Upon this Rock – Matthew 16:17-19

When Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is, Peter’s answer is correct, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Matthew’s expansion of Mark 8:27-30 is important: Peter is the rock on which Jesus will build his church (16:17-19). What did Jesus mean when he called Peter “the rock”?

Primacy of Peter

Jesus says God has revealed this to him (v. 17). Jesus pronounces a blessing on Peter when he confesses Jesus as the Christ. Like the beatitudes (using μακάριος), this expresses Peter’s happy state because Jesus’ Father in heaven has revealed this to him (he is not expressing the opinions of the crowds).

“My Father in Heaven” echoes the Lord’s prayer, but Jesus confirms his relationship with God which Peter just confessed. Simon Bar-Jonah, the Greek Βαριωνᾶ reflects the Aramaic בַּר יוֹחָנָן, υἱὲ Ἰωάννου “son of John.” Gundry argues Matthew changed the name from John to Jonah to associate Simon with “the sign of Jonah” (12:39; 16:4). For more details, see this article: Robert W. Wall, “Peter, ‘Son’ of Jonah: the Conversion of Cornelius in the Context of Canon,”  JSNT 29 (1987): 79–90. Other examples of renaming: Abraham (Gen 17:5), Sarah (Gen 17:15), Jacob (Gen 32:28), Jerusalem (Isa 62:2–4; cf. Zech 8:3; Bar 5:4), the conquering saints (Rev 2:17; cf. Isa 65:15), and Aseneth (Jos. Asen. 15:7) (Allison and Davies, Matthew, 2:626).

Jesus calls Simon “Peter” or Cephas in Aramaic and declares he will build his church on “this rock.” According to John 1:42, Jesus has already given Peter the nickname “the rock.” So this is a confirmation of the appropriateness of that nickname (Blomberg, Matthew, 251).

Does this verse designate Peter as the leader of the twelve apostles after the resurrection? Does the word “church” necessarily mean “the Christian Church” in the same sense it is used in Acts or Paul’s Letters?

First, Jesus says, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” What is the “rock” on which Jesus will build? The problem is the demonstrative pronoun this is feminine, referring to the feminine noun “rock.” The pronoun may not refer to the name Peter because Peter (Πέτρος) is masculine. The pronoun could refer to Peter, to Peter’s confession, or to Jesus himself.

Second, the metaphor is a structure built on solid bedrock. The word petra (πέτρα) bedrock or massive rock formations (BDAG), but by the first century the word was used interchangeably with the masculine πέτρος. A solid building is built on the bedrock rather than soil. The best example is the Temple Mount where the stones at the base of the Western Wall are placed on solid bedrock. Jesus made this point in the final parable in the Sermon on the Mount, the wise man builds his house on rock, the fool builds on sand (7:24-27). In Ephesians 2:19-22, Paul describes the “church as the Temple of the Lord,” built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus as “the chief cornerstone.” Although there is some discussion on what the cornerstone means in that verse, the point is that the foundation of the building is itself secured to Christ Jesus.

Another possibility: πέτρα can refer to the foundation of an “impregnable position or a rocky fortress” (BDAG). In the context, the “gates of hell shall not prevail” may reflect a siege metaphor, so instead of a “church” the building built on the foundation is a solid Temple fortress. In fact, the Temple in Jerusalem was a strong military defensive position which held out against the Romans for some time.

Third, this verse was interpreted in church history as supporting the primacy of Peter as the chief apostle, and his church is the Roman church. As is often said, the Vatican is built on Peter’s grave, so quite literally the church is “built on Peter.”

Fourth, the word translated church in most English Bibles (ἐκκλησία) does not always mean “the church” in the same sense it is used later in the New Testament. The Greek word refers to an assembly of people, but Jesus may have used the Hebrew/Aramaic qahal, an assembly gathered for worship. If the feeding of the 5000 intentionally evoked the gathering of Israel in the wilderness, then (perhaps) this assembly is Jesus’ followers as a new Israel. Craig Blomberg says, “It is virtually impossible to sustain the view that Jesus is here offering the church as an alternative to the kingdom” (Matthew, 253). So too, John Nolland, “It is doubtful whether Jesus anticipated the emergence of the church as an entity separate from Israel” (Matthew, 667).

