NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 14: They answered, “Some people say you are John the Baptizer. Others say you are Elijah. And some say you are Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
I don’t think Jesus was in any way insulted that some people were comparing Him to John the Baptizer who announced His coming, or the Elijah-like prophet promised in the Scriptures,1 or to the prophet Jeremiah who suffered greatly because of his preaching against the sins of Israel and the coming destruction. To be thought of as a prophet among the children of Israel put Him in the same category as Isaiah and Ezekiel.
However, while there is nothing specific in the Old Testament about Jeremiah playing any role in the coming of the Messiah, there is a unique connection made between Jeremiah and promised prophet.2 In fact, Rabbi Judah, the son of Rabbi Simon was teaching about the prophet that Moses said would be like him. When he turned to the Scriptures that read: “like unto you”3 and “like unto Moses.”4 Rabbi Judah said: “This is Jeremiah, he was the one. In the evidence you will find all that is written of the one, is written of the other; one prophesied forty years, and the other prophesied forty years; the one prophesied concerning Judah and Israel, and the other prophesied concerning Judah and Israel; against the one those of his own tribe stood up, and against the other those of his own tribe stood up; the one was cast into a river, and the other into a dungeon; the one was delivered by means of a handmaid, and the other by the means of a servant; the one came with words of criticism, and the other came with words of criticism.”5
Therefore a tradition began spreading that Jeremiah was in fact the prophet spoken of by Moses. Rabbi Abraham Saba agrees with this compelling comparison between the ministry of Moses and Jeremiah that would lead anyone to consider Jeremiah as being the prophet talked about.6 So it is not odd that some of the local people imagined Jesus being Jeremiah incarnate. And even though John the Baptizer had not been dead that long, some were saying that Jesus was John the Baptizer reincarnate. However, since they both lived at the same time, it is obvious that they were talking about the spirit of John the Baptizer now motivating Jesus in His ministry.
Chrysostom covers this questioning in one of his sermons: “Note that Jesus is not asking them their own opinion. Rather, He asks the opinion of the people. Why? In order to contrast the opinion of the people with the disciples answer to the question. In this way, by the manner of His inquiry, they might be drawn gradually to a more sublime notion and not fall into the same common view as that of the multitude. Note that Jesus does not raise this question at the beginning of His preaching but only after He had done many miracles, had talked over with them many lofty teachings, and had given them many clear proofs of His divinity and of His union with the Father. Only then does He put this question to them.”7
As we can see from Chrysostom’s thinking and the manner in which Jesus asks this question, that He was putting His disciples on the spot as to what conclusion they had come to. It is significant that our Lord asked first what were the people saying, what rumors had the disciples heard going around with regard to His ministry in light of what they knew about Him and what Scripture had to say about the Messiah. So, once He got their input on what the crowds were saying it gave the disciples the opportunity to explain why their view was different.
Chrysostom continues his sermon: “Jesus did not ask ‘Who do the scribes and Pharisees say that I am?’ even though they had often come to Him and conversed with Him. Rather, He begins His questioning by asking ‘Who do the people say the Son of man is?’ as if to inquire about common opinion. Even if common opinion was far less true than it might have been, it was at least relatively more free from malice than the opinions of the religious leaders, which was teeming with bad motives. He signifies how earnestly He desires this divine economy to be confessed when He says, ‘Who do people say the Son of man is?’ for He thereby denotes His part in the godhead, which He does also in many other places.”8
Verse 15: Then Jesus said to His followers, “And who do you say I am?”
What some people said was typical of under-informed individuals and those with mystic tendencies in their thinking, but Jesus was more curious as to what His own disciples thought of Him. They were the ones into whose hands He would place the torch of the gospel. Would He be able to trust them after He was gone? Were they willing to face all the abuse, ridicule, persecution, and martyrdom that would come to them for being ambassadors of the Kingdom of God? He needed to know now, not while He was in the Garden of Gethsemane just before His arrest, nor while standing trial before Pilate in the Roman tribunal, but now, so He could help them gain trust in Him.
Several Early Church fathers give their opinion. First, early church bishop Hilary: “After the disciples had presented diverse human origins concerning Him, He asked what they themselves thought about Him. Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ But Peter had pondered the nature of the question. For the Lord had said, ‘Whom do men say that the Son of man is?’ Certainly his human body indicated He was a Son of man. But by adding ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Jesus indicated that they should consider something besides what He seemed in Himself, for He was a Son of man. Therefore what judgment concerning Himself did He desire? It was a secret He was asking about, into which the faith of those who believe ought to extend itself.”9 In other words, were the disciples going to be persuaded by what the people said or by what they knew from experience. This is the same thing every believer will be tested on when someone suggests to them that Jesus is not really who He said He was.
Then, in one of his sermons on this subject, Chrysostom gives this exhortation: “Since they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, some Jeremiah, or one of the prophets,’ and set forth their mistaken opinion, He next added, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ He was calling on them by His second inquiry to entertain some higher mental picture, indicating that their former opinion fell exceedingly short of His dignity. Thus Jesus probes for another opinion from them. He poses this second question that they might not fall in with the multitude who, because they saw His miracles as greater than human, accounted Him a man indeed but one that, as Herod had thought, may have appeared after a resurrection. To lead them away from such notions, He says, ‘But who do you say that I am?’—that is, you who are always with Me, and see Me working miracles and have yourselves done many mighty works by Me.”10
Their answer was not only important to Jesus, but it was important to them, and would be important to all who became part of His community of faith. If there ever was a time for any of these disciples to reconsider their acceptance of His invitation to follow Him, it was now. Not when they saw Him being led away to be condemned; not while they watched Him being beaten within an inch of His life; and not when He cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” He wanted tested, convinced, sold out disciples following Him by then.
