The turning point in Matthew’s account of Christ’s life and work occurs in chapter 16: “From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day” (v. 21 KJV).
A committee of scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem had come to Jesus, objecting to the practice of His disciples (15:1). Now, in Magdala, another committee of Pharisees, joined by a number of Sadducees, waited to confront Him. What a strange combination: conservative Bible scholars, Jewish fundamentalists, and ultra-modern theological liberals putting aside their differences to ask for “a sign from heaven” to validate Jesus’ claims and teachings!
Jesus answers with a stern rebuke (16:2–4). He has shown these leaders everything they need to see, making it as plain as “the face of the sky” (v. 3) in the old weather adage:
Red sky at night, sailors’ delight; red sky at morning, sailors, take warning.
No further sign is needed, but Christ says there is one more they should all look for: “the sign of the prophet Jonah” (v. 4). Christ is repeating what He explained earlier to a similar delegation: “As Jonah 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” (12:40). Christ makes the resurrection the touchstone of the truth and credibility of all His claims and promises.
Jesus leaves this encounter with a bad taste in His mouth. He warns His disciples to “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees” (16:6). Though fundamentalist Pharisees and modernist Sadducees were very different from each other in practice, they were alike in one respect: they both appealed to human authority against the Word of God. The Pharisees appealed to human tradition; the Sadducees, to human philosophy. In either case, Jesus says, an ungodly “leaven” of man-centeredness is at work.
The disciples are stumped. They connect Jesus’ warning with their failure to supply themselves with bread for the crossing to Magdala (v. 7). Is Jesus cautioning them not to buy bread from these Magdalene Pharisees and Sadducees? Only after Jesus’ explanation do they understand His warning. We should not sneer at these disciples; without the Spirit’s illumination, we often err when we comment on the words of Christ.
Later, in Caesarea Philippi, Christ confronts His disciples, asking, “Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?” (v. 13). Their answers show that, for the present at least, the general public is impressed with Jesus. Some identified Him as John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or simply “one of the prophets” (v. 14). Muslims today share this first-century Jewish view of Jesus, honoring Him as one of God’s greatest prophets.
Nevertheless, such honor is not enough for Jesus. “But whom say ye that I am?” He asks (v. 15). Simon answers with the first great creedal statement of the Christian faith: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 16). Christ commends this confession of faith, declaring it to be revealed from heaven (v. 17).
All Christians can unite in affirming this great creed expressed by Peter. Sadly, however, the words that follow have proven divisive. Christ gives a new name to Simon, saying, “Thou art Peter.” He adds, “Upon this rock I will build my church” (v. 18). This text has been cited as validation for the Roman Catholic Church to exercise dominion over all other churches in the world, since the church of Rome claims to have been founded by Peter. According to this view, Peter is the “rock” upon which Christ builds His church.
What has been lost in translation is the distinction Christ makes between the person of “Peter” (petros), and the foundation of His church, which he calls petra, “a mass of live rock as distinct from petros, a detached stone or boulder.” Peter’s confession is much greater than the person of Peter. His rock-like strength as a believer comes from the greater power of truth inherent in his confession. Christ will build His church upon this creed, the truth of which is not dependent upon the man who first gave expression to it. Still today, the visible church of Christ is known by its profession of the true religion, not by its historical connection with a mere man or his successors in office.
Christ then reminds His disciples that God “hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained” (Acts 17:31). Having spoken of His latter-day kingdom glory, Christ concludes with a solemn intimation that some will not have to wait so long to behold that glory.