Read the passage here.
For what is or will be fairly obvious reasons, this is a pretty critical passage in the context of Matthew’s gospel. However, I feel like this passage is one in which it is easy to get side-tracked. What I mean is this – one reason that this passage is noteworthy is because it is especially here that Peter is singled out among the disciples. Jesus asks the disciples who they think He is, and Peter responds, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus then goes on to say:
17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hadeswill not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will bebound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will beloosed in heaven.” 20 Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.Matthew 16:17-20
Now a number of questions have arisen from these verses. Some of these questions include: The nature or extent of Peter’s role in establishing the church, and what that means for the church after Peter? Is Jesus really singling out Peter, or is He talking to the disciples as a whole? What does Jesus mean by giving the keys to the kingdom of heaven? What does Jesus mean by “whatever you bind….and whatever you loose?”
I think all of these are good and important questions. However, to be frank, I’m a little concerned that oftentimes they are used to determine or justify what the Church (and Christians) have to do and what we get to do.
In short, my personal belief is that Jesus is indeed establishing or foreshadowing the significance of Peter in the early church. I think that the “keys of the kingdom of heaven,” and “Whatever you bind…and loose” have to do with Peter (and the other apostles) establishing a firm foundation for the new kingdom people – and this is especially poignant in light of the contrary versions of the Kingdom that we have seen.
Now we could spend a lot of time on this, but we’re not going to because, as I said, I worry that it is easy get side-tracked precisely by questions like these to the significance of this interaction between Jesus and the disciples. Because, at least it seems to me, the main question isn’t “who’s going to be in charge?” or “what will be the purview or authority of the Church?” The main question (here) is, “Who do you say that I am?”
We’ve talked about this quite a bit and, once again, I don’t want to go over old territory. But I feel like this is important to review. So we’re going to take a look at this in two parts. The first part is verses 13-20.
13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hadeswill not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will bebound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will beloosed in heaven.” 20 Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.Matthew 16:13-20
Now the question of Jesus’ identity has been prevalent throughout the gospel so far. We’ve seen this in numerous encounters so far – in the opposition with the religious leaders, the amazement of the crowds in his teaching and miracles, and perhaps most notably in the interactions with John the Baptist. And Matthew has gone to great pains to demonstrate how Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament expectations. But this is the first time that Jesus, essentially, confirms it Himself – Jesus is, indeed the Messiah. (Of course, we have to note that the words themselves come from the mouth of Peter, but Jesus certainly affirms Peter’s recognition – and blesses him because of it).
Jesus is the Messiah. He is the fulfillment of the hopes of the entire nation of Israel. Israel, as we have seen, who is to be blessed by God in order to bless the whole world. Israel, who is supposed to be the instrument of God’s redemptive purposes for all of creation. But also Israel who, through their repeated unfaithfulness and sin, has lost their favoured status, lost the blessing of the promised land, and found themselves once again under the thumb of a foreign power. Israel who has found themselves in exile, longing once more for the glory and splendour that they knew under the kingship of David. For generations, for centuries, they cried out for, longed for, the fulfillment of God’s promise that a son of David would arise who would lead them out of exile, restore their fortunes as a nation, and lead them to reclaim their blessing and calling as the chosen people of God.
With this declaration, with Jesus’ affirmation, the disciples finally seem to understand that this long-held hope is finally fulfilled. Jesus is the Messiah. And in Jesus, in the Messiah, the kingdom of God would be restored.
But then we get this second interaction. Immediately after the declaration of realization in vv. 13-20, we get the admonition in vv. 21-23.
21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”Matthew 16:21-23
As we know, the expectations of the Messiah were that he would be, among other things, a political and military leader that would lead Israel to victory over her enemies. Since the kingdom under David, Israel had been in constant political turmoil, leading to their exile from the promised land and subservience to Babylon, Assyria, and Rome. The promise of the restoration of the nation of Israel included with it the expectation of the defeat of their enemies. The expectation, commonly held, was that the Messiah would come with power and majesty, demonstrating the supremacy of YHWH by superior might, through military victory.
So Jesus’ speaking to His disciples about His impending suffering and ultimate death made no sense to them in the context of their Messianic expectations. And Peter, the very disciple who recognized and declared that Jesus was the Messiah (though in both cases, we can be fairly sure that Peter was in some way representative of the perspective of the other disciples), Peter is also the one that rejects Jesus’ definition of Messiah-ship and demands that He conform to their expectations. In short, Peter says to Jesus, “You can’t suffer and die – that’s not the kind of Messiah we want.”
