Biblical Commentary
(Bible study)

Matthew 16:13-20



This reading is closely tied to verses 13-20, last week’s Gospel lesson. In verse 16, Peter confessed his faith that Jesus was the messiah, the Son of God. Now Jesus shows him what messiahship and discipleship entail.

Prior to chapter 16, Jesus spent much of his time addressing crowds, working miracles, and verbally jousting with scribes and Pharisees. With the exception of 16:1-4, Jesus spends chapters 16-18 instructing the disciples—preparing them for Jerusalem and his cross. Then in 19:1 he leaves Galilee to go to Judea—to Jerusalem—to his death.

This is Jesus’ first passion prediction. The others are found at 17:22-23; 20:17-19; 26:1-2.


13Now when Jesus came into the parts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?”

14They said, “Some say John the Baptizer, some, Elijah, and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”

Now when Jesus came into the parts of Caesarea Philippi” (v. 13a). Caesarea Philippi, near Mount Hermon 25 miles (40 km) north of the Sea of Galilee, is at the boundary of the Gentile world, and is primarily a Gentile city. In earlier times, it was known for the worship of Baal and Pan. In Jesus’ day, it had a temple to Caesar. Jesus seems to go there to escape the Galilean crowds so that he might prepare his disciples for his journey to Jerusalem, which will begin at 19:1—a journey that will end in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

“Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” (v. 13b). Jesus chooses this Gentile place to reveal himself more completely to his disciples, perhaps giving us a hint of the concern for the whole world that he will make explicit in the Great Commission (28:19-20).

Rather than telling the disciples his identity, Jesus asks his disciples who people believe the Son of Man to be. Son of Man is the title Jesus most often uses to identify himself (Matthew 8:20; 9:6; 10:23; 11:19; 12:8, 32; 13:37,41; 16:13, 27; 17:9, 12, 22; 19:28; 20:18, 28; 24:27, 30, 37, 39; 25:31; 26:2, 24, 45, 64).

The title, Son of Man, comes from Daniel 7:13-14, where the Ancient of Days (God) gave to the one like a Son of Man “dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and languages should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.”

Because of its inclusive language agenda, the NRSV translates the phrase in Daniel 7:13 as “human being” rather than “Son of Man.” That is an especially unfortunate translation, given the significance of the title, Son of Man. The phrase in Daniel 7:13 is bar enas. The word bar is Hebrew for son, and enas is Hebrew for man.

The title, Son of Man, has the advantage of having none of the militaristic connotations associated with the title, Messiah. People expect the Messiah to raise an army, to drive out the Romans, and to re-establish the great Davidic kingdom. They have no such expectations regarding the Son of Man.

Jesus’ frequent use of the title in connection with his passion suggests a veiled Messianic title.

Some say John the Baptizer, some, Elijah, and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets” (v. 14). The disciples (not just Peter) tell Jesus that people think of him as:

• John the Baptist, who was murdered by Herod. John was such a powerful presence that the people would not be surprised to see him again. Indeed, Herod thinks that Jesus might be a resurrected John (14:2).

• The prophet Elijah, the worker of miracles, who was expected to reappear “before the great and terrible day of Yahweh comes” (Malachi 4:5).

• The prophet Jeremiah, who had opposed the religious leaders in Jerusalem and had predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.

• Or one of the other prophets.

It is clear that people think well of Jesus and have pegged him as a prophet. However, when they try to identify him, they do so in terms of past prophets. But Jesus is more than a prophet. He is the Christos—the Christ—the Anointed One of God.

It is interesting to know the people’s opinions of Jesus, but Jesus’ first question simply prepares the disciples for his second, all-important question (v. 15).


15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ (Greek: Christos), the Son of the living God.”

“But who do you say that I am?” (v. 15). In verse 13, Jesus told his disciples that he is the “Son of Man.” Now he asks what they believe about him.

When Jesus says, “But who do you say that I am?” you is both emphatic and plural. He addresses this question to the disciples at large rather than to Peter only. The people are free to believe whatever they want about Jesus, but Jesus has been carefully preparing these disciples to carry on his work. They have heard his teachings and witnessed his miracles. What they think of him is critical.

How we answer this question is also critical. Uncertainty equates to unbelief at this point. To be Christian means believing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Anything else is less than Christian.

“Simon Peter answered” (v. 16a). Peter is the usual spokesman for the disciples.

“You are the Christ” (Christos) (v. 16b). Christos means “anointed” or “the anointed one.” Israel anointed people with oil to set them apart for a special role, such as prophet, priest, or king. Anointing indicated not only that God had chosen this person, but also that God would give the person the ability to fulfill the role.

