The Pharisees Ask for a Sign (Matthew 16:1-4)
The Pharisees and Sadducees were violently opposed to one another in regard to almost every doctrine of the Scriptures, but they were united in their deliberate rejection of the Lord Jesus, God’s promised King. Being familiar with prophecy, these religious leaders knew that certain signs were to take place before the appearance of the Messiah. They came to Jesus without any desire to know the truth, simply tempting or testing Him, asking that He show them a sign from Heaven. They meant a sign indicating that the Messianic age was close at hand. Jesus rebuked them for their unbelief. They were quite able to read the signs of the heavens in regard to the weather, but they were absolutely unable to discern the signs of the times. Had their eyes been opened they would have realized that all the miraculous works of Jesus were in themselves the signs of the age to come and told of the presence of the King. Messiah was in their midst. No other sign would be given to them but the sign of the prophet Jonah. Jesus did not explain here what was meant by that sign, but He told us in Matthew 12:40, “As Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” The deliverance of Jonah pointed to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Alas, when the day of His resurrection came, even that miracle failed to convince these legalistic, hypocritical gainsayers; they were shut up to unbelief and hardness of heart.
Jesus Warns His Disciples (Matthew 16:5-12)
After the Lord’s colloquy with these religious leaders, the disciples came to Jesus, indicating that they had forgotten to bring bread. In His answer to them He brought in a warning that is not only important in itself, but also helps to serve as a key to the meaning of leaven in Scripture, as we have seen in our study of Matthew 13.
When the disciples acknowledged that they had forgotten to bring bread with them, Jesus said to them, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.” His followers did not understand what He meant by this, and thought He was warning them against accepting bread from these false teachers. They said among themselves, “It is because we have taken no bread.” When Jesus perceived how they were reasoning, He rebuked them. Then He reminded them how readily He had provided bread for the five thousand and also for the four thousand, and how much had been left over in each instance. In view of this, they should have realized that He was not speaking of material bread, which He could supply so abundantly, but He was warning them to beware of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees. The leaven of the Pharisees is explained in Luke 12:1 as hypocrisy. With this was coupled self-righteousness. The leaven of the Sadducees was false doctrine: they denied the authority of all the Old Testament except the books of Moses, and they did not believe in spiritual realities. Such evil teachings work like leaven, spreading throughout any group beginning to tolerate them; hence the warning of the Lord to beware of them.
Peter Declares His Faith (Matthew 16:13-20)
Speculation was rife as to the actual identity of Jesus, and whether He was only what He seemed to be or possibly a reincarnation of another. The Lord wished to put His disciples on record as to their apprehension of the mystery of His person (1 Timothy 3:16). Jesus questioned His disciples not for His own enlightenment, but because He desired to elicit a clear, definite confession from His followers, as He was soon to go with them to Jerusalem, where He was to be crucified. It was all-important that they should know Him in the reality of His divine-human personality.
“Some say that thou art…” They at once began to tell how various ones supposed Him to be John the Baptist risen from the dead, as Herod had thought; or Elijah, who was to herald “the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord” (Malachi 4:5-6); or Jeremiah, who many supposed was to reappear and was to fulfill the great prophecy of Isaiah 53 (they assumed Jeremiah 11:19 explained Isaiah 53:7); or one of the prophets, possibly that prophet whose coming Moses had predicted in Deuteronomy 18:18.
“But whom say ye that I am?” Had they learned, through observation and the Spirit’s illumination, who He really was? This definite question called for a clear, positive confession, and it was this He desired to obtain from them.
“Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Peter spoke for them all, though no one of the rest seems to have had the boldness to declare his faith openly. Christ and Messiah are synonymous. Both mean “the anointed.” It was the title given prophetically to the coming deliverer (Isaiah 61:1). Of old, prophets, priests, and kings were all anointed. Jesus holds the three offices; He was anointed by the Spirit of God for all three (Acts 10:38). In His human nature He is the Son of David, the Messiah, the Christ. As to His divine nature He is the Son of the living God.
It is all-important that men have a right understanding of the nature and person of our Lord Jesus Christ. Only as He is recognized by faith as the Son of the living God, coequal with the eternal Father, do we dare trust our souls to Him as our Savior. There is an unbridgeable gulf between the highest of all created beings and the Creator Himself. The church of Christ is not founded on any mere man, no matter how holy, enlightened, or devoted he may be. It rests securely upon the revelation of the truth so clearly declared by Simon Peter. And just as the church is built upon this blessed reality, so does the salvation of each individual soul depend upon the fact that God became man in order to give Himself a ransom for our sins.
“Flesh and blood hath not revealed it.” Simon Peter had not come to this conclusion by mere intuition or logical reasoning. It was God the Father who had enlightened his understanding and revealed to him the truth as to the person of the Lord and His divine sonship (Matthew 11:27).
“Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” “This rock” is Christ (1 Corinthians 10:4). In Peter’s great confession we have the sure foundation on which the church was to be built. Peter means a stone, or a piece of a rock. He was to be built into the church. The church was not to be built on him. The heavenly kingdom to be built on earth, is to be founded upon the truth that Christ is the Son of David (2 Samuel 7:12-13). The nations of the world are to share in the blessings of that kingdom because Christ is the Son of Abraham, the seed in whom all nations will be blessed (Genesis 22:18). But the church of our Lord Jesus Christ is built on the precious truth that He is the Son of the living God.
To say that Peter is in any sense the rock on which this divine edifice built of living stones rests, is to deny what he himself taught in 1 Peter 2:4-8. Paul, too, added his testimony that there can be no other foundation but Jesus Christ Himself (1 Corinthians 3:11). This is that foundation of the apostles and prophets to which he refers in Ephesians 2:20.
“The gates of hell [hades] shall not prevail” against the true church, built upon Christ as the Son of the living God. No effort of Satan and his hosts can avail to destroy the church or to stay the progress of its testimony. The only real hindrance comes from within the church itself as other Scriptures show.
Note, Christ did not say, “I have been building,” or “I am building,” but “I will build.” The assembly that He called “my church” was still in the future. Hitherto the Lord had been dealing with matters relating to the kingdom of Heaven. Now for the first time He spoke of the church not entirely as dissociated from the kingdom, but rather as connected with it in the new phase it would assume after His rejection and His ascension to Heaven. The building of this spiritual temple did not begin until after He had ascended to Heaven and the Spirit of God came as the promised Comforter. In this house Peter was to be a living stone, but Christ was to be the foundation rock.
“The keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Having spoken of the church, Jesus reverted to the kingdom, whose course He had previously outlined in the parables of Matthew 13. The keys of this kingdom were entrusted to Peter. Note, He did not give Peter the keys to Heaven. Such a notion is the grossest superstition. A key is designed to open a door. On Pentecost Peter opened the door of the kingdom to the Jews; in Cornelius’ house he opened the door to the Gentiles. “Tell no man.” This may seem strange. But as it was now evident that Israel had rejected Him, it was not the time to proclaim His messiahship and declare that He was the Christ. When He was raised from the dead Peter declared this truth with power (Acts 2:36).
Jesus Teaches of His Death and Resurrection (Matthew 16:21-27)
A new period of our Lord’s ministry had begun. From this time on the Lord began to speak more and more concerning His ultimate rejection by the Jews, His sufferings and death, and His subsequent resurrection. But His disciples were very slow to comprehend what He meant. Their minds were still set upon the coming kingdom, and they could not imagine the King being put to death.
In these verses we have a solemn example of how easily one who has been divinely illuminated may fall into serious error if acting on merely human principles. What a poor rock Peter would have been on which to build the church! He became unwittingly the mouthpiece of Satan when he advised Jesus against going to the cross. It is strange that anyone could teach in one breath that Peter was the first pope, and in the next that the pope is infallible. While he was a most devoted and earnest man, Peter blundered perhaps as badly as any of his brother apostles, not only during the days of our Lord’s humiliation, but also after His resurrection and ascension to Heaven. Paul told us how he had to oppose Peter because he was to be blamed for dissimulation and the fear of man, thereby compromising the liberty of grace (Galatians 2:11-16).
Jesus told His disciples that the path of discipleship is one of constant self-abnegation. The Lord was preparing His followers for the responsibilities that would be theirs when His prophetic words concerning Himself were fulfilled. They would be called on to ignore fleshly claims and to take up the cross, which meant accepting the place of rejection with Him, and thus they were to follow in His steps.
He who would think to better his condition by avoiding persecution for Christ’s sake, thereby saving his life, would really lose it. But he who was ready even to lay down his life for Christ’s sake would keep it unto life eternal. Death in this world would only be the introduction to everlasting glory. It would be worth nothing if one were able to gain even the whole world and yet in so doing lose his soul. The soul is really the life, the self. To lose the soul, therefore, is to miss the purpose for which one has been created. Man was made, as The Shorter Catechism declares, to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. He who makes it his object to accumulate wealth, or the favor of a Christless world will lose out and find himself at last bereft of everything that is of any worth whatever.
Note the question, “What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” It does not say, as one might imagine it would, “What shall a man take in exchange for his soul?” Man’s soul is forfeited. What can a man give in order to redeem it? He has nothing to give. If he continues in his sin his soul will be lost forever, but if he turns to Christ he will find redemption in Him. When He comes the second time as the Son of man in the glory of His Father with His angels, then He will reward each one according to his works.
Jesus Foresees His Transfiguration (Matthew 16:28)
The closing verse should really be the first verse of Matthew 17. Whoever edited the book of Matthew and divided it into chapters and verses made the break in the wrong place. In this verse Jesus was referring to the great event that followed “after six days”—the transfiguration, which presented the kingdom of God in embryo.