In a post last November on Mark’s Gospel and Thanksgiving, I reflected on Peter as an example of God’s grace and faithfulness. In this post we return to Peter as a fitting example for us as a new year begins. In Matthew 16:13-28, Peter is prominent at first as the lead apostle who takes the initiative to confess that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. So far so good. But the text takes an astonishing turn when Peter, still under the spotlight on center stage, directly rebukes Jesus for speaking of his upcoming suffering and death in Jerusalem. The blessed confessor becomes the cursed adversary. How quickly Peter turns from hero to villain, from Jesus’ friend to his enemy! How quickly we will do the same if we depend on our own understanding rather than God’s revelation! Let’s take a few moments with this striking text to see what we can learn from these contrasting moments in Peter’s life.
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I recently had a unique opportunity to speak on Matthew 16:13-28 in the chapel of the Expositor’s Seminary. From Maranatha Bible Church in Grand Rapids I spoke to a network of pastoral students in 10 locations around the USA. To view the video of the message to the seminarians, go here. Scroll ahead to 2:45 on the video to avoid some dead time).
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The Shape of Matthew 16:13-28
Matthew 16:13-28 is like two hourglasses, one stacked on top of the other. Why does the hourglass analogy help us understand the text? Well, not because the text teaches the old saying, tempus fugit (time flies), or because it reminds us of a soap opera: “Like sand through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.” It’s because the text alternates twice between Jesus speaking broadly to the disciples as a group to Jesus speaking specifically to Peter, as their representative or spokesperson. The hourglass pattern is also found in Matthew 14:27-28; 15:15; 17:4, 25; 18:21; 19:27; 26:33. In Matthew 16 Peter speaks up first when he answers the question that Jesus posed to the disciples about his identity (16:16), and he chimes in again with a critical response when Jesus tells the disciples he will be killed in Jerusalem (16:22). In this way Peter impulsively becomes the center of attention in 16:16-19 and 16:22-23. Peter is on a roll, and not in a good way. The following visual clarifies how the hourglass pattern helps us in analyzing the text:
Peter Being Peter in Matt 16:13-28
We are Peter and Peter is Us
We should realize that when Peter speaks up, he gives voice to what his fellow disciples were also very likely thinking (cf. Matt 26:35). They would have said what he had said previously about Jesus’ identity: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the loving God” (16:16). Like Peter they would also have been repulsed by Jesus speaking of his upcoming suffering and death in Jerusalem, thinking in their hearts what Peter alone dared to say out loud: “Never Lord, this will never happen to you” (16:22). By divine revelation (16:17) Peter and the disciples had come to understand Jesus’ identity correctly, but their understanding of Jesus mission was formed by the mistaken messianic expectations of their culture (16:23). This is the main reason why Jesus surprisingly told them not to speak of him as the Messiah in Matthew 16:20.
It’s important for us to realize another point—Matthew characterizes Peter as spokesperson for the original disciples to expose us and our views. Fact is, we are no more disposed than they were to think Jesus should go to the cross. Peter speaks for us as well as them. By God’s grace we have learned that Jesus is the Messiah, the deliverer, but we tend to define how he should deliver us in terms of our own culturally conditioned wishful thinking. Jesus’ teaching about salvation coming through suffering and the cross is just as unpalatable to us as it was to Peter. This was a hard lesson even for Jesus’ forerunner, the great prophet John the Baptist (Matt 11:1-19). And if it’s difficult to think of something as horrific as Jesus’ crucifixion as the powerful means of our salvation, it’s even more difficult to think of his crucifixion as the model for our everyday lives. As an old hymn puts it, Jesus does not bear the cross alone.
