The Climax of Matthew
[October 12, 2008] In this passage, Matthew 15:39-16:20, we reach the climax of the Gospel according to Matthew. It is like the peak of the mountain. Everything before this leads up to it and everything after flows down from it. From the time when Jesus first presented Himself to Israel after His baptism and temptation and started to call disciples until His arrival at Caesarea-Philippi, Jesus has been waiting for His disciples to “get it.” Here Peter finally makes the confession that matters. Only after he says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” does Jesus reveal (1) the church that will issue out of His death and resurrection, (2) His saving death and His resurrection, beginning in 16:21, and (3) the glory of the kingdom, in 16:28-17:8.
The Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 15:39—16:4)
The chapter begins with the arrival of the Pharisees and Sadducees to tempt Jesus. They may have been upset by His preaching to the Gentiles, and so they demand some sort of validation, a sign from heaven as proof of His mission. At first sight, this pairing of Pharisees and Sadducees seems impossible. The last time we saw them together was before the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when they arrived at the Jordan for the baptism of John (3:7). Since then we have seen Jesus arguing with the zealots among the Pharisees, but not the Sadducees. After this His contention will turn to the Sadducees rather than the Pharisees. It is the high priest and the chief priests in Jerusalem, almost all of whom are Sadducees, who will hand Jesus over to the governor to be crucified. The Pharisees did not do this. Later, the Pharisees will defend the church (Acts 5:34). Paul was an exception in that he took his orders from the high priest. Before the encounter in Matthew 16, there are the Pharisees; after this encounter we see the Sadducees. Here, however, Jesus groups the two together.
The Pharisees and Sadducees are like opposites. So the question is, what do they have in common? The Pharisees believe in the authority of the entire Old Testament, they believe in the coming of the Messiah and His kingdom, they believe in the resurrection from the dead, they believe in angels. Basically, everything Jesus teaches can be echoed among the Pharisees, even His criticisms and condemnations of them. On the other hand, the Sadducees only accept the Law of Moses and do not believe in the Messiah or the resurrection of the dead or the existence of angels. These two groups merely tolerated each other.
The zealots among the Pharisees expected the Messiah to come, overthrow the Romans, exalt the nation of Israel, and punish the Gentiles. They thought Jews should have nothing to do with Gentiles; Gentiles only contaminated them. So they stressed all the purity laws and the rules that reinforced them. This is why they opposed the church’s mission to the Gentiles. The Sadducees, on the other hand, were collaborators with the Romans. They were power-brokers, practitioners of “politics,” and saw themselves as the “realistic” protectors of Israel under Roman occupation. Again, these two groups were opposites.
But we see them both involved in the events that happened to the nation in 70 AD when Jerusalem was destroyed and the temple leveled by the Romans. The Sadducees were destroyed, never to be heard from again, and the zealot Pharisees were humbled until a final attempt at freedom in 135 AD. When Jesus addresses both parties, He warns of God’s judgment on them, a judgment that came. It was the less “zealous” Pharisees who had more in common with Jesus who later created rabbinic Judaism out of the ruin that Jesus predicted.
What these two groups had in common was a false concept of the kingdom of God. They both tied God’s kingdom to earthly, social, political and economic power, even if the Pharisees thought this kind of power would be given to them supernaturally. Jesus denied that this is what the kingdom of God meant. They came to Jesus to tempt Him. If you recall, it was also this kind of temptation that Satan brought to Jesus in the wilderness, and again that Satan brought to Him in 16:23 (through Peter). This is why Jesus did more than disagree with them. What they represent was not only blind; it was evil. Because of their false ideology, Jesus says that they were an evil and adulterous generation.
They asked for a sign from heaven, but Jesus says that they cannot recognize the signs in front of them. In other words, they do not recognize that the Messiah has already come and the kingdom of the heavens is in front of them. Both these groups opposed the church. The Sadducees opposed the church from the beginning, and the zealot Pharisees opposed the church’s mission to the Gentiles. The only sign that they will get is the sign of Jonah.
