The next passage we will consider from Matthew is found in chapters sixteen and seventeen. Because it is too lengthy to quote, we will only touch on certain ideas or impressions presented to us by the Spirit of God in it. By now we better appreciate the importance of seeing the bigger picture being developed by the Spirit in passages and books of Scripture. These are the impressions and ideas not spelled out literally by the words, but nonetheless the thoughts of God presented to us by the Holy Spirit from His word. This is what the student of Scripture should be seeking – divine instruction from the Spirit of God instead of his own thoughts and reasonings.
The theme of dispensational transition runs throughout this gospel from beginning to end. At the start of Matthew, the Holy Spirit presented the royal genealogy of Messiah, King of Israel; at the end of Matthew He gives us the apostolic commission belonging to Christianity. In this portion we are about to consider (Matt. 16:1–17:9), we’ll see reference in some fashion to all three dispensations. The impression presented of the Jewish dispensation in the passage is that it is under judgment and ending. God is rejecting Israel in the unbelief of their leaders.
- The passage starts with the Pharisees and Sadducees teaming up to challenge Jesus, asking that He should show them a sign from heaven as proof that He was sent by God (16:1–4) – the miracles, healings, and feeding of the multitudes He constantly performed were not enough evidence for them of the reality of His power and mission. Their request, notably very Jewish in its character (1 Cor. 1:22), is the product of an unbelieving heart. The leaders of Israel, through the perversity of their wills, had shut their eyes to who He was and the things which He did for the poor of Israel who sought Him. He rebukes them for their unbelief. They knew how to discern and predict a short-term weather forecast, yet the signs of the times concerning their own spiritually were far more evident.
- In general, the Jews were this adulterous and wicked generation in unbelief. It is significant to understand that this word “generation”, as used by the Lord, refers to the state of unbelief of Israel (16:4). In this context, it does not refer to thirty or forty years. This condition of the Jews continues to this very day. God sees them as a house made desolate (Matt. 23:37–39); He continues to see them as a wicked and adulterous generation in unbelief concerning their true Messiah. Israel being hardened is this general condition of unbelief (Rom. 11:7). And the ending words of the Spirit in this exchange between the Lord and Israel’s leaders are also significant – He left them and departed. God sets His people aside; Israel is abandoned as a nation in the representation of their leadership. They will be this wicked and adulterous generation, unbelieving concerning Christ, until He returns to them again.
- The chapter depicts three classes of people as to the state of their minds and wills in respect to the person of Jesus Christ. The leadership of Israel willfully refused to believe in Him; the second group were the people in general who had certain opinions about Him. This was not faith, but the uncertainty of one’s thoughts as the result of moral indifference. Their opinions were not the product of having a conscious need within to know the truth of God concerning Him (16:14) – some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets. The last group is the faithful remnant, those to whom the Father has revealed the person of “the Son of the living God” – (16:16). Here there is no uncertainty, no mere opinion, but rather the powerful effect of the revelation given by God Himself (16:17). This is represented by Peter, who was elected by God for this privilege.
- If we pair chapters fifteen and sixteen together, we have the rejection of Israel by God in the two main responsibilities given them in the Jewish dispensation. The beginning of chapter fifteen has Israel’s corruption in their practice of the law (15:1-9). This was the nation’s first responsibility associated with the dispensation. The beginning of chapter sixteen shows the rejection of the person of Jesus – really the rejection of Jehovah/Messiah as presented to them (16:1–14). This was the second and last responsibility associated with their dispensation in which they failed.
