This chapter is going to cover a lot of territory both geographically and in content. You could really break this one up into four or five pericopes. A pericope is a unit of the text that forms a complete thought. Generally, good preachers of God's Word will advise that you focus on one pericope at a time instead of a chapter, sometimes a pericope can even be more than one chapter. I'm going to break those rules today because of the nature of our study, but I will divide the pericopes under subtitles below to make it easier to follow along. If you need to read through one section at a time to help your own clarity of understanding, please do so!
The Sign of Jonah
(The Region of Magadan)
And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed. Matthew 16:1-4
Up to this point the religious leaders Jesus has been dealing with have been referred to as the Scribes and Pharisees. Now there is another group introduced, the Sadducees. This group of people was what we would consider the top 1% among Jews of their time. They were wealthy and tried to get along with the occupying forces of first the Greeks and then the Romans, this made them powerful. Their role in Jewish culture was tied so deeply to the temple that when the Romans destroyed it in 70 A.D. the Sadduccees basically ceased to exist. How they differ from the Pharisees is first that they would only acknowledge the Torah or the first five books of the Bible as God's Word. They did not accept the verbal traditions of the Jews or the prophets. This meant that, unlike the Pharisees, they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, in angelic beings, or in the immortality of the soul. Their judgments based on the Torah were extremely literal with no apparent room for grace. When you have a group of religious leaders that disagree so vehemently on so many foundational issues of faith come together and agree on something it is worth paying attention to. Unfortunately, for them, what they agreed on was that this Jesus person was a threat to their wealth, their influence on the people, and their harmony with the Romans.
Matthew tells us that they came to test Jesus, that word for test in Greek is peirazō. This is the same word used in Matthew chapter four saying that the enemy had come to tempt Jesus and in a different tense when Jesus responds to the second temptation. "It is written, you shall not put the Lord your God to the test." Understanding this word sets the tone for the scene that is about to play out between these religious leaders and Jesus. Remember in our study of chapter four that Jesus was quoting from God's rebuke of the Israelites in the desert when they tested Him at the waters of Meribah. No matter how much God has done for the Israelites whether in blessing, judgment, or redemption and rescue... it is not enough for them. They are always asking for another sign, testing God one more time to see if He is really able. At this point, Jesus is more than halfway through His ministry. He has healed thousands, performed incredible miracles, and taught God's Word with undeniable wisdom. Yet here are the Pharisees and Sadducees asking for another sign. Jesus, having no need to prove His authority to these wicked men instead answers them with a stunning rebuke.
These men, who can tell in their great knowledge and wisdom the weather for the day ahead, ought to be able to understand all the amazing things that have been taking place before their eyes. Instead, they are blinded by their pride.
Then Jesus promises them a sign to look for: The Sign of Jonah. This would have been a slap in the face to the Sadduccees who don't acknowledge the prophets as a part of God's Word.
Jonah was one of the minor prophets in Israel that we read about in the Old Testament. Even if you didn't grow up in the church there is a pretty good likelihood that you've heard at least some of this guy's story. God told Jonah to go take His message to the gentile people of Ninevah. Jonah chose to run from God instead, so God caught him in a storm out at sea. The sailors Jonah was with ended up throwing him overboard to save themselves from the storm, then God sent a big fish to swallow Jonah. He remained in the fish for three days and nights until he finally repented and the fish vomited him onto dry land.
Where Jonah was a disobedient messenger, Jesus is the perfect obedient messenger. Where Jonah was swallowed by a fish for three days and nights, Jesus would willingly go to His grave for three days and nights. Jonah came out of that fish to finish the mission God had given him, likewise Jesus would not remain in the grave!
When the Ninevites heard God's message that they needed to repent for their sins or they would face the immediate judgment of God, they repented and deeply grieved their sin. The Pharisees and Sadduccees standing before Jesus at that moment had been listening, since the ministry of John the Baptist, to the message that they also needed to repent because they were headed for judgment.
