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Matthew 16:21-28 Biblical Commentary:
MATTHEW 16. THE CONTEXT
This reading is closely tied to verses 13-20, last week’s Gospel lesson. In verse 16, Peter confessed his faith that Jesus was the messiah, the Son of God. Now Jesus shows him what messiahship and discipleship entail.
Prior to chapter 16, Jesus spent much of his time addressing crowds, working miracles, and verbally jousting with scribes and Pharisees. With the exception of 16:1-4, Jesus spends chapters 16-18 instructing the disciples—preparing them for Jerusalem and his cross. Then in 19:1 he leaves Galilee to go to Judea—to Jerusalem—to his death.
This is Jesus’ first passion prediction. The others are found at 17:22-23; 20:17-19; 26:1-2.
MATTHEW 16:21. JESUS MUST GO TO JERUSALEM
21From that time, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must (Greek: dei—it is necessary) go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and the third day be raised up.
“From that time, Jesus began.” These are the same words that Matthew used in 4:17 to mark the transition following Jesus temptation. There Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Now he begins to show his disciples that he must suffer and die.
Peter has just identified Jesus as messiah, and Jesus blessed him for his confession of faith. However, Jesus told the disciples not to tell anyone, because they do not yet understand what messiahship means. They still think of the messiah as a warrior-king like David. In verse 21, Jesus outlines for them what to expect of the messiah, and it is the exact opposite of their expectations.
“Jesus began to show” He will tell the disciples over and over, because they are simply unable to grasp what he is saying. Not until they see the resurrected Christ will the truth begin to break through their prior understanding.
“that he must (dei—it is necessary) go to Jerusalem” The little word, dei, speaks of divine necessity—of God’s will. Jesus must go to Jerusalem to complete his God-given mission. He has come to save the world, and Jerusalem is essential to his work. Not to go to Jerusalem would compromise everything that he has come to do. “As the site where earlier prophets met their doom (cf. 23:37), the holy city will once again become an unholy city” (Gardner, 257).
Jesus must “suffer many things.” Isaiah 53:4-6 introduced the idea of a Suffering Servant (see also Psalms 22 and 69), so the idea should not be completely foreign to the disciples—but it seems to be. It is as if they have discovered the ideal political candidate who suddenly announces that, to carry out his purposes, he must first be assassinated (Long, 189).
Jesus will suffer “from the elders, chief priests, and scribes”. These three groups make up the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of the Jews. It is not the worst of men who will kill Jesus, but the best. They have no legal authority to impose a death sentence, but will decide on behalf of the nation that Jesus must die. They will then persuade the people to support the sentence and the Romans to carry it out.
These words, “the elders, and chief priests and scribes,” sound sinister to us. We have been taught from childhood that these are Jesus’ enemies, so we are not surprised that Jesus will suffer at their hands. We need to recover the surprise that the first disciples must have felt at hearing these words. Why would the guardians of the nation’s religious heritage kill the one who has come to fulfill that heritage?
“and be killed” How can a dead man save anyone? How can a messiah save other people if he cannot save himself? Why would God send anyone to do something so ungodlike as dying? If death is, somehow, necessary, why would the messiah die the ignominious death of a cross instead of the glorious death of a battlefield?
“and the third day be raised up” Jesus’ prediction of his own death is so shocking that, like a great magnet, it draws all our attention. It seems unlikely that the disciples are still listening when Jesus predicts his resurrection. They are still focused on the words, “be killed.”
Note that “be raised,” like “be killed,” is in the passive voice. Jesus will not commit suicide—the Jewish leaders assume the initiative for his death. Jesus will not raise himself from the dead, but will place his life in God’s hands. God will take the initiative for the resurrection.
MATTHEW 16:22. FAR BE IT FROM YOU, LORD!
22Peter took him aside, and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This will never be done to you.”
“Peter took him aside, and began to rebuke him” Having so recently been confirmed in his belief that Jesus is the messiah, Peter cannot understand this dramatic news. He has heard Jesus say “killed,” but obviously didn’t understand the significance of “on the third day be raised.” We can’t fault him for this, because the cross became understandable only after the disciples saw the risen Christ.
