We now come to another great turning point in Matthew’s gospel. Hitherto the Lord has been dealing entirely with matters relating to the kingdom of heaven. Now for the first time He speaks of the church, though not entirely as dissociated from the kingdom, but rather as connected with it in the new phase it is to assume after His rejection and His ascension to heaven. In Peter’s great confession we have the sure foundation upon which the church was to be built. The earthly kingdom, or, rather, the heavenly kingdom to be built on the earth, is to be founded upon the truth that Christ is the Son of David (2 Sam. 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 peoples shall be blessed (Gen. 22:18). But the church of our Lord Jesus Christ is built upon the precious truth that He is the Son of the living God.
To say that Peter is in any sense the rock upon which this divine edifice, built of living stones, rests, is to deny what he himself teaches in the second chapter of his first epistle (vv. 4-7). Paul, too, adds his testimony that there can be no other foundation save Jesus Christ Himself (1 Cor. 3:11). This is that foundation of the apostles and prophets to which he refers in Ephesians 2:20.
Before we come to consider the revelation given in regard to these things there are two sections of the chapter that demand our attention. First, our Lord’s rebuke of the Pharisees and Sadducees who came asking for a sign from heaven.
The Pharisees also with the Sadducees came, and tempting desired Him that He would show them a sign from heaven. He answered and said unto them. When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red. And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowring. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times? A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas. And He left them, and departed, (vv. 1-4)
These Pharisees and Sadducees were violently opposed to one another in regard to almost every doctrine of Scripture, but they were united in their deliberate rejection of the Lord Jesus, God’s promised King. Being familiar with the prophets, they knew that certain signs had been indicated therein which were to take place before the manifestation of the Messiah; so they came to Jesus, without any desire to know the truth, but simply as 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 matters of weather or climatic conditions, 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 until the sign of the prophet Jonas. He does not explain here what was meant by that sign, but He tells us in 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.” So that the sign of the prophet Jonas would be the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Alas, when that day came, even that miraculous sign failed to convince these legalistic, hypocritical gainsayers; they were shut up to unbelief and hardness of heart.
And when his disciples were come to the other side, they had forgotten to take bread. Then Jesus said unto them, Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees. And they reasoned among themselves, saying, It is because we have taken no bread. Which when Jesus perceived, He said unto them, O ye of little faith, why reason ye among yourselves, because ye have brought no bread? Do ye not yet understand, neither remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets ye took up? Neither the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many baskets ye took up? How is it that ye do not understand that I spake it not to you concerning bread, that ye should beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees? Then understood they how that he bade them not beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees. (vv. 5-12)
After the Lord’s colloquy with these religious leaders, the disciples came to Jesus, indicating that they had forgotten to take bread. In His answer to them He brought in a warning which is not only important in itself, but also helps to serve as a key as to the meaning of leaven in Scripture, as we have seen in our study of chapter 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, saying, “O ye of little faith, why reason ye among yourselves, because ye have brought no bread?” 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 leaven, which is explained in verse 12, as “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 company beginning to tolerate them; hence, the warning of the Lord to beware of them.
Now we come to Peter’s great confession of Christ as the Son of the living God.
When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am? And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Then charged he his disciples that they should tell no man that he was Jesus the Christ, (vv. 13-20)
“Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?” 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 Tim. 3:16). The question was not asked 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” (Mai. 4:5—6); or Jeremiah, who many supposed was to reappear and was to fulfill the great prophecy of Isaiah 53, basing this on Jeremiah 11:19 as explaining 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 (Isa. 61:1). Of old, prophets, priests, and kings were all anointed. Jesus holds the three offices, for all of which He was anointed by the Spirit of God (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.” Not by mere intuition, or by logical reasoning had Simon Peter come to this conclusion. 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 (Matt. 11:27).
“Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” “This rock” is Christ (1 Cor. 10:4). He it is on whom the church is 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. Against the true church, built upon Christ as the Son of the living God, “the gates of hell [hades] shall not prevail.” 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 Scripture passages show. Note, He does not say, “I have been building” or “I am building,” but “I will build.” The assembly, that which He calls “my church,” was still in the future. 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. The name given him by Jesus means a stone, a piece of rock. But on “this rock,” that is, this great truth just enunciated, His church was to be built. Christ, not Peter, is the Foundation-Rock on which the church is built.
“The keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Having spoken of the church, Jesus reverts to the kingdom, whose course He had previously outlined in the parables of chapter 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’s 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).
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.
From that time forth began Jesus to show unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many thing of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day. Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee. But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men. Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works, (vv. 21-27)
“From that time forth.” A new period of our Lord’s ministry had begun. Henceforth, He stressed His rejection and approaching death, to be followed by His resurrection.
“Be it far from thee, Lord.” Now 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.
“Get thee behind me, Satan.” 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. For, 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 tells us how he had to withstand him to the face because he was to be blamed for dissimulation and the fear of man, thereby compromising the liberty of grace (Gal. 2:11-16).
“Let him deny himself.” 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 upon 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 and so to save 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 be only 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 is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or 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?” but, “What shall a man give 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.
The closing verse should really be the first verse of chapter 17. Whoever edited the book and divided it into chapters and verses made the break in the wrong place. When Jesus said, “Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom,” He was referring to the great event that followed “after six days,” the Transfiguration, which we know, from the words of the apostle Peter, presented the kingdom in embryo for the confirming of the Father to the disciples.