Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

103. Peter's Confession (Matt. 16:13-20; Mark 8:27-30; Luke 9:18-21)*

Away from the provocations of hostile Jewish leaders, Jesus settled down to divide his time between a crowd of specially faithful followers, who could not be shaken off (Mk.8:34), and the instruction of the twelve. Yet he would not seek to attempt the difficult task single-handed: "And it came to pass, as he was alone praying, his disciples were with him" (Lk). The words— strange paradox!-means that in his prayer he ws alone, necessarily so, tor he was praying for them, that neither the strong nationalist spirit which ran so strongly just then, nor the scribes and Pharisees, nor their frequent inability to grasp his teaching, would shake their loyalty. This was by far the greatest worry of this part of his ministry. The answer to his prayer was to come almost immediately.

That phrase: "the disciples were with him" may imply more than physical presence-that together they had decided to stand by Jesus, even though their minds were full of misgivings. For a good while now it had been touch and go whether their loyalty would be sustained. So the fact that they were still "with him" needed to be said.


When the journey was resumed (Mk.) Jesus began asking the twelve individually (Mk.) what were the opinions about himself which they had heard about him: "Who do men say that I, the Son of man, am?" (Mt). The strange paradoxes in the teaching and behaviour of Jesus had made this question a great talking point (cp. Mk.6:14-16). The very way in which Jesus led them to it told them by his allusion to Daniel 7:13 the most correct answer. But there was no sign of this best of all biblical replies in the profusion of the options which the twelve now contributed with great readiness (Mk).

"Some say John the Baptist". This was the guess which had been made by Herod (Mt.l4:2). It could only have been shared by those who had come to know about Jesus after John's tragic death. But that such an opinion was held says much for the considerable resemblance in message, even though not in miracles, between Jesus and John. The effect of their preaching on the religious leaders was the same also!

Another point of view, lately canvassed, was that Jesus was Elijah. Everyone knew, on the strength of Malachi's Elijah prophecy (4:5,6), that an appearance of the great prophet was a necessary prelude to Messiah's coming. And there were so many similarities between Jesus and the ancient records about Elijah-his open conflict with the contemporary "prophets of Baal", his ability to provide food for the needy, his power to raise the dead, his sudden comings and goings, and, just lately, his unexpected journey to the country of Tyre and Sidon.

There were other prophets besides Elijah that Jesus was equated with in the unceasing speculations that went on. Perhaps he was Joshua? After all, he bore the same name. And didn't he lead a group of followers up and down the country, as Joshua did with his spies of Canaan? On the other hand he was often heard to refer to himself as "Son of man." That settled it, surely. He must be Ezekiel, for was not that Ezekiel's title no less than 89 times?

And more than once he had talked about "the sign of the prophet Jonah." So perhaps he was Jonah? After all, Jonah came from Gath-hepher (2 Kgs.l4:25), the next village to Nazareth. One of the most mysterious of all the proposed identifications was with Jeremiah. What kind of reason could be advanced, what sort of similarity could one point to, in comparing Jesus of Nazareth with the tragic prophet of Anathoth? Was "Man of Sorrows" already written on the brow of Jesus?

"One of the ancient prophets", they said (Lk. archaios). Then was public speculation ranging further back to Abel or Enoch or Noah?

These varied surmises at least show one thing — people of all shades of opinion were satisfied that Jesus of Nazareth was not just the humble carpenter whom people in Nazareth had been familiar with; he was something, someone, much greater than that. Yet they missed the logic of their own speculations: If any one of their (inferior) guesses concerning him were correct, they would have followed his lead with unquestioning obedience. But they didn't.

Instead, that other phrase: "as one of the prophets" (Mk.6:15), seems to indicate a sinister attempt to represent Jesus as a false prophet like those who plagued the life out of Jeremiah.

From all these guesses and rumours there is surely one clear lesson to be learned: Follow the religious notions of the crowd, and you are almost sure to be wrong.

It is specially noteworthy that popular opinion no longer acclaimed Jesus as trie Messiah. His abrupt refusal to allow the people to make him king of the Jews had swung the pendulum of public favour against him. At the time of the feeding of the five thousand they were ready enough to identify him as "the prophet like unto Moses" (Dt.18:18; Jn.6:14), but the miraculous provision of food had not been repeated day after day, as happened in the wilderness, so he couldn't be Moses. His public rejection of the Mosaic food laws (Study 98) made this conclusion certain.

Peter to the fore

Jesus now pressed his interrogation furttier: "But whom say ye that I am?" The answer to this was all-important. It was a rather tense anxious Jesus who paused waiting for their reply.

