The passage in Matthew 16, where Peter confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, is a unique, singular event in the Book of the Gospels. The account is mentioned in neither Matthew, Mark nor Luke, and there is no transition – it has neither a preface nor a postscript. It is, however, one of the most important passages in Matthew’s Gospel. The “spokesman of the twelve,” as Fr. Ray Brown called Peter the Apostle, recognizes that Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus explicitly commissions Peter, and by implication, all of the Apostles.
Jesus initiates the conversation and positions Peter to correctly respond to the question, who do you think I am? Jesus first asks the disciples who others think Jesus might to be. And Jesus expects an incorrect response: Herod, for instance, thought Jesus to be the return of John the Baptist, whom Herod had murdered (Mt 14:1-2). In this vein, the disciples respond to Jesus’ question at Mt 16:14 – some say [you are] John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets. When Jesus asks the disciples themselves who they think Jesus is, it is Peter, who often speaks for the Apostles, that correctly answers in Mt 16:16, You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.
“You are the Son of God”
There are a few, though not many, instances where a character in the Gospels directly confesses that Jesus is “the Son of God.” When Jesus calms the storm, the disciples declare Jesus to be the Son of God in Mt 14:33. Martha, who knows Jesus as a friend, makes such a confession in John 11:27. Third, The future apostle Nathaniel Bartholomew, who has only just met Jesus in the first chapter of John, says Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel (John 1:49) perhaps as much in irony as an assertion of known fact.
In the Lucan narrative, those who express Jesus’ divine sonship are of supernatural origin. Thus, it is God himself who states, you are my Son in whom I well pleased, in Luke 3:22. Then in the next chapter of Luke, demons, out of fear or contempt, call Jesus the Son of God twice (4:3, 4:41), while another demon calls him Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy One of God (4:33).
Jesus’ conversation with Peter in Matthew 16 is unique because Peter is directly credited by Jesus for his faith-driven response. Jesus tells Peter that only the Father could have revealed to Peter his knowledge that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. This is an echo of Mt 11:25, I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Jesus calls Peter makarios (blessed; highly favored by God), which is a title that Jesus confers on no other person in the Gospels. In the Gospel of Luke 1:42, Elizabeth calls Mary blessed among women but Luke places upon Elizabeth’s lips the Greek εὐλογημένος (eulogemone) which means something like “well-spoken of.” In Luke 1:45, Elizabeth then uses makarios, referring indirectly to both Mary and herself as women who were obedient to the Lord.
A Commission Given to Simon the Rock
The commission given to Peter in Matthew 16:13-20 has four components. Simon is renamed “Kephas” or “Rock,” Jesus says Peter is the foundation upon which the church will be built, Peter is given the keys to the Kingdom, and he is given the power to bind and to loose.
The first thing that Jesus does in response to his statement of faith is to give Simon a new name: kephas, in Aramaic, or Petros in Greek: “rock.” As I have mentioned over the past month, Matthew loves to use the same metaphor two, three or four times throughout his Gospel. The “rock” metaphor is also used by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 7:24-25,
Every one then who hears these words of mine and heeds them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.
The Keys to the Kingdom in the Book of Isaiah
There is no parallel for granting Peter “the keys to the kingdom” in the Gospels. For this reason, some scholars say that this phrase was never actually spoke by Christ, but added by Sacred Author. The other, more likely possibility is that Matthew the Levite knew Jesus to be citing the Old Testament. In Isaiah 22:19-23, Isaiah prophesies that day-to-day administration over the royal household of Judah will be taken from Shebna, who holds power akin to a prime minister or treasurer. Shebna, whom Isaiah deems to be wicked, answers to the good King Hezekiah (715-686 BCE) of Judah.
The Book of 2 Kings 18:1-5 tells us that King Hezekiah trusted in the LORD the God of Israel; so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him. The Book of Isaiah tells us that Isaiah is not pleased with Shebna, the advisor who tells Hezekiah to ally with the unbelieving Egyptians. Isaiah the Prophet, repeating specifically what God has told him, warns Shebna in verses 19-23 of chapter 22:
I will thrust you from your office, and you will be cast down from your station. In that day I will call my servant Eli’akim the son of Hilki’ah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your girdle on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. And I will fasten him like a peg in a sure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his father’s house.
If Jesus and Matthew know their Jewish Scripture, then it is not surprising that Jesus likely said this to Peter. And it would be very surprising if Matthew failed to remember this statement, as Matthew himself is a student of Jewish tradition. Jesus is saying to Peter, “I have the same confidence in you that God had in Eliakim, who, as head of the royal household, served one of the most respected Kings of the House of Judah: King Hezekiah.”
The reader may regard this parallel as tenuous. But Matthew the Evangelist, the scholarly Jew that he is, cites the prophet Isaiah, by name, six times in his own Gospel. He cites Isaiah in verses 3:3, 4:14, 8:17, 12:17, 13:14, and 15:7. Matthew also invokes Isaiah at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, in a passage that parallels the well known phrase, come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord (Is 2:3). Knowing that Matthew recognizes Jesus’ familiarity with Isaiah, then we can understand the clever and completely appropriate symbolism, taken from chapter 22 of Isaiah, when Jesus grants Peter the “keys of the kingdom” in Matthew 16.
The Power to Bind and Loose.
Jesus also awards Peter the power to bind and loose on earth (Mt 16:19). This is, in some sense, a stunning declaration. But, it is not true to say that we have no parallel in the other Gospels or in Acts. Jesus gives the apostles the authority to bind and loose in Mt 18:18. [We should also note that Matthew can use the term “disciples” and “apostles” interchangeably. Consider Matthew 13:36: Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said….]
John 20:19-23 also grants, to all twelve apostles, the power to forgive sins. John 21:15-18 portrays Jesus as restoring Peter for his threefold denial by asking Peter to ‘feed my sheep’ three times. In the Book of Acts, Luke recognizes Peter as the post-Ascension spokesman of the Apostles… one whose integrity was so great that when Peter’s shadow fell upon them, the infirm were healed (Acts 5:15-16). While the term “keys to the kingdom,” is unique to the Gospels, Jesus most certainly does grant authority to the disciples (specifically, the apostles) elsewhere: in Jn 20 and Mt 18. And that authority is exercised in the Book of Acts, where the apostles heal (Acts 3:3-7), and lay hands (Acts 6:2-6).