I wonder if anyone reading Matthew for the first time would be so convinced by the Peter’s answer that they too could be counted on in the time of trouble. If so, can you imagine their disappointment when later on they get to that portion in Matthew’s account where it looks like all is lost? But even more, let each one of us ask ourselves, who do we really believe Jesus is? Can we convince ourselves that we will stay committed to that answer no matter what we may have to go through before our journey here on earth is finished.
Verse 16: Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Son of the living God, who has come into this world.”11
The impulsive disciple, Peter, echoes the words of the Psalmist who spoke of the Messiah, “Today I have become your father, and you are my son.”12 And Peter also invokes one of the many special names ascribed to God in Hebrew, that is translated into Greek as “Living God.”13 In Near East literature we find that the word “El” appears in the Assyrian language as “ilu”, in the Phoenician language, as well as in Hebrew as a universal name for God. It is also found in the South-Arabian dialects, and in Aramaic, Arabic, and Ethiopic, as in Hebrew, to be an added element in proper names. It is used both in the singular and plural, both for other gods and for the God of Israel.
As a name of God it is used chiefly in poetry and prophetic discourse, rarely in prose, and then usually with some epithet attached, as El Qanna (God jealous).14 Other examples of its use with some attribute or epithet are: El ‘Elyon (“God most high”),15 El Shaddai (“God Almighty”),16 El ‘Olam (“God everlasting”),17 El Hai (“living God”),18 El Ro’i (“God of sight”),19 El Elohe Israel (“God of Israel”),20 El Gibbor (“God of Might”).21 But to the children of Israel, these were applied only of the One True God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Cyril of Alexandria pens this thought after reading this text: “Peter did not say ‘you are a Christ’ or ‘a son of God’ but ‘the Christ, the Son of God.’ For there are many christened by grace, who have attained the rank of adoption [as sons], but [there is] only one who is by nature the Son of God. Thus, using the definite article, he said, the Christ, the Son of God. And in calling Him Son of the living God, Peter indicates that Christ Himself is life and that death has no authority over Him. And even if the flesh, for a short while, was weak and died, nevertheless it rose again, since the Word, who indwelled it, could not be held under the bonds of death.”22
We weren’t there to see if Jesus smiled after Peter made this declaration, or if the other disciples shook their heads in agreement. But from what our Lord says next, it is quite certain that Peter had given the correct answer. Not only was it true, He was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, but more than that, Peter’s confirmation and even Jesus’ own agreement were still not enough to convince some, so that’s why our Lord informs Peter and everyone in the group as to where that answer came from, and why it can be trusted as authentic. Therefore, being aware of Peter and his mental abilities, Jesus was uninhibited in telling this future apostle that this revelation had not come through his own thinking as a logical conclusion, but it was granted him by a source to whom both of them were accountable, the Father in heaven.
Verse 17: Jesus answered, “What a blessing, Simon son of Jonah. No one taught you that. It was my Father in heaven who showed you who I am.”
In some Jewish writings we find the name “Simon” is also written as “Simeon.”23 So, up to this point, Peter may have been called by his Hebrew name. Also, as Jesus points out, what Peter just expressed, could not have come simply by way of his own intuition, reasoning, or logic. As one venerable Rabbi said that in order to understand the divine: “A human being of flesh and blood, who cannot exactly know his times and his moments, must move from the natural to the supernatural in their thinking.”24 In others words, man uses his own intelligence and vocabulary to explain divine wisdom. Therefore, any ensuing explanation is vulnerable to misinterpretation. But, when he receives a divine revelation from God there is no room for error, because God is truth.
So what Peter said about Jesus was not from man’s point of view, but from God in heaven. This should have been no surprise to the disciples, after all, did not the Scriptures say: “I, the LORD, will teach your children.”25 This was a treasured promise held tightly by the Jews. Little did they know that the Messiah would come as a prophet from Nazareth to be their teacher. But one Jewish scholar seems to have seen a glimmer of light when examining this verse. He says: “In keeping with the abundance of precious stones and pearls of purest ray,26 the time of the Messiah is four times referred to in Scripture as a time of abundant peace.27”28 In other words, the Messiah would not come to make war and liberate them from foreign rule, as many Jews expected, but to bring peace. Not peace in the political or civil sense, but peace of mind that God has come as promised to bring salvation to all who believe. As the angel choir sang upon His birth, “Peace on earth to men of good will.”
5Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel in Peskita Rabbati, folio 96b
6Tzror Hamor, op. cit. Parshat Shoftim, 18:15, p. 1912
7Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 54.1
9Hilary of Poitiers: On Matthew 16.6
10Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 54.1
11Text from Shem-Tob’s Hebrew copy of Matthew’s Gospel by George Howard
13Cf. Deuteronomy 5:26; Revelation 7:2
14See Exodus 20:5
15See Genesis 14:18 -19
16See Genesis 17:1
17See Genesis 21:33
18See Psalm 42:2
19See Genesis 16:13
22Cyril of Alexandria: Commentary fragment 190
23Yohassin (Book of Lineage), op. cit. p. 483
24The Complete Jewish Bible with Rashi Commentary, Genesis 2:2
26Ibid 54: 12
27See Psalm 72:7; 119:165; 37:11; Isaiah 54:13
28Pesikta De-Rab Kahana, op., cit., Piska 18:6, p. 429