Peter has the decency to take Jesus aside so that his rebuke is private rather than public. He must surely feel that Jesus is just having a bad day. Surely Jesus’ strength and optimism will return shortly, but Peter feels a responsibility to prevent him from doing anything damaging while in this temporary depression. Peter’s rebuke is friendly, but a rebuke nevertheless.
While Peter addresses Jesus as Lord, he treats him as a fallen Lord who must be helped to his feet. He rebukes Jesus, just as Jesus rebuked the wind and sea (8:26) and will rebuke a demon (17:18)—the same word (Greek: epitimao) is used in all three places. Peter takes charge and repudiates, in the strongest possible language, what Jesus has said. The disciple who has so recently deified the Lord (16:16) now defies him.
“Far be it from you, Lord” (literally, “May God be gracious to you, Lord”), which here means “May God prevent this from happening to you.”
With these words, Peter crosses a line—challenges his Lord’s leadership—shoulders the Lord aside and moves to the front. No rabbi would tolerate such defiance. Disciples are expected to follow their rabbi. However benign Peter’s motives, he has gone too far.
But we should not be surprised that Peter fails to understand. Paul will later describe Christ’s crucifixion as “a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to Greeks” (1 Corinthians 1:23; see also Galatians 5:11; Romans 9:30-33; 11:9). There is power and wisdom at the cross (1 Corinthians 1:24), but it is too much to expect that Peter can see that until he sees the resurrected Christ.
MATTHEW 16:23. GET BEHIND ME, SATAN!
23But he turned, and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block (Greek:skandalon) to me, for you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of men.”
“But he turned, and said to Peter” Jesus turns to confront Peter face-to-face, which sounds as if Peter has been physically positioned behind him all the time. “Get behind me, Satan!” Now Jesus demands that Peter move behind him spiritually as well as physically.
Jesus’ words are reminiscent of his response to Satan, “Get behind me, Satan” (4:10), at the conclusion of the wilderness temptation. The difference is that Jesus commanded Satan to move away or depart (Greek: hupago), while he commands Peter to move (hupago again) to his proper position behind Jesus. That is the disciple’s place—behind the master—following the master. When Peter took Jesus aside to rebuke him, he moved in front of Jesus—seizing the initiative—seeking to lead Jesus onto a different path. Standing in front of Jesus—out of position—Rock becomes Stumbling Block (Greek: skandalon). Even worse, he becomes Satan. “Satan is any force which seeks to deflect us from the way of God” (Barclay, 164), and that is what Peter is doing—trying to deflect Jesus from his God-given path to the cross.
“Get behind me, Satan!” In this incident, Peter becomes Satan—tempter. Just as Satan tried to persuade Jesus to take the easy way (turn these stones into bread—make a spectacular display of yourself—bow down before me and I will give you the world), so now Peter calls Jesus to abandon the narrow, rough road that leads to the cross for a wide, smooth road that leads to…. But Jesus has already taught us that the wide, smooth road leads to destruction, but the narrow, rough road leads to life (5:13-14).
“You are a stumbling block (skandalon) to me.“ The rock of verse 18 becomes a stumbling block in this verse. Skandalon meant a trap or snare, but came to be used also for a rock left in the road that would cause people to stumble.
The idea of a stumbling stone was particularly vivid in that part of the world, where the land was rocky. These people have experienced stumbling over a stone. At best, the person who stumbled would suffer a sore toe or knee. At worst, he would stumble in the midst of a battle and be rendered helpless in the face of his enemy.
Jesus sees Peter’s intervention as a spiritual stumbling block—something that has the potential to cause Jesus to stumble on his journey to Jerusalem. Jesus cannot ignore a threat of this significance. He must put Peter firmly in his rightful place.
“for you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of men.” That isn’t the way that Peter sees it. Peter understands that Jesus is the messiah, and is simply trying to keep him from spoiling everything in a weak moment. Peter wants the messiah to succeed. How can that be bad? The answer is that Peter’s vision of the mission is skewed, and he is trying to superimpose his vision over God’s vision.