Once again, as on a former occasion (Jn.6:69), Peter leaped in with a quick response. He could have taken the line: When all the nation's leaders are puzzled about you, who are we to offer an opinion? Or he could have begun with a 'We think. . . ' or 'I consider.' or even 'I believe . . .' But instead, a blunt unambiguous dogmatic assertion: "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Mt.) There was no mistaking Peter's meaning. Once again he was giving emphatic testimony (Now with greater conviction than before) that Jesus was the promised Messiah. "Son of the living God" could only go back to the familiar Scripture in Psalm 2, where Jehovah says of "his anointed," his Christ: "Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee." And in this context "the living God" does not mean the true God contrasted with lifeless idols, but the God of the Cherubim, the Living Creatures (Peter had picked up his Lord's allusion to the great vision in Dan.7:9-14).

This confession, which was Peter's own, rather than representative of the whole group, had a wonderful effect on Jesus. In earlier days others had made their great confessions regarding him. There was Andrew's excited declaration to Peter: "We have found the Messiah" (Jn.1:41); and Philip's equally enthusiastic affirmation to Nathanael: "We have found him of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth" (Jn.1:45). And after the storm on Galilee: "Of a truth thou art the Son of God" (Mt. 14:33).

But since that first flush of faith there had come much disappointment, misunderstanding, and a near collapse of faith. In these circumstances Peter's personal affirmation of faith was invaluable. It gave a firm strong lead to the rest in their doubt and hesitation, and it warmed the heart of Jesus who was himself sorely in need of encouragement during these depressing days.

What did Peter mean?

The words of this confession are reported by Matthew very differently from the brief phrases in Mark and Luke: "Thou art the Christ of God". Probably, when asked what he meant, Peter filled out his answer.

What exactly did he mean? The double idea involved-Christ (Messianic King), and Son of God- requires that there be seen here allusion either to the Davidic Covenant in 2 Sam.7:12-16 or to Psalm 2:4: "He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh" (and note Matthew 16:17: "my Father which is in heaven").

It is easy to see why the mind of Peter should go to this scripture. His Master's recent experience of head-on collisions with rulers had evidently set his loyal mind thinking about the appropriateness of the words: "The rulers take counsel together against the Lord, and against his Christ... Thou art my Son... The Gentiles for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the Land . . . Kiss the Son (bar) ... in the way... Blessed are all they that put their trust in him."

Inspired apostle

To be acclaimed by his disciple at such a time as both human and divine Messiah meant a lot to Jesus. Evidently his disciple meant that he was as truly Son of God as he himself was son of Jonah. Jesus said his fervent thanks to Peterond to his heavenly Father in the same breath; "Blessed art thou, Simon son of Jonah: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven"(Mt.)

It has been suggested that the contrast Jesus had in mind was: "Peter, it was from my Father that you learned this tremendous truth, not front your father."But indeed there is more to it than this.

"Bar-/ona/)"was used with allusion back to the baptism of Jesus when the Holy Spirit like a dove lighted on him, and a Voice was heard from heaven saying precisely what Peter had now declared: "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased/'Through Peter, the father, knowing how sorely tried His Son was, y said it again. For Pharisees and Sadducees no sign from heaven, but for a hard-driven Jesus and disciples of wilting faith there was a sign of the prophet Bar-jonah!

A minute earlier the disciples had been telling Jesus how men speculated that he was one of the great prophets of the Lord. Now Jesus fervently put Peter in that category of men who were inspired to speak the Truth of God, and this because he did what the prophets also had done beforehand-acclaimed Jesus as the brd's Messiah. The inspiration was the same. Yet Peter was all unaware that he was doing anything except speak his own mind.

This remarkable circumstance opens up the possibility that a man may at times be under the guidance of God's Holy Spirit without himself ever being aware of the fact. Presumably this is what lies behind Paul's remarkable assertion: "No man can say that Jesus is Lord but by the Holy Spirit;"Of a similar nature, doubtless, is the heavenly help which comes to a man when he seeks divine guidance in his personal witness for the Faith or in some difficult decision calling (or wisdom above the ordinary. In such circumstances the individual is completely unaware of supra-normal guidance, so that to call this "possessing the Holy Spirit'' is decidedly a misnomer. Nevertheless in a way which is past human understanding God is at work, even if it be only momentarily, as in Peter's present experience.

There is yet more to be discerned in this grateful rejoinder by Jesus "Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jonah" looks back, along with Peter, to Psalm 2: "Kiss the Son (bar) . . . Blessed are all they that put their trust in him.' Also, bar derives from the familiar bara=, create; and in the mind of Jesus Jonah, dove, would have inescapable associations with the Holy Spirit at this baptism (Mt.3:16). Thus Jesus rejoiced to see his disciple as a first fruits of his New Creation, with a faith begotten by the power of the Spirit: "Thou sendest forth Thy spirit, they are created"(Ps.!04:30). "In the place where it was said unto them. Ye are not my people, there it shall be said unto them, Ye are the sons of the living God" (Hos.1:10).