I agree, reading later church structure into Matthew 16:16 is a mistake and misses the point about what Jesus is doing in his ministry.

Who is the Son of Man? Matthew 16:13–20

Matthew’s gospel has been leading up to this question from the beginning: who is Jesus? (16:13-16). Jesus uses the title “son of man” several times in Matthew (see this on Matthew 10:23 for example).

Banias Pan's Cave

Traveling to Caesarea Philippi, about 25 miles north of Bethsaida. The town was known as Panias, now Banias. Herod Philip built a Roman city on the site and renamed it to honor the Roman empire. One of the three headwaters for the Jordan river is in Caesarea Philippi. Matthew doesn’t tell us why Jesus and his disciples traveled to this location. The only thing that is important to Matthew is the dialogue between Jesus and the disciples.

While they are on the road, Jesus asks the disciples what the people are saying about him (v. 13-14). The question does not ask, “who do they think I am,” but “who the Son of Man is.” This sets the question in the context of Daniel 7:14, even if Jesus is using Son of Man to refer to himself.

The disciples offer several responses. Some in the crowds think Jesus might be John the Baptist, presumably raised from the dead. Others think he is Elijah who would come before the Messiah. This idea comes from Malachi 4:5, (see also Mark 6:15; Luke 9:8; Matt 17:10; Mark 9:11; John 1:21).

Still others think he might be one of the prophets, specifically Jeremiah. This is unique to Matthew, although in 2 Maccabees 15:12-16 Judas Maccabees has a vision of the righteous priest Onias and the prophet Jeremiah, who gives Judas a holy, golden sword as gift from God to strike down his enemies.

2 Maccabees 15:12–16 What he saw was this: Onias, who had been high priest, a noble and good man, of modest bearing and gentle manner, one who spoke fittingly and had been trained from childhood in all that belongs to excellence, was praying with outstretched hands for the whole body of the Jews. 13 Then in the same fashion another appeared, distinguished by his gray hair and dignity, and of marvelous majesty and authority. 14 And Onias spoke, saying, “This is a man who loves the family of Israel and prays much for the people and the holy city—Jeremiah, the prophet of God.” 15 Jeremiah stretched out his right hand and gave to Judas a golden sword, and as he gave it he addressed him thus: 16 “Take this holy sword, a gift from God, with which you will strike down your adversaries.”

In 2 Esdras 2:18 the Lord will send Jeremiah and Isaiah to the people when he opens the tombs and the dead rise from their places. Based on Deuteronomy 18:15–18, There was a Jewish messianic expectation that a great prophet like Moses would come at the time of the Messiah.

After hearing what the people are saying, Jesus asks, “but what about you?” Who do the disciples think the Son of Man is? Peter’s response is a turning point in the Gospel of Matthew, he declares that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the son of the living God (16:16). In Matthew 12, the Pharisees decided who Jesus was, he is not the messiah and casts out demons by the power of Beelzebul. After this break with the Pharisees, Jesus begins to teach his disciples about the Kingdom of Heaven through parables (Matthew 13) and do a series of signs demonstrating to his disciples who he is, such as walking on the water (Matthew 14:22-33). Following Peters confession, Jesus will take three disciples up a mountain and God will reveal his glory and declare that Jesus is his beloved son (Matthew 17:1-13)

It is important to read Peter’s confession in the context of Second Temple Judaism: Christ is Messiah. This is the first time Jesus is identified as the Messiah in Matthew’s Gospel, although from the first line of the book Jesus is identified as the Messiah, the son of David. Although the title “son of man” does evoke a messianic passage (Daniel 7:14), Peter’s confession is the first time someone has specifically called Jesus the Messiah.