But when Peter said, “You are the Christ,” he was going one step further—a giant step. Israel had, for many years, been looking for God to send a savior—someone like King David of old, who had led Israel to greatness. Israel was looking for God to send a Messiah to do that again—to make Israel great again—to save Israel from oppressors such as Rome, who ruled Israel during Jesus’ lifetime. When Peter said, “You are the Christ,” he was saying, “You are the savior for whom we have waited for centuries. You are the one sent from God to save us.”

While the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ baptism don’t include the word “anoint,” some scholars think of his baptism as his anointing (see also Luke 7:46). The New Testament speaks of Jesus as filling the three roles for which anointing was appropriate: prophet (Matthew 21:11; John 6:14; 7:40), priest (Hebrews 3:1; 4:14-16; 8:1) and king (Matthew 27:11, 37, 42; Revelation 17:14; 19:16).

We are not surprised to hear that Jesus is the Christ. This Gospel began with the words, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ” (1:1), and Matthew has used the word Christ several times by now (1:16-18; 2:4; 11:2).

We cannot know what the disciples thought when they first left everything to follow Jesus. Presumably they have grown in their understanding as they followed him day by day. This, however, is the first time that a disciple has acknowledged that Jesus is the Christ.

“the Son of the living God” (v. 16c). We first heard that Jesus is the Son of God at his baptism when God announced, “This is my beloved Son” (3:17). Jesus has spoken of himself as Son (11:27). The disciples earlier called Jesus the Son of God when he walked across the water to their boat and stilled the storm (14:33).

“the living God” contrasts with the lifeless idols that would dot the landscape in Caesarea Philippi.

A statement like Peter’s demands commitment. If he truly believes that Jesus is the Messiah, he will have to give his all to Jesus’ service. That is also true for us.


17Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jonah (Greek: Bariona), for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”

“Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jonah” (Bariona) (v. 17). Bariona is Aramaic transliterated into Greek. Bar means son, and ionas means Jonah.

Peter identified Jesus as the Son of the living God. Now Jesus responds by acknowledging Simon as the son of Jonah while extending to him his blessing. In the Gospel of John, Peter’s father is identified as John rather than Jonah (John 1:42; 21:15).

Jesus calls him Simon, the name by which Simon’s father would recognize him, rather than the new name, Peter, that Jesus will give him in the next verse.

“for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (v. 17). Peter did not arrive at his insight by spiritual astuteness. God has given him this understanding of Jesus. Peter’s insight comes by revelation, not deduction. His understanding is a gift from God.


18“I also tell you that you are Peter (Greek: Petros), and on this rock (Greek: petra) I will build my assembly (Greek: ekklesia), and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

“I also tell you that you are Peter” (Petros) (v. 18a). Scripture refers to God as a rock (Genesis 49:24; Deuteronomy 32; 1 Samuel 2:2; 22; Psalm 18, 28, 31, 42, 62, 71, 78, 89, 92, etc., etc., etc.). Isaiah also refers to Abraham and Sarah as a rock: “Look to the rock you were cut from, and to the hold of the pit you were dug from. Look to Abraham your father, and to Sarah who bore you” (Isaiah 51:1-2). Given these associations, Jesus does great honor to Peter when he identifies him as Rock. He also lays on him a heavy burden of responsibility.

“and on this rock” (petra) (v. 18b). What rock? Is it the reality that Jesus is the Son of God? Or the faith that Peter exhibits when he makes this confession? Or Peter himself?

Catholics and Protestants have divided sharply in their interpretation of these words. Catholics understand them to establish Peter as the rock upon which Jesus will build his church. They also understand Peter to have been the first Bishop of Rome and the first of an unbroken succession of Popes.

A traditional Protestant interpretation is that the rock is Peter’s confession and the reality that stands behind it—that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Protestants point to the distinction between the two rocks that Jesus mentions—“you are Peter, (Petros—masculine—a stone or rock) and on this rock (petra—feminine—conveying the idea of a rock foundation) I will build my ekklesia—my church.” Protestants have understood Jesus to be distinguishing between the rock that is Peter and the rock upon which he will build his church. However, while the New Testament was written in Greek, Jesus almost certainly used the Aramaic word, Cephas, which lends itself less well to that kind of distinction.

There has been some movement toward the center in more recent years. Protestants are willing to acknowledge Peter’s special place in the life of the early church, but do not believe that Peter was the first Pope (Bruner, 574; Long, 185-186; Hagner, in comments on v. 18; Gardner 250-251).

