(1) The Pharisees also with the Sadducees.—The presence of members of the latter sect, who do not elsewhere appear in our Lord’s Galilean ministry, is noticeable. It is probably explained by St. Mark’s version of the warning in Matthew 16:6, where “the leaven of Herod” appears as equivalent to “the leaven of the Sadducees” in St. Matthew’s report. The Herodians were the Galilean Sadducees, and the union of the two hostile parties was the continuation of the alliance which had begun after our Lord’s protest against the false reverence for the Sabbath, which was common to both the parties (Mark 3:6).
That he would shew them a sign from heaven.—The signs and wonders that had been wrought on earth were not enough for the questioners. There might be collusion, or a power, like that implied in the charge of “casting out devils by Beelzebub,” preternatural, but not divine. What they asked was a sign like Samuel’s thunder from the clear blue sky (1 Samuel 12:18), or Elijah’s fire from heaven (1 Kings 18:38); or, possibly, following the train of thought suggested by the discourse at Capernaum, now definitely asking, what they hinted then (John 6:30-31), for bread, not multiplied on earth, but coming straight from heaven.
It is a singular instance of the way in which the habit of minute criticism stunts or even kills the power of discernment which depends on imagination, that Strauss should have looked on words so full of profound and suggestive meaning as “absolutely unintelligible” (Leben Jesu, II. viii. p. 85).
In the outward framework of the parable the weather-signs of Palestine seem to have been the same as those of England. The clear red evening sky is a prophecy of a bright morning. The morning red—not “red” simply, but with the indescribable threatening aspect implied in “lowering,” the frown of the sky, as it were (comp. Mark 10:22, where the same word is rendered “grieved”)—makes men look for storms.
Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?—The Greek emphasises “men” by prefixing the article, so as to contrast the opinions of men, as such, with God’s revelation. The question comes before us, as possibly it did to the disciples, with a sharp abruptness. We may believe, however, that it occupied a fitting place in the spiritual education through which our Lord was leading His disciples. It was a time of, at least, seeming failure and partial desertion. “From that time,” St. John relates, speaking of what followed after the discourse at Capernaum, “many of His disciples went back, and walked no more with Him” (John 6:66). He had turned to the Twelve and asked, in tones of touching sadness, “Will ye also go away?” and had received from Peter, as the spokesman of the others, what was for the time a reassuring answer, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life;” and this had been coupled with the confession of faith which we now find repeated. But in the meantime there had been signs of wavering. He had had to rebuke them as being “of little faith” (Matthew 16:8). They had urged something like a policy of reticence in His conflict with the Pharisees (Matthew 15:12). One of the Twelve was cherishing in his soul the “devil-temper” of a betrayer (John 6:70). It was time, if we may so speak, that they should be put to a crucial test, and the alternative of faith or want of faith pressed home upon their consciences.
Interpreted in connection with the vision of Daniel 7:13, the words of the question, “Whom do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” did, in fact, assume His claim to be the Christ. But it remained to be seen whether the disciples had risen to their Lord’s meaning in thus speaking of Himself, and would, on their part, adopt that interpretation. The report which they made of the belief of others shows how little, at this time (whatever may have been the case earlier or later), He was regarded as the Messiah by the mass of the people.
Flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee.—Better, It was not flesh and blood that revealed. The words are used in their common Hebrew meaning (as in John 1:13; 1 Corinthians 15:50; Ephesians 6:12) for human nature, human agency, in all their manifold forms. The disciple had received the faith which he now professed, not through popular rumours, not through the teaching of scribes, but by a revelation from the Father. He was led, in the strictest sense of the words, through the veil of our Lord’s human nature to recognise the divine.
