Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Matthew 16.21-28
Proper 17 - Year A

Other texts: 


A question that I have been asked, and probably every minister has been asked is, "Why did you want to be a pastor?" A clergy friend answers that question first by talking about the benefits of the job. It is a good, secure job. The pay isn't too bad. The church usually provides a nice house or a tax-free housing-allowance. The church pays into a pension fund. [It probably isnít appropriate to list all the negatives of our profession in answer to that question.] Secondly, he asks a return question, which is a more important one, "Why would anybody want to be a Christian? Denying yourself. Carrying your cross. Following Jesus. Why would anyone want to do that?"

Our text is about the difficult task of following Jesus. Why do we do it? Why do we encourage others to do it?

A few years ago I was at a continuing education workshop and a speaker noted that throughout the books of Acts, the believers are persecuted and even killed -- and yet, the church continued to grow! Why would anyone want to be a Christian? Why would anyone want to be part of a group that was being persecuted, jailed, and killed? What was/is it about the Christians that would make others want to join them -- even with the threat of suffering? What is (or should be) so attractive about Christians that others are willing to share in those benefits in spite of the difficulties?

I was recently with some pastors and we were joking about names of churches. Someone suggested, "Community Church of Suffering." Would that name attract many people?


Following the leader is a popular children's game. The "game" gets quite complicated if the leader goes where the followers don't want to go Ė crossing a narrow beam over a high crevice, running across a busy street, squeezing through the entrance to a dark cave -- or when it means going to Jerusalem, to suffer much, to be killed, and to be raised.

The "game" gets quite complicated if the followers can't actually see the leader. Suppose the leader disappears into a tall cornfield or into a dark cave. How do we "play follow the leader" when the leader is unseen? Where is Jesus leading us now? Where is Jesus leading our congregations now?

I would guess that in a game where the leader can't be seen, our attention centers on the voice. Hearing where it is coming from. Listening attentively to what is being said.



There are a few significant differences between Matthew and Mark. I assume that Matthew had a copy of Mark, so such changes are intentional.


Jesus is often pictured as a teacher in Mt, e.g., the Sermon on the Mount. Perhaps there is no difference between the words, but "showing" might imply that he was showing them from the Hebrew scriptures why he must (dei) die. In 26:54 Jesus says: "But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must (dei) happen in this way?"

We might ask ourselves, "How do we show what we believe?" Do we want our pastors and Sunday school staff to "teach" the faith or to "show" their students the faith?


I'm not sure about this addition. "Jerusalem" prior to this point was not a negative place (3:5; 4:25), except the opposition to and fear of Jesus in Jerusalem that was introduced at his birth with King Herod seeking to kill the child (2:1, 3; 5:35?). Shortly before this, Scribes and Pharisees came to Jesus from Jerusalem (15:1) who ask him about the tradition of the elders, but "Jerusalem" isn't portrayed in a negative light.

However, Carter (Matthew and the Margins) makes this point: "He must suffer in Jerusalem because the center is always threatened by the margins and the empire strikes back at those who expose its injustice and promote an alternative empire. His suffering is the inevitable consequence of this collision course with the political, socioeconomic, and religious elite" [p 341].

I wonder if many of our church fights are over the same thing. The "religious elite" (the "old-time members"?) are threatened by the ideas and enthusiasm of the newer members and they fight back.


Mt seems to soften the "rejection" of Jesus by the Jewish people. Many did accept him as the Messiah (and were part of Matthew's community).


Mt's counting is a little more accurate. I wonder why the disciples didn't remember this. They do not expect a resurrected Jesus. Are we more eager to hear the "bad news" than the "good news"?


In Mt, the disciples often understand what Jesus was saying in contrast to Mk where they seldom understand. See Mt 16:12 in contrast to Mk 8:17, 21; cf. Mt 13:51; Mk 6:52.


Mt adds the words of Peter's "rebuke". The first word in Greek, hileos, occurs only elsewhere in He 8:12 (quoted from Jer. 31:34) "I will be merciful...". Literally, Peter could be offering a prayer, "May God be merciful to you, Lord; this will not happen to you." Being merciful would imply that God prevents bad things from happening, thus the translation, "God forbid it" in NRSV. The CEV has: "God would never let this happen to you." Peter presumes to know God's will. Jesus makes it clear that Peter is mistaken.

The word for "rebuke" (epitimao) is used of Jesus commanding wind and waves (8:26) and demons (17:18). What Jesus says, happens. It is also used of Jesus commanding or warning people to be silent about his identity (12:16; 16:20 -- note that this is only two verses before Peter's rebuking). In these verses what Jesus says, may or may not happen.