Personally, I find it significant that Peter’s leadership in the church was ascendant through Acts 12, after which we hear from him only once (Acts 15:7). Beginning with Acts 13, Paul is ascendant. Was that because Peter had died? Not likely. We believe that he traveled to Rome, where he was martyred c. 60-64 A.D.—a full decade after the events of Acts 12.

Protestants point out that Jesus offers his blessing to Peter, but with no suggestion that the blessing can be passed on—or that any succession is intended.

• They point out that Peter the Rock almost immediately becomes Peter the Stumbling Block (16:22-23).

• They say, “The granting of authority to Simon Peter is obviously symbolic for all the apostles (v. 19), for elsewhere in Matthew (18:18) and John (20:23) this bestowal of power is on all of them” (Craddock, 417).

• They note Jesus’ prohibition against giving to people honors that belong rightfully to the Father and the Son (23:8-12).

• They point to 1 Corinthians 3:11, which says, “For no one can lay any other foundation than that which has been laid, which is Jesus Christ”.

• They note that the church is built “upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20). In that verse, “apostles” and “prophets” are plural, so the foundation isn’t limited to Peter.

“I will build my assembly” (Greek: ekklesia) (v. 18c). Ekklesia is a combination of ek (out) and kaleo(called), so it means “called out.” Ekklesia can refer to any assembly, but Jesus’ ekklesia is the church.

It is Jesus who builds the church. The church belongs to him. The apostles and other Christians play supporting roles, and those roles are important. However, Jesus has the lead role.

The word “church” is a stumbling block to some scholars, who rightly point out that there was no church (ekklesia) at the time that Jesus spoke these words. However, Jesus would surely have a vision of the community of believers that would arise after his ascension.

“and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (v. 18d). Hades is the abode of the dead, but it is also a metaphor for the demonic (Senior, 191). Jesus’ words assure us that, while the church will endure repeated assaults by the powers of evil, it will prevail in the end.

The gates of Hades prevent those inside from getting out and those outside from breaking in. However, Jesus will break death’s power by his own resurrection, which will be the first fruits of the many faithful who will be raised from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:23). The gates of Hades will not withstand Christ’s resurrection assault on them. The redeemed among the dead will rise again and stride confidently through the broken gates.


19“I will give to you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven; and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven.”

“I will give to you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven” (v. 19a). The wording has its roots in Isaiah 22:22, “I will place on (Eliakim’s) shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open.” Eliakim thus became the steward of the house, responsible for opening the house in the morning, closing it at night, and controlling access to the royal presence.

In his role as gatekeeper, Peter will open the gates for three thousand people at Pentecost (Acts 2). Although he will initially resist opening the gates to Gentiles, God will persuade him to admit the Gentile Centurion (Acts 10), and Peter will become the spokesperson to the Council of Jerusalem to keep the gates open to Gentiles (Acts 15).

“and whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven; and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven” (v. 19b; see also 18:18). Bind and release have to do with rulings regarding doctrine and ethical conduct. In Jewish usage, bind and release have to do with actions permitted and actions proscribed.

In Matthew 18:18, Jesus extends this authority to the whole group of disciples, saying, “Most certainly I tell you, whatever things you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever things you release on earth will have been released in heaven.” Again, this is a place where Catholics and Protestants go separate ways. Catholics believe that Peter’s authority passed from Peter to the papacy. Protestants emphasize the authority given to the group of disciples, and believe that any unique authority given to Peter ended with his death.

After Jesus’ resurrection, he will tell the disciples (not Peter alone), “Receive the Holy Spirit! If you forgive anyone’s sins, they have been forgiven them. If you retain anyone’s sins, they have been retained” (John 20:22-23).


20Then he commanded the disciples that they should tell no one that he was Jesus the Christ.

Jesus is not yet ready for the disciples to tell the world his secret. The world is not ready to hear the secret, and the disciples are not yet ready to reveal the secret accurately. They understand that Jesus is the Christ, but they understand Messiahship in conventional warrior-king terms.

In verses 21-28 (the Gospel lesson for next week), Jesus will tell the disciples what to expect from his Messiahship—his death and resurrection—and Peter will protest mightily, prompting a sharp rebuke from Jesus.

Jesus will not allow the disciples to reveal his Messiahship that until they understand what that entails. They will not really understand until they see the resurrected Christ. That will come soon enough. Jesus will begin his journey to Jerusalem and the cross at 19:1.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Copyright 2009, Richard Niell Donovan