KING AND SON OF GOD Matthew 16–17
” ‘Who do you say I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’ ” (Matt. 16:15–16).These chapters mark a turning point in Matthew’s Gospel. From now on, Jesus spoke less of the kingdom, and more of the Cross.
Jesus rejected an official demand for a miraculous sign (16:1–12). Only His disciples acknowledged Him as Son of God (vv. 13–16). Jesus commended Peter (vv. 17–20), and began to instruct the disciples concerning the Cross (vv. 21–28). Christ’s transfiguration displayed His glory to the disciples (17:1–13) before an unbelieving generation failed to see Christ’s glory in an act of healing (vv. 14–22). Even then Jesus did not insist on His rights as the Son of God (vv. 23–27).
Understanding the Text
“The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested Him” Matt. 16:1–12. These two groups were at odds theologically and politically. Yet both saw Jesus as a threat. As both were represented on the Sanhedrin, this is very probably another official demand that Jesus prove His claims by a “sign from heaven.” It’s amazing that this demand would be made, in view of the hundreds of healings and other miracles Christ had performed in Judea and Galilee. When I was in college I worked in a mental institution, and taught a Bible class there. One of the other attendants was a philosophy major at the University of Michigan like myself, and not a believer. I suggested that fulfilled prophecy provided the proof he said he needed of Scripture’s supernatural origin, and he took up the challenge. After studying for several months he agreed. Fulfilled prophecy did prove Scripture’s claims. But he still refused to accept Christ. He had not really been open or wanted to prove Christianity true. He had hoped to prove it false. Though all the evidence pointed in the opposite direction, he persisted in his unbelief. Don’t be surprised when some you witness to keep on in disbelief, even though they see answers to prayer and evidence of God at work in your life. Miracles didn’t produce faith in Jesus’ day. All we can do is what Jesus did. Confront unbelief and keep on ministering to those whose minds are not yet made up. “Who do people say the Son of man is?” Matt. 16:14 After years of ministry in Israel, Jesus sent His disciples to circulate among the crowds and listen to what people were saying about Him. They were full of praise of Jesus; all identified Him with some Old Testament great. It was a clear case of damning with faint praise. It’s as if you or I looked at a portrait by Rembrandt, and said, “Oh, it’s a nice picture.” This is almost worse than the religious leaders’ open hostility. And moderns take the same stand! “Oh, Jesus is all right. He was sure a good Man, and a wonderful Teacher. We’ve got a lot to learn from Jesus all right. Too bad He was crucified and died before His time.” People can respect Jesus as a good Person. But God calls us to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Saviour. Anything short of worshiping Him as Son of God is rejecting Him completely. “Who do you say I am?” Matt. 16:15–20 Jesus didn’t send out His disciples because our Lord was curious about what the crowds thought. He sent them out to listen, so they would be forced to make a decisive personal decision. It doesn’t matter what others say about Jesus. It doesn’t matter if our parents, or our friends, or our whole family are Christians or if they are not. Each one of us must answer for himself or herself the question that Jesus asked His followers then. “Who do you say that I am?” If we say, with Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and thus trust ourselves to Him, we experience salvation and pass from death to life. If we side with the crowd, no matter how much we may approve of Jesus as a moral and spiritual Leader, we are lost. There has been much debate about the meaning of Christ’s words to Peter, “On this rock I will build My church.” There has also been debate over the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” of which Jesus spoke. There is no grammatically compelling reason why Christ was not referring to Peter as the “rock.” What is important is that Christ said “I will build” and “My church.” Christ had been pouring His life into His disciples, including Peter, for years. Peter clearly was “first among equals” of the Twelve. Nothing Jesus said here suggests apostolic succession or that Peter was “pope.” The church was then, is now, and always will be Christ’s, and He its ultimate builder. What about the “keys.” The teachers of the Law in Jesus’ time had “taken away the key to knowledge” (Luke 11:52) and bound the Jewish people to multiple rules that actually “hindered those who were entering [God’s kingdom].” Peter, in preaching the first sermon to Jews (Acts 2) and Gentiles (Acts 10) used the key of knowledge of the Gospel and “loosed” those who had been bound, by directing them to Jesus. “Jesus began to explain . . . that He must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” Matt. 16:21–27. Peter, commended just above, is now rebuked by Jesus. Peter didn’t like the idea of Christ facing death by crucifixion. So he urged Jesus to avoid it! Jesus angrily pushed him away. Peter’s attitude lacked the perspective of God. Jesus went on to explain that every disciple must learn to look at his or her life from