And Simon Peter answered and said, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (16:16)
As usual (see, e.g., Matt. 15:15; 19:27; John 6:68), Simon Peter was the spokesman, “the director of the apostolic choir,” as Chrysostom called him. Also as usual, his comments were brief, emphatic, and decisive: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Christ is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Messiah, God’s predicted and long-awaited deliverer of Israel, the supreme “Anointed One,” the coming High Priest, King, Prophet, and Savior. Without hesitation Peter declared Jesus to be the Messiah, whereas the multitudes of Jews believed Him to be only the Messiah’s precursor.
On first meeting Jesus, Andrew had excitedly proclaimed Him to be the Messiah, and Nathaniel had called Him “the Son of God … the King of Israel” (John 1:41, 49). The disciples knew that John the Baptist had borne witness that Jesus “is the Son of God” (John 1:34), and the longer they stayed with Him, the more evidence they had of His divine nature, power, and authority.
Like their fellow Jews, however, they had been taught to expect a conquering and reigning Messiah who would deliver God’s people from their enemies and establish forever His righteous kingdom on earth. And when Jesus refused to use His miraculous power for His own benefit or to oppose the Roman oppressors, the disciples wondered if they were right about Jesus’ identity. His humility, meekness, and subservience were in total contrast to their preconceived views of the Messiah. That the Messiah would be ridiculed with impunity, not to mention persecuted and executed, was inconceivable. When Jesus spoke of His going away and coming back, Thomas doubtlessly echoed the consternation of all the disciples when he said, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?” (John 14:5).
It was similar bewilderment that caused John the Baptist to question his earlier affirmation of Jesus’ messiahship. “When John in prison heard of the works of Christ, he sent word by his disciples, and said to Him, ‘Are you the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?’ ” (Matt. 11:1–3). Jesus’ miracles were clear evidence of His messiahship, but His failure to use those powers to overthrow Rome and establish His earthly kingdom brought Jesus’ identity into question even with the godly, Spirit-filled John.
Like John the Baptist, the Twelve fluctuated between moments of great faith and of grave doubt. They could proclaim with deep conviction, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. And we have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68–69). They could also display remarkable lack of faith and discernment, even after witnessing hundreds of healings and dramatic demonstrations of supernatural power (see Matt. 8:26; 14:31; 16:8). They were sometimes strong in faith and sometimes weak. Jesus frequently spoke of their “little faith.”
Now, at last, the truth of Jesus’ divinity and messiahship was established in their minds beyond question. They would still experience times of weakness and confusion about what Jesus said and did, but they would no longer doubt who it was who said and did them. He was indeed the Christ, the Son of the living God. God’s own Spirit had now imbedded the truth indelibly in their hearts.
It took two and a half years for them to come to this place of confession, through the struggles and hatred of the Jewish religious leaders, the mounting fickleness and rejection of the people, and their own confusion about what the Messiah had come to do. But without question they now knew He was the fulfiller of their hopes, the source of their salvation, the desire of the nations.
On behalf of all the apostles, Peter not only confessed Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, but as the Son of the living God. The Son of Man (v. 13) was also the Son of … God, the Creator of the universe and all that is in it. He was the true and real God, not a mythological figment such as Pan or a mortal “deity” such as caesar-both of whom had shrines in Caesarea Philippi. The disciples’ Lord was Son of the living God.
As evidenced by numerous things the Twelve later said and did, they did not at this time have a full comprehension of the Trinity or even of the full nature and work of Christ. But they knew Jesus was truly the Christ and that He was truly divine, the Son of the living God. Son reflects the idea of oneness in essence, because a son is one in nature with his father. So Jesus Christ was one in nature with God the Father (cf. John 5:17–18; 10:30–33).
16 The question was addressed to the disciples as a group, but the reply comes from their leading member. This is the only time Matthew gives “Simon Peter” his full title. When he was first introduced and when he was listed as the first of the Twelve (4:18; 10:2) he was identified as “Simon (also called Peter),” and when he is addressed in the vocative Jesus will call him “Simon” (16:17; 17:25), but elsewhere Matthew always refers to him simply as “Peter.” The fuller name here thus has a more formal sound, as befits the man about to make a momentous declaration. It also prepares us for v. 18 where “Peter” will be explained as a significant nickname given to Simon by Jesus. Here, as already in 15:15 and later in 16:22; 17:4, 24–25; 18:21; 19:27, Peter probably acts as spokesman for the whole disciple group, and indeed the second part of his declaration simply repeats what the disciples as a group have already concluded in 14:33. But the personal commendation which follows perhaps indicates that Peter has been ahead of the rest not only in speaking but also in formulating their growing recognition of Jesus’ unique status and mission (see introductory comments).
