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Matthew 16:13-20 - What’s the Buzz? 

1)Now when Jesus came into the district of Casarea Phillippi, 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 say Elijah, and still others say 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 to 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 Messiah.”

Background in Matthew: Jesus and his friends have arrived in the district of Caesarea Philippi. He has already astounded his followers with miracle feedings, taming the chaos of the sea and inviting his friends to join him. He has had a feisty and unsettling discussion with a Syrophoenician woman who wants help for her daughter that he initially denies.  That exchange is the only example in the gospels of Jesus being bested in a debate and changing his mind as a result of it. The Pharisees are forever trying to test him to find a charge that will stick so that can get rid of him. Jesus knows he is causing a stir. He also suspects that people are missing the point, so he asks Simon (soon to be Peter) what people are saying about him.  Matthew picks up this story from Mark’s Gospel (Mark 8:27f), but changes it in some interesting ways. In Mark, the story is used to highlight Peter’s inability to really get what Jesus is all about. In that version when asked, Peter says that Jesus in Messiah but immediately rejects that Jesus’ mission will involve suffering and death, leading Jesus to rebuke him with the harsh, get behind me Satan words. Matthew rehabilitates Peter here, with the benefit of hindsight and time. Here Jesus praises Peter for his insight and promises to build his church upon him. We don’t need to be concerned about who got this ‘right.’  Both are right. We too know from experience that we both get who Jesus is and resist the consequences of following him, of sacrifice and suffering sometimes. Other times we get who Jesus is, allow that truth to transform us and become building blocks of the church ourselves.

What does Messiah mean?
The Hebrew word translated as Messiah means anointed one. It is translated into Greek as Christos, or the Christ. In the Hebrew scriptures, Messiah is never referred to as the but simply as Messiah.

For whom were the Jews preparing?
In the early Old Testament tradition, the notion of “the anointed one” carried many levels of meaning. Most of them had to do with being installed to office in such a way that one was regarded as “accredited” by God. Sometimes the word was used to refer to God’s special representatives within the chosen covenant people. Prophets such as Elisha, kings such as David, and (after the Exile) priests were often called anointed or messiah. Being anointed was associated with God’s Spirit coming upon a person and setting him or her apart for the task. After the Exile, the notion of messiah became more specific. Beginning with Ezekiel’s vision (46:1-8), messiah came to be understood as a specific person who would come and combine the best qualities of royalty and priestly dignity. This one would lead Israel in victory over her enemies and restore her to righteousness before God. In the Old Testament, messiah was ALWAYS conceived of as a mere human being. Furthermore, messiah would come for a specific task, i.e., to secure peace, equity, freedom and justice. This was understood as the fulfillment of God’s promise of blessing and prosperity made to Abraham, and was the essence of salvation. Much time and energy in Israel was spent on deciding how they would recognize messiah. In the gospels there are many tests that the Pharisees put to Jesus in order to make that determination. The bottom line was this. They would know messiah by his results. Messiah would bring about lasting, decisive change in the plight of people. War would end. Peace and plenty would be restored. Israel and Judah would be reunited. Exiles would be returned to the land. Salvation would extend to the whole world. Messiah was a political as well as a religious figure. Indeed, that separation would be difficult for Israel to even understand. The intensity of her longing for messiah was the intensity of her longing for redemption, radical and definitive change.

How was Messiah understood in Jesus’ ministry?
The issue of messiah’s role and identity was hotly debated among 1st century Jews. In general messiah was understood as a great and holy military leader. The word carried both nationalistic and victorious overtones. Messiah = winning. Messiah = restoration of power. Messiah = fulfillment of promise. Only in Isaiah do we see the introduction of a hint of messiah as suffering servant. This was not a popular way of viewing messiah. Israel wanted a conquering hero. Suffering, they could do for themselves. Throughout Mark’s gospel, Jesus tries to distance himself from this traditional understanding of messiah. He constantly tries to wean his disciples from the view that salvation, redemption, and restoration would be manifest in terms of winning and wielding power. Jesus’ concept of messiah was of a suffering servant of God through whom redemption would come after sacrifice. This view was not in order to elevate suffering as something holy and efficacious in and of itself. Suffering was simply inevitable when living the values of the kingdom in a world ruled by other allegiances.

