Commentary on Matthew 16:13-20
Living the Questions
Questions have a way of marking important moments and events.
So it is with today’s lesson. Matthew’s story has from the beginning drawn us in with the good news announcement of salvation that is to be for us in this one who as “Immanuel — God with us” will “save his people from their sins” (1:21-22). Yet central questions haunt the reader. The Sermon on the Mount has been delivered and Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing is well underway when John the Baptist still asks that question at issue for every hearer of the good news today, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” And Jesus’ reply is pointed, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (11:3-6).
Even foreigners as in last Sunday’s lesson have expressed “great faith” in their acknowledging of this “Lord” as the agent of God’s mercy (15:21-28). Now it is time for Jesus’ disciples who have followed him in his Galilean ministry to come clean and acknowledge the identity of this one who has called them and led them in this mission to the world.
Today’s lesson has fittingly been acknowledged as pivotal and climactic in Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ Galilean ministry. The stories to this point have repeatedly pressed the issue of faith and discipleship as the many stories of Jesus’ teaching and healing have led these disciples and ourselves to expect some things about this one called the Son of Man.
And now these stories are focused in Jesus’ intensely direct and personal question and in Peter’s response. “But who do you say that I am?” There is no escape and this is no time for evasion. Peter speaks for the disciples, for Matthew’s gospel and the community to which it is first addressed, and certainly for us, announcing that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God (16:15-16). Jesus confirms this “confession” by Peter as a mark of God’s blessing and as the “rock” upon which he will build his church (16:17-18).
Signs of Blessing
Several features of this story, so well-known and established in churchly tradition, are noteworthy for the preacher and hearer of Matthew’s message. For one of the first times in this gospel Jesus does not criticize or qualify Peter’s disciple response as one of “little faith” but instead commends it for its revelatory power.
Consistent with a unique and major theme in Matthew it is described as a mark of God’s “blessing,” a blessing that so often defines and accompanies what it means to be a righteous disciple of the kingdom. It is the repeated promise of “blessing” that initiates Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (5:1-12) and so grounds the message of the kingdom and its call for righteousness as a key sign of God’s people (5:17-20). As a key signifier of the promises of God, this blessing is repeated at key points in Matthew’s narrative (cf. 11:6; 13:16; 16:17; 24:46). It is a mark of God’s blessing when those who respond in faith are contrasted with those who take offense at Jesus’ preaching (11:6).
A New Identity
Secondly, this story recognizes Peter’s central role as a representative of the disciple community blessed in its confession of faith. Here for the first time in Matthew’s gospel the titles of Messiah (announced in the opening line, 1:1) and Son of God are joined together in acknowledgement of Jesus’ identity (ironically in the only other occurrence, at Jesus trial before the high priest, this identity will occasion his being found guilty of death! 26:63-66).
Names are significant for Matthew. At his birth Jesus’ name is interpreted as signifying that “he will save his people from their sins (1:21). Now in parallel manner the confessor’s name is given significance. His name is Peter, Jesus says, and it is on this “rock” that he will build his church (16:18). Discipleship is named, founded, and commissioned in this confession. In contrast to Mark, in Matthew’s narrative the disciples “understand” the teaching of Jesus (cf. Mark 8:21 with Matthew 16:12; see also 13:51). Master and disciples are bound together in identity. At the end of the gospel Jesus will commission these disciples as representatives of a new community to go in his name and make disciples of all nations (28:18-20; 13:52).
A Community in Mission
Thirdly, it is precisely to that new community that Matthew now uniquely calls attention. On this “rock” I will build my “church.” Matthew alone of the gospel writers uses the word translated here as “church” (see also 18:17) and links it with talk of the kingdom (16:19). Church as the community of disciples and the kingdom of God are intimately bound in Matthew’s conception of Jesus’ mission, which from this point on in the story is linked to Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection.
This linking of this community’s existence to Peter’s confession would be significant enough. But in addition Matthew uniquely calls attention to the signal and central mission of this community. This community is endowed with the promise of a rich gift, the “keys” of the kingdom, which both here and especially in 18:10-35 is identified as this community’s invitation and mission to exercise the power of forgiveness in the binding and loosing of sin in the name of God. One cannot emphasize that invitation and mission too strongly in Matthew’s conception of the continuing call and responsibility of discipleship.
An Unfailing Task and Promise
The questions remain. What would it look like for us to claim such a blessing and to have such imagination as to join in this confession and community — as Peter speaks on our behalf? What if we were to see ourselves, too, as called and blessed in our encounter with God’s Messiah? What if we were to then know ourselves to be called by this promise and given a new identity as disciples and ambassadors of the kingdom? And what if we could then catch even a glimpse of what it means to be part of this new community authorized and empowered as agents to exercise the task of forgiving and welcoming in the name of a God who desires “mercy and not sacrifice” (9:13; 12:6)? And what if our hope should be constantly to be part of that vision that to the ends of the earth the will of God might indeed be realized — that not one of these little ones should be lost to the saving love of God (1:21; 18:14)?