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Who Is Jesus? A study of Matthew 16:13-28

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Matthew 16:13-28

Halfway through Jesus' ministry, His disciples are finally beginning to understand who Jesus is, but they don't yet understand what's going to happen to Him. Nevertheless, He tells them that His church, which cannot be stopped even by death, will be forever built on Him -- His identity, His sacrifice, and His humility.

[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]


Getting Started: Things to Think About

Who Was That Masked Man?

While the idea of using masks to hide identity goes at least as far back as the masquerade balls in Italy in the 1400s, it was the Lone Ranger who turned this question into a “thing”. Who are your favorite masked heroes (Superman works, even though he just wears a silly pair of glasses)? Why did these heroes wear masks? They didn’t want anyone to know who they really were. Why? Because it would make it harder for them to accomplish their mission. Well, Jesus didn’t have to wear a mask because no one expected the Messiah to look like Him. His “disguise” (if you want to call it that) was just being a normal guy. But when the disciples realized who He was, He still didn’t want them telling everybody. Why not? The same reason our masked heroes wanted their secret kept! They had a mission, and anonymity made it easier. As we learn in just a few chapters later in Matthew, Jews weren’t ready for anyone to call Himself the Son of God.

In the Gospel of Mark, this is called "the Messianic Secret". But in the Gospel of Matthew, it is made evident that Jesus wanted to keep the open declaration "I am the Son of God" under wraps because the people would get more focused on the declaration than what it meant.


Recap of Matthew.

The Gospel is organized around the idea of teaching, then “backing it up” with doing and miracles. About halfway through the Gospel, Matthew takes on a much darker tone. All of the popularity has led to increasing opposition. In chapter 14, John the Baptist is killed, causing Jesus to withdraw to the wilderness (where He feeds the 5,000 and walks on water). Our passage is in the midst of a series of encounters with Jewish leaders who try to trap Him and discredit Him, but through which Jesus ends up teaching the people the real meaning of God’s law. After one such debate, Jesus asks His followers to take an inventory of what people think about all of the controversy.

Remembering Matthew’s Gospel

We covered the first part of Matthew in winter 2016—essentially a year ago. If you need to recap anything, here’s my summary of the background. This Gospel was written in excellent Greek, carefully organized, and a powerful organization of all the evidence for why we know that Jesus is the Messiah of God. That makes Matthew, the well-educated tax collector, fluent in Hebrew and Greek, to be the likely author (and the early church all say Matthew wrote it). There is disagreement over when it was written—Matthew, Mark, and Luke all share a number of common stories so they either copied each other or a common source—but the internal evidence for an early date (mid 60s at the latest, before Jerusalem was destroyed) is more than strong enough to convince me. You might remember my theory that Matthew and Mark had time to spend together in Jerusalem when Mark abandoned Paul on that first missionary journey. Eventually, Mark left with Barnabas and Matthew headed east, so although they started work on the Gospels together, they finished it apart.


The Purpose and Structure of Matthew

Matthew wrote as a Hebrew to Hebrews. As a result, the primary theme of the Gospel is demonstrating that Jesus is the prophesied Messiah and fulfillment of the Old Testament. There are lots of references to Scripture, to Jewish custom and law, and to Hebrew modes of thinking. But it’s not just about looking back, but also looking ahead. In the Jews, God wasn’t creating an ethnic nation, but showing the world the Kingdom of God, which would now be realized in a new community, the Church. Therefore, Matthew’s second theme is to summarize Jesus’ teaching on the ethic and identity of the people of the Kingdom of God. Who does God want us to be? How is it different from being a Jew? What about the sacrifices and the Law and the prophets? Matthew, by structuring his Gospel as he does, first gives Jesus’ answers to those questions, then demonstrates how Jesus proved His authority to give those answers. The radicalness of the Sermon on the Mount? Backed up by a series of miracles. His controversial teachings on how to enter heaven? Backed up by His mastery over the religious “experts” of the day. And so on . . .


Main Themes

  1. Jesus as the Messiah-King. Matthew’s Gospel opens with the claim that Jesus is the Christ (“Christ” is not His last name, but a title, based on the Hebrew word “Messiah”)—a real, historical person.

  2. Jesus and the Kingdom of God. Much of what Matthew records Jesus saying has to do with the mysterious “kingdom of God”, which we said means God’s rule and reign on earth that He calls us to participate in.