As the result of Israel’s failures, they were destined to be set aside by God. These two chapters (15 and 16) would show the work of God which goes beyond the limits and restrictions of the doomed Jewish dispensation. In fifteen we have the heart of God shown in simple grace going outside Jewish privilege. But in chapter sixteen the rejection of Jesus personally by the Jews gives opportunity for the revelation of God’s work of grace in building the assembly (16:18) – a new yet future work of His grace, associated with the time of a new dispensation. The assembly would be founded on what the person of Jesus is – Peter’s confession of his faith in Jesus as “the Son of the Living God.” This is the rock on which Jesus would build His church.257
257 [Peter’s declaration of his faith in who Jesus is, as revealed to him by God the Father, stands in marked contrast to the willful disbelief of the Jewish leaders and the moral indifference of unbelief by the people. Those who become true Christians start with a conscious need in their souls for the truth of God, as to their own sinful state and God’s solution for it – the Person of Jesus, Son of the living God, and Savior. In this chapter and through Matthew, the Spirit of God makes this striking contrast]
This passage involving Jesus, Peter, and the disciples is one that has brought about some of the greatest misunderstandings and confusion to Christian teachings (Matt. 16:13–23). But when a believer comprehends dispensational principles and understands the divine purpose of the Spirit of God in Matthew’s gospel, the teaching presented in this passage becomes very clear. It is another passage which supports Matthew’s theme of dispensational transition. Below we list the general impressions the passage makes.
- Peter does confess that Jesus was the Christ (Messiah of Israel). But this is Jewish and specifically what the Jews failed to recognize for the saving of Israel and the continuance of their dispensation. Because of Israel’s failure and the dispensation soon ending, Jesus forbids His disciples from any longer speaking of Him as the Christ (Matt. 16:20). This certainly fits the theme of dispensational transition.
- When the Lord refers to Himself in the gospels, it is always by using the “Son of Man” title (Matt. 8:20, 9:6, 11:19, 12:8, 13:37, etc.). This refers to Adam and the humanity the Son of God took on (Ps. 8, Heb. 2:5–10, Phil. 2:6–8). It is a title Jesus associates with His suffering and death (Matt. 17:12, 22, 20:18, 28, 26:2, 24, 45), with His resurrection (Matt. 17:9, 12:40), with His return and glory (Matt. 10:23, 16:27, 28, 19:28, 24:27, 30, 37, 44, 25:13, 31, 26:64), and with His future judgment of the world (Matt. 13:41, 25:31). The Messiah title is very different from this. It refers to David and King of Israel; it is limited in its scope and range. Although Jesus was indeed the Messiah prophetically promised to Israel, He personally never used the Messiah title in reference to Himself. Being God in the flesh, He knew the Jews would reject Him as their Messiah. When Israel was set aside by God, so was all Jewish promise, which included the Messiah title. It is a title associated with the Jewish dispensation and the future millennium. It does not have any affiliation with the present Christian dispensation. But the Son of Man title answers to Jesus as the second Adam, which has a range spanning over all dispensations by the work of the cross – the basis and foundation for everything God has ever done or will do. In the passage we are considering above, Jesus refers to Himself as the Son of Man (16:13). Then Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ (16:16). It should be obvious that these two titles, although referring to the same person, do not mean the same thing (it would be a non-sensical redundancy in their conversation if they did).
- Luke’s version of this same conversation shows the transition taking place by the use of these two titles (Luke 9:18–22). After Peter confesses that Jesus is “the Christ of God” (Messiah), Jesus strictly warns and commands His disciples to tell this to no one. Immediately He drops the title of “the Christ” and takes up the title of “Son of Man” – saying, “the Son of Man must suffer many things…” We see Jesus make a similar transition involving these two titles in a conversation earlier in His ministry (John 1:49–51) and during His trial at the end (Matt. 26:63–64). Matthew also has this transition, only that the Son of Man title is used in Matthew’s account before Peter’s confession (Matt. 16:13), instead of after it as in Luke’s account (Luke 9:22).
- As is the usual method of the Holy Spirit, the parts of the passage in Matthew’s version that are distinctly different from the same conversation recorded in Mark (8:27–38) and Luke (9:18–26) often contain the ideas and impressions which point to the overall purpose of that gospel. The dispensational transition is emphasized by the following parts that are added and unique to Matthew’s version:
- Peter’s confession is different in Matthew, for he adds to it “the Son of the living God.” This is both unique and critical to Matthew’s account. This added part is the rock on which Jesus builds His church – the revelation of His Person is the foundation of the assembly. This specific part of the revelation Peter received and confessed leads to the Spirit adding the next three verses in their entirety (16:17–19), which are also unique to Matthew’s version of this conversation and serve the divine purpose of transition in his gospel (here these connections are generally made, but they will be explored in greater detail as we continue examining the passage).