The Word is Cruciformity
Matthew 16:13-19 assures us that Jesus is the powerful Messiah who will build his church “come hell or high water.” This is great news, but if we stop here we may think of Jesus’ victory in a shallow, triumphalistic way. We need to hear Jesus’ warning not to speak of him as Messiah (16:20) if this the level of our understanding. We also need to hear the totally unexpected word of Matt 16:24-28 that Jesus builds the church through the power of the cross. His victory came when the apparent defeat of the crucifixion is overturned by the resurrection. Our victory comes as we learn more and more about Jesus’ resurrection power when we take up our own crosses every day.
For some followers of Jesus, taking up the cross means physical death. Jesus’ words to Peter in John 21:18 may be a hint that Peter will experience martyrdom by crucifixion. Tradition has it that both Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome, victims of Nero’s persecution of Christians after the great fire (64 CE). The apocryphal Acts of Peter (c. 180 CE, chapters 35-38) tells a story of Peter’s martyrdom. You can judge for yourself whether the story rings true. Peter has gone to Rome to confront an old nemesis, Simon the Magician (Acts 8:9-24). Later Peter flees Rome when Roman officials threaten to kill him. As he leaves the city, he sees Jesus bearing the cross as he goes into the city. Peter asks Jesus where he is going (Domine, quo vadis?), and Jesus answers that he is going to Rome to be crucified again. Taking this as an indication of his own martyrdom, Peter returns to the city. After his arrest, when he is about to be executed, Peter piously requests to be crucified upside down and even preaches from the cross before he dies.
Peter is us—like Peter we seek to avoid the stigma of the cross. We tend to think our Messiah would not want us to experience any sort of trial or pain. We want the glory of the crown without the suffering of the cross, so we shy away from difficulty and opposition. Supposing we will preserve our lives, we actually lose the reason for our existence. It’s a question of identity—will we define our lives and ministries by the Word of God and the model of Jesus or by our own intuition influenced by the fallen models provided by our culture? Unlike many other things we experience, cruciformity isn’t a fad, an idea that is here today and gone tomorrow. Cruciformity is at the heart of the New Testament’s teaching about a truly godly life based on participation in the life and death of Jesus. Is there a more counter-intuitive word in the Bible than Matthew 16:24-27, where Jesus warns us against a self-centered living death and commands us to experience a cross-centered dying life?
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul? For the Son of Man will come with his angels in the glory of his Father and will judge all people according to their deeds. (Matt 16:24-27 NLT)
Taking up the cross today does not necessarily mean that we will experience a gruesome death by crucifixion, but that we die to self-interest and come alive to Christ’s lordship, lead wherever it will, cost whatever it might. Paul put it like this in texts like Galatians 2:20—even though we have been crucified with Christ, we live on. But everything has been changed. Our life now amounts to him living through us in the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus calls us to abandon our so-called lives of self-aggrandizement and to embrace lifestyles that bring glory God as we serve others. It comes down to us daily choosing by God’s grace to exchange the mess we make of life for the beauty Christ can make of our life. The Father who led Jesus to the cross leads us today to follow Jesus’ example, through the wisdom and power we receive from the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit.
Peter had other tough moments, even after his confrontation with Jesus in Matthew 16. As we know, he denied the Lord three times (cf. Matt 26:31-35, 69-75). Yet after the crucifixion and resurrection he met the risen Lord in Galilee and experienced restoration (John 21). The Acts of the Apostles tells us of Peter’s powerful ministry, and he continues to teach the church through his two letters. Cruciformity is a hard lesson, one that needs to be relearned every day, but Peter learned it, and so can we.
And now, a word to you who are elders in the churches. I, too, am an elder and a witness to the sufferings of Christ. And I, too, will share in his glory when he is revealed to the whole world. As a fellow elder, I appeal to you: Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly—not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example. And when the Great Shepherd appears, you will receive a crown of never-ending glory and honor. (1 Peter 5:1-4 NLT)
Up for Another Sermon on Peter?
Recently my pastor Joel Wayne preached on Peter’s abbreviated walk on water in Matthew 14. No, it’s not one of those low-hanging-fruit grabbing, Peter-bashing sermons. Go here to view it.