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Matthew 16:13-17:27

Roger Hahn

The variety of responses to Jesus that Matthew has described from chapter 11 on have prepared for one of the pivotal passages of his gospel. Matthew 15:21-28 with the story of the Canaanite woman is an important part of the background. Jesus’ claim that his ministry was only to the "lost sheep of the house of Israel" raises an important question about his identity. The following verses that portray him extending his ministry into Gentile territory makes the question even more important. "Who is this Jesus? Where does he fit in the range of Jewish teachers?" Matthew 16:1-12 and the warning about the leaven of the Sadducees and Pharisees makes it clear that Jesus was not part of the religious establishment of his times. But who was he? To answering that question Matthew now turns.

The Caesarea Philippi Confession - Matthew 16:13-20

The scene shifts again in Matthew 16:13. The last geographical reference found in Matthew 15:39 had been that Jesus was in the area of Magaden. The location of that city or village is unknown. Matthew 16:5 states that they crossed the Sea of Galilee and verse 13 places them in Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi was about 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee at the foot of Mount Hermon. Springs fed by the melting snow from Mount Hermon formed the headwaters of the Jordan River. The site was beautiful and lush compared to the dryness of much of the surrounding countryside. The name Caesarea Philippi derived from the rebuilding of the city by Herod Philip in honor of the emperor, Caesar Tiberias. Formerly the area had been called Paneas in honor of the Greek god, Pan. This is also Gentile territory. It is not clear whether Jesus brought the disciples to this place because of its background or simply because it was a beautiful location for a retreat.

The question of Jesus’ identity is raised immediately in Matthew’s text in verse 13, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" The meaning of the phrase, "Son of Man," has received considerable discussion by modern scholars. Almost all the times this title appears in the New Testament (over 80 times) it appears on Jesus’ own lips or is spoken by someone in response to Jesus’ use of the title. It appears to have been Jesus’ favorite term to describe himself. It is frequently used as a substitute for the word "I" and that appears to be its usage here. (The parallel passage in Mark 8:27 reads, "Who do people say that I am?").

The most common opinion is that Jesus drew the phrase from Daniel 7:13 where it refers to a heavenly figure who is coming in the future. Jesus appeared to prefer the title "Son of Man" since it was not widely used or understood in Judaism. That enabled him to define his identity in his own way. What is clear is that "Son of Man" is not a reference to Jesus’ humanity in contrast to his deity. This has been a popular view for many years, but there is no basis for it in the pattern of Jesus’ usage. Here in Matthew 16:13 "Son of Man" is simply a substitute for "I." Jesus is asking who people think him to be.

The disciples report a variety of answers. The idea that Jesus was John the Baptist has already been mentioned by Herod in Matthew 14:2. The mention of Elijah is understandable for several reasons. John the Baptist had been identified as Elijah or an Elijah-type figure. Elijah had also been noted for miracles. The mention of Jeremiah is unique to Matthew’s gospel at this location. There is some evidence (though it is not clear) of Jeremiah being regarded (like Elijah) as a forerunner of the Messiah. There were also several parallels between the message of Jeremiah and the message of Jesus.

The key phrase is that which follows, "or one of the prophets." What John the Baptist, Elijah, and Jeremiah had in common was that they were prophets. The people who had seen and heard of Jesus’ ministry were describing him as a prophet. The New Testament is clear that Jesus’ ministry shared the characteristics of the ministry of many of the prophets. "Prophet" was a common title to describe Jesus. The New Testament is equally clear that "prophet" was not an adequate title for Jesus.

However, Jesus’ concern was not the opinions of people in general. His concern was the understanding of the disciples and so he redirects the question, "Who do you all say that I am?" Though the question was directed to all the disciples, as often happened Peter spoke their response, "You are the Christ, the son of the living God." At this point, three of the major titles for Jesus are brought together: Son of Man, Messiah (the Christ), and Son of God.