- It is significant that the word “living” is used in Peter’s revelation. This has two important connections. It does not necessarily relate to the truth that He is the only real God in existence, but to the truth that in Him alone there is eternal life (John 5:26). This life was granted to be in the Son Himself as well. Therefore, later in John, Jesus says that as the Son, He has authority to give eternal life to as many as His Father gives to Him (John 17:1–3). And even later in John’s first epistle the Spirit says, “…the testimony that God has given of His Son…that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life…” Here Peter declares what God the Father has made known to him, that is, Jesus is the Son of the God who alone has eternal life.
The second connection to the word “living” is that the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the foundation of the Christian gospel. This gospel is explained in detail by the apostle Paul in the first eight chapters of Romans. But notice the first four verses (Rom. 1:1–4) and how they mirror Peter’s confession (Matt. 16:16). You are the Christ from Peter equates to Paul saying in verse three, Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh. Messiah is a title according to the promises made to Israel after the flesh – the coming of the Christ pertained only to Israel and was according to the flesh (Rom. 9:3–5). You are the Son of the living God from Peter equates to Paul saying in verse four, declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.” Jesus is declared the Son of God in the power of resurrection life (Rom. 1:4). This truth is essential to the Christian gospel and the understanding of the believer’s redemption. He was delivered up because of our sins and was raised because of our justification (Rom. 4:25). His resurrection from the dead has provided the believer with a new existence and life (Rom. 6:4–11).
- Jesus declares that His Father in heaven is the one who gave Peter this revelation (16:17). We have shown in a previous chapter why the revelation of God as the Father relates to the believer’s relationship with Him through Jesus Christ, and is intimately associated with Christianity and the Christian dispensation. The Father giving this specific revelation to Peter speaks of how God privileged him first in His sovereign choice and grace. Whether we realize it or not, this point involving Peter and this revelation – Jesus is the Son of the living God – reflects on how every person who is a Christian became a Christian.
- Jesus says, “I will build my church” – this is the revelation of the assembly, a new work of God’s grace associated with the time of a new dispensation on earth. Israel’s failures as documented in Matthew, especially in this chapter, provide the opportunity for God to reveal that which was to take the place of the Jews as the witness for God in the earth. “I will build…” is yet future, for the Christian dispensation would not begin until after Jesus had returned to heaven. The Lord’s words to Peter hint at certain details concerning the doctrine of the church, which we have already discussed in a previous chapter. Here I’ll only repeat the general truths the Lord’s words imply. If Jesus alone will build His church, it is the sovereign work of God, and it will not fail. The assembly is a future work from when He was speaking, and it cannot be judged.
Also, in a previous chapter we showed the differences from Scripture between the church and Christendom. There couldn’t be a more vital truth needed to be understood for the proper understanding of the Christian dispensation. We will not repeat that teaching here, except to say that the Lord’s words to Peter also make this distinction. The church is one thing (Matt. 16:18), while the kingdom of heaven is something quite different (Matt. 16:19). The assembly is not a kingdom, but the body and bride of Christ. God builds the church, while Peter is given the keys to the kingdom – administrative authority on earth, sanctioned by heaven above. You do not build anything with keys.
The “kingdom of heaven” phrase always references Christendom in the Christian dispensation, the place where men were given responsibility. Peter is given authority to bind and loose on earth in the kingdom, knowing his decisions would be sanctioned by heaven above. Jesus, the true King would be absent from the kingdom and from the earth, having returned to heaven. Peter’s authority, as he might exercise it, only functioned on earth and in his lifetime. Eventually all Christians were given this authority on earth (Matt. 18:18 –20). And they didn’t have to wait for Peter to be gone. I’m sure the apostle Paul exercised the same authority as Peter’s contemporary. There are keys for the kingdom, but not for the church.