Peter also says Jesus is the “Son of the living God.” The king of Israel was like “son of God” (Psalm 2). In Matthew 14:33 the disciples confessed Jesus as the son of God. Nolland suggests the “disciples in the boat” (14:33) may not have included Peter (suggested by Nolland, Matthew, 665). 2 Samuel 23:1 also describes of David as anointed by God. “Living God” is a standard description of God in first century Judaism, that he is the “living God” means he is the real and only God.

It is possible this confession was something Matthew’s original readers would use in worship, although that is impossible to know for sure. In any event, after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus begins to explain to his disciples the mission of the messiah, that he will go to Jerusalem and be killed and be raised on the third day.

The Leaven of the Pharisees – Matthew 16:5-12

The disciples misunderstand Jesus’s statement, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:5-7). What does Jesus mean by this phrase?

Leavened bread sourdough

Following his brief interaction with the Pharisees and Sadducees, Jesus and his disciples leave and arrive at “the other side.” It is unclear if they traveled separately or where the “other side” is, since they were just in Magadan in 15:39. Perhaps they traveled from Magdala (on the south end of the lake) to Bethsaida (on the north end of the lake) since in 16:13 they are going to be well north of the lake in Caesarea Philippi.

When Jesus says, “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees,” the disciples think they have forgotten the bread; what bread? After the feeding of the 4000 there were seven baskets left over, but they seem to have forgotten to bring any of that bread with them. The disciples are thinking about dinner and realizing they forgot their supplies on the other side of the lake!

Jesus’s response indicates the disciples have missed the point (again): “O you of little faith.” As is common in the Gospel of John, the disciples understand Jesus’s reference to leaven literally, when he wanted them to understand leaven as a metaphor for what is wrong with the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. They think he is chiding them for forgetting dinner!

Jesus explains the meaning of the leftover food from the miraculous feeding (16:8-11). On the one hand, Jesus’s reference to the leftover food from the feeding of the 5000 and the feeding of the 4000 might just mean, “do you guys really worry about food after what I did a few days ago?” This fits well with Jesus pointing out their “little faith.” But in the context of the leaven saying, there is more here.

Then the disciples understood, “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees,” refers to the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees (16:12). Leaven is something small added to flour, water, oil, etc. to make the bread rise. It is something which nevertheless has an important effect on the whole lump of dough. In Matthew 13:33, the kingdom of God is something that starts small, hidden in a lump of dough that will grow so much it will feed everyone. In this case, leaven refers to something the Pharisees and Sadducees add which spoils the whole lump of dough. (Maybe this is like adding raisins to bread dough to make raisin bread, if you do not like raisins then the whole loaf is ruined).

What is the “leaven” of the Pharisees? They are not completely wrong. In fact, the teaching of the Pharisees is really close to what Jesus teaches in terms of ethics. The Pharisees interpreted Scripture similar to Jesus and they did expect a coming Messiah. They almost have it right, but they do not have it all right.

What are the Pharisees missing? The correct understanding of who Jesus is. Peter will “get this right” in the next paragraph, Jesus is God’s Messiah, the Son of the Living God (Matt 16:16).

Interpreting the Signs of the Times – Matthew 16:2-4

In Matthew 19:2-4, Jesus responds to another request for a sign to conform his messianic claims with a simple yet enigmatic statement: “You cannot interpret the signs of the times.” This phrase is used (and abused) as a reference to detecting signs in contemporary history or culture that point to the nearness of the return of Christ. But that is not the meaning in Matthew 16. The signs which confirm Jesus’s claim to be the Messiah are clear (both in his teaching and his miracles), but the present generation doesn’t understand them.

