Matthew 16: 13-20
Parallels Mark 8: 27-30; Luke 9: 18-21
13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
At the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, we were introduced to Jesus the Messiah, son of David, son of Abraham but throughout most of the gospel the term Messiah or Christ has rarely been used. The magi inquired of about the Messiah and John the Baptist from prison heard “what the Messiah was doing” but otherwise Matthew has reserved this term until this moment. In the shadow of a city named for Caesar, a new key to understanding how disciples are to understand Jesus is revealed. Peter’s words become the foundation for the confessions of the church that will be raised to celebrate the experience of the kingdom of heaven’s presence on earth. The disciples, through Peter, have enough insight to name what their experience of Jesus acts and teaching mean. Even with articulation of a specific group of titles for Jesus they will still need to understand how Jesus’ actions will shape what those titles mean.
Jesus refers to himself with his favored title, the Son of Man, but then asks what the people say about his identity. The answer, in Matthew, includes references to several prophets. John the Baptist is a recent example and not only has Matthew linked the proclamation and language or Jesus and John and we also have Herod Antipas refer to Jesus as John the Baptist (14:2). Elijah as the prophet who returns to announce the coming of God is also an answer that makes sense within Jesus’ proclamation of the approach of the kingdom of heaven. Matthew’s gospel is the only gospel that includes specifically Jeremiah as the other named prophet, and this is worth noting in Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus. Jeremiah’s ministry involved challenging a people who may have returned to worshipping the God of Israel in the temple, but whose religious practices never translated to a return to the covenantal expectations of living under the law. Jeremiah continually found himself in conflict with the authorities of the temple and yet, much of his ministry is a lament for the ending of the kingdom of Judah, Jerusalem, the Davidic kings and the temple as the nation antagonizes the Babylonian empire. The crowds and people will understand Jesus in terms of a prophet, and his challenge to those in political and religious authority in addition to his acts of power to heal the sick, cast out demons and to protect or feed the people will be interpreted by the masses as a part of this calling.
But the disciples, these little faith ones, who have journeyed with Jesus since he called them to join him in fishing for people and gathering the harvest, have been given a greater insight into the person of Jesus and his identity. His question to them about his identity is answered, on behalf of the rest of the disciples, by Peter. Peter, since asking to join Jesus on the water in 14: 28-33, will often be one who speaks or acts on behalf of the rest of the disciples through the remainder of Matthew’s gospel. The disciples in the boat (14: 33) already declared Jesus the Son of God, but now Peter adds the title Messiah/Christ to this identity.
As mentioned before, the Son of God title in Jewish thought is linked to one’s role as a king and the linking of Messiah and Son of the living God here just emphasizes the connection between the one who is appointed king and the appointer in God. Even though I believe Matthew wants us to hear more than just Jesus as the ‘anointed king’ in this confession, this dual use of Messiah/Christ and Son of God among the people of Galilee and Judea there is the hope of a divinely appointed leader who will lead the people out of their captivity under the nations and reestablish them as God’s chosen people, a priestly nation and God’s treasured possession. (Exodus 19: 5-6) Peter articulates his understanding of Jesus fulfilling that role.
Jesus’ response is that God is the one who has revealed this to Peter and not humanity. What was hidden from the Pharisees and Sadducees is now revealed to the little faith ones standing before Jesus. These one of imperfect understanding and little faith will be the foundation upon which the church will be erected and which the forces of Hades will not be able to overcome. Matthew’s gospel does understand that there are forces that will be opposed to the coming kingdom of heaven, and to the community which is formed to proclaim that kingdom but ultimately what God reveals to the faithful ones is enough to keep the community on solid rock.
The name Peter means rock, and so underneath this declaration of Peter (Petros) as the rock (petra) that Christ will build his church upon is a wordplay on Peter’s name. Historically the church has wrestled with whether the church was founded on Peter as a person (traditional Roman Catholic position where Peter becomes the first bishop of the church and the church is handed down from him to future leaders) or on the profession of faith (traditional Protestant perspective) but ultimately both the person and the profession matter. Peter as a person can no longer be separated from his role as a disciple of Jesus, and his life is tied up in his profession of who Jesus is. The identity of Jesus will become crucial for the way his life, and the life of his fellow disciples, will be lived. Although he may be Simon son of Jonah, his identity is completely transformed to become Peter the rock among the disciples of Jesus. We will shortly see the way Peter’s understanding of this will be challenged by Jesus and this Son of Jonah will learn what the sign of Jonah (see previous section) will mean for his life.
The keys to the kingdom mentioned in this section have also been historically limited to the understanding of forgiveness of sins within the church, but I don’t think that is what Matthew intends for us to hear. Sin is never mentioned in this context, and while this is echoed in 18: 18 within the context of when someone in the community of faith sins against another, I think this highly limits the impact of what Jesus is referring to. As Jesus proclaims the nearness of the kingdom of heaven and grants his followers the ‘keys to the kingdom,’ I think he intends for them to understand they now have the agency to do the things he has done. Just as I believe he intended to give the disciple the opportunity to release (loose) the daughter of the Canaanite woman, I think the context tells us that they now have the agency not only resist but to bind the forces that approach from the gates of Hades and to release those in captivity to those forces. The things that they do upon the earth will be enacted by the forces of heaven.
Yet, this identity of Jesus is not to be proclaimed from the rooftops at this point. Jesus commands them not to tell anyone he is the Messiah, and this may be due to the way even the disciples can misunderstand what this title will mean. They will be charged to continue to follow him as he turns toward Jerusalem where his title will be proclaimed from a cross instead of a crown. While they understand in part and they know in part, they are on a journey to understand more completely. These little faith ones will be the foundation of the church of Christ which will go to all the nations with the proclamation of Christ and him crucified.
 Christ and Messiah are the same term in different language. Christ is the transliteration of the Greek Christos which translates the Hebrew masiah. Both terms mean anointed one, referring to the anointing of a king when they begin their office.