Commentary on Matthew 16:13-20
Sunday was coming and I was filling the pulpit for the pastor of my church. I was also playing host to some dear friends who were visiting from out of state. My friend and I were taking a walk together along a favorite trail and going over plans for the weekend. “I’d like to come hear you preach,” he said. My friend is a devout Jew. I hesitated. “Well,” I muttered, “I’ll be preaching about Jesus.” “So?” “I’m afraid of saying something that would offend you.” We stopped walking for a moment. “I’d be very disappointed in you if you didn’t preach about Jesus!” We started walking again. “Honestly,” he said, “I don’t know why it is that my Christian friends are so afraid of talking about Jesus with me!” He added. “I’m not afraid to talk about my faith with you.” Man, did I feel called out! Sunday came, I preached the sermon, and my faithful friend was there. I don’t remember what I said in that sermon that day but I certainly remembered that conversation when I studied this text!
I don’t know why it is that my Christian friends are so afraid to talk about Jesus! There are, to be sure, those Christians who are not afraid and in fact are willing and able to put Jesus at the center of any conversation. Others of us are more reluctant. Why? Is it because we just don’t know what to say in our politically polarized environment?
Maybe we don’t know what to say because “Christianity’s got a branding problem.”¹ The author Jessica Grose claims that many are distancing themselves from “Christianity” because it is too associated with right-wing politics. One such person that Grose interviewed exclaimed “I no longer attend services, nor want to. I am simply too angry at what so-called Christians are doing to our children and society”² How do we confess our faith in such an environment?
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Jesus asks of Simon Peter. What follows is a recital of names: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, revealing the idea that Jesus was identified with a tradition of prophets that Matthew’s community knows. What if we were to pose that question today? What responses might we hear? Surely there would be some who would agree with Marcus Borg that Jesus was a healer, sage and prophet.³ Others might say: “Jesus? Well, he’s my Lord and Savior!” Others: “Jesus? Did he really exist or was he made up?” Some wonder whether Jesus was a “misunderstood Jew”4 or suggest that Jesus was indeed a “messiah” but a “reluctant one”5 and on and on.
Simon Peter is not reluctant, at least at this point in the story. He comes right out with his confession: “You are the Messiah” and in so doing he tags Jesus with a messianic brand. What did he see in Jesus that led to this declaration? Simon Peter has had a front row seat to the power Jesus has to heal, but he has also seen something of the warrior in Jesus: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth!” he had said, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword!” (Matthew 10:34). Simon Peter and the other disciples must have heard his answer to the question that John the Baptist asked from prison: “Are you the one that is to come? Or should we wait for another?” Jesus answered: “Go and tell John what you hear and see. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them!” (Matthew 11:3b-5). Even though Jesus’ question comes out of the blue, Simon Peter has his answer prepared: “you are the Son of the Living God!” Peter passes his oral exam with flying colors. His name becomes a metaphor—“rock”—on which a new community will be established.
This confession marks a turning point in the flow of Matthew’s gospel. It also marks a breaking point with the synagogue down the street. It declares that the Messiah of God has come. There is no need to wait for God to send someone else. Yes, this Jesus of Nazareth is the one that Israel has been waiting for. The messianic visions of the prophets of old have been fulfilled and have come into sharp focus in the person and ministry of Jesus. Moreover, this community founded in Jesus’ name will endure “and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (verse 18).
This is strong stuff! It has to be in order to establish the Church as a legitimate heir to Israel’s covenantal traditions. God has also fulfilled another promise to Israel in the coming of Jesus, dramatized in Matthew’s story of the Magi’s visit: “And the nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Isaiah 60:3). The testimony of Matthew’s community is this, that the Messiah has come but as Jesus had to realize for himself in his encounter with a Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28), he has come first to Israel but also as a “light to the Gentiles”.
The fulfillment of God’s promise of “light to the Gentiles” does not mean that Israel is to be displaced. You can too easily build a shabby shack of anti-Semitism on the “rock” of Peter’s confession as you can a faithful community. God is “doing a new thing” through Jesus by the establishment of the faith community known as the Church (Isaiah 43:19) and promises never to abandon it. Neither does God abandon Israel in favor of the Church. The Church has indeed prevailed against everything “Hades” has thrown against it; but so has the House of Israel.
Jesus says to Peter that God’s Spirit has revealed to him who Jesus really is. Perhaps if we are faithful and available to God’s Spirit, God will reveal the same to us.
- Jessica Grose, “Christianity’s Got a Branding Problem” New York Times, May 10, 2023
- Katherine Claflin, quoted by Jessica Grose in “Christianity’s Got a Branding Problem” New York Times, May 10, 2023.
- Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: The Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2015.
- Amy Jill-Levine. The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2007.
- Trevor Steele. Reluctant Messiah. NYC: Mondial, 2010