  3. The Fulfillment of Scripture. Over and over again, Matthew tells us that Jesus’ actions fulfill important Old Testament prophesies.

  4. The Community of Disciples. Instead of a nation, Jesus said He came to organize a new kind of community: a church. The five discourses in Matthew have been called a manual of Christian discipleship.


Part 1: Misunderstood Identity (Matthew 16:13-14)

When Jesus came to the region 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, Elijah; still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

I was absolutely stunned to see that they put this entire text into one lesson. I have read whole books devoted to just a few of these verses. But then we would be in Matthew forever, so you do what you have to do. Your job as a teacher is to put your class into the shoes of the disciples: what would you say to Jesus?


Jesus has now withdrawn so far away from the Jewish power center that He is in a non-Jewish sector with a history of pagan worship (named after Caesar and also Herod the Great’s son Philip). This is certainly intentional; surrounded by so many “gods” (shrines), the disciples would have to decide Jesus’ place among them. But Jesus starts with an indirect question about the people. The disciples would have been very concerned about popular opinion. Don’t you care about what other people think of the church, or about Christianity? And the disciples jump right in! We have three answers, all of them prophets. The people loved John the Baptist and really didn’t think Herod could kill him, and so had him appearing again in a new body. Malachi 4:5-6 predicted that Elijah would return before the day of the Lord, putting Elijah in a unique place in Jewish lore (ironically, Jesus explained that John the Baptist fulfilled that prophecy; Matt 11:14). But it seems that most people put Jesus in the category of a great prophet like Jeremiah. Doesn’t that sound familiar? Who do people say Jesus is today?

Aside: The Son of Man

Though being extremely cool and official sounding, this is a very obscure reference that also happens to be one of Jesus’ favorites. He uses it of Himself 30 times in Matthews Gospel (it appears 90 times in the New Testament). What’s strange is that in the Old Testament, it is almost always used of actual men. Ezekiel uses it 90 times of himself. Everywhere else it is used as a synonym for “humankind.” Except . . . one reference in Daniel 7:13 in which it is used of one glorious being that appears before God after the slaying of the final beast and receives dominion and glory. Our only meaningful option is to equate that with the Messiah.

There are three categories of sayings in which Jesus uses this phrase:

  1. end times (like coming on the clouds of heaven) in which the Son of Man will bring judgment to the world;

  2. passion or suffering in which Jesus says that the Son of Man will be rejected and killed;

  3. Jesus’ ministry—sayings like “the Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost.”

That final category helps us understand the “Man” part of “Son of Man”: a truly representative human in the sense of being humble and lowly. But we have to take all the sayings together to realize that this was a specific title of a specific person—truly man, but not just a man. John plays this combination regularly when using the themes of ascent and descent (the Son of Man “came down” from heaven). Jesus is the lowly man, but He is also the Perfect Man, the Man to show us what God created us to be. He was humiliated, but also exalted. He is the representative of all humans, the Second Adam. In Jesus, God and Man are reconciled and become one.

Part 2: True Identity (Matthew 16:15-16)

“But you,” He asked them, “who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!”

What mattered most to Jesus at that moment, however, was what the disciples themselves thought. Why is that? Because when I’m talking to you about salvation, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks—it matters what you think. Now, the disciples had called Jesus “the Son of God” after He walked on the water (Matt 14:33), but it’s clear that they didn’t really know what that means. This is an important question: When you say that Jesus is the Son of God, do you understand what that really means? What Peter answers is great and true and probably shocking to the disciples as they begin to realize what they’re saying about Jesus. He’s not just a good teacher or even a prophet—He’s in fact more than a Baal or one of the weird Greek gods. He is The Anointed One of God, the One that the Jews have been waiting for for centuries.


Once we realize that Jesus is more than just a man, it forces us to change how we approach Him. He’s not someone we can choose when to follow and when to disagree and go our own way. He’s not someone we can vote for or vote against. He’s not someone we follow for a while and then graduate. He is who He is, regardless of if we believe or not. If we fail to believe, that is our greatest mistake.

Aside: Messiah

This word is a “transliteration”, which means that it is not “translated” from a language into English, but the word is sounded out in English as close as it can be to what it sounds like in its original language. The Hebrew word sounds like “Messiah” and means “anointed one”. It is translated into Greek as “Christ”.


