Commentary on Matthew 16:21-28
Confession at Risk: Identity, Passion, and Death
“From that time on…” today’s gospel lesson begins.
Some readers (notably J. D. Kingsbury) have seen in these words (16:21 and matched in 4:17) a clue to Matthew’s structure and movement, dividing the gospel into three major sections: the presentation of Jesus Messiah (1:1-16); the public ministry of Jesus Messiah (4:17-16:20; and the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Messiah (16:21-28:20).
However appropriate such a reading, there is a clear and significant turn in Jesus’ ministry that is prepared for or even occasioned by the clear announcement of Jesus’ identity and mission in the words of Peter’s pivotal and climactic confession of Jesus as Messiah and Jesus’ announcement of a new community and its mission. Now in Matthew we hear the first of three passion predictions (16:21; 17:22-33; 20:17-19) essentially taken over from Mark, but now in a context greatly adapted in both outline and content in the chapters that lead up to Matthew’s passion narrative proper.
Of first importance is the way this announcement of Jesus’ coming passion and death are tied so closely to Peter’s confession and in turn to what it means to follow as a disciple of this Messiah. That Jesus now “shows” (rather than “teaches” as in Mark) his disciples what is about to happen marks this event also as one of revelation and as a gift of special knowledge now being imparted to this disciple community. At the heart of that special revelation is the clear witness that Jesus’ identity as Messiah is integrally tied, even constituted in the necessity (“must,” 16:21) of his suffering and death in Jerusalem.
So it is ironic, or even almost tragic, that immediately following his boldly precocious confession of a few verses before, Peter now not only seems to deny the implications of his words, but even begins to rebuke or chastise Jesus for his prophetic words of mission. In equating such a response to being in league with “Satan” Jesus’ harsh words recall his own testing by Satan in the wilderness (4:1-11). In pressing the issue, Peter has become a “stumbling block” (i.e an “offense”).
Such a description is reserved in Matthew (see 11:6; 18:16-18; 26:31-33) for those whose words or actions are the occasion of turning others from their proper calling as obedient disciples of the Messiah–for those who place a roadblock in the mission of the kingdom and salvation. They are those who risk thwarting God’s will that not one of these little ones should ever be lost to the kingdom (see especially 18:1-14). To be in on the mission of God’s Messiah is to be blessed with a mind and vision that looks at things not from a human perspective but from the perspective of what God is about.
God’s Mission of Salvation
Although the explicit title of “Savior” occurs nowhere in Matthew, one of the central roles of Matthew’s Messiah is that of savior. The angel Jesus’ name as delineating his saving role and further defined that saving work in the forgiveness of sins (1:21). Again and again Jesus’ healing ministry is linked with themes of salvation and the forgiveness of sins: “Your faith has saved you” (9:22). The promise to disciples who endure faithful to the end is that they “will be saved” (10:22; 24:13). So when Jesus’ identity as God’ Messiah is linked so directly to his suffering and death it is ironically and theologically significant that Jesus’ role as Savior will become both the ultimate mockery and confession at the cross: “He saved others; he cannot save himself” (27:42).
At the beginning of the Matthew’s story Joseph’s obedience assures the child will be named and assume his role. Now in today’s lesson Matthew centers this clear understanding of Jesus’ role as savior within a much broader perspective of God’s overall work of salvation and the call to obedient discipleship. As ones who now obediently hear that call, Matthew’s community and ours become part of that story now clearly centered in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.
Discipleship and the Cross
Peter’s wrong-minded words of “offense” now having been rejected, Jesus’ the address now turns to the specific call and delineation of discipleship — of what it means to “follow” this Messiah. The concluding verses of our lesson make clear that such following has to do with two central motifs in Matthew’s gospel — it has to do with “saving or losing life” and that life has to do with what it means to be those righteous ones who welcome and experience the coming of God’s kingdom. At the beginning of the gospel Joseph’s obedience called for a new appraisal, even a reversal, of what it meant to be righteous (1:19-20).
At the beginning of his ministry, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus announced that entering the kingdom will call for a “righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” (5:20). In Matthew’s unique parable of the laborers in the vineyard (20:1-16) those who are paid the same wage bemoan the master’s “righteousness” in insisting on treating all with the same extravagant generosity. It is thus clear that such righteousness is not just piling on more deeds or being more earnest in obedience, it has to do with a complete overturning or transformation of what it means to be righteous (“The last will be first and the first will be last;” 20:16). Such is a righteousness that will lead to the death of God’s Messiah; and such is a righteousness that will call for ones who follow on the way to the cross and who in their following are blessed to discover that in giving away and losing their lives they will save and find them.
To “take up the cross” then is not an invitation, for disciples then or now, to start going around looking for crosses to bear. The logic of the kingdom does not have to do with plotting the way to success. Instead, disciples are called to an obediently humble giving of self for the neighbor in which hearing and doing are brought into conformity (see Sermon on the Mount; 7:12, 21) and the whole of the law is fulfilled.
Such conformity comes only by the transforming model and power of God’s blessing and presence in this Messiah, who promises to be with this community to the end of the age. Just as this Messiah did not have to seek the cross; it was occasioned by those to whom his insistent mission of service gave offense, so we are called to the unselfconscious love and care for those in need. Crosses will be provided, as Martin Luther saw so clearly when he writes in his Freedom of the Christian that anyone who has a spouse or a family already has built-in crosses enough.
The other, even those at our shoulders, always calls us to that sacrificial living beyond ourselves which calls us to die and be raised again in lives that are lived for the sake of the neighbor. Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, again in a unique parable, says much the same when in the so-called parable of the last judgment those who gather before the master are commended for their unconscious serving of the needs of others: “As you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me.” Such hidden service is rewarded with an invitation to “enter the kingdom” which has been prepared (25:31-46).
The Coming Kingdom
Here we get a glimpse of Matthew’s distinctive view of the kingdom. The kingdom is becoming present in that resurrected life of the Messiah in each of our communities where this confession and life are bound together in the responsible exercise of love and mercy for the world. This obedient love is encouraged in Jesus’ final strong declaration and promise that some standing here “will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (16:28). Along with every generation of hearers we are ones who wait in the meantime for a coming which will happen at an unknown hour. But we wait in hope with the promise of our resurrected Lord that he will be with us as we follow in obedience and mission until the end of the age.