For this final bit, I want to remind you once more that the Sadduccees interpreted God's Law very harshly in their own practice and judgment of the people of Israel. Jonah also had a very harsh interpretation of what he thought God's justice was supposed to mean. After relaying his message of repentance to the Ninevites and witnessing their acceptance of this message, Jonah climbed to a high place opposite the city and waited to watch God meet out His judgment on them. That judgment, for the generation that repented, never came. In the ears of the Sadduccees, this would have been the final slap to the face in this rebuke, but we as Christians can take great hope from the Sign of Jonah! We are reminded that just like the Ninevites when we repent and turn to Jesus we will also be spared the judgment and be given God's grace instead.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9
Then Jesus moved on from that place, which we know was the Region of Magadan from the final verses of Matthew chapter 15.
Warning Against the Leaven of the Pharisees & Sadducees
When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, “We brought no bread.” But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Matthew 16:5-12
Since we're covering ground geographically tonight as well as pericopes, let's clarify where this scene is taking place. The disciples in traveling over the sea from the wilderness where Jesus had fed the four thousand to the region of Magadan, had forgotten to bring any food for the journey. Chronologically in Matthew, it is unclear whether this conversation takes place before or after the spat with the Pharisees and Sadducees, but I think what is clear is the context that Matthew wanted to show us Jesus' warning in.
This brings us two questions from Jesus' warning to the disciples:
What is leaven?
How does it compare to the Pharisees' and Sadducees' teaching?
We also don't want to skip over the fact that Jesus' disciples still aren't truly understanding what Jesus has been trying to teach them. Where they differ from the religious leaders is that though they lack understanding, they don't lack faith.
Leaven is the ingredient that makes bread rise, typically we use yeast. If you've ever made bread, you know that it doesn't take very much of this tiny substance to make your bread. Leavening bread has special significance in Jewish culture because there were occasions when God commanded them to eat only unleavened bread including the Sabbath and Passover. Even a little bit of yeast in your bread on these occasions would be breaking the Law of God. The Pharisees and Sadducees distorted perspectives of God's Word act a lot like the yeast. Even consuming a little bit of their teaching twists the listeners' understanding of God's Word. We should be equally wary of false teachers today!
Who Do You Say I Am?
(The Region of Caesarea Phillipi)
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. Matthew 16:13-20
The disciples have been struggling to get anything right over the course of Jesus' ministry. In the last few verses we saw how the disciples not only didn't understand that Jesus wasn't worried about bread when He was warning them about the religious leaders' teaching, but they also forgot how Jesus was more than able to feed them whether they had brought bread or not. Now Peter finally gets one right, but don't get too excited this brief flash of understanding doesn't last very long!
Up to this point in Jesus' ministry, we've seen that His mission here on earth has been to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom and to heal. He has come first to the Israelites and then to the rest of the world. Matthew has also spent a lot of time up to this point in his account persuading us that Jesus is indeed the promised Messiah. Now Jesus asks, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" In His day, people thought He might be one of the prophets returned from the dead. Today, you will hear many things said about Jesus... some people think He is simply a historical religious teacher, some people think that He is just one among many options for living a good life and expecting a good afterlife, and other people today will even claim that He was a racist, sexist, sinner who led people into a religion of supremacy and violence.
Then Jesus asked His disciples, "Who do you say that I am?"
Peter answers, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God."
With all those things that people say about Jesus today, who do you say that Jesus is? Peter recognized Jesus as the Messiah in this moment and was greatly blessed for his answer. But Peter also didn't yet understand what the Messiah had come to accomplish for the world, he thought Jesus was just there to deliver the people of Israel from the Romans. After all, who wouldn't follow a king into battle that can raise the dead, heal the injured, and feed the hungry masses out of almost nothing?!