What is the sign of Jonah? Of course it is the three days and nights in the belly of the fish—a picture of the cross and resurrection of Jesus. But more so, it is Jonah’s preaching of repentance to the Gentiles and their conversion. The sign of Jonah is the existence of the church among the Gentiles. Paul explains in Romans 9-11 that this is THE Messianic sign to Israel—“Salvation has come to the Gentiles to provoke [Israel] to jealousy” (11:11).
The Loaves and the Fishes and the Storm at Sea
This section began in 13:53. It poses the question throughout, “Who is Jesus?” and this question becomes explicit in 16:15. The big signs within this section that show us who Jesus is are the feeding of the five thousand on the Jewish side of the lake of Galilee, the feeding of the four thousand on the Gentile side of the lake, and the crossing of the lake in between during a storm. The two stories of the loaves and fishes, when Jesus feeds the people with the “bread of heaven” (according to John 6), are both pictures of the church. The church is the place of God’s grace, where God’s blessing rests, and we feast on the Lord Jesus and God satisfies us. But when the church tries to cross the metaphoric sea and bring the Gospel to the Gentiles, they encounter a storm that threatens to swamp them or wash them overboard. This storm, at first, comes to the church from the Sadducees and Pharisees (later it will come from the Gentiles). But Jesus comes to them, walking calmly on the waters, and it is Peter who steps out and walks with Him. All the other stories in this section act as explanations for these signs.
Do You Understand? (16:5-12)
The disciples adhere to Jesus, they follow Him and are committed to Him, but Jesus is continually telling them how little their faith is and how they do not understand. “Why are you reasoning among yourselves, you of little faith … Do you not yet understand, nor remember? … How is it that you do not understand?” (verses 8, 9, 11). In 15:16 Jesus expressed a similar frustration: “Are you also still without understanding?” This whole section works this point over. Yes, the disciples are His own, they are believers, but they have got to understand. In 13:19 Jesus said, “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand, the evil one comes and snatches away that which has been sown in his heart.” This is important. You must not give up on it. As the saying goes, “You either get it or you don’t.” The cost is too high to not “get it.”
“Getting it” has less to do with intelligence than faith. Jesus says that they do not get it because their faith is so little. Faith is not about certainty; it is about taking a risk. The disciples were still acting as if Jesus did not make a difference. Understanding comes from letting go, from trusting God, from acting as though Jesus is who He says He is, from gambling your life on it. Can you surrender to His lordship as the Canaanite woman did? Can you walk on water like Peter? Faith is what gives us understanding.
The crowds do not understand. The crowds love and admire Jesus and flock to Him for answers to prayer, but they do not “get it.” To them Jesus is a great prophet. But they have no faith. They are not taking the gamble, the serious risk. They stake nothing. Their commitment is sentimental; they feel it but they are not willing to act on it.
The fact is that we cannot conjure up faith on our own, nor can we “get it” on our own. Apart from an act of God inside of us, we cannot understand no matter how intelligent we are. Praise the Lord, the one who walked on water when Jesus said, “Come,” finally did “get it.” A little! (See 16:22-23.)
“Upon This Rock I Will Build My Church” (16:13-20)
You all know what people say about Jesus. But Jesus asks every person, “Who do YOU say that I am?” At some point or another we have to stake our existence on the answer that WE give. If the emperor said that your life depended on the answer you give: “if you say ‘Jesus is Lord’ you will forfeit your life and be burned at the stake”—what answer will you give? This is a decision you make. You signify this decision with your baptism. Your baptism marks you as separate because it is the sign of your decision. If this decision was made on your behalf by your parents, you must reaffirm it—make it your own.
It is not just a random decision, though. “WHO do you say that I am?” Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and Jesus said, “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in the heavens.” This is a revelation. The Father reveals to you who Jesus is. It is not about mentally understanding. It is about understanding with the heart, in the spirit. It is about grasping with your heart because you have SEEN something (not outwardly but with insight). If we give ourselves to Christ, it is because our hearts have responded to something we have “seen,” that God Himself has revealed to us.