Three times this word is used of the actions other people: Peter rebukes Jesus (16:22); the disciples rebuke those who were bringing little children (19:13); and the crowd rebukes the two blind men who shouted after Jesus (20:31). In all three cases, the rebukers are criticized by Jesus for their actions. This may be a warning to us about "rebuking" others and assuming that we know what God wants.


Mt continually presents Peter (and the disciples) in a more positive light than Mk. Jesus does not rebuke Peter. Perhaps Matthew's reason for including the "prayer" of Peter was to show that what Peter said was not blasphemous, but a prayer that most of us would have wished in that situation.


This may be a (humorous) contrast with Peter the rock on which Jesus will build the church who has now become a rock that Jesus trips over -- or at least a rock that makes the going difficult. The "rock" becomes a "block" (or can we say that Peter is both at the same time -- like we are?)

I'm not sure of the relationship with Mt's other uses of skandalon ("stumbling block"). In 13:41 the angels will come and weed out all skandalon and evil doers. In 18:7 the word is used three times and receives the "Woe" of Jesus. Jesus does not like skandalon. However, would we think that trying to keep Jesus from an early death is such a bad thing -- worthy of expulsion from the kingdom? (cf. 5:29-30) What might this imply about those church members who always seem to be undermining our ministry? Whom we really would prefer they found another church home -- or die -- and make our lives easier?


Some comments about a couple of terms which are the same in Mt & Mk.

"Go behind me, Satan" uses the same words as Jesus' rebuke during the temptation in 4:10: "Go! Satan!" [I'll say more about the phrase "behind me" in the next section.] However, this connection indicates that Peter here, like Satan in the temptation story, is trying to lead Jesus away from the suffering and death on the cross.

Why is it that after none of the passion predictions do the disciples catch the positive promise that on the third day he will be raised? They do not expect to see a risen Jesus after the crucifixion. Note also the passive verbs: "be killed" and "be raised". Both were events outside of Jesus' control. They are what others will do to him.

"setting your mind on" (phroneo) has an emphasis on the underlying disposition or attitude. Jesus' harsh critique of Peter involves more than just the few words spoken on this occasion, but his inner attitude, his disposition -- or we might even say, his very nature. Even after the revelation from God, Peter still hasn't got the proper picture. He needs an "attitude adjustment". He is seeing with "human eyes" rather than through the will and eyes of God. Although, as "human beings," is it possible for us not to see with "human eyes?" Is it possible for us not to have our minds set on human things? Could this be an indication of our original sin -- something that we are unable to change by our own powers?

Time could be spent brainstorming about the differences between our culture's (the human) and God's underlying disposition about life. How much of our natural thinking or attitudes and criteria for success can make us stumbling blocks to the divine mission and ministry of the church?

Eugene Boring (Matthew, New Interpreter's Bible) gives this reflection:

Peter's objection can be understood as either a wrong idea of messiahship or personal love for Jesus, or both. Since Matthew has Jesus respond in terms of the meaning of discipleship, always for Matthew inseparable from one's understanding of messiahship, it is better to see Peter's response as theological rather than merely personal. [p. 349]

For a different perspective, Wangerin in The Book of God, novelizes these verses from Peter's point of view, as follows:

He [Jesus] said, "Things are going to change now." He heaved a sigh. We all were moving with him now toward the little spring of water. He said, "I have to go to Jerusalem. When I get there, I will suffer many things form the elders and the chief priests and the scribes. I'm telling you now so that you need not be surprised when it happens. It will happen."

Jesus knelt down by the spring, cold from the earth. He made a cup of his hands and scooped water. Just before he started to drink, he said, "I will be killed in Jerusalem, and on the third day be raised --"

I spoke again. I said the most natural thing there was to say.

Well, my feelings were so hurt by Jesus' words. Be killed? Was this the gloomy thing he'd been thinking about all the time?

I grabbed his wrist and shouted, "No!" The water splashed from his hands. "No, God won't allow it!" I cried.

On account of my feelings, I was gripping him with all my strength. But he started to pry my fingers from his wrist. He had terrible power in his hands.

I blustered on. Surely he knew that I was arguing out of love for him! "O Lord," I said, "this can never happen to you!"

After Jesus criticizes Peter, Wangerin emphasizes (with italics in the original) these thoughts in Peter:

"No, but I do care for the things of God! And I love you, Lord Jesus! This is so confusing. One minute I'm Peter; the next minute I'm Satan, but I didn't change! How can plain love cause such outrage in the Lord?"

Similarly, from a couple weeks ago, one moment Peter had the faith to walk on water, the next, he is sinking like a stone. How often do we find ourselves wavering in our faith?

DISCIPLESHIP SECTION (// Mk 8:34-9:1; Lk 9:23-27)


There are two major differences between Mk and Mt.

The first is that in Mt Jesus is only addressing his disciples, while in Mk the crowd has been invited to join the disciples. For Mt, this instruction is for the believers, not everyone. We are to be different than the people of the world.

