Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Matthew 16.13-20
Proper 16 - Year A

Other texts: 

For Carter (Matthew and the Margins): This summary scene restates the central issue of this third narrative block (11:2-16:20), namely, Have people been able to discern from Jesus' ministry that he is God's Christ, the one anointed to manifest God's salvation and empire (cf. 11:2-6)? [p. 332]

In our text, Peter gives an orthodox understanding of who Jesus is; but, in the following verses (the text for next week,) it is clear that Peter doesn't properly understand what Jesus, the Messiah, is to do.

CAESAREA PHILIPPI (the following description comes from Eugene Boring (Matthew, New Interpreter's Bible)

Caesarea Philippi, about twenty miles north of the Sea of Galilee, had earlier been the site of a Baal cultic center, then in Hellenistic times became known as Paneas because the god Pan had been worshiped in the famous grotto and spring there, but was renamed by Herod the Great after he built there a temple to Caesar Augustus. After Herod's death it was made part of the territory of his son Philip, who enlarged the town and named it after Tiberius Caesar and himself. During the war of 66-70, Caesarea was a recreation spot for the Roman general Vespasian, who began the siege of Jerusalem and then left his son Titus in charge to complete it when he became emperor. After the fall of Jerusalem, Titus and his troops returned to Caesarea, where Josephus reports he had some of the Jewish captives thrown to wild animals. [The Jewish War 3.9.7., 44-44; 7.2.1. 23-24]. Matthew's preservation of this location (dropped by Luke) may be only incidental, but since he did omit Mark's setting on the road, Matthew may have wished to emphasize that the significant scene took place in a setting with older nationalistic and religious associations, Jewish and pagan. He brings the scene of Jesus' confession as the Jewish Messiah into the shadow of a Caesar temple, where the Roman destroyers of Jerusalem had celebrated their victory, a revered site long associated with both pagan and Jewish revelatory events (cf. 1 Enoch 12-16). [p. 342]

Confessing Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God, may be easy within the confines of the church. What if we took the congregation to the front of a strip-tease bar or a New Age temple or an astrologist's office or the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City; or local, state, or federal government buildings or their places of work and asked them about Jesus in those locations? Perhaps a clearer contrast might be made between the "Son of the living God" (a phrase included only in Matthew) and the places and people serving dead idols. It can be more difficult to believe in the power of the living God when we are surrounded by indications of contrary powers and authorities.

How do we help our members confess their faith when they are at work, or at school, or in the mall, or the many other places they are confronted by signs and symbols of other gods, e.g., materialism, greed, etc.?


Malina & Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels) state:

Mediterraneans are what anthropologists call "dyadic"; that is, they are "other-oriented" people who depend on others to provide them with a sense of who they are.

This results in the typical Mediterranean habit of stereotyping. ...

Thus, it is important to identify whether someone is "of Nazareth," "of Tarsus," or from some other place. Encoded in those labels is all the information needed to place the person in question properly on the honor scale and therefore all the social information people required to know how to interact properly with him or her.

A consequence of all this is that ancient people did not know each other very well in the way we think most important: psychologically or emotionally. They neither knew nor cared about psychological development and were not introspective. Our comments about the feelings and emotional states of characters in the biblical stories are simply anachronistic projections of our sensibilities onto them. Their concern was how others thought of them (honor), not how they thought of themselves (guilt). Conscience was the accusing voice of others, not an interior voice of guilt (note Paul's comments in 1 Cor. 4:1-4). Their question was not the modern one, Who am I? Rather, they asked the questions of Jesus in this classic text: "Who do people say that I (the Son of Man) am?" and "Who do you say that I am?" It is from significant others that such information came, not from the self. [p. 113]

I wonder how this sense of identity would affect our congregations. We are encouraged to develop mission and vision statements to help us define ourselves; but perhaps more importantly, are the statements, thoughts, and feelings that others have about us. We should be asking those outside of our congregations, "What do you say about us?" It is one thing for a congregation to call itself "A friendly church," but that is meaningless if outsiders find it cold and unwelcoming.

