Jesus' Messianic theology was opposed by the Pharisees on the one hand and the Sadducees on the other. These two theological models are still the main alternatives to a genuine Christian faith, and they are a perennial danger for all churches. As we have seen, Pharisaism offered a form of legalism: "These are the rules to be obeyed if you want God to accept you and make it to heaven." Sadduceeism offered a religion for skeptics without miracle, resurrection, or the work of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus offered a way of freedom right down the middle of these two alternatives. Instead of legalism, Messianic faith was to be in the power of the Holy Spirit to perfect us in love. Instead of skepticism about life after death, faith is in the power of the Spirit to resurrect us in the same way as Jesus would be resurrected (Romans 8:11).
16:1 This is the first time the Sadducees unite with the Pharisees to silence this preacher from Galilee. John the Baptist, as the last of the prophets, had already foreseen that these two groupings of the religious establishment in Jerusalem would oppose the work of the Messiah (3:7). What they decided to ask for was a sign to prove that Jesus really was the Messiah. This was a repetition of the strategy the local Pharisee leaders had used (12:38).
16:2-3 Jesus expresses astonishment that they could recognize the signs of a fine day or a coming storm, but they could not recognize the signs of the Messiah having come among them.
16:4 Jesus then gave them the same enigmatic reference to the prophet Jonah as he had given before, but he now omits the more specific prophecy of his own resurrection (12:39).
Why would Matthew throw in the enigmatic words "Then he left them and went away?" He describes Jesus as always eager to heal and teach those who wanted his help. But for those who just wanted to trip him up, he said little and went his way.
16:5-7 Jesus and his disciples again cross the Sea of Galilee, and on the boat he warns them of the opposition they should expect from both the Pharisees on the one hand and Sadducees on the other.
They misunderstand the yeast metaphor, and imagine he was rebuking them for forgetting to bring provisions for the crossing.
16:8-10 He explains that having food to eat was no problem. Two different words for baskets are used. After five thousand had been fed twelve small picnic baskets of fragments were gathered (14:20, 16:9). And after four thousand were fed (15:37, 16:10) seven large bushel baskets of uneaten fragments were collected. Obviously God has no problem providing for our physical needs (6:11, 31).
16:11-12 The alternative models of Pharisee legalism and Sadducee skepticism will need to be avoided very carefully as perennial temptations for Christians and dangers to the churches.
Peter has now traveled with and been taught by Jesus for at least two years. As explained in John's Gospel, he had probably been baptized into the circle of John's disciples and then been baptized again to become a disciple of Jesus (John 1:35, 40-41; 4:1; see Acts 19:1-6). The Messiah did such a good job of becoming man that it took his disciples two years to realize he was the Son of God. Peter's confession therefore becomes a turning point in Jesus' ministry.
16:13-14 Three answers were currently given as to how and why the mighty power of God was so evident in the ministry of Jesus. Herod had imagined he was John the Baptist (14:2). Another explanation was that Elijah had come back (as in Malachi 4:5). And the most common explanation was that Jesus was like the Old Testament prophets.
16:15-16 Peter's confession is very precise. Jesus is the Messiah (or "Christ," as Matthew has explained in 1:1, 17, 18; 2:5; 11:2). For months traveling and working with him, Peter had no doubt Jesus was human. Now he knows he is also the eternal Son of God (see 3:17).
16:17 John's Gospel describes believers as those "who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:13). And Paul says "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Corinthians 15:50). Ephesians adds that "our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh" (Ephesians 5:12). Greeks tended to think of a soul imprisoned in a human body. Jews experienced humans as made up of flesh nourished by a blood stream. When they ate the flesh of an animal, the blood must be drained out and discarded (Leviticus 7:26-27). And the explanation was that "the life of the flesh is in the blood" (Leviticus 17:11, as modern medicine has also discovered). So here Jesus is explaining that Simon did not come to his understanding of the Messiah being the Son of God by the ordinary resources of our mind-body system but by direct revelation from God.
16:18 Simon is not only given the new name Peter (the Greek word petros means "rock," 10:2). He is also told that he will be the first building block (Ephesians 2:20-22) of the Messiah's world-wide church. And this church will survive in spite of all the assaults that will be made to stamp it out. As elsewhere in the New Testament the word "hell" is often used as a translation of the word Hades which in Greek originally meant the god of the underworld, and then was the ordinary word for the abode of the dead.
16:19 The keys of the kingdom of heaven may refer to the fact that Peter was used to open the door for many Jews into the new church of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38, 41) and then he opened the same door for people of other nations (10:44-48; 11:15-17).