So, Jesus’ rebuke is sharp and incisive – “you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
At this point, we should be reminded that this very theme is one that we’ve been wrestling with throughout the gospel of Matthew – human concerns versus God’s concerns. Our expectations of Jesus and God’s intentions for redemption. Again, we’ve looked at this a lot – especially, but not exclusively, in terms of Jesus’ interactions with the religious leaders – and there’s still much to come in Matthew’s gospel, so I’m hoping that none of this is new.
But I suppose what I want to say is that, in short, we’re seeing (especially as expressed by Peter) the tension between Hope and Expectation. Peter, the disciples, and indeed all of the Israelite people, rested their hopes for God’s deliverance in the person of the Messiah. But we also see that the expectations that Peter (and others) held, regarding the Messiah, regarding what Jesus actually came to do, and how He would do it, were wrong.
Now a few weeks ago, Chris talked about how the faith of the disciples was imperfect, but growing. And I think we’re seeing that again here. Because even in spite of Peter’s declaration, they still did not have a good understanding of what Jesus was doing. Even up to the time of Jesus’ death, and indeed even after His resurrection and ascension, there was still an awful lot of figuring it out. For example, Peter, in the book of Acts, still didn’t understand that Jesus’ work meant becoming one people with the gentiles. Their expectations had yet to catch up with the hope.
So when I read a passage like this, and when I think about the disciples and their relationship with Jesus, I can’t help but think about this tension between their expectations and the hope that Jesus was actually bringing.
They had grown up in a culture that taught them to expect certain things from the Messiah. They knew that things weren’t as they were supposed to be, the people of Israel weren’t who they were supposed to be. And they knew the scriptures and that the Messiah would come and put to right all that had gone wrong.
And when they met Jesus, and they spent time with Him, and they heard Him teach and saw Him heal, and slowly began to understand, their expectations undoubtedly rose up within them.
But oftentimes Jesus did things that were decidedly unexpected. Oftentimes, Jesus did things and said things that the Messiah simply shouldn’t say or do. And those that were supposed to be experts on the Messiah, experts on scripture, and experts on God seemed to be saying that Jesus was not the kind of Messiah that He was supposed to be.
And then, as we will see, Jesus died – more, Jesus was crucified. And these same disciples that followed him, lived with him, ran away, terrified, their expectations ruined.
I think where the disciples went wrong – where they were still growing and learning – is that they confused their human expectations with the hope that was actually to be found in Jesus. As we’ve seen through Matthew’s gospel, their expectations were formed by years of religious training, cultural conditioning, the things they thought they didn’t have but obviously deserved. God’s intentions for the redemption of creation were (and are) based in so much more. God’s intention was to fix that which was really and truly wrong. And God’s intention cannot be frustrated – God’s intention cannot fail.
And so, what the disciples learned, through the tragedy of Jesus’ death and the miracle of His resurrection, was that though their expectations were shattered, the hope that existed in Jesus could never fail. Because expectations are located in human desire; but hope is grounded in God’s purposes (that’s a simplification, but you get my point).
So often, we find that life is not what we hoped it would be. We find that it is harder, crueler, and not close to as fair as we had hoped it might be. Which isn’t to say that everything is bad, but often we find that even the pleasures we work so hard for do not give the fulfillment that they’re supposed to. So sometimes, some people turn to religion to fill the gaps. Sometimes, people turn to Jesus – to Christianity – in the hopes that things will get better. And we find that life is still hard, people are still cruel, and that you can actually (sometimes) get a lot further ahead if you ignore some of those Christian things.
In those moments, we may think that God has not lived up to our expectations. Being a faithful Christian has not gotten us the things we think we’re supposed to get. In those moments, I want to encourage you. I want to remind you that what God is doing, what Jesus has done, is so much more.
The disciples – and many others – had many expectations of Jesus, the Messiah. And many of those hopes were unfulfilled. But the promise of God never failed. The promise of God was fulfilled, and will be fulfilled, in Jesus. Because the kingdom of God – which is and will be victorious over all the kingdoms of the world – is fulfilled in and through Jesus.
We all have expectations. Sometimes – not always – those expectations will remain unfilled. But the hope that we have in Jesus will never fail. And as we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, we will find that all of our expectations are swallowed up in the hope that we find in Him.