I am writing up reflections on my devotions every day for six weeks. This is one of those posts.
Matthew waits until he is some 16 chapters into his text1 to start explicitly saying what the whole book has said implicitly thus far, and what the annunciation at the beginning proclaimed loud and clear: Jesus is the Messiah, the one to whom all the hopes and expectations engendered by the Old Testament pointed. “Who do you say that I am?” he asks. And Peter’s answer, ringing down through the ages, is still breath-taking in its assurance and simple truth: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”2
Most of the sermons I have heard on Matthew 16 focus on Peter—on his statement of the bedrock truth of our faith, or on his need of rebuke just a few verses later, or even on the question of Petrine authority over the church. Not many stop to notice how pivotal this chapter is in the flow of Matthew as a whole. Not many recognize that for the first time, Jesus openly accepts being called the Messiah, and openly proclaims what the Messiah will do—that is, die. Yes, Peter first got it amazingly, remarkably right and then got it equally amazingly, remarkably wrong. But at least as important here is the picture of who the Messiah is and what he is about.
Matthew spent 15 chapters getting here—laying the foundation in Jesus’ teaching, his miraculous healings, and specific fulfillments of some prophecies and “filling up” of others3—so that when Jesus acknowledges Peter’s claim, the reader is not only unsurprised, but delightedly saying, “Yes!” because Jesus’ words and actions to this point confirm everything the prologue declared to be true of him. This is important, in no small part, because then Matthew turns around and hits the reader in the face with the unexpected: Jesus plans to be crucified.
Who plans that? Peter’s confusion is understandable (even if his response was ultimately so wrong that Jesus aligned Peter with Satan for trying to prevent it). No one plans to be crucified. But this Messiah does. Good thing we’re already convinced he’s the Messiah.
And then? Then Jesus tells us that whoever wants to follow him—whoever wants to “come after” him—needs to embrace that same cross. The call to follow this Messiah isn’t a call to immediate glory, and a kingdom of this world. It is a call to self-sacrifice, to lose the world and gain one’s soul. It is a call to live in such a way that when the Son of Man returns with his holy angels in judgment, we will not be ashamed.
As I closed yesterday: Lord come soon!—but in light of his coming, how shall we live? Come and die, he says. Come and die.
- Yes, I know, the chapters weren’t in the original. It’s still over halfway through the book. ↩
- Your Bible will say “Christ” almost certainly. It isn’t being used as the titular name here (“Jesus Christ”), though; this is Peter declaring his understanding that Jesus was the hoped-for Jewish Messiah. ↩
- It is helpful, when reading through Matthew, to understand that the word our English Bibles translate as “fulfill” also has an ordinary, non-prophetic meaning of “fill up.” Following G. K. Beale, I actually think it should be translated this way in most of the cases where it appears in Matthew. Many of the otherwise challenging interpretive issues—what does it mean that he fulfilled thus-and-such a passage which isn’t talking about him?—become clear if you understand Matthew to be saying, “He filled this passage up with more meaning than was there before,” rather than “He fulfilled this prophecy that was referring to him [even though it wasn't].” ↩