While the title “Messiah” (see on 1:1) as such is not used in the OT in this sense, it is clear that by the first century it was current as a title of hope, to denote the human deliverer whom God was expected to send to his people. This hope took various forms in the OT, and it seems likely that the term “Messiah” might in principle be applied to any of these, but there is little doubt that among most Jews in first-century Palestine its primary connotation would be of a “son of David” who would restore the nation to the glory and independence it had known under the first David. It was thus a nationalistic term, and one which was hard to separate from the political aspirations of a subject people.15 We shall see in vv. 22–23 that Peter himself will find it impossible to associate Messiahship with Jesus’ proclaimed mission of suffering and death (which takes up one relatively limited strand of OT expectation); for him apparently the title conveys glory and success, not defeat and execution. So we must not read into Peter’s declaration here all that later Christian theology has found in the term “Messiah.” His understanding of Jesus’ way of “saving his people from their sins” (1:21) still has a long way to go. But, however limited his grasp of Jesus’ actual mission, he has gone beyond the popular acclamation of Jesus as a prophet to the point of recognizing him as not just one among many, not even, like John the Baptist, the greatest of the prophets (11:11), but as the one climactic figure in whom God’s purpose is finally being accomplished. In that he has made the crucial breakthrough.
The title “Son of God” in itself plays a central role in Matthew’s presentation of Jesus (see introductory comments). It is a matter of debate whether it appears here as a distinct and additional part of Peter’s declaration about the identity of Jesus, or whether the two titles “Messiah” and “Son of God” belong together as two ways of expressing the same messianic status; they are similarly combined by the high priest in 26:63. An important OT prophecy says of David’s future son: “I will be a father to him and he will be a son to me,” (2 Sam 7:14) and according to what was probably the current interpretation of Psalm 2 the Messiah is there addressed by God in the words “You are my son; today I have begotten you.” (Ps 2:7) It is on this basis that the Messiah could be thought of at Qumran as God’s son, and while evidence for such language among other Jews of the period is lacking, it seems likely that the two well-known OT passages would have made it acceptable. It is therefore possible that both Peter here and the high priest in 26:63 are using the two titles as virtual synonyms. But in view of Matthew’s emphasis on the title “Son of God” elsewhere, and especially its emphatic reaffirmation which will follow shortly after this incident (17:5), it is more likely that he expected his readers to hear it as adding a further dimension to Peter’s declaration, by supplementing the “functional” title Messiah with one which speaks more directly of who Jesus really is. If Peter may be assumed to have heard Jesus’ exultant prayer at 11:25–27, he would have good grounds for adding this theologically loaded phrase.
The powerful OT phrase “the living God” appears in Matthew here and in 26:63 (though not there as part of the title “Son of God”), and in a dozen other places in the NT. In one sense the participle adds nothing, since if God is not living he is not God. But it is a powerful reminder that the God with whom Jesus is here being connected is not a philosophical abstraction but the dynamic God of Israel’s faith and history. The supernatural dynamic of Jesus’ miracles derives from a God who is himself alive and active in his world. It is the church of the living God which will be declared in v. 18 to be immune to the powers of death. In the region of Caesarea Philippi, a center for the worship of Pan (as it had been previously of the Canaanite Baal), the title would have a special resonance as marking out the true God from all other gods.
16:16 You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Peter, as spokesperson for the Twelve (note the plural “disciples” and plural Greek verb for “tell” in 16:20), confesses the true identity of Jesus. He is Messiah, which is then further explained by the title “Son of the living God” (similar to 14:33). “Son of God” is a messianic title in first-century Judaism (2 Esd. 7:28–29; see comments on 4:3, 6). This confession provides a climactic moment in the narrative, since this is the first such explicit confession of Jesus as the Messiah by any person in the story.