It is a very special word in Hebrew referring to any number of offices for which a person must be installed properly to be qualified for Yahweh’s service. Even the Persian king Cyrus was “anointed” by God for a special task. Prophets and mainly kings were “anointed” to their jobs. In the Psalms, the king is idealized as a son of God, which is why the failure of David’s line was so very troubling to Israel.


During and after the Exile, the Messiah was reinvented as a kind of warrior-king who would lead Israel to victory over her enemies. But the actual “anointed” office of prominence became the priests (there was no king anymore). As a result, the Messiah came to take on priestly characteristics. This became a source of great trouble in Jesus’ ministry because the people had their own conceptions of who the Messiah would be, and they turned out to be wrong. In fact, the Messiah also combined the characteristics of the office they forgot about: prophet. His weaponry would not be swords and shields but the word and power of God. It took Jesus’ death and resurrection for His followers to finally understand what that meant. The Messiah was not a king but God Himself, God made flesh for the purpose of bringing all peoples back to Him. No One other than Jesus could fill this role, which is what makes Him “anointed”.

Part 3: New Identity (Matthew 16:17-20)

And Jesus responded, “Simon son of Jonah, you are blessed because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the forces of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven.” And He gave the disciples orders to tell no one that He was the Messiah.

Now we get into the nitty gritty. I encourage you to save as much time as possible for this section because there are so many questions and debates about it. Jesus’ identity is the most important part of this passage, but you can come back to that after the final section. Here are the highlights.

  1. The spiritual nature of knowing Jesus. Jesus uses the same word here that He does in the Beatitudes—a word that carries the sense of “divine favor”. You see, when it comes to Jesus being the Son of God, it’s not something we can adequately “explain” to anyone. Anyone can “believe a fact” that Jesus is God’s Son, but it takes a movement of God’s Spirit to make that “fact” sink into our hearts such that Jesus is our Lord and Savior. Make sure your class is praying for non-Christians in their lives!

  2. Peter and the rock. Jesus had given Simon the nickname “Peter” early on, and that becomes a wordplay here. “Peter” (petros) means a boulder, while the word He uses for “rock” (petra) usually means something like bedrock. Similar, but not the same. See the bottom for a brief summary of the different ways people have tried to use this passage (like the Roman Catholic Church). I explain it by means of the English word “this” (which does not appear in the Greek), which can be used as an adjective and a pronoun. Which rock? This rock. What is “this”? “This” is what God revealed to Peter. What did God reveal? That Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. So “this rock” is the fact that Jesus is the Son of God. That would line up well with Paul’s later description that Jesus is the cornerstone of the church (Eph 2:20). That would also line up well with Jesus’ next phrase about the gates of hell, that they would not be able to keep Him dead.

  3. Gates don’t attack. The phrase “gates of hell/forces of Hades/gates of Hades” can mean a number of things. Most likely, it refers to all that which is contained in the realm of the dead (which didn’t yet mean “hell” like we mean when Jesus said it). I think it is a reference to Jesus’ own death (which He shortly mentions), that not even the grave can stop Him, and neither should it frighten us.

4. Peter doesn’t lock up heaven.

An important difference today is that there are so many Christians around—if you don’t tell somebody, God will use someone else. Not so back then. The disciples were the only ones with the words of life.


5. Messiah and blasphemy are a blurry line. Like I said in my suggested icebreaker, Jesus didn’t want the truth out because most of the Jews wouldn’t be able to handle it. How would you respond if someone told you he/she was the “Son of God”?

Aside: "Church" in the Gospels

The word translated “church” only appears twice in all the Gospels: here, and in Matthew 18:17. The word ekklesia literally means “called-out ones” and refers to an assembly in Greek literature. Over the rest of the New Testament, we learn a lot more about this “church” (its mission, its structure, its rules). But for Jesus here, the main point seems to be a contrast with the word “nation”. Jesus is not creating a new Israel in the sense of Abraham’s descendants. Instead, Jesus is creating a people through spiritual descent, meaning anyone in the world who hears and responds to the message about Him can be a part of it.

Part 4: Cross Identity (Matthew 16:21-28)

From then on Jesus began to point out to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and scribes, be killed, and be raised the third day. Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, “Oh no, Lord! This will never happen to You!” But He turned and told Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me because you’re not thinking about God’s concerns, but man’s.” Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will find it. What will it benefit a man if he gains the whole world yet loses his life? Or what will a man give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man is going to come with His angels in the glory of His Father, and then He will reward each according to what he has done. I assure you: There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.

