Gospel: Matthew 16:13-20

Faith and Church Leadership

What is the true power of peer pressure?

"How do I look?" This has got to be one of the deadliest question one spouse can ask another. Most of the time a spouse is looking for a compliment. But, there are those rare occasions a spouse wants honest feedback. (For real, honest feedback, gather one's extended family into a room and ask the question!)

We Americans pride ourselves on our individuality. But, given the chance, we will measure ourselves by the majority, its norms, and its fads. In fact, many Americans compare themselves to others so they can find an identity. No matter how proud we are to be different, we need the opinion of the majority like a mirror to define our self-identity. (How do we know we are different unless others tell us we are different!)

In Matthew's gospel, Jesus asked a simple question to his gathered followers: "Who do you say I am?" He wanted to know how they identified him. And he wanted to know how they identified themselves.

Popular Translation

13 When Jesus went to the area around Caesarea Philippi, he asked his followers: "Who do people say the Son of Man is?"

14 "Some people say John the Baptist," they replied, "but others say Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets."

15 "Who do you say I am?" Jesus asked them.

16 "You are the Messiah, the Savior we've been waiting for. You are the Son of the living God," Simon answered.

17 "Happiness is yours, Simon Barjona!" Jesus exclaimed. "No one told you this. Only my Father in heaven could show you the truth. 18 So I tell you now. You are Peter, the Rock. On this rock I will build my Church, the community of my followers. And death itself will not overpower the community."

19 "I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven. From now on, God approves of everything you prohibit or permit in the community."

20 Then he ordered his followers not to tell anyone he was the Messiah.

These verses can be divided into Jesus' identity and Simon's place in the community.

Literal Translation

13 Having come into region of Caesarea Philippi, JESUS kept asking his disciples, saying, "Who are men claiming the Son of Man to be?" 14 (They) said, "(Some) say John the Baptist, but others say Elijah, and (still) others say Jeremiah or one of the prophets." 15 HE said to them,"Who do (all of) you claim ME to be?" 16 Having answered, Simon Peter said, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!"

16:13 Caesarea Philippi was a town at one of the head waters to the Jordan river. It lay at the base of Mount Hermon, in the modern-day Golan Heights.

"JESUS kept asking his disciples" In his Gospel, Matthew pictured the question of identity for the Son of Man (i.e., Jesus) as an ongoing debate. The possible answers described popular views about Jesus and set up the ultimate question in 16:15.

16:15 Jesus posed the question in the second person plural ("all of you") to shift the discussion away from the outsiders' view to the insiders'. In other words, Jesus asked (and keeps asking!) the Church about his identity.

16:17 "Simon bar-Jonah" translated is "Simon, son of Jonah." Jewish sons took the first name of their fathers as their last name.

"flesh and blood" was a Jewish phrase that described the human person in his or her totality.

As the scene opened, Jesus traveled to an area at the base of the Golan Heights, close to the source of the Jordan River. Moderate in climate, the area around Caesarea Philippi was perfect for a retreat.

Gathered with his followers, Jesus asked a question of identity. Unlike our culture where the individual defines his or her place in society, in the culture at the time of Jesus, the group defined the place of the individual. When Jesus asked the question, he wanted to know what his followers (i.e., his group) thought his place in society was. Jesus wanted the group to define him. In doing so, Jesus wanted his followers to define themselves. [16:13,15]

The followers replied as a prophetic community that prepared for God's Kingdom. "You are John the Baptist," they seemed to say. Many biblical scholars have speculated that, before his public ministry, Jesus was a follower of John. With the loss of John, those following Jesus may have wanted him to take John's ministry over. Others, however, wanted a prophet to announce the coming of God's Kingdom, like Elijah. Many Jews, even to this day, believe Elijah will return from heaven to announce the coming of God's Kingdom and his Messiah. People like these wanted Jesus to preach and prepare for the coming of the Lord. [16:14]

But Simon had a different idea. Speaking for the group, Simon wanted a Messianic community who would realize the Kingdom. "You are the Christ (Messiah), Son of the living God," Simon proclaimed. In this short sentence, Simon defined the community and its leader. Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the long awaited Savior of Israel. Jesus was God's instrument to usher in the Kingdom.

But, Jesus was more than an instrument. He was the "Son of the living God." [16:16] The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was alive and intervened in the lives of his people. Unlike the dead idols of pagan neighbors, the Jewish God was not some unexplained force of nature or some outward power of fertility. No, this God was personal. He gave his people his very life (his Spirit) and demanded a personal response. To know this God intimately was to truly live; to ignore this God was to truly be dead! This was the living God!

Jesus was this God's Son. He shared in that which made the Jewish God live (his Spirit). And he could share that life with his followers. The Spirit lived in the Son. And in the community. In this way, Simon knew Jesus was the Messiah. And the followers of Jesus formed the Messianic community.

Who is Jesus? How does he work in your life? What does it mean to be his follower?

17 Having answered, JESUS said to him, "Fortunate are you, Simon bar-Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal (this fact) to you, but MY Father, the one in heaven. 18 I also say you are 'Peter' (the Rock) and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades will not have strength against it. 19 I give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosened in heaven." 20 Then he commanded his disciples, so that they should not tell anyone that he was the Christ.