We should take note. The church is always tempted to take the world’s high road instead of God’s low road. We are tempted to put our faith in the world’s methods (advertising, fund-raising, psychology, theatrics, high production values, etc., etc., etc.) instead of God’s methods (the cross, preaching the cross, taking up our cross, serving the needy in Christ’s name). We are tempted to evaluate ministry by standards with which any accountant or CEO would be comfortable (membership rolls, attendance, budgets, goals and objectives) instead of the standards of the one who had nowhere to lay his head and whose throne was a cross. There are certainly ministries that are both faithful and “successful,” but it is incumbent on every prosperous ministry to re-examine itself often to see if it has abandoned the cross and bowed its knee to Satan. Ministry that sells is not always ministry that saves.
MATTHEW 16:24-26. IF ANYONE DESIRES TO COME AFTER ME
24Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. 25For whoever desires to save his life(Greek: psuchen—life or soul) will lose it, and whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his life? Or what will a man give in exchange for his life?”
“Then Jesus said to his disciples” (v. 24a). Jesus is no longer addressing Peter. In Mark’s Gospel, he addresses these words to the crowds (8:34), but this Gospel, he addresses the disciples. The shift is subtle but significant. Matthew has Jesus in the role of a rabbi, instructing his disciples on the meaning of discipleship and telling them what lies ahead, not just for him, but also for them. Crosses loom on the horizon.
Jesus calls the disciples to a disciplined life. “If anyone desires to come after me” (v. 24b). These disciples earlier left everything to follow Jesus. Now Jesus invites them to reassess their decision based on new information. They thought that following Jesus would be the road to glory, but he tells them now that it is the road to self-denial and a cross.
“let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (v. 24c). The self-denial of which Jesus speaks is not easy to grasp. It is one thing to deny ourselves today so that we can splurge tomorrow, but Jesus is not explaining the benefits of compound interest so that we can enjoy an affluent retirement. Denying oneself involves sacrificing one’s own interests in favor of serving Christ. I have friends who embody that principle—missionaries who live very simply in primitive parts of the world—an investment banker who gave up a six-figure salary to go to seminary. The interesting thing is that the people who actually practice self-denial say (honestly so, in my opinion) that they haven’t sacrificed anything—that they are far happier and more fulfilled than when they were pursing materialistic or selfish goals. As Jim Elliot (who was killed by natives on the mission field) put it, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
What would Christ call us to deny ourselves? The list is long, and Jesus would tailor it for each of us, but for starters: A life centered on materialistic goals—business practices that fail to consider the welfare of the customer and the employee and the environment—sex outside of marriage—drunkenness—illicit drugs—support of evil power structures.
But self-denial is just the beginning. Jesus also expects disciples to bear a cross. A cross is where a person dies. End of story!
Except that it isn’t the end of the story! “For whoever desires to save his life ( psuchen—life or soul) will lose it, and whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it” (v. 25). From the very beginning of his teaching in this Gospel, Jesus taught the Great Reversal. His very first words in the Sermon on the Mount were “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” The kingdom of heaven is an upside-down place where the value system of this world no longer applies. It is a place where God rewards self-denial and cross-bearing. God’s purpose is not to deny us life but to give it. “Jesus is not anti-our-life; he is anti-preoccupation-with-our-life” (Bruner, 593).
The meaning of discipleship is slowly unfolding. The disciples did not fully understand discipleship when they signed on. Now, even though Jesus clearly states what lies ahead, they still fail to understand. Jesus has told them that he must “go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and the third day be raised up” (v. 21). Regardless, the disciples do not understand and will be surprised when it happens.
If the first disciples were slow to understand, we need not be surprised if we are also slow to understand. Spiritual growth takes place slowly and painfully. Our spiritual journey takes a lifetime. Even as we near the conclusion of that journey, our understanding is less than complete. Paul says, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). That is not an excuse for complacency, but does acknowledge our humanity.