The process of translation, both at the time the New Testament was written and now into modern languages, makes it difficult for us keep track of references to the Messiah. The English word "Christ" is the English form of the Greek word christos which was the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for Messiah. Technically, it would be possible to replace the name "Christ" with the title "Messiah" everywhere in the New Testament.

However, one of the results of bringing gentiles into the church is that often christos became another personal name for Jesus instead of a title meaning "Messiah." The problem for us in modern times is knowing when! When is Christ simply another name for Jesus and when does it mean Messiah? Scholars do not always agree.

However, the evidence for Matthew 16:16 indicates that Messiah is what Peter was calling Jesus. This is the first time in Matthew’s gospel that the Messiahship of Jesus has been confessed directly. Several times Matthew writing editorially has indicated that Jesus was Messiah (Matthew 1:1, 16, 17; 2:4; 11:2) but this is the first time it appears on the lips of a character in the story. The fact that Peter, as the representative disciple, makes this confession is important. For Matthew it is important for his readers then (and now) to know that Jesus was the expected Jewish Messiah. There were varieties of opinions in Judaism at that time about what the Messiah would be like. Nevertheless, it is important both for Jews in Jesus’ time and for gentiles now to now that Jesus was the long-expected Jewish messiah. As messiah, Jesus was the fulfillment of Jewish hopes and he was the culmination of God’s involvement in human history to bring us salvation.

Peter also confessed Jesus to be "the Son of the Living God." This exact phrase is found only in Matthew’s account of the retreat at Caesarea Philippi. Mark 8:29 has only, "You are the Christ (or the Messiah)" and Luke 9:20 states Peter’s confession as, "You are the Christ (or Messiah) of God." Perhaps it was his Jewish audience that made it important for Matthew to clarify that Jesus was much more than simply the Jewish messiah. The theme of Jesus’ divine sonship has been important throughout Matthew. The voice from heaven announced it at Jesus’ baptism. Satan tempted Jesus at that point in the temptations. The disciples had confessed in Matthew 14:33 after Jesus (and Peter) had walked on the water. Now it is combined with the titles Messiah and Son of Man to provide the most complete identification of Jesus to yet appear in this gospel.

Verses 17-19 have no parallel in the other gospels. Several important themes are revealed in these verses. First, Jesus pronounces a blessing on Peter and gives him a commission. The blessing is an effective word of grace. Peter’s confession does not win Jesus’ compliment for it was not Peter’s wisdom or insight that produced the confession. It was God the Father himself at work through the Holy Spirit revealing the truth of Jesus’ identity to Peter that enabled him to proclaim that truth. This is an important Christian principle. No human achievements are simply human achievements. They are gifts given by God to the people he will use in the emergence of his Kingdom. As James 1:17 states, "Every good and perfect gift is from above."

Peter’s blessing is also a commission and promise that Christ will make him a foundational stone for the building of the church. This suggests that the idea of the church being built with living stones, beginning with the apostles and prophets, was first taught by Jesus himself. First Corinthians 3:11ff, Ephesians 2:20-22, and 1 Peter 2:4-7 all develop this idea in slightly different ways. The pun between Peter’s name, which means rock, and the stone upon which the church is built suggests that it was Peter himself and not his statement that would become the building block of the church.

A second important theme is that of the victory of the church. Jesus states that he will build the church. As well-intentioned as many followers of Christ are and as skilled as they are in various forms of ministry, the church is not built by people but by Christ. It is for this reason that the church will endure and triumph. Human achievements come and go; the church grows - sometimes rapidly and sometimes slowly - depending on the building block Christ selects and uses to build his church.

The promise of verse 18 is the gates of Hades would not prevail against the church. This is often interpreted as if hell were attacking the church and we must desperately hang on until Jesus comes. Such a view is opposite the promise of verse 18. The gates of Hades are portrayed as on the defensive. The church charges into the very gates of death rescuing the perishing and offering the opportunity for people to pass from death unto life.