God’s perspective. Each of us must “take up his cross and follow.” Not that we will literally be crucified. Instead, each of us must, like Jesus, find and do the will of God for him or her. The believer’s cross does not represent suffering, or death, but the plan and purpose of God for him or her. Jesus went on to point out that God’s purpose frequently seems negative to us rather than positive. It often seems to us that if we do the will of God, we will “lose our life.” What we need to understand is that rather than losing our life, we will “save” it. Only in doing the will of God do we become our own better, purified selves. So let’s take up our cross. Daily. And gladly. If you and I determine to do God’s will each day, whatever the cost, we will each become what we most yearn to be. “See the Son of man coming in His kingdom” Matt. 16:28–17:8. The promise Jesus made was not that some would live until Christ’s second coming. It was that some who had believed in Him as Son of God would see the glory that was temporarily masked by His humanity. The chapter division is unfortunate, for 17:1 tells us that just six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John to a mountaintop where He was “transfigured before them” (v. 2). In the rays that blazed from His familiar form, in the bright cloud that enveloped them, and in the voice announcing Jesus as God’s Son, Christ’s essential glory was glimpsed. It’s significant to note that only those who knew Him as Son of God were given this vision, and then not all of the disciples shared it. Sometimes believers today go through life without ever an intuition of the surpassing glory of Jesus, while others seem to live in His presence. Let’s take time to study and meditate on who Jesus is. As we do, Christ will show us His glory too. “They could not heal him” Matt. 17:14–21. When Jesus returned to the valley, He found the nine disciples left behind had tried to heal an epileptic boy and failed. Jesus healed the boy, and rebuked His disciples for their “little faith” (v. 20). The Greek word, oligopistia, is better understood as poor or defective faith. A number of failures of the disciples’ faith are mentioned in this section of Matthew (14:26–31; 15:16, 23, 33; 16:5, 22; 17:4, 10–11). It was not the size of the faith, but a flaw in the faith that was to blame. How do we know this? Because immediately Jesus said that “faith as small as a mustard seed” can move mountains! (v. 20) What then was the flaw? Here the flaw was in the object of the disciples’ faith: “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” The disciples had begun to trust the power Jesus had earlier given them, and to think of it as their own. Actually any power they had, flowed from Jesus, and Him alone. This is actually an encouraging story for us. Often we hesitate to reach out to help others, dreadfully aware of our inadequacies. It’s then we need to remember that our faith is in Jesus, not in our own strengths or resources. The flawed faith of the disciples serves as a reminder that even mustard-seed sized faith in Christ is enough to work miracles! The first-century priesthood required the use of this silver coin to pay the half-shekel temple tax required annually of every Jewish male. Jesus reminded Peter that kings only collect taxes from strangers, not family (17:24–27). If Peter had remembered this, he would have realized that Jesus, God’s Son, owed no temple tax to the Lord!
No One Except Jesus (Matt. 17:1–13)
The Christian mystics have an important contribution to make to each of our lives. This is illustrated in the story of the Transfiguration—and in its immediate aftermath. Notice how the disciples fell down before the transformed Jesus, and how when they looked up they “saw no one except Jesus.” What a mountaintop experience that was. They were deeply, completely, totally immersed in worship. They started back down the hill and almost immediately they became sidetracked. “By the way, Jesus,” you can almost hear one of them say, “I’ve always wondered about that Malachi 4 passage. Does it really mean what the teachers of the Law say: that Elijah must appear before the Messiah can?” The moment of worship had passed and was replaced by questions about the Bible and theology. I know. The Bible and theology are important. I’m so convinced of that that I spend my life studying and teaching Scripture. But there are times when getting another answer from the Book, or asking another question, detracts from a person’s spiritual life. Just like asking that question about Elijah must have drawn some of the wonder from the memory of their worship, and diluted some of their awe of our Lord. That’s what the mystics have to teach us. That ultimately what is vital is not having all the answers, but worshiping Christ. Not knowing more, but knowing Him. Not study, but kneeling in awe before the One we meet in God’s Word.
Study of God’s Word will nurture your spiritual life—if it is accompanied by contemplation and adoration of Jesus.
“If you desire to know how these things come about, ask grace, not instruction; desire, not understanding; the groaning of prayer, not diligent reading; the Spouse, not the teacher; God, not man; darkness, not clarity; not light, but the fire that totally inflames and carries us into God by ecstatic unctions and burning affections.”—Bonaventura