This happened in a congregation I served. Some council members were saying, "We are a friendly church." I questioned that because the interim before me had had friends visit the congregation and their responses were unanimous that it was quite unfriendly. The longer termed members on council asked a new member if he found the congregation friendly. He said, "No!" and there was a noticeable change in the facial expressions of the other members. "Who do they say we are?" "What do they say we do and stand for?" Maybe if we asked such questions, and be defined by trusted others, rather than our own opinions, we might become a more viable and salvific force in the world. At the same time, I recognize that there are dangers in being defined simply by what others think. It can easily lead one into becoming a "non-self." That is, doing everything to please the other -- letting others determine my/our actions -- becoming co-dependent. However, the opposite leads to narcissism. My hunch is that there are many more of our congregations leaning towards narcissism than co-dependency.

Related to this, by what criteria do we judge our good and excellent programs? I've had congregational members talk about how good their adult choir is. Maybe the choir is much better than it was five or ten years ago, but judged against choirs in the high school or even the jr. highs, they wouldn't measure up. Churches need to judge their excellency by the standards of the community, not just what the "in house" people think. When a church choir is being asked to perform at civic functions, when the church choir can offer a concert and people from the community come, (besides church members and relatives,) then one might consider the choir to be an excellent program of the congregation. We need to see how "outsiders" judge us and what we do.


Phrased more literally: "Who are the humans saying that the son of the human is?" The Greek anthropos is used twice in the sentence. In the second question, Jesus does not use "Son of Man/Human," but "I".

The phrase "Son of Man" could be an eschatological title or it could simply be a way of saying, "This (human) person" as it is used in Ezekiel. The first question could be an impersonal, "Who are the people saying that this person is?" The second question is personal with "you" emphasized, "You, who are you saying that I am?"

The disciples' answer in Matthew adds "Jeremiah." Matthew is the only NT book that mentions Jeremiah (2:17; 27:9). Perhaps he was a favorite scripture in Matthew's community.


The "you" in the second question is emphatic and plural. It was not a question addressed just to Peter, but to the whole community. Perhaps we need to challenge our congregations as a whole with this question. How is their corporate (and individual) understanding of Jesus different from what other people might say about Jesus? How does that confession affect what they do as a group and how they relate to one another?

As in the first question, the word "saying" is present tense = "continue to say" or "keep on saying". It is not a one-time declaration, but a continuing or repeated confession.

Peter, who answers, sometimes represents the disciples, sometimes represents all believers, and sometimes plays a unique and unrepeatable role in founding the new community. Which "Peter" is portrayed here when answering Jesus' question?

In Matthew the reader has been told six previous times that Jesus is the Messiah/Christ (1:1, 16, 17, 18, 2:4; 11:2) all by the narrator. This is the first confession by the disciples that Jesus is the Messiah/Christ. However, calling Jesus the Messiah/Christ is not necessarily a sign of faith. Jesus indicates that there will be false Messiahs/Christs (24:5, 23). Jesus is called "Messiah/Christ" by the High Priest (26:63), by scribes and elders (26:68), and by Pilate (27:17, 22) -- people who did not believe in him as their Messiah/Christ. There is a difference between calling Jesus "the Messiah" and believing in him as "the Messiah." Perhaps a similar distinction occurs with clergy. I can imagine someone saying, "S/he is a pastor, but s/he isn't my pastor." Or, as a friend said, "She wouldn't let me be her pastor."

Besides God declaring Jesus to be his son at his baptism and the transfiguration, the disciples had declared Jesus to be the "Son of God" after he walked on the stormy sea (14:33). Otherwise, this phrase is used of Jesus by his enemies: the Tempter (4:3, 6); demons (8:29); the high priest (26:63); and mockers (26:40, 43). However, the centurion and those with him declare: "Truly this man was God's Son!" (27:54).


Calling Jesus "the Messiah/Christ" or even "Son of God" is not necessarily a sign of faith. What else might we look for? One answer from this text is that we need to look at the source of that confession -- whether a divine source or a human source.

Verses 17-19 of our text are found only in Matthew. Jesus addresses Peter singularly (but he may represent all the disciples or all Christians). The proper confession of faith comes as a revelation, a gift from God. When people talk about their faith, I listen for the subject of their sentences. Are they talking about what they do: "I pray to God, I accepted Jesus, I received the Holy Spirit, I love the Lord, etc."? Or, are they talking about what God has done and is doing: "God accepted me, God received me, Jesus died for me, God forgives me, God loves me, etc."?