The Rebuke of Peter - Matthew 16:21-23

Matthew 16:21 presents what is often called the first passion prediction. This is the first of three times Jesus will predict his coming suffering, death, and resurrection. In each instance, the disciples fail to grasp the significance of what Jesus was saying. Peter expresses the first misunderstanding in verse 22. The exact inflection of Peter’s response to Jesus’ prediction of his coming death is hard to determine exactly. The Greek sentence appears to leave out a word or two that would make it much clearer. The best guesses of Peter’s meaning are either, "Mercy, no!" or "May God in his mercy prevent this from happening to you."

It is clear that Peter could not perceive any way God’s will (as revealed in the blessing and promises of verses 17-19) could be accomplished by Jesus’ death. It is most likely that Peter’s perception of messiahship included at least some elements of a military victor over the Romans. In his mind, Jesus’ death would end any such hope. 

It is easy for us to criticize Peter but we have the benefit of Christian hindsight. Our criticism is not needed; Jesus was quite capable of rebuking Peter. His words of rebuke were as strong or stronger than his words of blessing. Peter is the only person of whom it is recorded that Jesus called him "Satan." Clearly, this was a figurative use of the word Satan (which meant "accuser" or "adversary" in Hebrew) to show that Peter was taking the role of Satan. It is most likely that Peter’s well-intentioned desire to remove the cross from Jesus’ future reminded Christ too much of the similar temptation from Satan described in Matthew 4:1-11. The problem was that Peter’s mind-set was governed by human perspectives rather than by divine possibilities.

The Cost of Discipleship - Matthew 16:24-28

If the cost of messiahship for Jesus included suffering and the cross then his followers should not expect their way to be all ease and pleasure. That is the point of verses 24-28. The call to discipleship is a call to deny oneself. Garland points out, "Self-denial is not to be confused with the denial of things to the self as expressed in asceticism or self-discipline, . . . It means putting oneself in submission to the will of another" (p. 180). Denying self has all but disappeared from the language of the contemporary church. The driving assumption of the influencing culture is the fulfillment of self, pleasing oneself, and having everything one might want. However, 1 Corinthians 6:19 with its concluding words, "you are not your own," and 2 Corinthians 5:15 make it clear that the early church understood these words of Jesus well.

The call to discipleship is also a call to take up one’s cross. This concept has already been mentioned in Matthew 10:38 but perhaps the best commentary on it appears in Galatians 2:19c-20, "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who lives, but it is Christ who lives in me." In many passages, Paul makes it clear that he understood the call to take up one’s cross to include all that was costly, painful, and demanding in the life of serving Christ.

The third call of discipleship is to follow Jesus. Davies and Allison (Vol. 2, p. 671) point out that verbs for denying oneself and taking the cross are in the aorist tense in Greek while the verb follow is in the present tense. Since Greek tenses point to the kind of action rather than the time of action, the point is important. The decision to deny self and to take the cross must be made before discipleship really begins. However, following Jesus is a continuous matter in the life of discipleship.

Matthew has included teaching by Jesus on taking the cross and losing one’s life to find it in Matthew 10:38-39. However, here the context of 16:21 includes the prediction of both Jesus’ death and his resurrection. The resurrection hope gives new power to the promises of verse 25. The theme of hope continues in verse 27 as Jesus speaks of his future glorious coming. 

Verse 28 promises some of the disciples that they will not taste death before they see him coming in his kingly role. The natural meaning of this verse (and its parallel in Mark 9:1) is that the second coming would occur in the lifetime of at least some of the original disciples. Since that obviously did not happen, how are we to interpret this verse? Many scholars believe it refers to the transfiguration which is narrated in the following verses. Others believe it points to the resurrection appearance of Jesus described in Matthew 28:16-20. There are enough similarities in the wording of the transfiguration story, the resurrection appearance, and Matthew’s descriptions of the second coming that some scholars believe he saw those events as symbolic anticipations of the second coming. That is probably the best way to understand the problem of verse 28.

