29 October 2016

Matthew 16:13-28

“Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (v. 28)

Psalm: Psalm 37:30-40


This is a significant, and complicated, passage in Matthew's Gospel. Like so much of this Gospel, it is profoundly Jewish, and it reflects 1st-century Jewish beliefs about the coming Messiah, God's 'anointed one' who would triumph over Israel's enemies and restore the kingdom of King David. The setting is the Roman occupied region of Caesarea Philippi, which tells us that this Messiah would be a challenge to imperial power, and Jesus identifies himself as "Son of Man", the one promised in the Old Testament (Daniel 7:13-14) who would one day rule the world on Israel's behalf. The Messiah's coming, Jews believed, would be marked by the return of the prophet of Elijah, a role played by John the Baptist. And Peter recognises Jesus as the 'anointed one' who, as the coming king, was declared to be the "Son of God" (a royal, not a divine title in the Old Testament) (verse 16).

The word 'church' only comes twice in the Gospels, and both times in Matthew. Here, Peter is identified as the founding apostle of the Church, with unique authority to act on Jesus' behalf. This, probably, reflects a conflict between Matthew's Jewish Christian church and the increasingly gentile (non-Jewish) churches associated with Paul which, by the time this was written (around AD85) were gaining ground in the wider Roman Empire. (It is ironic, perhaps, that this passage, subsequently, was used to underpin the authority of the Church of Rome.) Peter's reputation was somewhat tarnished, though, when he challenged Jesus' declaration that the way ahead would take him through suffering and death (verse 22), which Jews did not associate with the Messiah. The kingdom would come, not by military conquest, but through self-sacrifice.

The passage ends, as it began, with "the Son of Man", and the astonishing assertion that his kingdom would come "with his angels in the glory of his Father" (v. 27) within the lifetime of some of his disciples. This may reflect Matthew's belief that the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70 would precipitate dramatic divine intervention. Unfortunately it didn't, and Matthew's Jewish church pretty much died out within a generation.

To Ponder

  • Both "Messiah" and "Son of Man" are human, not divine, titles in the Old Testament. Is that a problem for Christian readers? Why?
  • As a modern reader, who do you identify with in the story? Why?

Bible notes author

The Revd David Rhymer

The Revd David Rhymer has done a number of things over the last 40-odd years - including teaching (science), publishing (theology), full-time ministry (Baptist and Methodist) and national Methodist Team work (training & development officer for Cornwall). More recently he has been responsible for a part-time theology degree course at Exeter University, and until 2017, was involved with teaching students preparing for ministry in the south-west.