Signs of the Times

The problem is the Pharisees cannot interpret the signs of the times. “Times” (καιρός) refers to a favorable time for something to happen, the right moment. In secular Greek, the word refers to a time when you might “meet with favorable luck” (BrillDAG). But in a Jewish apocalyptic context, the word refers to the time God has appointed for the coming of the Messiah and the final judgment before the restoration of the kingdom to Israel. “Jesus is referring to ‘the (last) times (set by God)’ which demand personal decision.” (Davies and Allison, Matthew, 2:582).

These signs ought to be as obvious as knowing what the weather will be like by observing sunrise or sunset. A common way to anticipate weather is “red sky at morning, sailor take warning; red sky at night, sailor’s delight.” (Leon Morris has “shepherd’s delight.” Maybe that is the Australian version of the saying?) Anyone can look at the sky and make a decent guess about what the weather is going to be like: “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, so Jesus says he will only give them the sign of Jonah (16:4). “This generation” refers to the people who are hearing the teaching of Jesus and witnessing the signs he has done. But they are “an evil and adulterous generation.”

An evil and adulterous generation is a fair description of Israel in the wilderness, “testing the Lord.” Not long after testing the Lord, Exodus 17, they worship the golden calf at Sinai (Exodus 32). If Israel is entering into a covenant relationship with the Lord at Sinai, then worshiping a golden calf as Yahweh while Moses is on the mountain is a spiritual adultery (on the wedding night no less!)

But the phrase “evil and adulterous generation” is also a fair description of the later kingdom of Judah under Ahaz, who swore loyalty to the Assyrians rather than to the Lord and even sacrificed his own son to a foreign god (2 Kings 16:3-4). Although Hezekiah was a good king, Judah falls quickly back into idolatry under his son Manasseh’s reign. Both Ahaz and Hezekiah are given signs to authenticate Isaiah’s predictions about the near future.

Jesus once again states the only sign this adulterous generation will get is the sign of Jonah (cf. Matt 12:40-41). As in Matthew 12:40-41, the ultimate convincing sign from heaven is the resurrection of Jesus. Is there any anticipation of Peter’s confession here? Only Matthew 16:17 calls him Simon Bar-Jonah. Most commentators do not see any foreshadowing in 16:4, Davies and Allison for example, state “there is no significant link with the bar Jonah of 16:17” (Matthew, 2:583).

In Mark 8:12, Jesus is frustrated at the lack of faith and the continued harassment from the Pharisees. Commenting on Mark 8:12, Robert Gundry says the groan may be gathering up of Jesus’ spirit before making a heavy pronouncement (Mark, 404). There are several verses which demonstrate God’s frustration with Israel in the wilderness (Ps 95:10 (LXX 94:10); Deut 32:5). In any case, Matthew omits Jesus’s (rather human) frustration with the Pharisees.

Would the Pharisees or Sadducees believe Jesus was the Messiah even if he did a miracle from heaven in response to their demand? It is unlikely the Sadducees would ever think Jesus was the Messiah since they did not think there was a Messiah coming. Jesus did not conform to the Pharisee’s expectations of what the Messiah was going to do when he did arrive. In other words, he did not act like a proper Pharisee so he cannot be the Messiah.

What are the signs of the times? Jesus’s clear demonstration of his messianic mission, even if that mission does not conform to other views in the Second Temple period. In the next section of Matthew, Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is. Will Jesus’s own disciples be like the “evil and adulterous generation” and misunderstand the signs of the times?

Why do the Pharisees Demand a Sign from Heaven? Matthew 16:1

After all the miracles Jesus has done, why do the Pharisees and Sadducees demand a sign (Matthew 16:1)? This is a test (πειράζω), which may be a positive test, giving a person a chance to prove themselves. If Jesus can show them a sign from heaven, then he will have proven his claims to be God’s special representative, maybe even prove he is the Messiah.

