New Testament Study:

Matthew 16:21-28

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Peter Stumbles

 

21From that time on Jesus began to explain to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that He must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

22Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

23Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

24Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. 26What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? 27For the Son of Man is going to come in His Father’s glory with His angels, and then He will reward each person according to what He has done. 28I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.”

 

In the previous section, Peter triumphed, as he answered the Lord’s question, “Who do you say I am?”  To that question, Peter answered:  “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16).  Sadly, Peter’s triumphancy was not to last, as we shall see in this section.

The result of Peter’s confession of Christ was that Jesus felt that His disciples were ready to receive some difficult teaching:  “From that time on Jesus began to explain to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that He must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (vs. 21).  The phrase “From that time on…” implies that Jesus changed His teachings, now that the disciples realized that He was the Messiah.  This change in teaching was necessary, because the disciples’s concept of what the Messiah would do was very different from the path Jesus was to take.  “Like most of the Jews, they could form no idea of a suffering Messiah” [Ryle, 199].  “The time of the struggle was at hand and Jesus knew that they were quite unequal to it unless they were armed with a new fortitude.  But what was specially necessary was for Christ to show them that His Kingdom would be ushered in, not in great pomp, not with great riches, not with the joyful applause of the world, but by a shameful death” [Calvin, 191].  “All this must have fallen sadly on the ears of men who still indulged visions of a kingdom of a very different sort” [Spurgeon, 227].

Not that this teaching of Jesus’ was all somber.  In fact, it ended on a triumphant note:  “…and on the third day [Jesus was to be] raised to life.”  But for the disciples, the triumph was lost in the suffering.

It was not that the disciples had not had hints of this in Jesus’ previous teaching.  Jesus had alluded to His death and resurrection earlier:  “Then the Jews demanded of Him, ‘What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?’  Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’  The Jews replied, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?’  But the temple He had spoken of was His body” (John 2:18–21); Jesus said, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.’  He said this to show the kind of death He was going to die” (John 12:32–33); “Jesus answered, ‘A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign!  But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.  For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth’” (Matt. 12:39–40). 

Note this about this teaching of Jesus, the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus did not come as a surprise to Him.  Jesus knew His mission, and He knew all of the details of it.  It was planned through the counsel of the Father from eternity. 

Peter would not accept this teaching of His Lord:  “Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him.  ‘Never, Lord!’ he said.  ‘This shall never happen to you!’” (vs. 22).  Peter’s exclamation is self-ironic.  He said, “Never, Lord!”, but how can one say “Never” to one’s “Lord”.  Far from subjecting himself to the will of his Lord, Peter dared to rebuke his Lord.  And this rebuke of Jesus by Peter was based solely on Peter’s will for God. “Thoughtless enthusiasm moves men and even drives them, so that they do not hesitate to subject God Himself to their will” [Calvin, 192]. 

Clearly, part of the impetus for Peter to previously declare Jesus as Messiah was his expectation that Jesus would do something like exert His power to overthrow the political authorities, and declare Himself king.  “For Peter, it is unthinkable that the one he has just pronounced ‘the Messiah, the Son of the living God’ should be rejected and killed” [Morris, 429].  “There has always been a tendency, and especially in our day, to decide questions of religious truth and duty from the human rather than the divine point of view” [Broadus, 369].   We must always realize that God’s ways are wiser than ours.  “From this [rebuke of Jesus] it also appears how mad men are in their perverse zeal.  For when Peter tried to interrupt the Master’s course, it was no thanks to him that he did not deprive himself and the whole of mankind of eternal salvation” [Calvin, 193].

For his protestation, Peter received from Jesus much more than a mild rebuke:  “Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men’” (vs. 23).  This was the sharpest rebuke that Jesus ever gave any of His followers, and Peter must surely have been astounded to be addressed as “Satan”.  But, unbeknownst to Peter, he was being used by Satan.  “It is the subtlety of Satan to send temptations to us by the unsuspected hands of our best and dearest friends…  Those who have their spiritual senses exercised, will be aware of the voice of Satan, even in a friend, a disciple, a minister, that dissuades them from their duty” [Henry].  Satan, through Peter, was trying to persuade Jesus to give up His mission to die for all mankind.  Jesus “felt in it a Satanic lure, a whisper from hell, to move Him from His purpose to suffer” [JFB, 89].

As stated, at the root of Peter’s protestation was his expectation that Jesus, as Messiah, had come at that time to set up a political kingdom on earth.  With that expectation, Peter had also anticipated, as the chief of his disciples, ruling with Jesus, and gaining all the material advantage that would accompany doing so.  Jesus, wanting to correct these faulty expectations, went on to describe the nature of true disciples:  “Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it’” (vss. 24–25).  The prospects were even more dire than Peter suspected:  not only was the Messiah to be punished and put to death, but His disciples were expected to be prepared for the same fate.  “Christ, having shown His disciples that He must suffer, and that He was ready and willing to suffer, here shows them that they must suffer too, and must be ready and willing… What it is to be a disciple of Christ is to come after Him.  When Christ called His disciples, this was the word of command, ‘Follow me’” [Henry].  Such discipleship necessarily entails “denying oneself”, giving up all one’s worldly expectations for the sake of doing what our Lord would have us do.

Jesus went on to explain that such self-denial is what true life consists of:  “‘What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?  Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?’” (vs. 26).  True life is more than this world.  We have a soul, and the soul lives on.  The whole world is not worth as much as even the most decrepit man’s soul.  “Thus, in language the weightiest, because the simplest, does our Lord shut up His hearers, and all who shall read these words to the end of the world, to the priceless value to every man of his own soul” [JFB, 90].  And yet, sadly, so many a man “forfeits his soul” for much, much less than “the whole world”—for a very small portion of it, indeed. 

“In order that the former teaching might penetrate their minds the better, Christ sets the future judgment before their eyes.  For if this transitory life is to become paltry to us, we must be deeply touched by a sense of the heavenly life.  But to look up to heaven, our slow and sluggish minds need help” [Calvin, 195]:  “‘For the Son of Man is going to come in His Father’s glory with His angels, and then He will reward each person according to what He has done’” (vs. 27). 

Finally, Jesus informed His disciples that they would soon have clear proof of the existence of realms beyond this world, and proof of Jesus’ Lordship over those heavenly realms:  “‘I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom’” (vs. 28).  Many have trouble with this verse, because they think (improperly) that Jesus is speaking of His second coming.  But clearly, He wasn’t speaking of His second coming, for all of His disciples have already  “tasted death”.  Alfred Plummer lists seven events that Jesus may have been speaking of, six of which occurred in the disciples’ lifetime:  (1) the transfiguration; (2) the resurrection and ascension; (3) Pentecost; (4) the spread of Christianity; (5) the internal development of the gospel; (6) the destruction of Jerusalem; (7) the second coming of Jesus.  I myself have not a definite opinion about specifically which of these Jesus was referring, but clearly Jesus’ kingdom was manifest in many ways during the lifetime of the disciples, thus fulfilling this verse.  “It seems best to take 16:28 as having a more general reference—viz., not referring simply to the Resurrection, to Pentecost, or the like, but to the manifestation of Christ’s kingly reign exhibited after the Resurrection in a host of ways, not the least of them being the rapid multiplication of disciples and the mission to the Gentiles.  Some of those standing there would live to see Jesus’ Gospel proclaimed throughout the Roman Empire and a rich ‘harvest’ (see 9:37–38) of converts reaped for Jesus Messiah” [Carson, 382].