Thjs the prayer of Jesus (Lk.9:18) had its answer: "O that I had wings like a dove (Jonah)! then would I fly away and be at rest... far off. in the wilderness"(Ps.55:6,7).

Jesus went on: "And l-also say unto thee that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church"(Mt). The AV: "And I say also -", is misleading. The "also" links with "I" (Jesus), to imply that as God had spoken to Peter, so now the Son was continuing the revelation.

Papal Pretensions

"Thou art Peter, and upon this Rock" has, of course, been the centuries-old basis for preposterous papal claims to spiritual authority. Peter (petros) means "a small stone" to be thrown (2 Mac.1:16; 4:41), or stumbled over (Mt. 16:23), or used as a knife (Ex.4:25, version of Aquila).

In Lk. 22:31 Jesus made reference to Amos.9:9; "Like as corn is sifted in a sieve, yet shall not the least grain (Heb: stone) fall upon the earth." This, spoken concerning Peter, interprets his name as meaning a very tiny stone, comparable in size to a corn of wheat.

The later altercations among the twelve as to who should be accounted greater (Mk.9:34; Lk.22:24) show clearly that they had gained no impression of Peter's superior status. And how very odd it is that the Roman church is so eager to appropriate these words to the popes, whilst studiously ignoring the "Get behind me, satan" also spoken to Peter a short while later!

Everywhere the New Testament discourages reference to Peter as the Rock. James, Cephas, and John" were pillars in the church at Jerusalem (Gal.2:9), not just Cephas. At Antioch Peter encountered rebuke from Paul regarding a quite fundamental principle (Gal.2:11), and Peter took it. The conclusions of the Council at Jerusalem were authoritatively pronounced by James, not Peter (Acts 15:13). No other foundation for the church is possible except Christ and the truth about him (1 Cor.3:ll); and with Peter is associated not just one apostle but the entire body of apostles (Eph.2:20; Rev.21:14). Peter never was Bishop of Rome. And even if he were, there is no hint of Scripture that he was empowered to pass on his authority to any other "bishop" of Rome.

A.B. Bruce has well commented: "Christ did not fight to the death against one form of spiritual despotism to put another, if possible worse in its place."

Enough on that profitless topic! It is more important by far to enquire just what Jesus did mean by his words to Peter.

The Rock and the Church

Linguistically, it is clear enough that Jesus was'* not appointing Peter as a rock foundation, but was pointing a contrast between the small unimportance of Peter-for all the greatness of his Messianic confession!- and the solid rock of truth concerning Christ upon which the Ecclesia was to be built. "Other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (1 Cor.3:11). In the Old Testament one majestic passage after another speaks of Jehovah as the Rock of Israel: "Is there a God besides me? yea, there is no Rock; I know not any" (ls.44;8 RV). "He is the Rock, his work is perfect" (Dt. 32:4). So extension of this idea to the Son of God (in the same way that the Covenant Name is often applied to him in the prophecies) is natural and easy.

"On this rock I will build my church." This was the first time Jesus had used the word ekklesia in connection with his own work. It is the Greek equivalent of the word which very frequently in the Old Testament describes the congregation of Israel. Commentators have shown a great fondness for stressing associations for this important word with the assembly of privileged citizens in the Greek city-states, yet the possibility that Jesus had this in mind is extremely remote. Following Septuagint usage his emphasis, rather, was on the idea of a Christ- community modelled on the pattern of ancient Israel-a new Israel selected on the basis of loyalty to himself as Messiah, in the same way that Israel, redeemed from Egypt, was required by God to give allegiance to Moses as His prophet.

The gates of hell

Here was the clearest indication Jesus had yet given of an aim and intention to found a new family, a new nation. Israel, the nation of special favour and blessing, was being disowned, put out of fellowship, so to speak. Instead, as Gideon had chosen his faithful few, so now the selection of a faithful remnant of Christ's men was proceeding. And against this New Israel the gate-keepers (see Ps.24:7,9) of the present temple in Jerusalem would have no power to prevail.