Ver. 16.—Simon Peter answered and said. The ardent Peter, when all were asked, replies in the name of the rest, giving, however, his own personal sentiment and belief, as we see from Christ’s answer (ver. 17). Some of the others probably would have been less ready to make the same confession; but in his vehement loyalty, Peter silences all hesitation, and declares boldly what must be the conviction of all his comrades. He speaks out the persuasion wrought in his soul by Divine grace. Thou art the Christ (ὁ Χριστὸς), the Son of the living God. The Christ; the Anointed, the Messiah. The Son of God; of the same substance, one with the Father. Living; as alone “having life in himself,” “the living and true God” (John 5:26; 1 Thess. 1:9). The same (or nearly the same) confession was made by Peter in the name of all the apostles at Capernaum (John 6:69); but the sense of the expression was different, and sprang from very different conviction. It referred rather to the subjective view of Christ’s character, as it influenced the believer’s inward assurance of the source of eternal life. Here the acknowledgment concerns the nature, office, and Person of our Lord. That there was some special distinction between the two enunciations is evident from Christ’s unique commendation of Peter on this occasion compared with his silence on the former. The present confession is indeed a noble one, containing itself a compendium of the Catholic faith concerning the Person and work of Christ. Herein Peter acknowledges Jesus to be the true Messiah, commissioned and sent by God to reveal his will to man, and accomplishing all that the prophets had foretold concerning him; no mere man, not even the most exalted of men (which common opinion held Messiah to be) but the Son of God, of the substance of the Father, begotten from everlasting, God of God, perfect God and perfect man, Son of God and Son of man. Such was Peter’s faith. The Church has added nothing to it, though she has amplified and explained and illustrated it in her Creeds; for it comprises belief in Christ’s Messiahship, Divinity, Incarnation, personality, and the momentous issues depending thereon. We need not suppose that Peter understood all this or speculated on the question how these several attributes were united in Christ. He was content to accept and acknowledge the truth, waiting patiently for further light. This is the attitude which Christ approves.
16. Thou art the Christ. The confession is short, but it embraces all that is contained in our salvation; for the designation Christ, or Anointed, includes both an everlasting Kingdom and an everlasting Priesthood, to reconcile us to God, and, by expiating our sins through his sacrifice, to obtain for us a perfect righteousness, and, having received us under his protection, to uphold and supply and enrich us with every description of blessings. Mark says only, Thou art the Christ. Luke says, Thou art the Christ of God. But the meaning is the same; for the Christs (χριστοί) of God was the appellation anciently bestowed on kings, who had been anointed by the divine command. And this phrase had been previously employed by Luke, (2:26,) when he said that Simeon had been informed by a revelation from heaven that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. For the redemption, which God manifested by the hand of his Son, was clearly divine; and therefore it was necessary that he who was to be the Redeemer should come from heaven, bearing the impress of the anointing of God. Matthew expresses it still more clearly, Thou art the Son of the living God; for, though Peter did not yet understand distinctly in what way Christ was the begotten of God, he was so fully persuaded of the dignity of Christ, that he believed him to come from God, not like other men, but by the inhabitation of the true and living Godhead in his flesh. When the attribute living is ascribed to God, it is for the purpose of distinguishing between Him and dead idols, who are nothing, (1 Cor. 8:4.)
16:16 “You are the Christ” This had been expressed before by Andrew in Jn. 1:41, Nathaniel in Jn. 1:49, and Peter in Jn. 6:69. The Greek title “Christ” was the equivalent of the Hebrew “Messiah” or “Anointed One.”
“the Son of the living God” Peter did not fully understand Jesus’ Messiahship as is obvious from verses 21–23. Therefore, the blessing of verse 17 related to the phrase “Son of the living God.” The phrase “living God” was a paraphrase of YHWH which is the CAUSATIVE FORM of the verb “to be” (cf. Ex. 3:14).
16. And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. He does not say. ‘Scribes and Pharisees, rulers and people, are all perplexed; and shall we, unlettered fishermen, presume to decide?’ But feeling the light of his Master’s glory shining in his soul, he breaks forth—not in a tame, prosaic acknowledgment, ‘I believe that thou art,’ &c—but in the language of adoration—such as one uses in worship, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” He first owns Him the promised Messiah (see on ch. 1:16); then he rises higher, echoing the voice from heaven—“This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased;” and in the important addition—“Son of the Living God,”—he recognizes the essential and eternal life of God as in this His Son—though doubtless without that distinct perception afterwards vouchsafed.
16. Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. The personality of Peter and his position of leadership has received earlier comment (see on 4:18–22; 10:2; 14:28, 29). In the present passage note:
- Probably to add solemnity and clarity to the record of the event this disciple’s full name is here used: “Simon Peter.” This appellation is the usual one in John’s Gospel, but not in the Synoptics. It occurs in Luke 5:8, in connection with another context of deep emotion and humble reverence.