- Now we can draw a deeper connection between the word “living” and the assembly and Peter’s name change, confirmed here by the Lord (16:17). Peter’s name means stone, which relates to the durability, steadfastness, and practical strength of the position of grace in which the revelation places him. What Jesus is building is the church. When the Spirit through Peter speaks of the assembly in his first epistle, God is building up a spiritual house using living stones (1 Pet. 2:4–5). One can’t help but see the connection between Peter’s revelation and the building of the church – the living God is using living stones. All true Christians are living stones, having received eternal life from the living This life is in God’s Son who was raised from the dead. Peter is a stone, one of the many living stones used by God to build up His house. Peter is notable because he is the first one so privileged as part of the church. He is given the place of a stone in connection with this living temple.
- There is a subtle contrast made in this passage between the living God, in whom is life and from whom the Son inherits life-giving power, and the power and dominion of sin and death. Nothing will be able to overcome or destroy the power of life in the Son. It is on this power that the assembly is built, against which the kingdom of Satan has no strength or recourse. The life of God cannot and will not be destroyed. The Son of the living God will not be overcome. That which God establishes on this rock of the unchangeable power of life in His Son will never be overthrown by the kingdom of death (16:18). This is the basis on which Christ builds the assembly, and Satan cannot do anything to stop or hinder this.
But this truth brings out another subtle difference important to proper dispensational thinking. We should not be looking at the church as a dispensation. God builds the church; it is not Peter building it; God alone is responsible in this work; there is no human responsibility in building it; it will last eternally because it is the work of God alone; Satan’s power cannot stop God’s work or corrupt it. Knowing this, we can see that the church doesn’t have some of the defining characteristics a dispensation will have associated with it. Dispensations are based on a particular responsibility given by God to man and if Satan isn’t bound in a pit by God, but is free to roam about, he will always bring corruption and ruin to the dispensation through the temptation and failure of man. Now the entity from this passage that does have these dispensational characteristics is the “kingdom of heaven” (16:19). Peter’s conferred authority in the kingdom on earth is a form of human responsibility given by God which properly characterizes a dispensation. There are no keys to give to men associated with the church, but there are keys given to men associated with the kingdom and dispensation. And we were told in an earlier chapter in Matthew that the gates of Hades would prevail to corrupt and spoil the kingdom of heaven (as prophetically announced by Jesus in Matt. 13:24–42). This damage, which came in early in the dispensation, is irreparable. The kingdom of heaven is the dispensation; it has failed and is soon to be judged by God and brought to an end. But the church is not a dispensation; it cannot fail and as the work of God, will never be judged.
The assembly, though formed on earth, belongs to heaven; the kingdom and dispensation, though sanctioned from heaven, belongs to the earth and is governed and administered by men on the earth. Peter’s name, given to him by Christ, is associated with the church which Christ builds. The keys, also given to him by Christ, are associated with the human administration of the kingdom and dispensation.258
258 [What is added to Peter’s confession in Matthew’s version – “Son of the living God” – is not found in Mark or Luke’s version. This is why the Spirit adds in Matthew the Lord’s words about the church and the keys to the “kingdom of heaven” – these things are directly dependent on Peter’s profession of faith that Jesus is the Son of God. All this refers specifically to the Christian dispensation. Mark and Luke’s versions have nothing about the church or the keys of the kingdom. Matthew’s gospel is dispensational]
- Having made known the counsels of God concerning the future of both the church and the kingdom of heaven (the earthly dispensation), Jesus now puts an end to His presentation to the Jews as Messiah (Matt. 16:20, Mark 8:29–31, Luke 9:21–22). He never stops being Israel’s Messiah and He continues showing them patience and grace during His entire ministry. But it was no longer the duty of His disciples to proclaim Him to the people as the Christ of Israel. Then He began to teach them of His impending death and resurrection (16:21, 17:9).