Wow. Where to begin? First, realize that Peter is not intentionally being a fool; he just doesn’t understand what’s going on. Remember that Satan had earlier tempted Jesus with being the “King” without having to go through the cross; and that must have been tempting. Jesus didn’t want to die that death. But that was God’s plan, and God’s will—not man’s will—must be done. Then He says the most powerful summary of the Christian life (Kyle Idleman’s book Not a Fan skillfully maps out everything Jesus meant by this): to follow Me, you must also deny yourself and defy the fear of death and be willing to give your life for the will of God. Matthew reports three clear predictions of the crucifixion (here, 17:22, and 20:17), and Jesus later explains that He wants to make sure His followers know that bad things will happen so they don’t lose faith when they do happen. But it’s worth it! The irony of the man who avoids the call of Jesus in order to preserve his life is that doing so will cost him his life!—either at his death before the judgment seat, or when Jesus returns in judgment.


[Note that the final verse has confused a lot of people. Skeptics and liberals have used the verse to say that Jesus really didn’t know what He was talking about (assuming that because Jesus was just talking about the Second Coming in judgment, that He meant some disciples would still be alive when the Second Coming happened, which of course didn’t turn out that way). Matthew pretty clearly believed that Jesus referred to the Transfiguration because Matthew put that event in the very next chapter—the Transfiguration being a taste of Jesus’ glory. I’m obviously with Matthew.]


Wrap it up with questions like these from the Serendipity Study Bible: (1) Which statement do you have the hardest believing: [] Jesus is God’s Son. [] Jesus’ death had special significance. [] Jesus rose from the dead. [] Jesus is coming again. [] Jesus can be the only authority and ruler in my life. [] I believe all of those. (2) What does it mean to “deny yourself”? (3) What keeps you from denying yourself? (4) Do the people who know you know that Jesus is God in your life, and can they see that proven in the way you live? Can other people see that you are denying yourself and following Jesus? How about us as a church?

To illustrate this, you might buy two of the same cheap but important thing (like a lantern or flashlight). Then, take them both apart completely. Bring the components in bags and split your class into two teams. Tell them to re-assemble what you have in the bag, and say that one team gets to see a picture of the final product. (But don’t provide any tools! Basically, the picture helps, but not that much.) The point? If your life depended on one thing working, you would want training, instructions, a help desk, tools, and a support group. And if you had them, you would listen to them! That’s kind of what Jesus is saying. Do we really think we can make up our own instructions and succeed? Or will we trust that His way is the best way, no matter where it takes us?

Closing Thoughts: Peter and the Keys to the Kingdom

So—there are several ways people have explained this passage. You have in the commentary my assertion that the fact of Jesus' deity is the foundation of the church.


Another popular one is that the “rock” of the church is the confession that Jesus is God (symbolized in baptism). That’s certainly important, but our words cannot make or break God’s church—only He can.


Most people (being Catholic) believe that Jesus referred to Peter himself as the rock of the church—one man calling the shots. In that understanding, Peter literally got to decide what the church believed and who and in or out of the church. This is how the early church arrived at the idea of a pope, one primary successor to Peter. By virtue of importance, that position became associated with the bishop of Rome. And that is why the Catholic Church says that the pope is the Vicar (the representative appointed to be in charge) of Christ and why when he speaks, he speaks the truth of God (even when it’s something brand new). In their translation of the Bible (reflected in the King James), Jesus said “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven” in a causal sense, as if Peter could determine the position of heaven, giving Peter an enormous amount of power. In the Catholic tradition, the pope has the power to grant indulgences and pardons for sin that God apparently has to honor, or ways to get people out of purgatory faster. (I haven’t found any teaching saying the pope can release someone from hell, however.) And remember that official Catholic dogma says that people not in right standing with their church cannot be admitted to heaven—the keys to heaven are in many ways the keys to their church. Basically, the whole argument comes down to one set of verbs, the ones meaning “will be bound”. In the Catholic Bible and the KJV, those verbs are active. But in a careful study of the Greek, it turns out those verbs are actually passive. “What Peter binds on earth will have been bound in heaven.” Doesn’t that mean the same thing? Not necessarily—just as God revealed the truth about Jesus to Peter, God will reveal the truth about the progress of the gospel to Peter. What heaven has already said, Peter will inevitably enact on earth.

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