- In the Gospels and in the book of Acts Peter frequently represents The Twelve, as is clear not only from the present context but also, among others, from Matt. 15:15, 16; 19:27, 28; 26:35, 40, 41; Luke 8:45; 9:32, 33; 12:41; 18:28; John 6:67–69; Acts 1:15; 2:14, 37, 38; and 5:29. Nevertheless, his identity is not lost. It is Peter who speaks and Peter who is going to be addressed in verses 17–19.
- Even before this time Peter had made soul-stirring declarations concerning Jesus (Luke 5:8; John 6:68, 69), but the present profession of faith is the most complete of them all.
- As to definiteness, in this concise statement, containing only ten words, the original uses the definite article no less than four times.
- When Peter declares Jesus to be “the Christ” he means the long awaited Anointed One, the One who as Mediator was set apart or ordained by the Father and anointed with the Holy Spirit, to be his people’s chief Prophet (Deut. 18:15, 18; Isa. 55:4; Luke 24:19; Acts 3:22, 7:37); only Highpriest (Ps. 110:4; Rom. 8:34; Heb. 6:20; 7:24; 9:24); and eternal King. (Ps. 2:6; Zech. 9:9; Matt. 21:5; 28:18; Luke 1:33; John 10:28; Eph. 1:20–23; Rev. 11:15; 12:10, 11; 17:14; 19:6).
- Peter’s declaration that Jesus is “the Son of the living God” can mean no less than that in a unique sense, a sense not applicable to any mortal, Jesus is, was, and always will be the Son of that God who not only is himself the only living One, over against all the dead so-called gods of the pagans (Isa. 40:18–31), but also is the only source of life for all that lives.
Ver. 16. Simon Peter.—Peter answered not merely in his own name, but in that of all the disciples.—Thou art the Christ,—i.e., the Messiah Himself. And this not in the sense in which carnal Jewish traditionalism held the doctrine of the Messiah, but in the true and spiritual import of the title—the Son of the living God—The latter expression must not be taken merely in a negative sense, as denoting the True God in opposition to false deities; it must also be viewed in a positive sense, as referring to Him whose manifestations in Israel were completed in and crowned by the appearance of His Son as the Messiah. This, however, implies Sonship not only in a moral or official, but also in the ontological sense. Thus the reply of Peter had all the characteristics of a genuine confession—being decided, solemn, and deep.
[The confession of Peter is the first and fundamental Christian confession of faith, and the germ of the Apostles’ Creed. It is a confession, not of mere human opinions, or views, or convictions, however firm, but of a divinely wrought faith, and not of faith only (I believe that Thou art), but of adoration and worship (Thou art). It is christological, i.e., a confession of Jesus Christ as the centre and heart of the whole Christian system, and the only and all-sufficient fountain of spiritual life. It is a confession of Jesus Christ as a true man (Thou, Jesus), as the promised Messiah (the Christ), and as the eternal Son of God (the Son—not a son—of the living God.), hence as the God-Man and Saviour of the world. It is thus a confession of the mystery of the Incarnation in the widest sense, the great central mystery of godliness, “God manifest in the flesh.”—Compare also the excellent remarks of Olshausen (in Kendrick’s Am. ed., vol. i p. 545 sq.) and Alford, who, following Olshausen, says in loc.: “The confession is not made in the terms of the other answer: it is not ‘we say,’ or “I say,’ but ‘Thou art’. It is the expression of an inward conviction wrought by God’s Spirit. The excellence of this confession is, that it brings out both the human and the divine nature of the Lord: ὁ Χριστός is the Messiah, the Son of David, the anointed King; ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ Θεοῦ τοῦ ζῶντος is the Eternal Son, begotten of the Eternal Father, as the last word most emphatically implies, not ‘Son of God’ in any inferior figurative sense, not one of the sons of God, of angelic nature, but the Son of the living God, having in Him the Sonship and the divine nature, in a sense in which they could be in none else. This was the view of the person of Christ quite distinct from the Jewish Messianic idea, which appears to have been (Justin Mart. Dial. p. 267) that he should be born from men, but selected by God for the office on account of his eminent virtues. This distinction accounts for the solemn blessing pronounced in the next verse. Ζῶντος must not for a moment be taken here, as it sometimes is used (e.g., Acts 14:15), as merely distinguishing the true God from dead idols: it is here emphatic, and imparts force and precision to υἱός. That Peter, when he uttered the words, understood by them in detail all that we now understand, is not of course here asserted, but that they were his testimony to the true Humanity and true Divinity of the Lord, in that sense of deep truth and reliance, out of which springs the Christian life of the Church.” Meyer, indeed, takes τοῦ ζωντος simply as the solemn epithet of the true God in opposition to the dead idols of the heathen; but there was no reason here for contrasting the true God with heathen idols, and Peter must have meant to convey the idea, however imperfectly understood by him at the time, that the Godhead itself was truly revealed in, and reflected from, the human person of Christ in a sense and to a degree compared with which all former manifestations of God appeared to him like dead shadows. He echoed the declaration from heaven at Christ’s baptism: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased,” and recognized in Him the essential and eternal life of the great Jehovah.—P. S.]