Jesus’ Transfiguration - Matthew 17:1-13

All three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) link Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah, the first prediction of Christ’s death and resurrection, and the transfiguration. The emotional high point of the open acknowledgment of Jesus as Messiah was shattered by his prediction of the cross. The transfiguration brings a new element into the picture. The purpose appears to be to renew the disciples’ hope by enlarging their understanding of Christ. He was (and is) so much more than the Jewish Messiah. The transfiguration reveals this to them (and to us). The event was clearly a revelation from God and as a result details like the light, the cloud, and the voice from heaven have no analogy to things that happen in human history. As France puts it, this "is a brief glimpse behind the scenes."

The account of the transfiguration is rich in imagery drawn from the Old Testament and Matthew makes several important theological points. The first point deals with the fact that Moses and Elijah appear to Jesus. Moses represents the Law and Elijah represents the prophets. Both are significant because both are described in the Old Testament (Moses - Deuteronomy 18:15-18 and Elijah - Malachi 4:4-6) in ways that point to the end of time. Thus, Moses and Elijah appear to verify that Jesus’ appearance signals the nearness of the end.

Peter’s offer to build three tabernacles shows the human reaction to this revelation. The voice from heaven interrupts Peter to provide God’s correction. The voice declares, "This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased. Hear him." These words echo the voice at Jesus’ baptism, confirming Jesus’ messiahship, divine sonship, and role as a suffering servant. The voice confirms the confession that Peter made at Caesarea Philippi but the looming cross meant Jesus (and his disciples) could not stay on the holy mountain. There was still obedience that needed to be accomplished.

The structure of the story places the focus on the message of the voice from heaven. Thus what the disciples hear is more important for Matthew than what they see. The climax (and what was lacking at the baptism) is the final message, "Hear him." The transfiguration functions for Matthew as a divine validation for the teaching of Jesus. Thus, Matthew emphasizes Jesus’ authority.

Jesus’ words to the disciples were "Get up and do not be afraid." The Greek word for "get up" could be translated "be raised." Jesus’ words to the disciples at the transfiguration were the same as his and the angel’s words in the resurrection account in chapter 28. In this way the transfiguration anticipates both Jesus’ and the disciples’ resurrection. The emphasis on the resurrection and on Elijah as the forerunner of the end reappears in verses 9-13.

The Power of Faith - Matthew 17:14-27

The divine identity of Jesus that was revealed at the Transfiguration is reiterated in the following verses. Matthew 17:14-21 describes the disciples’ failure to cast out a demon, Jesus’ ability to exorcise the demon, and his comments on faith.

When Moses came down from the mountain of revelation, he encountered Israel’s terrible sin of the golden calf (Exodus 32). When Jesus came down from the mountain, he also encountered spiritual conflict and unbelief. The parallel account in Mark 9:14-29 presents a colorful account of a mighty miracle by Jesus. Matthew has cut out many of the details so that his version of the story focuses on the unbelief of the disciples and on Jesus’ teaching about faith.

The exact nature of the problem that the disciples could not solve is not clear. The Greek word that many versions translate as "epileptic" literally means "moon-struck" or "lunatic." The symptoms that the more detailed account in Mark describes are consistent with epilepsy. However, verse 18 simply treats the problem as one of demon possession. Though the disciples had been powerless before the demon, Jesus quickly cast it out. This contrast between the disciples’ inability and Jesus’ ability forms the main point of the story. The fact that Jesus had sent the disciples out with a mission of casting out demons (Matthew 10: 8) shows that he regarded them as capable of such a ministry. Their failure will be identified as the result of lack of faith in verses 17 and 20. Verse 17 contains an outburst of frustration that is rarely revealed in the New Testament. The failure of the disciples to trust him after the events narrated in chapters 16-17 was more upsetting to Jesus than we have often realized.