Matthew 16:1-12 looks back to the two miraculous feeding miracles in 14:13-21 and 15:29-39, but also anticipates Peter’s confession in 16:13-20 and the surprising revelation of what the Messiah’s mission is all about (16:21-28). Although he has not yet openly claimed to be the Messiah, he has done a series of powerful signs which ought to point to the fact he is the “one who is coming” (Matt 11:4-6). Instead of seeing these clear and obvious signs, the religious leaders of the day, the Pharisees (and now the Sadducees) question whether he is the Messiah, or whether he is in league with Beelzebul, the devil himself.  The Pharisees and Sadducees now come to Jesus once again and demand to see a “sign from heaven” to prove his authority comes from God. The next time we meet the Pharisees they are testing Jesus on interpretation of divorce law (19:3) and they will seek to arrest Jesus when he arrives in Jerusalem (21:45).

Pharisees Demand a Sign

That Pharisees and Sadducees join forces to test Jesus is remarkable since they rarely appear together in non-biblical documents. This would be the equivalent of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump working together on some political issue (so, impossible). An additional problem is Matthew locating the Sadducees in Galilee. Mark 8:11 only has the Pharisees, scholars usually point out Sadducees were not active beyond Jerusalem. Matthew has added them at this point in the story to emphasize how serious the religious authorities were taking Jesus’s growing movement. However, Matthew 3:7 indicates both Pharisees and Sadducees went out to hear John’s teaching as his movement grew. Representatives of both groups went out to see if John was claiming to be the messiah or if there was any reason to worry about his influence over the people. (Again, imagine an issue so important that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump would go on a “fact finding mission” because they were both troubled by that issue.)

Even when the disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus to ask if he was “the one to come,” Jesus responded by pointing out the messianic signs which indicate he is the one anticipated by Isaiah 61 (Matt 11:1-24).

In the context of the feeding of the 5000 and 4000 in the wilderness, it is possible Matthew wants us to remember Israel testing God in the wilderness. In Exodus 17:2, for example, when the people quarreled (KJV, “they did chide with the Lord,” in the next few verses they “murmur”) about lack of water, Moses said “Why do you test the Lord?” (LXX τί πειράζετε κύριον;). Testing God is a major theme of the book of Numbers. Israel constantly tests God by their complaints and demands. Satan tested Jesus in Matthew 4:3, clearly an example of trying to trap Jesus in sin.

The demand is for “a sign from heaven,” something which will demonstrate the source of Jesus’s authority. This is an intensification of the demand by the Pharisees to do a sign (12:38, to which Jesus would only give the sign of Jonah). In Matthew 12:38, “we wish to see a sign” becomes a demand.

It is possible this means, “a sign from God” since Jews avoid saying the name of God (compare to Matthew’s kingdom of heaven vs. Mark’s Kingdom of God). Davies and Allison disagree, this is not a periphrasis. They suggest the Pharisees and Sadducees want Jesus to do a miracle that is unambiguously from God like a voice from heaven, for example (Davies and Allison, Matthew 2:579). All his miracles so far are earthly miracles, so a healing or exorcism could be done by God or the power of Satan.

The demand for a sign may be based on two contrasting stories in Isaiah. In Isaiah 7:11, the Lord tells King Ahaz he will protect him from his enemies and offers to do any sign Ahaz desires, “whether in the deepest depths or the highest heights.” In that case, Ahaz refuses to demand a sign but the Lord gives him the sign of Immanuel anyway. In Isaiah 38 Hezekiah falls ill, calls on the Lord, and is told he will survive and live for fifteen more years. The Lord offers him a sign in 38:7, a shadow cast by the sun will go back ten steps. Sunlight going backwards is a “sign from heaven.”

Later in Matthew 24:27, Jesus describes a sign from heaven: “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” The “sign of the coming of the Son of Man” will be an unmistakable cosmic sign in the heavens. (Matthew 24:28 is also a sign in the heavens, “wherever the corpse is, the vultures will gather.”

Once again Matthew is presenting Jesus in the light of the grand stories of the Old Testament, Moses in the wilderness or even as a prophet like Isaiah. By demanding a sign from Jesus, the Pharisees are testing God.