I've had this brief conversation a few times: Someone asks, "Do you love the Lord?" I respond, "Yes, but more importantly, God loves me." Faith and our proper confessions of Jesus begin with God. If we start with us, we confess with Luther: "I believe that I can't believe," to summarize his explanation to the Third Article. Faith has to begin with God. This also means that God, (by some name,) needs to be the subject of our sentences about faith.

I'm not sure how many of our people in the pews understand this gospel-centered theology. Perhaps the most powerful idol we need to overcome is our selves and a works-righteousness (even if the work is having the proper confession) that puts self in the center of our faith rather than God.


If "flesh and blood" can't reveal Jesus to the people, why have Sunday school with "flesh and blood" teachers? Why have "flesh and blood" preachers? Why send out "flesh and blood" evangelist? Congregations could save a lot of money and volunteer time if we didn't need to have those people and programs.

We do such things, first of all, because Jesus told us to. Secondly, because we have the promise that God is revealed through the Word and in the sacraments and in the fellowship of those gathered in Jesus' name. When any Christian speaks the Word of God, it is not just "flesh and blood" speaking. It is a word with all of heaven behind it (v. 19).


I think that there are many people who think if the terms "Christian" or "Jesus Christ" are used -- it must be good. There were some very subtle distinctions in the early church about what declarations about Jesus were orthodox (right) or heretical (wrong). The following is a listing from my seminary days of the range of early understandings about Christ -- and most were considered not Christian.


Jesus was the son of Joseph and Mary. He was the Messiah, but he was not divine.

Dynamic Monarchianism or Adoptionism

Jesus was a unique man who was divinely energized by the Holy Spirit (at baptism) and called to be the Son of God. That Spirit left just before Jesus died.


"There was when he was not" = Jesus was not co-eternal with the Father. He was an intermediary between the Creator and the creation. (Today's Jehovah's Witnesses have adopted an Arianistic Christology.)

Origenism or Subordinationism

Christ is a divine being somewhat below the highest divine principle. He derives his existence from the highest divine level.


Jesus is split into two distinct persons: one human and one divine. Mary was not theotokos ("God-bearer"). The divine logos ("Word") was not involved with human suffering and change. Christ could only be truly human if his humanity was not fused and overcome by the divine nature.

Chacedonian Definition or Orthodoxy (the "right" stuff)

Jesus the Christ is one. He has two natures preserved in one prosopon ("person") and in one hypostasis ("substance"). Both natures are unimpaired, "perfect" consubstantial with God and man. Christ was both pre-existent and born from the Virgin. Christ is eternal and dies on the cross.


There is one person, one substance and one nature. The manhood of Christ becomes unimportant. He was God.

Modalistic Monarchianism

God was revealed at one time under the mode of Father, at another time under the mode of Son, and at another time under the mode of the Holy Spirit.


This view begins with the Greek idea that matter is essentially evil. Jesus was not a real "flesh and blood" human. He just "seemed" to be human. He was a god appearing in human form.

We need to be certain that the Jesus we are proclaiming is the Christ of scriptures and orthodox theology. False "Christs" still exist -- as well as many false understandings of the true Christ -- who he is and what he does.


There is no other ancient evidence of any person being named "Rock". The reference may go back to Isaiah 51:1-2 (the 1st Lesson for the day). A few brief comments on that.

1b is clearly synonymous parallelism.

Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which you were dug.

2a begins with the same words and so I think is synonymously parallel to 1b.

Look to Abraham your father
and to Sarah who bore you;

rock = quarry = Abraham = Sarah
hewn = dug = father = bore

NOTE: The word for "rock" in the LXX is petra.

What I also find interesting about this passage is that it is not necessarily addressed just to the Israelites, but to those "that pursue righteousness" and those "that seek the LORD" (1a). All such people are offspring of Abraham and Sarah. The passive in 1b leads to the questions: "Who did the hewing and digging?" and "How?"

Just as Abraham was given a new name as he became the founder of a new community of God's people; so does Peter.

What is the "rock"? I think that it is Peter himself, but to think that Jesus would build his church on someone as unstable as Peter leads to other interpretations. Some have pointed out that the Greek petros (Peter) and petra (rock) are different words, so they conclude that Jesus is making a contrast between the wavering Peter and the solid rock foundation of the church. However, in Aramaic, the language Jesus probably spoke, the two words are the same. A more common argument is that the rock is Peter's good confession or his faith; but not Peter himself. I think that it is the different interpretations of this text that has lead to acceptance or rejection of the Historic Episcopate.