A Jewish rabbi was said to bind when he taught that something was forbidden according to God's law. To loose meant to allow people the freedom to choose. An example of this was when churches from other nations were growing through Paul's missions. Some Pharisees who had become believers wanted all male converts to be circumcised, and then to obey all the Old Testament laws (Acts 15:5). Having heard all the other opinions (Acts 15:6-7) Peter ruled that having received the Holy Spirit, Gentiles were not bound by Jewish law (Acts 15:8-10). James, who was the presiding elder of the Jerusalem church then drafted a compromise resolution, which Peter and other apostles also signed, and this was sent out to all the new churches. By this "binding" gentile believers were asked not to offend their Jewish brothers by bringing idol meat and blood to their joint community meals, or engage in blatant immorality, but otherwise they were "loosed" from all the requirements of Jewish law (Acts 15:13-29).
16:20 Jesus did not want it announced that he was the Messiah, but rather preferred that people should one by one come to this conclusion as the Father revealed it to them. This changed on the Day of Pentecost when Peter declared plainly that the resurrection was prophesied by David in the Psalms (Acts 2:31; Psalm 16:10), and God had now demonstrated that Jesus was the Messiah by raising him after the crucifixion (Acts 2:36).
16:21 This is the first of three warnings given to the disciples about the Messiah's crucifixion and resurrection the third day (17:22; 20:19; see Psalm 49:15). We can imagine Matthew looking back to these warnings, which the apostles could not grasp at the time, and reliving the horror of the crucifixion and the astonished joy that followed.
16:22-23 When Peter tried to rebuke Jesus for such pessimistic ideas, Jesus heard the whispering of Satan through Peter's worldly evaluation. This is a quick reminder that although Peter was the first to see the implications of Jesus being both Messiah and eternal Son of God, and although he had been given the keys of Christian leadership, Matthew does not view him as in any way infallible (see 26:35, 69-70).
Another possibility is that a Christian teacher was required to unlock and "bring out of his treasury what is new and what is old" (13:52). And having come to see that Jesus was both Messiah and the eternal Son of God, Peter would now be responsible for teaching that among the churches.
In actual fact Peter exercised all three of these functions, and they are still an important part of any kind of Christian leadership.
Peter's attempt to divert Jesus from the way of the cross is a reason to explain again the cost of discipleship.
Under 10:38 we noted that a criminal carrying his own cross to the place of execution was very common sight in the Roman world. After this shameful ordeal crucifixion was feared as the longest and most painful way to be put to death. Taking up one's cross was therefore a powerful metaphor for the cost of engaging in many forms of Christian service.
Nobody is forced to climb mount Everest, or sail solo round the world, but those who choose to do this should count the cost. Similarly there is a cross to be taken up if we go with the good news to a savage tribe, or to the gangs of a big city, or accept a difficult pastorate, serve in a leper colony, or go to pick the dying off the streets of Calcutta like Mother Theresa.
16:25 This comment on cross bearing is a repetition for renewed emphasis of 10:39.
16:26 But now Jesus adds the evaluation which he had to make in his own temptations (4:8-10). And which we make when we "run with perseverance that race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame" (Hebrews 12:1-2). The receiving of fame and recognition is not a good motive for cross bearing, but the pursuit of joy for oneself and others is life itself and worth more than anything else in the world.
16:27 Jesus now reverts to the title he usually used for himself as Son of Man. It is clear from other references in the Gospel to a coming that it refers to his future interventions to assign consequences in this life. There will be a coming to "lease the vineyard to other tenants" which refers to Gentile churches taking over from the Jewish establishment in Jerusalem" (21:41). There will be a coming in that generation to topple the temple and destroy the city of Jerusalem (23:36; 24:27, 30; 25:19), and from that time people would see the Son of Man coming to intervene in power again and again in the history of churches and nations (26:64; Revelation 2:5, 16, 25; 3:3, 11; 17:14; 19:15-16).
On this view the reign of the Messiah among the nations began on the Day of Pentecost (Revelation 11:15). There is not one second coming, but continued comings of the Messiah both to intervene in wrath and to eat at communion services with his people (Revelation 3:20). There will eventually be a final coming when the Messiah terminates this space-time world and ushers in the new heavens and the new earth (Revelation 21:1-4). For the angels or messengers of the good news see the next verse.
16:28 The Son of Man will be demonstrated to be the Messiah when he comes to topple the temple, to terminate the power of the religious establishment in Jerusalem (24:1-2, 29; compare the fall of Babylon in Isaiah 13:10). The evidence would also be seen in the going out of his messengers of the good news (16:27; 24:31) into all the world. And both these will be seen in the lifetime of some of Jesus' disciples. We know from the Jewish historian Josephus and Roman history that these events occurred when the long three year tribulation of the siege of Jerusalem ended in AD 70.
Here the words "in his kingdom" do not refer to setting up a physical kingdom in some place or time but to the reign of the Messiah. He was already reigning as Lord as he kept intervening among nations in the Old Testament period. When he emptied himself and took birth as Son of Man he said the kingdom of heaven was among his disciples. And when the coming in the fall of Jerusalem was seen as a manifestation of his reign, it would then be obvious that he would continue his reign among all nations till he finally decided to terminate this space-time system.