Where were they?
Caesarea Philippi was a beautiful city on the slopes of Mt. Hermon in what is now the Golan Heights (just a few miles from Lebanon). In Jesus’ time it was a center of Baal worship and was considered the birthplace of the Greek God Pan. A huge temple to Caesar dominated it. It is in the context of many religious options that Jesus asks his disciples who they say that he is.

Word Study
Vs 13 – Son of Man – This is a very complex term and is the one that Jesus most often uses of himself when talking about his Messiahship. It means different things in different contexts. In a nutshell it means something like the quintessential, or prototype, human being. It does not refer particularly to Jesus’ human parentage.
V. 14 – John the Baptist...Elijah – Many believed that John and/or Elijah would return from the dead as an indication that Messiah was near.
Vs. 16 – The Christ – see notes above.
Son of the Living God – the word ‘living’ in Greek refers to the eternal principle of life. This phrase means that Peter sees Jesus as carrying forth that eternal life principle of God.
Vs. 17 – Blessed – The Greek word here is interesting. It means to be blessed and the possess the characteristics of God.
Vs. 18 – Peter – Here Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter. In the scriptures, a change of name accompanies a radical awakening, or new status. The word simply means ‘rock.’
Will build – This is a contraction of the words for a house and to build. Jesus is saying he will build his dwelling place upon the foundation of Peter’s declaration.
Church -ekklesia- This is one of only two times in the gospels that this word is used. It originally meant to be called out and came to refer to a congregation called out from the world and assembled together.
Hades – This word does not refer to hell as we think of it today. Hades was understood as the place where the dead went to await final judgment. People believed that Hades had levels where one waited based on one’s deeds.
Vs. 19 – the keys of the kingdom – This phrase has several possible meanings. In traditional Roman Catholic theology, it is interpreted as the capacity to gain access to heaven. This understanding leads to the understanding of direct apostolic succession as a key to entry into heaven. In Reformed theology usually understands that it is the confession of faith that Peter made that is the key to the kingdom, not the person of Peter himself. In addition, the word for key can also refer not just to a literal key to a gate or house. It can also refer to that which unlocks something metaphorical or metaphysical.
The kingdom of heaven – Matthew, out of respect for his audience’s sensibilities about speaking the word ‘God,’ uses kingdom of heaven instead of kingdom of God. The concepts are the same. It does not refer only to heaven after we die. It refers to the ways of God, the rule of God in all times and places. Where God truly rules is where the kingdom is found.
Binding and loosing – usually refers to the regulating of moral and ethical behavior. In other words, the church when it is authentically being ruled by God and God’s values with an abundance of faith and spiritual insight, has the role of helping the world discern what is moral and what is not. It is important to remember that the key to that discernment is mature spiritual insight AND the test of God’s values of love for God, neighbor, and self.
Vs. 20 – sternly ordered – This is a very strong admonition that they should not speak about these things yet. Perhaps he knows what will happen if this word spreads and the time is not yet ripe. Perhaps he knows that their understanding is too immature and could do more harm than good.
Questions for Personal Reflection
1. When you hear the word Messiah, what does it mean to you?
2. Jesus feared that many would hear the title and layer it with too many inappropriate expectations. It seems to me that when we hear it, we often have no expectations. How would you comment on that?
3. The Jews, in essence, rejected Jesus as Messiah because, according to their understanding, he didn’t get the job done. How would you respond to the following statement? “Jesus could not be Messiah because the world and Christians do not appear to be redeemed. If he was the Messiah, then he failed.” How would you respond to this argument?
4. How do you (we as a society, as a church) still live in need of redemption? Do you think that you are fully living out the promises of God for your life? What role does Jesus play in that?
5. If you had to explain to a non-believer what Jesus had accomplished in your life, what would you say? Are there areas of your life that still need his saving work?
6. What decisive value, or impact, did the life death and resurrection of Jesus have on the world?
7. How would you put into words your ideas of the key elements of the kingdom?