16:18 This entire verse is full of questions. What is the relationship between "Petros" (the man Peter or "Rock" in Greek) and "petra" (the rock in "Greek" for the foundation of the Church)? What does Jesus mean when he said "build my Church?" And, what does Jesus mean by "Church?"

The priority of the questions give different answers. The Roman Catholic Church answered in the following way: The Church equated the person Peter with the rock. His office and ministry as leader would be the basis of the Church. The Church itself is meant in a universal sense with Peter and the apostles forming the structure of the institution.

Many Protestants equate the actions of Peter (i.e., his faith confession in 16:16) with the rock; his faith confession was the core of the Church; the Church itself was universal in a spiritual sense, but was only realized in small local communities, not in a superstructure.

There are so many combinations and so many positions to defend that this verse has become a land mine of controversy. The interpretation found in the commentary below is a slightly modified version of the traditional Catholic teaching.

"gates of Hades" Since Hades (in Greek, "Sheol" in Hebrew) was seen as the dwelling place for the dead (not the place of eternal torment), Jesus focused upon the power of death, the ultimate evil, not upon the home of Satan and his followers, per se.

16:19 "keys to the Kingdom" What does this phrase and its power to bind and loose mean? One interpretation saw Peter as the celestial gate keeper, with the power to allow or deny entry into heaven. Another interpretation saw Peter as the chief scribe that made judgments on the Law within the Jewish-Christian community. This controversy is not addressed in the commentary below.

Jesus declared Simon, son of John, blessed for his insight. ("Barjonas" means "son of John" or "Johnson"; this was Simon's last name.) When he proclaimed the true identity of Jesus, Simon realized the presence of the Kingdom. The Father revealed himself in Jesus. Simon caught a glimpse of that revelation. This could not come from anyone else than God himself. [16:17]

As Simon had identified Jesus, Jesus now returned the compliment. Simon was to be called Peter, the "Rock." He was to be a leader in the community of God's eternal Kingdom (not even the "gates of hell" (i.e.,death) could touch the community). [16:18a] As long as he kept his eyes on the Lord, as long as he glimpsed the Kingdom, he could act with God's power and wisdom (the "bind and loosen on earth...bound and loosened in heaven" and the "keys" analogy). [16:18b,19] As long as he proclaimed Jesus the Christ, Simon would be the "Rock," the foundation of the community.

How does Jesus respond to your faith? What is your place in the local church community?

Catechism Themes: Ecclesial Ministry and The Pope (CCC 874-887)

Matthew 18:18-20 and 16:18-19 give authority to the Church. In 18:18, Christ gave the assembly the power to "bind and loosen." In 16:19, he gave the power to Simon Peter. Unlike the rhetoric of the past, these two commissions actual compliment each other. For the power to "bind and loosen" is really the power and duty to proclaim Christ. Ultimately, this power comes from Christ.

Like Simon in 16:16, someone must proclaim who Jesus really is. That person must proclaim it in word and in service; he must proclaim it with an honest and loving heart. In other words, that person must be willing to exercise Christian leadership, to be Christ to others.

Christ calls some to Christian leadership in their families, their workplace, in their leisure. Christ calls others to lead the Church as it proclaims the Word and serves the community at large. The person with the final power to proclaim and serve the local Church is the bishop.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the bishop is the focal point of the local Church. He represents Christ (i.e., acts "in persona Christi") to the faithful when he proclaims the Word and leads in loving service. He represents the local faithful to his fellow bishops and, so, to the universal Church. So, the ministry of the bishop (the "ecclesial" ministry) has a vertical thrust (proclamation and service) and a horizontal thrust (equality with fellow bishops, known as a "collegial" character). Yet, the office of bishop has more than an symbolic character; it has a "personal character", for the bishop follows Christ as a personal calling, out of a personal choice.

As Peter proclaimed Jesus the Christ for the community, so his successor, the Pope, proclaims Him to the universal Church. As Christ empowered Peter to lead the Church, he empowers the Bishop of Rome to proclaim and serve entire Church. The Pope, then, is a "'visible source' and 'foundation of unity of the bishops and the whole company of the faithful'" (CCC 882). Union with the Bishop of Rome defines a local community (with its bishop) as the "Roman Catholic Church." (In other words, any exercise of the bishop's ministry, whether alone or within the "college" of bishops, can only be exercised under the authority of the Pope.) And, union with the Bishop of Rome defines a Christian as a "Roman Catholic."

Our words and deeds are like mirrors. They proclaim to the world who we are. How do I reflect Christ to others? How do my actions help build up the local Church?

We are the community of the Messiah, those who realize (only if faintly) God's Kingdom. We have the power to build up or tear down, depending upon our words and actions.

If someone were to ask us, "Who do you think Jesus really is?" how would we answer? Do we speak and serve in love? Do we reflect the face of Christ to others?

Ponder those questions. Plan one or two ways this week to proclaim Christ to a loved one and to serve a stranger in love.