I will build my church.—It is significant that this is the first occurrence of the word Church (Ecclesia) in the New Testament, the only passage but one (Matthew 18:17) in which it is found in the whole cycle of our Lord’s recorded teaching. Its use was every way significant. Partly, doubtless, it came with the associations which it had in the Greek of the Old Testament, as used for the “assembly” or “congregation” of the Lord (Deuteronomy 18:16; Deuteronomy 23:1; Psalm 26:12); but partly also, as soon at least as the word came in its Greek form before Greek readers, it would bring with it the associations of Greek politics. The Ecclesia was the assembly of free citizens, to which belonged judicial and legislative power, and from which aliens and slaves were alike excluded. The mere use of the term was accordingly a momentous step in the education of the disciples. They had been looking for a kingdom with the King, as its visible Head, sitting on an earthly throne. They were told that it was to be realised in a society, an assembly, like those which in earthly polities we call popular or democratic. He, the King, claimed that society as His own. He was its real Head and Founder; but, outwardly, it was to be what the word which He now chose described. And this Church He was about to build. It need hardly be said that the word ecclesia did not lend itself so readily as the English equivalent does to the idea of building. The society and the fabric in which the members of the society meet were not then, as they are now, described by the same term. The similitude was bolder than it seems to us. Like the “city set on a hill” of Matthew 5:14, like the “vine” of John 15:1, it may well have been suggested by the scenery in the midst of which the words were uttered. For there upon one rock rose the ruins of the old Canaanite city of Hazor; and on another the stately palace built by the Herodian princes, and still, as the Castle of Shubeibeh, covering an extent of ground equal to that occupied by the Castle of Heidelberg (Stanley’s Sinai and Palestine, c. 11). Once started on its way, the similitude became the fruitful source of new thoughts and phrases. The ecclesia was the “house of God” (1 Timothy 3:15); it was a “holy temple” (Ephesians 2:21). All gifts were bestowed for the work of “edifying” or building it up (1 Corinthians 14:3-4; Ephesians 4:12). Those who laboured in that work were as “wise architects or master builders” (1 Corinthians 3:10). But Christ, we must remember, claims the work of building as His own. Whatever others may do, He is the supreme Master-builder. As in His sacerdotal character, He is at once Priest and Victim, so under the aspect now presented (consistency of metaphors giving way to the necessities of spiritual truth) He is at once the Founder and the Foundation of the new society.
The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.—The gates of Hades (see Note on Matthew 11:23), not of Gehenna, the place of torment. Hades as the shadow-world of the dead, the unseen counterpart of the visible grave, all-absorbing, all-destructive, into whose jaws or gates all things human pass, and from which issue all forces that destroy, is half-idealised, half-personified, as a power, or polity of death. The very phrase, “gates of the grave, or of Hades,” meets us in Hezekiah’s elegy (Isaiah 38:10), and Wisdom Of Solomon 16:13. In Revelation 6:8 the personification is carried still further, and Death rides upon a pale horse, and Hades follows after him, and both are in the end overthrown and cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14). And as the gates of the Eastern city were the scene at once of kingly judgment (2 Samuel 15:2) and of the council of the elders (Proverbs 31:23), they became the natural symbol of the polity which ruled there. And so the promise declared that all the powers of Hades, all the forces of destruction that attack and in the long run overpower other societies, should attack, but not overpower, the ecclesia of which Christ was the Founder. Nothing in our Lord’s teaching is, as measured by man’s judgment, more wonderful than the utterance of such a prophecy at such a time. It was, as has been said, a time of seeming failure. He was about to announce, with a clearness unknown before, His coming death as a malefactor, and yet it was at this moment that He proclaimed the perpetuity and triumph of the society which as yet, it may be said, existed only in the germs of a half-realised conception. The history of the world offers hardly any serious parallel to such a prediction, and still less to that fulfilment of it which has been witnessed through eighteen centuries of Christendom, and which does not as yet seem drawing to its close.
A few words will, it is believed, be sufficient to set the claims and the controversies which have had their starting point in these words on their right footing. It may be briefly noted (1) that it is at least doubtful (not to claim too much for the interpretation given above) whether the man Peter was the rock on which the Church was to be built; (2) that it is doubtful (though this is not the place to discuss the question) whether Peter was ever in any real sense Bishop of the Church of Rome, or in any way connected with its foundation; (3) that there is not a syllable pointing to the transmission of the power conferred on him to his successors in that supposed Episcopate; (4) as just stated, that the power was not given to him alone, but equally to all the disciples; (5) that the power of the keys, no less than that of “binding” and “loosing,” was not sacerdotal, but belonged to the office of a scribe or teacher. As a matter of interpretation, the Romish argument from this verse stands on a level with that which sees the supremacy of the successors of St. Peter in the “two great lights” of Genesis 1:16, or the “two swords” of Luke 22:38. The claims of the Church of Rome rest, such as they are, on the greatness of her history, on her association with the imperial city, on the work done by her as the “light of the wide West” in ages of darkness, on the imposing aspect of her imagined unity; but to build them upon the promise to Peter is but the idlest of fantastic dreams, fit only to find its place in that Limbo of vanities which contains, among other abortive or morbid growths, the monstrosities of interpretation.
Be it far from thee, Lord.—The words are a paraphrase rather than a translation of the original. Literally, the words are an abbreviated prayer, “(God be) merciful to Thee,” the name of God, as in our colloquial “Mercy on us!” being omitted. The phrase is of frequent occurrence in the Greek version of the Old Testament, as, e.g., in Exodus 32:12; Numbers 14:19; Deuteronomy 21:8. It is almost idle to attempt to trace a distinctly formulated thought in the sudden utterance of sorrow and alarm, but so far as the words go they seem of the nature of a protest against what seemed to the disciple a causeless despondency, a dark view of the future, at variance alike with his own expectations and what seemed to him the meaning of his Master’s previous words. The words that followed were, however, more than a prayer, “This shall not be unto Thee,” as though his power to bind and to loose extended even to the region of his Master’s work and the means by which it was to be accomplished.
