He will reward everyone according to his deeds, his work (singular! cf. Ps 62:12; Prov 24:12). It will deal with the work, the dedication, spoken of in vv.24-26.
For the title Son of Man see commentary on Matt 8:20.
28. some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming. Broadly speaking there are three explanations for this verse:
a. Jesus is speaking of the destruction of Jerusalem which took place in 70 A.D., when the Jewish nation was judged and punished.
b. Jesus means His resurrection and the pouring-out of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost.
c. Jesus is speaking of His Transfiguration, which will take place in six days’ time (17:1 ff.).
The last explanation is unlikely. ‘Some … will not taste death’ implies that some will indeed have died. Within six days? Further, the Kingdom of God (Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27) is not identical with Jesus?!
In contrast, a. and b., in our opinion, both afford indirectly a true explanation. Indirectly, because in view of v.27 it is clear that Jesus is speaking here of His return in glory. But we will only understand the true meaning of this verse in the light of Matt 22:1-14; 23:38-39; 24:3 ff. and when we completely accept the principle stated in 24:36. Because the Jews have rejected their Messiah the promise of the coming of the Kingdom of God has become (temporarily) for them a judgement (apostasy and destruction of the city; 23:37-39) and for the world a partial breakthrough of the Kingdom through the resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.