Jesus’ comment about being able to move a mountain into the sea if they had faith the size of a mustard seed should not be taken literally. The language reflects the Palestinian trait of exaggeration. The point is that things that human beings regard as impossible can be accomplished through just a small amount of faith. Jesus was not suggesting that faith can be quantified or that proper exercise of faith causes God to do what is contrary to his will. Rather, his point is that the first step toward trusting God is all that it takes. God will not disappoint that small act of trusting and trust can then grow. As the ability to trust grows, we are better able to release our lives and concerns to God. God is able and is willing to do things that humans consider impossible. Therefore, nothing is impossible for us.

Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion

These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.

As you study each day ask the Lord to help you understand the Scriptures and to apply its meaning to your own heart and life.

First Day: Read the notes on Matthew 16:13-18:9. Look up the Scripture references given.

1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Why are they important?

2. Is there a spiritual truth in this section that is especially significant for you? Write it down and explain why it is important for you.

3. Write a brief prayer asking God to help you examine your level of self-denial. Ask him to show you the areas of your life in which he would like for you to begin denying your self.

Second Day: Read Matthew 18:1-35. Now focus on Matthew 18:10-20.

1. Based on the context who do you think are the "little ones" mentioned in verses 10 and 14? Compare the way Jesus used the parable of the shepherd here in verses 12-13 with his use in Luke 15:1-8. What are the different lessons that Matthew and Luke teach?

2. What are the "three steps" of church discipline described in verses 15-17? Have you ever seen these steps used in the real life of a local church? Do you think these steps could/should work today? Why or why not?

3. Each "you" in verses 18-19 is plural. Compare this verses with Matthew 16:18-19. Based on the context and on your comparison, how do you think Matthew 18:18-19 should be applied in today’s church?

Third Day: Read Matthew 18:10-35. Focus in on Matthew 18:21-35.

1. What is the point of Jesus’ reply to Peter in verse 22? What, if anything, does Luke 17:3-4 contribute to your understanding of the importance of this passage?

2. What do you think is the meaning of the parable of the Unforgiving Servant? How does the parable teach this truth?

3. Is there something that anyone could do to you that you could never forgive? What does this parable seem to suggest about our refusal (or inability) to forgive? Do you agree with the parable? Why or why not?

Fourth Day: Read Matthew 18:23-19:15. Focus your attention on Matthew 19:1-8.

1. What is Jesus’ position on divorce according to the focus verses? Does his teaching here differ from that found in Mark 10:1-12 and Matthew 5:31-32?

2. In this section Jesus quotes from Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 while the Pharisees appeal to Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Read this Old Testament passages in context and describe why Jesus’ choice of Scripture should take precedence over the Pharisees’ choice of Scripture.

3. Do you agree with the disciples’ response to Jesus’ teaching in verse 10? Why or why not? What do you think is the significance of Matthew placing the teaching of divorce immediately after Matthew 18:21-35?

Fifth Day: Read Matthew 19:1-30. Now focus in on Matthew 19:13-22.

1. What do you learn about how Christians should treat children from Jesus’ response to the children in verses 13-15? What do you think we could do to do a better job of caring for children?

2. Compare the role of the Old Testament and righteousness in Jesus’ conversation with the "rich young man" in verses 16-22 with Matthew 5:17-20. How are the two passages related?

3. The invitation of Jesus in verse 21 is for the young man to "be perfect." How does the meaning of perfect in this passage compare with the meaning of perfect given in Matthew 5:43-48? Describe how these passages create a desire for "perfection" in you.

Sixth Day: Read Matthew 19:1-30. Now focus on Matthew 19:23-30.

1. Why do you think the disciples were so astonished when Jesus spoke of how difficult it would be for a rich person to enter the kingdom? Do you find his teaching on this subject hard to accept? Why? Or why not?

2. How does the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 19:23-26 compare with his teaching in verse 21 and in Matthew 17:20? Will the reward promised in verse 27-30 be worth the sacrifice asked? Why? Or why not?

3. Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to help you to understand the demands of discipleship and to be willing to live out those demands in your own life as a Christian.

-Roger Hahn, Copyright © 2011, Roger Hahn and the Christian Resource Institute
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