A quote from Boring (Matthew, The New Interpreters Bible):

Restricting the address to the disciples has the effect of focusing the instruction on the meaning of discipleship to those who are already within the community, those who have, like Peter, made the Christian confession but are still 'thinking according to human standards rather than the divine revelation'. These words are not an invitation to discipleship for outsiders, but reflection on the meaning of discipleship for those who have already responded to the call of Christ. [p. 350]

For those who offer "seeker-centered" worship, there is also the need to provide opportunities for the believers to delve deeper into the faith, to continually confront their "thinking according to human standards."

Secondly, Mt omits most of the following from Mk: "For whoever would be ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that one when he would come in the glory of his father with the holy angels" (Mk 8:38).

Instead Mt has: "For the Son of Man is about to come into his father's glory with his angels; and then he will give to each one according to one's practice" (Mt 16:27)

We have just seen that Peter's confession was not sufficient. His attitude and (verbal) actions sought to cause Jesus to sin by avoiding the cross. It is an emphasis in Mt that faith has to bear good fruit (see 3:8,10; 7:16-20; 12:33; 21:43) or good works (ergon) (5:16; 26:10 -- Note that this second "good work" was preparing Jesus' body for burial in contrast to Peter's rebuking in our text.)

The Greek word I've translated "practice" is praxis" which has become an English word meaning (from Webster's New World Dictionary):

  1. practice, as distinguished from theory, of an art, science, etc.

  2. established practice; custom

  3. a set of examples or exercises, as in grammar

Note also that this word in Greek is singular -- it does not refer to the "deeds" that one does, but views the whole of one's life as a deed, a practice, like "practicing medicine" -- it's a vocation = calling.

Faith, for Matthew, is more than a confession. It is the way one lives. It is having the right attitude -- having the mind set on the things of God -- and the behavior that results from that. I have a feeling that Matthew would be more concerned about orthopraxy (= "right practice") than "orthodoxy" (= "right praise"). While there is concern about what one believes, there is even more emphasis on what difference it makes in one's life that one believes.

Whereas Mk's end-time judgment is centered on being ashamed of Jesus and his words; Mt's is centered on being rewarded for living rightly.

God "repaying" (apodidomi) us at the last day is a theme in Matthew. It appears three times in the section about acting in secret, "so that your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (6:4, 6, 18). Perhaps the key for understanding this aspect in Mt is its use in 20:8 with the workers in the vineyard. The landowner (God) says: "Call the laborers and pay them their reward, beginning with the last and then going to the first." This parable makes it clear that although we are expected to work -- not lounge around in the marketplace doing nothing -- our "reward" is not based on our work, but on the generosity of God.


"If anyone wishes . . ." (vv. 24, 25) indicates that it is a matter of the will. Most of the time our struggles with following Jesus is not a matter of knowing what to do, but a matter of the will -- wanting to follow the way of the cross.

"behind me" I would suggest that this phrase, besides its usual reference to a physical position, might also indicate status. Jesus has to come first. Jesus is the leader. Peter when he rebuked Jesus, was putting himself first; so Jesus tells him, "Get behind me!" Perhaps a motto for Christians should be, "We're number two."

psyche is a word the ancient Greeks created to describe the difference between a dead body and a living body. It refers to whatever it is that gives life to a body: "breath," "spirit," "self," "personality," "soul," "life-force," etc. We might say that the "psyche" is what makes me, me.

I am inclined to use the word "self" for "psyche" in its four occurrences in vv. 25-26. How often in relationships do people really give their "selves," or do they hold back, protecting or saving their "selves"? A book I read long ago by John Powell, S.J. had the title: Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? The answer given is: "I am afraid to tell you who I am, because, if I tell you who I am, you may not like who I am, and it's all that I have." So, rather than risk being hurt, we don't tell others who we are. We hide our self from others. We try and protect and save our self from pain. By doing so, we lose our self. We become a non-self in our relationship with other people.

In contrast to this, a few books I've read recently on family systems theory stress that "a self is more attractive than a non-self." Being the person God created us to be. Being the person Jesus has freed us to be.

This change in 26b: "What will a person give in exchange for one's self?" Easily leads to the question, "What is a self worth?" One answer is, "The death of God's son." That is what each of us are worth to God.

Boring (Matthew, New Interpreters Bible) uses the same interpretation in the following quote:

The Christian life called for is not a reflection of, let alone the baptism and blessing of, the egocentric culture, but its polar opposite. Self-denial is not part of our culture's image of the 'good life.' But neither is the Matthean Jesus' call for denying oneself to be understood as asceticism or as self-hate. Just as Jesus' call to discipleship is not a joining in the cultural infatuation with self-esteem, neither is it the opposite. Nor is the self-denial to which Jesus calls the opposite of self-fulfillment. Just giving up things will not make one Christian; it will only make one empty. What is difficult for our culture to understand, indeed what it cannot understand on its own terms, is an orientation to one's life that is not focused on self at all, either as self-esteem or self-abasement, as self-fulfillment or self-emptying. [p. 352]

There are four common explanations for v. 28 given by Boring.