- Although Peter had been blessed and honored by the revelation given him by the Father, this did not immediately translate into his having, as a believer, deliverance from the carnal nature of the old man. He quickly turns to doing the work of Satan by opposing the determined obedience and submission of the Lord to His Father’s will (Heb. 10:1–12). Peter, at this time, savored the things of men, and not the things of God (Matt. 16:22–23). The devil was using Peter to place a stumbling-block before the other disciples, to discourage them concerning the path of the cross. This stirs up the heart of the Lord and He rejects Peter’s resistance and turns to teach his disciples that the only true path is the cross – both for Himself and for any disciple of His (16:24–26). This characterizes Christianity and the Christian dispensation. The true path of any Christian is to suffer with Christ as rejected by this world. It is not a path of saving one’s own life and gaining the whole world. The dishonor of the cross is the only pathway to God’s glory.
The chapter shows Israel and its leaders is some form of unbelief concerning the Person of Jesus. The Jews and the world had rejected Him. The chapter goes on to show what God substitutes for a rejected Messiah and the failed Jewish system – the revelation of the Son of God, the assembly (church), and the kingdom of heaven (new dispensation). But ultimately Peter is hanging on to thoughts of a Messiah in the flesh and his own personal glory associated with this among the Jews. The revelation he received from the Father somewhat implied the necessity of Jesus suffering and dying and being raised from the dead. Peter completely failed to realize the practical moral consequences of this. Peter savored the glory of men, instead of the counsels and glory of God.
From that time Jesus began to teach His disciples about His impending suffering and death (Matt. 16:21). In view of this declaration, He would strive to confirm the faith of His disciples. He does so by speaking to them of the glory of His Father in which He, the Son of God/Son of Man, would someday return in (16:27). Jesus will be invested with the highest glory of heaven, that of the Father, when He comes again to set up His earthly kingdom (16:28). This millennial glory of Christ is previewed in the following chapter by the transfiguration (17:1–9).
This event, as recorded in each of the synoptic gospels, is not without its own dispensational references mixed in. His manifested glorification up on the mountain in Matthew (Matt. 17:1–9) is a direct reference back to the last two verses in sixteen (27, 28). The vision portrays the kingdom and glory of the Son of Man, pointing to the future millennial dispensation. The presence of Moses and Elijah relates to the law and the prophets of the passing Jewish dispensation – law and prophecy were the two areas of Israel’s responsibility during the Jewish economy. Notice they eventually disappear, giving place entirely to Jesus. He is left alone, after the voice of the Father from out of the glory declares Him as His beloved Son, in whom He is well pleased.259 This portion which ends the vision refers to the Christian dispensation. Christianity is defined as hearing and doing the words of Jesus. This is represented by Jesus now present alone and the Father saying, “Hear Him!” Hearing Jesus’ words replaces the law and the prophets and transitions from Judaism to Christianity.
259 [One can’t help but note that Peter’s revelation from the Father in chapter sixteen is similar to the Father’s declaration here from out of the shekinah glory – both reveal Jesus as the Son of God. The Father reveals the Son and the Son reveals the Father, for they alone truly know each other (Matt. 11:27). Then there is another aspect which is characteristically Christian – those who hear their Father’s voice are instructed by the Father to be taught by Jesus alone. Hopefully the reader can see how these revelations are exclusive to Christianity and the Christian dispensation. Jesus being left alone to be listened to and followed, this Man seen in the Father’s glory, declared to be the Son of God by resurrection from the dead, granted to have eternal life in Himself, and who alone will build the church, are some of the foundational truths of Christianity]
Peter’s idea of erecting three tabernacles (for worship) is like placing Jesus on equal ground with Moses and Elijah (17:4). His words are typical of one of the great corrupting influences in the Christian dispensation – the Judaizing of Christianity. The apostle Paul fought this error and deception his entire ministry. The book of Galatians was written to combat this corrupting influence. Later on, Peter himself was guilty of falling prey to this doctrinal leaven (Gal. 2:11–13, 5:8–9). Today in Christendom there exists greater subtlety in the forms this error takes, more difficulty than seeing the obvious Jewish practices of circumcision and observing days (Gal. 4:9–10, 5:2–4). But in the passage, while Peter was still speaking, the glory and voice of the Father come in to cut him off. Jesus is the Father’s beloved Son, in whom He is well pleased (17:5). He makes sure there is no misunderstanding.