Nor would the gates of hell. In ancient days the great antagonist to the calling-out of Israel from their debasing bondage was the monolithic might of Egypt, the land of graves. Now the mighty captor from whose bondage the new Israel needed deliverance was "the sin which doth so easily beset us." Those now being offered their freedom by Christ found themselves shut In by "the gates of hell" even whilst they were alive. These gates of the grave, over which saints like David (Ps.9:13) and Hezekiah (Is.38:10) had been granted token triumphs, were to find their master in Jesus. Was it not promised that Abraham's Seed should "possess the gate of his enemies" (Gen.22:17)? In due time Jesus would triumphantly re-assure his followers: "I am he that liveth, and was dead; and behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and death" (Rev.l:18) which means, of course, that he now has the authority to "open the two-leaved gates" (see ls.44:28;45:l,2) and bring forth from among death's captives those who belong to him. But with those keys he will also exercise the authority to decide who shall be locked up within death's grim fortress for ever.

It may have seemed at the time as though the gates of hell must prevail against Jesus when "the voices of the chief priests prevailed" against Pilate (Lk.23:23), so that he "gave sentence that it should be as they required." But the third day told another story. Jesus now promised other keys to Peter. The reward of his staunch loyalty, when others doubted and hesitated, was that he should be used by God to "open the door of faith" first to Jews at Pentecost, and then to Gentiles in the home of Cornelius, the Roman centurion. Even though the work of taking the gospel to the Gentiles was to be mainly Paul's, it remains Peter's lasting glory that "God made choice among them, (hot the Gentiles by his mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe" (Actsl5:7). The key of knowledge, left by scribes and lawyers to go rusty (Lk. 11:52), was to be put to wonderful use by Peter.

Binding and loosing

Authority to shut out was also his, as the austerity of his decisions regarding Simon the sorcerer and also Ananias and Sapphira very plainly shows (Acts.8:20-24; 5:1-11). More than this, "whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." Here, especially, is the basis for the vast pontifical claims of the bishops of Rome. It suits them to leave ignored the fact that though this high privilege was given to Peter first, it was not given to him only. The words were repeated to the rest of the apostles a short while later (Mt.18:18).

It was a commission handed to the new ecclesia, an authority to preach the gospel (1 Pet. 2:5), with powers of decision as to who should be accepted for baptism (Acts. 10:48], and of discipline in the new Israel of God (Acts.5:3; 1 Cor.5:3). It includes powers to forbid and to permit (Acts. 11:3; 15:10), andalso a divine guidance and inspiration such as was given to the prophets. Jeremiah was promised: "See, I have this day set thee over the nations, oid over the kingdoms, to root out and to pull down, and destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant" (Jer.l:10). Yet Jeremiah did none of these things. However, the message of these heavenly judgments and blessings was given through him: "Behold, I have put my words in thy mouth" (v.9) and fulfilment was sure, Peter's faithfulness already made him, ahead of the rest, a fit vehicle for a like inspiration. And what a fervour and power there was in it when it came (Acts 2)!

Greatly heartened by the present up-turn in events, Jesus bade the twelve keep this conviction concerning his Messiahship to themselves for the present. Broadcast to the crowd, there was too big a likelihood of it being misunderstood and distorted by the people, as had already happened after the feeding of the five thousand.

Notes: Mt. 16:13-20

After a fairly considerable gap in his record, Luke's narrative now rejoins those of Mt. Mk. Why the omission since the feeding of the 5000? Is it because nearly every intervening item in the history shows the apostles in a poor light?

Who do men say . . .? Then, as now, people preferred to speculate on religious issues rather than accept the authoritative pronouncements of Holy Scripture.
Some say . . . some . . . others. When leaders back away from expressing their judgement, the rest are bewildered. A like situation has been known in more recent times.
He saith unto them. The emphatic pronoun in Mk. might suggest that the disciples had been pestered with enquiries from the crowd.
The living God may mean "the God of the living creatures"; consider 1 Sam. 17:26; 2 Kgs. 19:4,16; Ps.42:2; 84:2; Hos.1:l0; 2 Cor.3:3; 6:16; Heb. 3:12; 9:14; Rev.7:2.

Thou art the Christ. \s it possible that Jn. 6:66 is to be read as covering a period of weeks? In that case it is not out of the question that v.67-71 there should be equated with the present incident.
Bar-Jonah. Ps.2:12 is one of the two Old Testament places (besides patronymics) where Gentile bar is used instead of Hebrew ben. This passage about Peter's spiritual high-water mark is pointedly omitted from Mk's (Peter's) gospel. In Is. 32:2-4 Peter's confession appears alongside the two healing miracles of Mk.7 and 8 (Study 100).
Upon this rock. Grammatically it is not easy to refer this to Peter personally. Wouldn't that require 'Upon thee'?

Rock ... church (ekklesia). In LXX 'congregation' becomes ekklesia. The two come together in Num. 20:10; Ps. 40:2, 9-Messiah's smiting and resurrection.

Prevail. Lk. 23:23 is the only other New Testament occurrence.

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