“Christ” means “Messiah” (one is Greek, the other is Hebrew). They both mean Anointed One. In the Old Testament, you were anointed for a special role or task by oil being poured on your head. Those who were anointed were priests, kings and prophets. THE Anointed One is the One who will fulfill all the promises God gave to Israel. He is the great High Priest, the Son of David, the revelation of God. When Jesus is called “Christ” it refers to His role, His mission, His work—the work of incarnation, living, death, resurrection, ascension, and coming again.
“Son of God” refers to His divinity. This is who He is personally. He is everything the Father is, come to us hidden in the form and with the nature of a man. If you look at Jesus with merely human eyes you see only a very remarkable human through whom God performed miracles. If you see what God sees—and this can only be by the gift of God—then you see that Jesus is God. When He says, “I,” He is not speaking from His human ego as we do but from the “I Am” of God. He was the Son of God before He became Jesus, from eternity. But no one cannot know the Son of God apart from His revelation.
Jesus says to Peter, “You are Peter (a stone), and upon this rock (petra) I will build My church.” The rock here is not Peter but the confession that Peter made, the words that he said, the thing that was revealed to him. The rock upon which the church is built is Christ Himself. Everyone who confesses Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of God, is a stone built upon this foundation. This should be very clear. Before you were clay. When you believe in Jesus, you become a stone. When the Holy Spirit finishes His work with you, you will become a precious stone. The church is built with these stones upon this confession. If you do not or cannot confess Jesus in this way, you are not on this foundation.
Jesus said, “I WILL build my church.” The church does not come into existence until Easter, after Jesus undergoes His death on the cross. It is something new in Israel. It is not an alternative to Israel. Nowhere does the Bible teach that God rejected Israel. Rather, the Messiah calls Israel into His church. The Messiah, however, also calls Gentiles into His church. This is what the prophets foretold.
When Jesus says to Peter, “Blessed are you,” it is the same blessedness (the favor of God) that is within Himself, into which He calls us (the Beatitudes in Matthew 5). It is the same blessing that God promised to Israel if it were obedient. Christ fulfills this obedience and we enter this blessedness when we enter Him.
Hades is the Greek word for the Old Testament “Sheol.” It is the realm of the dead. Death has dominion over the human race; through fear it keeps people in subjection to the devil. Jesus however overcomes the power of death. The church—through the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection—will make an assault on the gates that defend the fortress of death, and the gates of death shall not prevail against the church. It seems like death attacks the church, but really it is the church that overcomes the power of death. We do not see that here and now, except spiritually, yet the kingdom of the heaven is doing it in our midst.
Jesus gives to Peter the keys of the kingdom of the heavens. Keys open doors. Peter opened the door of the kingdom to the Jews on the day of Pentecost (through the preaching of the Gospel and baptism) and it was Peter again who opened the same door to the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius (again through the proclamation of the Gospel and baptism). This is when he “walked on water.” The keys were not given to any successors of Peter such as the popes claim to be.
The power to bind or loose is given not just to Peter but to the church (see 18:18). However, it is not some kind of power that we have over heaven. Rather it is the power that heaven exercises through us. If we pay attention to the tenses, it says that what we bind on earth was first bound in heaven. We are following heaven. Heaven is not following us. The kingdom of the heavens works through the church to establish itself on the earth. The kingdom of the heavens has to do with God’s goal which He accomplishes through the church.
So when the Father revealed to Peter (as He does to every believer) who Jesus is, then Jesus begins to reveal to Peter (and the whole band of disciples) the church, and after this the cross and the resurrection and the kingdom. The revelation of Christ implies the church. The church is not something that was developed historically to organize the believers into an institution. It is the organic form of faith in Christ. Faith in Christ and the church are inseparable.