To understand Jesus' blessing of Peter we need to go back to the original language because English doesn't quite capture what He meant. When we read vs. 18 "you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church." It sounds like Jesus is going to build His church on the foundation of Peter, but if we think about that for a moment we know that doesn't sound quite right. Part of this confusion comes from the meaning of Peter's name which is 'a rock' or 'a stone' in Greek petros. The Greek word that we have translated rock is petra or foundation. The foundation that Jesus is telling Peter He is going to build His church on is based on the declaration that Peter has just made. Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Living God is the foundation of His church. What you also may be wondering, is what Jesus means by "church"... the Jews worshiped in their synagogues and had a different name for their gathering than "church." The Greek word used here is ekklēsia which meant a group of people called out to gather as one united body. Against this ekklēsia built upon the foundation of Christ the gates of Hell will not prevail!
The Next Phase of The Messiah's Mission
(The Final Journey to Jerusalem)
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Matthew 16:21-23
Imagine being Peter, you've just been blessed for finally getting the answer right that Jesus is the Messiah they've been waiting for! Now the Messiah begins to tell them that the plan isn't to gather an army and kick out the Romans, instead Jesus is going to suffer and die at the hands of the religious leaders in Jerusalem. If that's the news you're receiving from someone you've loved and faithfully followed, you probably miss the part where Jesus also says that He is going to be raised on the third day!
How many times do we want to take God aside and tell Him that His plan is a really terrible idea and that it isn't the way things should play out? There are certainly many self-identified Christians today who think that if God really sent His Son to suffer and die on the cross, then He cannot be a just and loving God. These people see it as some kind of cosmic child abuse that this was God's plan for the redemption of humanity.
Peter probably had the best of intentions with his alarmed concern when Jesus began speaking this way. Just as I fully believe that the people who are having doubts about God's plan for redemption also have good intentions in their own concerns. Yet Jesus' own rebuke of Peter could not be more clear... It is a lie straight from the mouth of the Enemy to say that Jesus did not need to go to Jerusalem and willingly lay down His sinless life on behalf of a sinful world! If Jesus had listened to Peter in this moment then we would still be without the hope of a way to be made righteous and whole in the eyes of God. If Jesus had listened to Peter, we would still be lost; dead in our sin; captive to our Enemy.
Take Up Your Cross
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Matthew 16:24-28
After telling His disciples that it is not optional for Him to go to Jerusalem to suffer and die, Jesus goes on to tell them that they are also called to lay down their lives. This is another one of those saying, that if you grew up in the church, you probably heard often. But what did the disciples hear when Jesus told them that to follow Him meant to take up their cross? The Romans loved violence and they had perfected the art of making their enemies suffer for as long and as much as possible before allowing them to finally die. Crucifixion was and still is the worst way that a person can die. It was typically the sentence for the worst kind of criminals: thieves, murderers, and traitors... people who had committed a capital offense. You think that getting bullied at school, failing a class, or losing a job because of your Christian beliefs is suffering? None of those things hold a candle to being crucified!
Yet we are called to deny that part of ourselves that with Peter wants to say, "you're not going to suffer, these things aren't going to happen to you,"... we are called to take up our cross and follow Jesus!
There is no denying that this calling sounds completely terrifying! I don't know anyone that would choose this path without understanding the stakes that Jesus lays out next:
- Whoever holds onto the life in which they are still dead in sin, in order to avoid the suffering that Jesus promises those who follow Him will experience, will find in eternity that they have lost the life of freedom that Jesus offered.
- Whoever lays down the life in which they are still dead in sin, finds the life of freedom that Jesus offers.
- Gaining all the comforts that this temporary life has to offer, will seem like nothing in the grand scale of eternity.
- There is nothing that we have that could buy the freedom of our soul.
Apart from Jesus, we will only find death and despair for all of eternity, but with Jesus... though we may suffer for a time on this earth... we know that He is coming with all His angels in glory to judge the wicked and overcome the evil of this world. His victory is our victory!
Are you still testing whether Jesus is who He claims to be? Who do you say that He is? Are you ready to take up your cross and follow Him?