Commentary on Matthew 16:13-20
How we identify Jesus will impact the way we interact with one another and with the earth.
Jesus asks the disciples who others think he, the Son of Man, is. We might view this question as an invitation to engage in critical dialogue with other perspectives. What do others say? The disciples answer that some people say that he is John the Baptist; others declare that he is Elijah; and still others claim that Jesus is Jeremiah or some other prophet. In other words, people don’t agree.
People identify the Son of Man with dead prophets sent by God who did miraculously deeds, who stood toe-to-toe with kings and delivered to them words of doom, opposition, and hope from Yahweh. So in the eyes of the people John the Baptist was the last powerful man of God but others had to reach all the way back to Jeremiah. Still they are all dead men! Did the people believe that God could not out do God’s self? Did they believe like Jesus that no greater human being born had been born from a woman than John (Matthew 11:11)? What kind of human being is Jesus in light of the many powerful deeds he has performed and the many people who follow him? The people believe that Jesus is an incarnation or perhaps a specter or ghost of powerful male prophets who no longer walk the earth. It is Elijah and Moses that appear with Jesus on the mountain of transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13). Peter, James and John were there on the mountain of transfiguration with Jesus, so they knew Jesus was not Elijah (or Moses). Those who witnessed John the Baptist baptize Jesus knew that Jesus was not John the Baptist (3:13-17).
The disciples are silent. With the exception of Simon Peter, they don’t seem to have an opinion of their own. Peter emerges as spokesperson for the Twelve: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Jesus blesses Simon Bar Jonah, presumably for being the courageous student with the correct answer. Jesus states that Peter’s answer did not come from human beings; it is not based on rumor or the hearsay of others. How we identify Jesus should be based on personal encounters with God, even though informed by our (re)readings of the sacred text and in dialogue with others. How we identify Jesus should be grounded in a lifelong conversation with God whereby we adjust what we think we know as necessary (16:17). Our denomination, our church, our pastors, our mothers or fathers, our siblings, our Sunday or Sabbath school teachers and others will have their opinions, but in the end we have to decide for ourselves in conversation with God how we will identify Jesus.
A living God is a dynamic God and not a static God whose clearest communication happened in the past. Jesus is the Messiah of the living God. Jesus, as Son of Man, means that God continues to speak and to act. God does not have to resurrect John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or any other prophet to speak. God never ceases to exist and to create and to anoint. God can resurrect the dead, but resurrection is never God’s only option.
Jesus continues the dialogue with Peter: “I say to you Peter (Petros) that on this rock (petra) I shall build my ekklesia (assembly; usually translated church) and the gates of Hades shall not overpower her” (Matthew 16:18, author’s translation). The word petra translated as rock is grammatically feminine and it agrees with the Greek word ekklesia, which is also grammatically feminine. Thus, the noun petra does not refer to Peter. Perhaps Jesus is speaking of the physical place or space in which his identity was correctly named. Or perhaps it is the revelation itself that is the theological foundation on which Jesus will erect God’s ekklesia. It will be an assembly founded on Jesus’ identity as the Messiah of the living God. A living God is a relevant God, a contextual God. As with John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah and other prophets and prophetesses, God speaks a relevant word that reflects the contexts in which we live and the challenges the people face. A living God is not bound to or by the written page, even in a sacred text.
Further, Jesus said to Peter, “I shall give the keys of the kingdom of the heavens to you, and whatever you should imprison on the earth will be bound in the heavens, and whatever you should set free on earth will be released in the heavens,” (Matthew 16:20, author’s translation). The heavens are witnesses of the people and things that we imprison and the people and things that we set free. When we restrict justice to the dominant and powerful and release or enact unjust laws that impact the most vulnerable among us and in the earth, heaven knows and is impacted too. Matthew’s Jesus said when you have treated the most vulnerable — the stranger/foreigner, the imprisoned, those with no homes, the hungry, and those without clean, affordable water — with compassion, justice, and human care, you have done so to me (Matthew 25:44-45). What we do on earth matters and it has an impact in the heavens and in the atmosphere around us.
Finally, Jesus commanded his disciples that they should tell no one that he is the Christos (Messiah or anointed one) of the living God. Well then, how shall they build an ekklesia on the truth of his identity, one that even the gates of Hades will not overpower? Their lives will speak louder, more truthfully, and more effectively than their words. The answer is by the life they live, a life of love for God, a life that loves the other as much as one loves herself, and a life in pursuit of justice and peace. On this rock, thou shall not build a prison nation. On this rock, thou shall not build a nation where millions of children are homeless and hungry. On this rock, thou shall not build churches that oppress the poor and women and turn a blind eye toward sexual violence within its gates and in the streets. On this rock, let us build assemblies that demonstrate belief in a living, speaking, incarnating God, a God of freedom and not of oppression, a God of justice, love, and peace.