Get thee behind me, Satan.—The sharpness of the words indicates a strong and intense emotion. The chief of the Apostles was addressed in the self-same terms as those which had been spoken to the Tempter (see Note on Matthew 4:10). It was, indeed, nothing less than a renewal of the same temptation. In this suggestion, that He might gain the crown without the cross, and attain a kingdom of this world as the princes of the world obtain their kingdoms, the Christ saw the recurrence of the temptation which had offered Him the glory of those kingdoms on condition of His drawing back from the path which the Father had appointed for Him, with the associations that had gathered round its original.
Thou art an offence unto me.—The Greek word is, of course, to be taken as meaning a stumbling block, an impediment. So taken, it presents a suggestive contrast to the previous promise. Peter is still a stone, but it is as “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence” (Isaiah 8:14; 1 Peter 2:8). He is hindering, not forwarding his Master’s work. For one who loved his Lord as Peter did—his very love in this instance prompting the rash words—this was at once the sharpest and yet the tenderest, and therefore the most effective, rebuke that could have been uttered.
Thou savourest not the things that be of God.—The verb, though found in all English versions from Wiclif downwards, and suggested by the sapis of the Vulgate, was never a very happy one, and is now so archaic as to be misleading. It may help us to understand it, to remember that our savour and the French savoir are both forms derived from the Latin sapere, and that the translators were so far justified in using it to describe a mental state, or rather act. Elsewhere the word is rendered “mind,” or “set affection on,” as, e.g., “mind the things of the flesh,” or “of the spirit” (Romans 8:5), and “set your affection on things above” (Colossians 3:2); and this is obviously a more satisfactory rendering. Peter’s sin lay in the fact that his mind was set on the things of earth, its outward pomp and pageantry, measuring the future by a human not a divine standard.
It is hardly a needless divergence from the work of mere interpretation to suggest that the weakness of Peter has been again and again reproduced in the history of Christendom at large, most conspicuously in the history of the Church which rests its claims on the greatness of the Apostle’s name. The annals of the Papacy, from the colossal sovereignty, which formed the ideal of Hildebrand, down to the last struggle for temporal power, is but the record of the zeal not according to knowledge of those who “savoured not the things that be of God, but those that be of man.” So far as this was so, they were working, though they knew it not, for evil and not for good, even as the chief of the Apostles when he thus became of one mind with the spirit of the world, which is also the spirit of the Tempter, placed himself for the moment on a level with the disciple whom our Lord had hinted at as a “devil,” because the seeds of treachery and greed of gain were already working in his soul (John 6:70).
If any man will come after me.—The “will” is more than a mere auxiliary; “willeth,” “desireth” to come after.
Let him deny himself, and take up his cross.—Our common thoughts of “self-denial,” i.e., the denial to ourselves of some pleasure or profit, fall far short of the meaning of the Greek. The man is to deny his whole self, all his natural motives and impulses, so far as they come into conflict with the claims of Christ. If he does not so deny himself, he is in danger, as Peter was (it is significant that the same word is used in both instances), of denying his Lord. The self-denial here commanded has, accordingly, its highest type and pattern in the act by which the Son of God, in becoming man, “emptied Himself (see Note on Philippians 2:7) of all that constituted, if we may so speak, the “self” of His divine nature. The words “take up his cross,” which the disciples had heard before (see Note on Matthew 10:38), were now clothed with a new and more distinct meaning, by the words that spoke so clearly of the death of which the cross was to be the instrument.
In exchange for his soul.—The English introduces an apparent antithesis of language (as has just been noticed) in place of the identity of the original. It would be better to keep “life” in both verses. If there is no profit in bartering even the lower life for the whole world, how much less in bartering the higher,
‘Et propter vitam vivendi perdere causas!
And when that forfeiture has been incurred, what price can he then pay to buy it back again? No. “It costs more to redeem their souls, so that he must let that alone for ever” (Psalm 49:8, Prayer Book version).
With his angels.—We are justified by Matthew 25:31 in referring the possessive pronoun to Christ rather than the Father. “All things that the Father hath are Mine” (John 16:15), and among these the angels that do His pleasure.
His works.—The better MSS. give a word in the singular, his doing or conduct. The sentence is made to depend on the collective character of what has been done rather than on the multitude of individual acts.