Sunday 23rd January 2022

MATTHEW 16

“Who do the people say that the Son of Man is?” – asked Jesus to his disciples.  They took it in turns to list the different ideas that the crowds held about him:  John the Baptist, perhaps, or Elijah (nearly the same thing), or perhaps a reincarnation of Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.  All speculation!

“So, what about you all?  Who do you say that I am?”  Before anyone else could utter a peep, Peter declared confidently, “You are Messiah, the Son of the Living God” (v16).  Meaning ‘The Anointed One’, it represented the ideal King and Servant of God, sent by him to rescue the Nation of Israel once and for all, restoring them to full godliness and freedom.  The Messiah would bring in a new age of divine rule over the nation and over the world.

Jesus did not deny it but commended Peter for his faith and the revelation that must have come directly from the Lord himself.  That revelation had raised Peter up to a new level of understanding in God, elevating him to a new position of responsibility and authority.  “You are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven…” (vv18-19).

Many scholars have debated this passage fiercely, particularly since the Reformation, which had exposed corruption in the Papacy and rediscovered the vital doctrine of Salvation by Faith Alone.  In an effort to discredit the Papacy of Rome, the interpretation of this verse has been manipulated to mean that the ‘rock’ is either Christ himself, or Peter’s confession of faith, or the commands of Christ.  I am unconvinced that these verses mean any of those things.

Whilst it is true that, in other parts of the New Testament, Jesus Christ is indeed described as the ‘Rock’ (1 Peter 2:8; 1 Corinthians 10:4; Romans 9:33), he is emphatically NOT referring to himself in this passage, but says ‘You’, speaking to Simon Peter and his friends.  There is slightly more chance Jesus meaning Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah, since that was at least being mentioned in the previous verse.  But I still remain unconvinced.  Why?

Their location: Caesarea Philippi – also known as Panias – was actually a city and a temple dedicated to the worship of the Greek ‘goat’ god, Pan.  This temple was built on a huge rocky outcrop at the foot of Mount Herman, with a very deep cave at the bottom of the cliff, and with an underground spring flowing out from it.  To the pagan mind, this cave, with its spring, was called the gateway to Hades, and many disgusting sacrifices and perverted sexual rituals were enacted there to appease and attract Pan, who was supposed to return each year.

Standing there with his disciples, Jesus throws down his challenge to the forces of darkness and to his fledgling church.  “You are Peter (PETROS: a detached stone that you could pick up and throw) and upon this rock (PETRA: a layer of bedrock), right there where Pan’s temple was built, I will build my church”.  Jesus is speaking in metaphors here; he is not embarking upon a civil engineering project!  The implication seems to be that the man, Peter will become the first part – and the key part – of the great ecclesiastical foundation, along with the rest of the apostles, placed deep into the rock in enemy territory, forming a powerful bridgehead for the Kingdom of Light.  Furthermore, that pagan stronghold, “The Gates of Hades” would not overpower or overcome it, but the Church would triumph through the power of Christ himself. 

As Peter the ‘Stone’ became part of the ‘Bedrock’ on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit would begin to join to them many thousands upon thousands of human stones, rising to become a mighty (metaphorical) temple in God (see 1 Peter 2:5).  The apostles, of which Peter was the first and foremost member, would become the foundation of Christ’s church… “…built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus as the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20-22). 

Peter himself was, in effect, ‘first among equals’, the first to preach on the Day of Pentecost, the first to officially recognise the Samaritan church, the first to champion the Gentiles as true disciples, and first in his role as leader of the apostles for quite some time.  But he was NEVER a ‘Pope’ , he was NEVER declared ‘infallible’, and his office was NEVER decreed as enduring through all of time.  Peter simply called himself an apostle, an elder, a servant, and a witness of Christ’s sufferings (1 Peter 5:1).

“I will give YOU the keys of the Kingdom; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (v19).  I think that this refers mainly to the message of the gospel, which set its hearers free from sin and gave them entrance into the Kingdom of Christ.  This is a huge authority that has been passed from heaven to mankind and which we must take very seriously indeed.  God has delegated to us the power of life and death.  Later on, in Matthew 18:18, the same ‘bind’ and ‘loose’ words are used in the context of church discipline – God, in effect, saying: “You decide”.

Jesus had originally been the ‘key holder’, as described by Isaiah 22:22 and Revelation 3:7.  He has chosen to share these keys with us!  A heavy responsibility!

GENESIS 45, 46, and 47

The fact that he had maintained the charade for so long did not help his brothers to believe that he really was Joseph; eventually they were convinced, and Joseph reassured them that he was not angry or vengeful, but that God had planned his whole life with a view to rescuing the household of Jacob, and many others too.

Pharaoh and his court, who presumably had been watching this episode with more interest than they had for the average Egyptian TV ‘soap’ of the day, were delighted with a happy ending and sent a national invitation to Jacob and sons to make Egypt their new home.  At last, the brothers were sent home to fetch Jacob – no hostages needed this time – and with an armful of residence visas.  Jacob is convinced, if not by their story, then by the vast train of food, that his eldest son really is alive!  This perhaps represents the first upturn in Jacob’s fortunes since he had promised to serve the Lord at Bethel; it is important for us to realise that spiritual progress is not always accompanied by material and social blessings – or at least not immediately. 

Jacob’s renewed covenant with God had been followed first by a twenty-year period of testing, more severe than the twenty years hard labour he had endured with Laban.  It had taken nearly half a century for Jacob’s heart and mind to be shaped into the likeness of Christ, after starting with a deceptive nature and a stubborn character.  But God does not give up; our ultimate Christlikeness is considered more important than our short-term happiness, and he will forge those changes in our nature that he can only do in this world and in this age.  With this done to his satisfaction, our long-term happiness is assured!

It is tough moving home when you are old and, for Jacob, aged 130, it was particularly difficult; he was leaving the land of his fathers, where also his beloved Rachel was buried, and the land of God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac and to him for generations to come.  He was moving to the centre of a hated foreign empire that had robbed him of twenty years of contact with his son Joseph, full of strange customs, alien gods and instinctive anti-Semitic attitudes.  On the plus side, he was soon to see his beloved Joseph and to say goodbye to all financial and material worries for good.

At times of big decisions, you need direct revelation from the Lord, and Jacob was always welcoming of God speaking into his life.  We are similarly wise if we do the same.  “Here I am”, he would say (Ch. 46).  God confirms that this move is his plan for Jacob and his family, and that in Egypt he would forge them into a great nation.  For the first time, a patriarch has his entire family included in the covenant promise of the Lord – by comparison with Abraham, who did not have Ishmael include, and Isaac, who did not have Esau included.  God also promised to move down to Egypt with Jacob (radical theology in an era of local geographical gods) and to bring him back again much later.  The ‘bringing back’ has a double meaning: firstly referring to Jacob’s death and burial, and subsequently alluding to the exodus of Israel the nation (all Jacob’s offspring) four hundred years hence.

The names and numbers of those moving to Egypt are carefully documented and totalled at seventy, the number of perfect completeness.  This adds up, since Er and Onan had died previously, and Ephraim and Manasseh were already in Egypt.  There are strong New Testament parallels in Luke 10 when Jesus sends out the Seventy (or seventy-two) to widen the Kingdom of God to the gentiles.  Soon Jacob arrives in Goshen and has an emotional meeting with his long-lost son; his life is complete!

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