I think that many people have a hard time accepting that Jesus built and continues to build the church upon sinful human beings. They keep looking for that perfect church. A perfect church doesn't need Jesus. (The same might be said for those who are seeking a perfect pastor.)

I received this brief autobiography from a seminary student six years ago:

For the record, I am 45 years old, three times divorced, four times married, a convicted felon, (homicide,) a biker and a former businessman. I struggled for nearly fifteen years with my sense of call, asking what congregation in their right mind would call ME as a pastor. The answer from a pastor friend of mine, (Assembly of God,) that the ONLY kind of church that would call me would be one that had real sinners in it, people with real problems who wanted to see the Lord at work in the lives of real people. In other words, the Body of Christ. I liked his answer.

I like his answer, too. We might ask: "What congregation in their right mind would want Peter as their pastor?" Most of the time when he spoke, he said the wrong things. Jesus even called him "Satan!" He publicly denied knowing Jesus three times. Yet, he is the foundation Jesus is building his church on. Couldn't Jesus have picked someone better -- like pious me? <G>


This Greek word for "rock" is distinguished from the Greek lithos (= "stone") in that petra is usually a huge, immovable bedrock or mountain and lithos is a smaller and movable stone. Both words are used in Mt 27:60: "and laid it [Jesus' body] in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock (petra). He then rolled a great stone (lithos) to the door of the tomb and went away.

One suggestion for the change in terms in our text: Petros (masculine form) to petra (feminine form) was to connect the latter to ekklesia, (=assembly, church) a feminine word.

Another possibility is that Matthew intended the readers to make connections with this text to his other uses of petra.

Mt 7:24-25: "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock." [NOTE: the same Greek word for "build" is used here and in our text, too.]

Peter was certainly a person who acted on Jesus' words -- not always the brightest of acts, e.g., wanting to build three booths at the transfiguration or becoming Satan in our text lection -- but he acted. We could describe Peter as a good Lutheran: he sinned boldly -- and often!

In contrast to the stability of the rock in our text and the above verses, Matthew also writes: "At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split" (27:51). God is more powerful than the solid rock.

Ignoring the distinction I've just mentioned: Could Jesus have been making a joke (and an exaggeration) about Peter who only last week "sank like a stone" when he tried walking on the water (14:30)? Although that text says, "He began to sink" -- implying a slow descent; and even if Jesus weren't making fun of the incident, we might in sermons mentioned how quickly a huge rock would sink in the water -- that's Peter (or we could translate his name: "Rock Johnson"). Exaggeration is a characteristic of Hebrew humor, e.g., a camel and a needle.

The image of the church being made up of "living stones" (lithoi) from 1 Peter 2 could be related to our text.

A distinction can be made between being a rock (an object that can do absolutely nothing = orthodoxy) or a clam (something that looks a lot like a rock, but it can do a few things for itself = (Semi-Pelagianism)


ekklesia translated church originally referred to the local political assembly -- the people "called out" to a town meeting. The people who didn't show up, were not part of the ekklesia! Matthew is the only gospel to use this word. Its other occurrences are in the discipline section (18:17). Our word "congregation" has some of this idea. It comes from the Latin: con or com = together + gregare = "to collect (into a flock)" or "to gather". In a literal understanding of the word, those who do not "gather together" are not part of the "congregation".


What are the "gates of Hades" that will not, literally, "be stronger than" Jesus' church? Hades was the realm of the dead and not a place of punishment.

The Greek word translated "prevail" is katischuo = kata ("against" in a hostile sense) + ischuo ("to be strong"). A more literal translation might be "to be strong against" or "to be stronger than" (see Lk 21:36). The subject of this verb is "gates" (pyle). The image I am inclined to see is that the "gates of Hades" [perhaps "the power of Death" or "the portal of demonic forces"] are laying siege to the Church, but the promise is given that they are not stronger than the Church. The Church will not die, even when assaulted by Death or demons. (Usually what kills a church is the internal fighting of its own members -- or, in other words, when different factions are trying to build the church upon their own foundations.)