For those who have eyes to see, there is plenty of evidence that Jesus was right when he said that those who want to save their lives will lose them and vice versa. People who pursue their own happiness most selfishly are constantly on the move looking for something that they never find. Celebrities move from one spouse to the next, always seeking but never finding satisfaction. Business executives with money enough for a dozen lifetimes break the rules and themselves trying to amass just a little more.
The reward of cross-bearing is life. What does Jesus mean by life? The Christian life, with its costs and rewards, begins when we first begin to take up our cross and follow Jesus:
• The person who is willing to lose life in Christ’s service is freed from fear of death.
• The person for whom Christ is more important than possessions is freed from slavery to materialism.
• The person who resists temptation finds him/herself stronger when the next temptation rolls around.
• The employee who maintains integrity in the face of temptation can face a mirror without feeling shame.
• The person who sacrifices an afternoon of golf to help a person in need gains a sense of self-worth.
But Jesus does more than to warn us that selfish people lead unfulfilled lives. There is also the issue of judgment—heaven and hell. Jesus gives us a picture of people who reach the end only to find that everything that they owned is gone and everything that they need is beyond their reach. We are reminded of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31)—and the Great Reversal that each of them experienced—and the gulf that separated them—and the hopeless despair of the Formerly Rich Man. How much would he pay to escape his suffering? A tithe? Fifty percent? Everything? It doesn’t matter, because it is too late!
“For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his life?” (v. 26a). Wasn’t that the third temptation—the one where the devil took Jesus to a high mountain to show him all the kingdoms of the world. The devil said, “I will give you all of these things, if you will fall down and worship me” (4:9). Is there anyone among us who hasn’t been faced with that kind of temptation? Is there anyone who hasn’t burned with desire or ambition for something that would pull him or her away from God? God and life lie on one side of the divide. The other side is dark and we can’t see it clearly, but Jesus reminds us that death lurks in the darkness.
Jesus uses the language of the marketplace to ask, “Or what will a man give in exchange for his life?” (v. 26b). Consider that question. What value do you place on your life?
MATTHEW 16:27-28. THE SON OF MAN WILL COME WITH HIS ANGELS
27“For the Son of Man will come in the glory of his Father with his angels, and then he will render to everyone according to his deeds (Greek: ten praxin autou—his or her work singular—not deeds plural). 28Most certainly I tell you, there are some standing here who will in no way taste of death, until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
“For the Son of Man will come in the glory of his Father with his angels” (v. 27a). Son of Man is the most common title for Jesus in this Gospel. He “will render to everyone according to his deeds” (ten praxin autou—his or her work singular—not deeds plural). This is both a warning and a promise. For those trying to save their own lives and to feather their own nests, it is a warning. For those willing to lose their lives for Jesus’ sake, it is a promise. Matthew 25:31-46 expands the picture to let us know that we will be judged according to our deeds of mercy to the needy. We learn elsewhere that we are saved by grace through faith, but Jesus makes it clear in these two passages that our faith must manifest itself in good work. Our salvation depends on it. This idea is found repeatedly in the New Testament (Romans 2:6; 2 Corinthians 11:15; 2 Timothy 4:14; 1 Peter 1:17; Revelation 2:23; 18:6; 20:12-23; 22:12).
“there are some standing here who will in no way taste of death, until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (v. 28). The question is whether Jesus is speaking of the Second Coming or some other event. The fact that this Gospel was probably written several decades after the resurrection means that Matthew knows that the Second Coming did not come quickly after Jesus’ ascension. It is possible that the coming to which verse 28 refers is the Transfiguration, which follows almost immediately on the heels of our Gospel lesson (17:1-8) and thus seems likely—or it could be the Resurrection—or Pentecost—or the destruction of Jerusalem.
A bit later, Jesus will say, “Heaven and earth will pass away…. But no one knows of that day and hour, not even the angels of heaven, but my Father only” (24:35-36). It seems unlikely then that he would intend 16:28 to foretell the timing of his Second Coming.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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