What Jesus tells them when they were coming down the mountain is significant. “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead.” Their testimony of the glory they beheld in the vision would have no place until His work of redemption was accomplished. The Son of Man must suffer first; then the resurrection would be the great proof that Jesus was the Son of God with power (Rom. 1:4). Their testimony must wait until He was raised and had personally ascended into that glory which these three were now witness to by the vision.260
260 [All three of the synoptic gospels present the transfiguration as an event used by God to fortify the disciple’s faith in Jesus, which then was to be part of their future testimony of Him after His resurrection and departure back to heaven (Matt. 17:9, Mark 9:9, Luke 9:36). We see this testimony referred to by Peter in his second epistle (2 Pet. 1:16–18). His impression of the event is that it reflects on the reality of the future millennial glory of Christ, His coming and power. Peter teaches that all prophecy points to this scene on the mount as its central point of focus (2 Pet. 1:19–21). We know that, in general, prophecy is about Israel, earthly things, and God’s earthly government – the character of this subject is very Jewish. Matthew’s gospel is decidedly Jewish in character, for he writes to the Jews. Mark writes about the great Prophet/Servant of Israel. Peter’s epistles were written to the faithful remnant of natural Jews who believed in Jesus Christ, becoming Christians, labeling them the pilgrims of the Dispersion (1 Pet. 1:1–3). The Dispersion refers to that part of Israel displaced from the land and dispersed into the world through Gentile oppression (John 7:35).
Matthew, Mark, and Peter’s accounts of the transfiguration present it as the presage of the earthly millennial kingdom of the Son of Man, coming in great power and glory (Matt. 16:27–28, Mark 9:1, 2 Pet. 1:16–18). Luke’s account does as well (Luke 9:26–27). But Luke was a Gentile writing to a Gentile, and the Spirit of God uses a distinctive addition to his account to present a decidedly Christian hope. In all the accounts the shekinah glory that appears in the vision represents heaven. The Father’s voice came out of the cloud, and heaven is the location of the Father. Peter confirms this (2 Pet. 1:18), as do multiple passages in the gospels (Matt. 5:16, 45, 48, 6:1, etc.). The shekinah glory is the abode of God. The significant addition to Luke’s version is that Peter, John, and James enter into the cloud (Luke 9:34), while in the other accounts they do not. Luke’s version is the only one which associates the disciples with Jesus and the Father in the glory and place of heaven itself – dare we say the Father’s house (John 14:1–3).
Luke’s version reveals to us the heavenly and glorious state of the church, and for that matter, the heavenly abode of all the to-be-glorified saints (Old Testament saints represented by Moses and Elijah). Heaven is the proper dwelling place of the saints. The Father’s house is in heaven, and not on the earth or part of the earthly kingdom of the Son of Man. The church has a heavenly calling and citizenship. All the saints will be glorified and taken by Jesus to heaven (1 Thess. 4:13–18). With Him they will enter the heavenly glory where the Father dwells and be found with Him in the Father’s house (John 14:1–3). All true Christians are sons of God through faith in Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:26). Their distinct privilege will be to see God, to look on the face of God, to behold His glory, and to dwell in His presence as those nearest to Him (Matt. 5:8–9). This portion of Luke’s version of the transfiguration is distinctly Christian, presenting the proper Christian hope. And what a change this represents from even the more excellent things in Judaism. Now we have Christians who are taught of the Father in heaven to center only on Jesus, His beloved Son. With Him and in Him, we are now associated with this future heavenly glory]