Often in the midst of church conflicts, we may not always believe these words of Jesus; but sometimes we may need to check if the congregation is still a group that has been built by Jesus upon and with sinful human beings who have been grasped by God's revelation concerning the truth about Jesus?

The strength of the church is not the stability of its people and their faith (e.g., Peter), but the trust we sinners have in the all-powerful God. Neither death nor the powers of evil can over-power this.

An interesting connection might be used in preaching, even though it might not be the best exegesis. The Greek word in our text for "gate" (pyle) is closely related to the Greek pylon which also means "gate," but also the area around an entrance, "gateway," "porch," "vestibule." The only occurrence of this word in Matthew is when Peter's denies Jesus (26:71). Exegetically, I don't think that there is any connection intended in Matthew's mind. However, one might preach that the "gateway" where Peter denied Jesus, like the "gates" of Hades, is not stronger than the Church which Jesus had built. Even Peter's denials will not destroy the Church -- or even Peter's position as leader of the early church.


The keys of the kingdom of heaven given to Peter represent teaching authority (see Isaiah 22:20-25). That is also the meaning behind binding and loosing. Those are rabbinic terms for authoritative teaching, the authority to interpret Torah and apply it to particular cases, the authority to declare what is permitted and not permitted. This authority is given to the ekklesia in 18:18.

Carter (Matthew and the Margins) writes about "binding and loosing":

Scholars debate whether these terms refer to excluding/including people in the community (see 18:18), or, more commonly, to interpreting and teaching what God's will or law (the scriptures) forbids or permits as an expression of God's reign (see 5:19). Both meanings have some support from rabbinic Judaism. And both tasks are related in that they have to do with discerning an appropriate way of life shaped by God's empire.

Further, D. Balch has shown that the verb loose occurs in "Greek political discussions of a state's or a people's constitution and laws" (Josephus, Ant 4.310; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Rom Ant 1.8.2; 2.27.3; 4.43.2; 4.72.1; 5.1.1). It appears in contexts which make a paradoxical assertion that the founder's laws (Romulus, Moses) are not to be abolished (cf. 5:17), yet they can be changed in order to adapt or abolish them for new circumstances. Jesus' charge gives Peter and the community of disciples (18:18) "a legitimate way to lose/annul even a great commandment ... particularly Mosaic laws and even his own imperatives." [p. 336, footnoted with Balch, "Greek Political Topos," 68, 78, 81, 84]

It seems this authority is still needed, but it often is the source of conflict as we struggle to apply gospel and scriptural truths to our contemporary world -- and often not agreeing with one another. Who has been given this authority today? In the ELCA, the Churchwide Assemblies by majority vote determine the "official" social statements. The "practical" applications of many more issues are often put into the prayerful wisdom of the pastors who are confronted with faith issues of members (and self) daily.

A question that has been raised concerning the homosexual issue is, "Who determines the authoritative interpretation of scriptures? How do they determine it?" Do we have the authority to loosen or annul the commands of the OT or NT?


The last verse of our text suggests that there are truths that are for insiders only. There are things that we know and believe about the Messiah/Christ that the world can't understand and which they will misinterpret or misuse. As we read in Matthew, there were those who used the title "Messiah/Christ" to ridicule Jesus. Our proclamation of God's grace may be misused by outsiders as an excuse to sin, as some in Rome seemed to have done (Ro 6:1). While God's grace enfolds the entire world, the means of that grace have been given to the church -- the community of Christian disciples. There is a deeper knowledge that we should possess that outsiders (and immature insiders) will not grasp.

Some supporting passages (and I know there are others):

Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God's wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory (1 Cor 2:6-7).

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh as infants in Christ (1 Cor 3:1).

Therefore let us go on toward perfection [or maturity], leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation: repentance from dead works and faith toward God (Heb 6:1).

Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained (Phil 3:15-16).

How many of our members have such a basic knowledge of Christ that it isn't any different than our culture's understanding or what the "man or woman on the street" knows? Are there things that we should we know and confess about our Lord that shouldn't be shared with the world? If so, what? How do we convince our adult members that they haven't learned everything they need to know in (children's) Sunday school classes? [I ask this with the understanding that knowledge is not the same thing as faith. We received all the faith we need in baptism, but we spend the rest of our lives growing in our understanding of what God has done, is doing, and will do for us.]

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran, Marysville, CA