16 Simon Peter (for the double name, see 4:18; 10:2; cf. v. 17) answers for himself as well as for the other apostles (see esp. 15:15; cf. 19:27 for Peter as spokesman for the others). This was something they had undoubtedly discussed again and again, and they had already come to their conclusion. While it must be granted that it is Peter who responds and upon whom the singular pronouns and verbs of vv 17–19 focus (thus rightly Davies-Allison), Peter is never regarded as isolated from the twelve. To be sure, he is their leader and spokesman (primus inter pares), but he is also their representative, indeed the representative of the entire church (rightly Luz). Cf. too the plural verbs in the similar logion in 18:18, which in principle involve the same authority, even if at a local level (cf. Kingsbury, JBL 98  67–83). Peter thus boldly declares: σὺ εἶ ὁ Χριστὸς ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ζῶντος, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This answer differs categorically from those offered by the people. That is, here Jesus is not identified as one of the figures involved in the coming of the end times, but as the coming one, the determinative person who brings with him the messianic age and the transformation of the present order. Χριστός, “Christ,” is the Greek word for “anointed one” (Hebrew: מָשִׁיחַ; [māšîaḥ]). For the title, see Comment on 1:1, 16. This is the first occurrence of the title in direct speech. For the closely related title “Son of David,” see 9:27; 12:23; 15:22.
In 2 Sam 7:4–16, the passage that gives rise to the expectation of the Son of David, it is said that “the Lord will make you a house” and that that house “shall be made sure forever before me” and that throne “shall be established forever” (2 Sam 7:16). Davies-Allison stress this passage as the background for the present pericope, which serves as its fulfillment: “Mt 16.13–20 records the eschatatological realization of the promises made to David” (Davies-Allison, 2:603; see too Anderson for Davidic and Zionist links with Peter’s confession). Matthew’s interpretive expansion, ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ, “the Son of God,” defines the Messiah as more than a human figure, as someone who is uniquely a manifestation of God, the very agent of God who somehow participates in God’s being (see Gundry, Davies-Allison; on the title, see Comment on 3:17; and 4:3; 8:29; 11:27). The disciples had earlier already confessed Jesus as the Son of God (14:33). There it was under pressure of extraordinary circumstances; here it is the result of calm reflection as well as the product of divine revelation. And to this second confession the revelation of Jesus’ call to suffer and die is appended. The high priest later asks Jesus whether he is “the Christ, the Son of God” (26:63), thereby again bringing together the two titles (for the same juxtaposition of titles, see also John 11:27; 20:31). For the background of the conception of the Messiah as God’s Son, cf. 2 Sam 7:14; Ps 2:6–8, 12; & 4QFlor; 10–14. See also 27:40, 43, 54 for the “Son of God” title. The title is, of course, extremely important in the Fourth Gospel (besides references above, see 1:34, 4–9; 19:7; cf. 6:69). The expression τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ζῶντος, “the living God,” is an OT expression (cf. Deut 5:26; Pss 42:2; 84:2), found elsewhere in Matthew in 26:63 (cf. 22:32) and frequently in the NT (see 1 Tim 3:15; 4:10 [where it furthermore modifies the noun ἐκκλησία, “church”]; Acts 14:15; Rom 9:26; 2 Cor 3:3, 6:16; 1 Thess 1:9; Heb 3:12; 9:14; 10:31; 12:22; 1 Peter 1:23; Rev 7:2; 15:7; cf. John 6:57; Rev 1:18; 4:9). It describes the true God, as opposed to the gods of the world who were not alive, such as the deities of the region of Caesarea Philippi (cf. its use by Jews in pagan contexts, e.g., 2 Macc 7:33; 15:4; 3 Macc 6:28). Implied in the phrase (but only implied) is the fact that God is uniquely the source of all life (see Meier, Davies-Allison).
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