Scripture: Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. Matthew 16:13-20 ESV
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Observation: In yesterday’s Daily Focus (click here to read it), Jesus cautions his disciples to be on guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees, whose teaching and application of the levitical law had become a means of crowd control to keep Israel in good standing with Rome. But their hearts were far from God, and their hypocritical leadership misled God’s people away from the One who fulfilled the law.
Now, journeying further away from Galilee into the predominately Gentile region north-northeast of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus takes his disciples to Caesarea Philippi, an essential Greco-Roman trade city occupied primarily by Syrians and Greeks who first worshipped the pagan god Baal under Syrian rule, then Pan under the Greeks, and presently Caesar under Roman law. The tetrarch, Philip, assumed this quarter-kingdom from Herod the Great at the age of sixteen and soon married Herodias’ daughter (the one who danced for Herod Antipas and conspired with her mother to behead John the Baptist).
In this godless setting, Jesus asks his disciples who others say the Son of Man is. They respond that the people surmise he is John the Baptist (as did Herod Antipas), and others speculate he might be one of the great prophets of Israel’s past—all of whom reckon that he has come in the spirit of one of these deceased great men of God. Jesus then directs the question to his disciples, to which Peter immediately confesses that his Master is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v.16). Without delay, Jesus proclaims that Peter is blessed to profess this profound truth that could only come by a revelation from the Father. Jesus then adds that he will build his church on this “rock” (Greek meaning for the name “Peter”), and not even Satan and his minions can stop its advance. And Jesus adds one additional precept about his kingdom builders: whatever they bind and loosen will be done so in heaven—echoing a similar sentiment from the model prayer from his Sermon on the Mount: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (6:10 ESV). Lastly, he strictly orders them not to expose his identity as the Christ.
Takeaway: While the crowds bantered other titles like Messiah and Son of David, which evoked military aspirations for Israel’s rise to world dominance, the title Son of Man presents an enigmatic meaning used previously by only Daniel and Ezekiel regarding a mysterious Savior who fights against evil. Here, though, Jesus is pulling back the curtain partway to clue his disciples that his mission is not about the conquest of rival nations but about gaining victory for the lost souls of all nations who had unwittingly capitulated to the evil one. But as he directs the question of his identity to his disciples, Peter uses the title “the Christ,” which is the Greek form of the Hebrew word mašiaḥ, transliterated “Messiah,” which means “anointed.” The designation is used thirty-nine times in the Old Testament to mean either a king, priest, or prophet—all of which Jesus is! Peter adds that Jesus is the Son of the living God, contrasting the evolving pagan worship of Caesarea Philippi through the centuries. But as commentators agree, Peter confesses more than he comprehends at this pre-resurrection point in history.
But how are we to interpret Peter’s role in establishing the church? To one extreme, the Roman church holds to the infallibility of the papacy with the succession of hands from one pope to the next (a literal understanding of Jesus’ words that has led to the corruption of power during the dark ages and even more recently). The other end of the spectrum rejects any notion that Christ intends to build the church on Peter because the demonstrative pronoun “this” (emboldened above) points away from Peter to Christ and refers to Peter’s confession (a popular interpretation among evangelicals). But, as theologian Michael Wilkings contends, “the most natural reading of the wordplay is to see that Jesus points to Peter as one who will play a foundational role in the establishment of his church. This notion is consistent with the way in which from the beginning Peter has been spokesman and leader of the Twelve. Jesus recognizes the leadership role Peter is beginning to assume by this time and promises to extend it in laying the foundation of the church” (NIV Application Commentary: Matthew, p.564).
So what is our takeaway? Leaning on either of the two latter interpretations, we join with Peter and the succession of saints who have since professed that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of the living God and boldly press the boundaries of Christ’s kingdom, confident that the gates of hell will not prevail. But what about the binding and loosening comment? Here and in Jesus’ model prayer (see above comment), both employ the periphrastic future tense to communicate a Semitic circumlocution describing the action of God: what Peter and the others bind and loosen will have already happened in heaven. Indeed, only our Triune God can grant or withhold forgiveness of sin, but as ambassadors of Christ, we pronounce it. And forgiveness is core to our Gospel. So one builds on the other: we discover the joy of our salvation in Christ (forgiven for past, present, and future sins), and, like Peter, once empowered by the Holy Spirit, we boldly proclaim the Good News to the least, the last, and the lost. And with Christ in us, we will prevail!
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son, our Rock. And we thank you for Peter and all the saints who have since gone before us and boldly proclaimed your Son’s Gospel amid persecution. We confess, though, that we sometimes hold back for fear of our well-being. So would you please help us to step out in faith, following the lead of your Holy Spirit, to share this good news of forgiveness of sins to the least, the last, and the lost—confident that with your Son in us, we will prevail? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling
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