  1. It refers to the Transfiguration which immediately follows our text.

  2. It refers to the Resurrection.

  3. It refers to Pentecost and the power of Christ at work in the church.

  4. It refers to the Parousia, which [Jesus and] Matthew expected to take place very soon. He adds: "Even though the early Christians were chronologically incorrect in their eschatology does not nullify its theological validity."

Another possibility, if basileia ("kingdom") refers more to the "power" to rule as king rather than a place, then the disciples saw Jesus exhibited this power in his authority over demonic forces and illness; over winds and waves; over the temptations of Satan and Peter. Jesus taught with authority and showed his authority to forgive sins by healing the paralytic.

Which of these five interpretations is right? Take your pick.

Boring, who opts for no. 4. above, says:

This call to discipleship is based on faith in Christ and confidence in the future victory of God; it is not a matter merely of high human ideals or noble principles. That is, the life called for here is not based on a reasoned conclusion about how things are, inferred from observation or general principles, but on faith that something has happened that makes everything different. To believe in Jesus as the Christ and to live accordingly means to reorient one's life toward the good news that God has acted decisively and ultimately in Jesus, not that Jesus has some good advice on how to live (by what criteria could such advice be judged to be good?). The call to discipleship here expressed is based on the past and future revelatory act of God. [p. 352]

A final quote and challenge from Carter (Matthew and the Margins):

Jesus' scandalous call, then, to take up the cross and follow (cf. 4:18-22) is a call to martyrdom, to die as Jesus does (9:15; 10:4, 21, 28, 29; 16:21). Such is the risk of continuing Jesus' countercultural work of proclaiming and demonstrating God's empire (10:7-8). On another level, it is a call to a life of marginalization, to identify with the nobodies like slaves, foreigners, criminals, and those understood to be cursed by god. It is also to identify with those who resist the empire's control, who contest its version of reality, and who are vulnerable to its reprisals. It is to identify with a sign of the empire's violent and humiliating attempt to dispose of all who threaten or challenge its interests. To so identify is not to endorse the symbol but to counter and reframe its violence. As the end of the gospel shows, it is to identify with a sign that ironically indicates the empire's limits. The empire does its worst in crucifying Jesus. But God raises Jesus from death to thwart the empire's efforts and to reveal the limits of its power.

W. Beardslee observes that sayings about gaining one's life by losing it are found in exhortations to soldiers before war (Zenophon, Anab 3.1.43; Sayings of the Wise Menander 65), and in discussions about loyalty in friendship or love (Pindar, Nemean 10). Jesus reframs the first context to exhort resistance to rather than the perpetration of, imperial power. And he utilizes the second to reinforce the loyalty of disciples to himself.

To save one's life (whole self, or existence, 2:20; 6:25; 10:28, 39) is to decide against the way of the cross and its confrontation with the status quo. It is to decide for what is safe, for self-interest. It is to be intimidated into compliance by the elite's threat to crucify those who resist it. But this choice for safety is, in Jesus' view, to lose life. Life based on intimidation is not God's way of trusting relationship. It is not God's saving way demonstrated in Jesus (1:21). God cannot honor such a choice in the judgment (10:32, 39).

Conversely, to lose one's life for my sake (cf. 5:11; 10:18, 39), to be loyal to Jesus in the subversive way of the cross, at the hands of the elite, is to find it in an act which refuses to give the elite the power of intimidation and conformity that it craves. God will honor such a choice in the eschaton with a life that knows God's justice and empire in full. [pp. 344-5]

While we can and should apply this text to us as believers in relationship to the state, but as I was typing this, I was also thinking, "How does this apply to being a pastor in a congregation?" What is or should be my relationship with the people of power in the congregation? the "elite" members? Am I willing to take positions counter to theirs -- and perhaps threaten my job and income? Should we be willing to create "wars" in congregation as we seek to reach the unbelievers with the gospel?

As congregations and their governing bodies wrestle with this text. Should they be thinking of ways to give away the congregation rather than just trying to maintain and preserve it? Why should the leaders try to save a dying congregation? How often have we seen dead congregations sell their buildings to another church group who is able to become a viable, active congregation? What makes the difference?

On a slightly different issue: How "attractive" do we make the gospel? Do we water down these harsh sayings so that it is more appealing than the call Jesus actually extends to those who wish to follow? Can we invite others into a relationship with Christ without his scandalous call included in this text?

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901