This pericope is located in a section of Matthean narrative that portrays the formation of the church (13:53-17:27) in the midst of the continuing conflict with all levels of Jewish society that is leading towards a growing rejection of Jesus as Messiah. This story forms the hinge of the section because after this Jesus will heighten his attention to the preparation of the disciples for their mission as a community once Jesus has died and resurrected from the dead. It will be a community who perceives and professes his true identity.
Crossing Over: A new theme emerges A theme that began with Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman (15:21-28) continues with the geographical setting of the story: the region of Caesarea Philippi. Early in its history this location had been the setting of Canaanite worship to Ba’al and later a Greek temple to the god Pan (hence the name Paneas). Eventually it simply became a center of secular power under the Roman regency of Herod the Great and his son Phillip who renamed it after Tiberius Caesar and himself: Caesarea Philippi. Is the mention of the location just a geographical touch of narrative? Luke, the “geographer” of the gospel writers, does not mention the name – so one wonders why Matthew includes it. It is not clear, but perhaps Matthew wanted to emphasize that this significant scene took place in a setting with significant religious and secular meanings and associations. By doing so, Matthew crosses over to confront the pantheon of gods and the power of Caesar, with the true King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
But at the same time, this scene does not really cross over into new “territory” as regards Jesus’ divine identity. While this parallel scene in Mark is the first time Jesus’ divine identity is proclaimed by others and worship (homage) takes place, that is not true in Matthew. Jesus’ true identity is not really new to the disciples who have heard Jesus refer to himself in christological terms, have understood it, and worshiped him as the Son of God (14:33). The breakthrough is not christological. Matthew is crossing over to begin to explicate the ecclesiological (“being church”) dimensions of the profession and worship. It is from here that there is a separation of the new community of believers in Kingdom of Heaven from those who oppose and reject it.
Matthew’s Portrait of Jesus The Gospel according to Matthew accepts and uses the main Christological titles found already in the Gospel according to Mark, including Christ/Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man, Rabbi, and Teacher. But in contrast to Mark, Matthew adds several new titles and emphasizes certain aspects of Jesus’ identity. Matthew’s Gospel begins by identifying Jesus as “the son of David, the son of Abraham” (1:1), showing Jesus’ Davidic/royal and Abrahamic/Jewish heritage, respectively. Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is presented as “the New Moses” for the people of Israel, and is given a variety of other titles, including Emmanuel, Savior, Prophet, and King of the Jews. It is in this light that our pericope asks its two questions.
The First Question: Who do people say that the Son of Man is?
Clearly the local “buzz” places Jesus among the greats of Jewish religious history. Not only are all prophets, but all are already dead and thought to be resurrected or alive in heaven. Elijah was whisked away to heaven in a fiery chariot, Herod thought John the Baptist was already raised from the dead, and there were non-biblical accounts of Jeremiah resurrected. In other words, they place him in the cadre of prophets raised from the dead. The first question, more literally phrased is “Who are the humans saying that the son of the human is?” The Greek anthropos (human being, person; mankind; man – EDNT 1:100) is used twice in the sentence. There is indeed high praise in the “buzz,” but there is not enough for their faith to crossover and grasp the real identity of Jesus of Nazareth.
The Second Question: But who do you say that I am?
The “you” in the second question is emphatic and plural. It was not a question addressed just to Peter, but to the whole community. As in the first question, the word “saying” is present tense = “continue to say” or “keep on saying.” It is not a one-time declaration, but a repeated confession. Peter answers the question addressed to the whole group. In Matthew’s narrative Peter sometimes represents the disciples, sometimes represents all believers, sometimes plays a unique role in founding the new community, and sometimes is just Simon/Peter. It is a valid question to ask which “Peter” is portrayed answering Jesus’ question? Given the context of the verses that follow, there is something happening that is more than a simple, impulsive response. In this scene Simon/Peter is answering for and on behalf of the new community emerging from discipleship to Jesus
The Response: You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God
Many have written about the lack of a consensus among 1st century Palestine about the meaning of “Messiah.” All that can be said with certainty, whether one be king or pauper, “Messiah” was a word of hope connected to God’s divine providence. Just what shape that hope would take was not clear – even to Peter, the one who had confessed it. By vv.22-23 it is clear that Peter’s understanding does not encompass the idea of a Messiah who suffers and dies.
Up to v.16, the account closely parallels Mark 8:27–29. But in v.16 Matthew seems to add to Mark’s narrative when he includes a further specification of Jesus’ identity “the Son of the living God.” It is not clear whether that is a modifier to “Messiah” or a separate title. Most scholars hold that Matthew wants us to grasp that Peter’s confession, despite the potentially misleading nature of Messianic language and Peter’s own failure to grasp its practical implications, is telling us more. The addition goes beyond a merely nationalistic fervor to an awareness of Jesus’ special relationship with God. The adjective living (which has a good Old Testament pedigree) may perhaps have been included to contrast the one true God with the local deities (Caesarea Philippi was a center of the worship of Pan).
Matthew 16:13 Caesarea Philippi: situated about twenty miles north of the Sea of Galilee in the territory ruled by Philip, a son of Herod the Great, tetrarch from 4 B.C. until his death in A.D. 34. He rebuilt the town of Paneas, naming it Caesarea in honor of the emperor, and Philippi (“of Philip”) to distinguish it from the seaport in Samaria that was also called Caesarea. Who do people say that the Son of Man is?: although the question differs from the Marcan parallel (Mk 8:27: “Who…that I am?”), the meaning is the same, for Jesus here refers to himself as the Son of Man (cf. Mt 16:15). There are a number of later manuscripts that read “say that I the Son of Man is?”
Matthew 16:14 some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and others say Jeremiah or one of the other prophets. These answers reveal something of the messianic speculation that existed in the first century. Herod Antipas had already superstitiously identified Jesus as John the Baptist, raised from the dead (14:2). The view that Jesus was Elijah was evidently based on Mal 4:5, which speaks of God sending Elijah before the eschatological day of the Lord (cf. 27:45–49). The speculation that Jesus was Jeremiah or another of the prophets is harder to explain (cf. 21:11). Perhaps the association of Jesus with Jeremiah is due to Jeremiah’s preaching of judgment and opposition to the Temple leaders of his day (cf. 2 Esdr 2:16–18; 2 Macc 15:12–16). There is also indication that Deut 18:15–18 was understood messianically by some Jews in Jesus’ day (cf. John 1:21, 25; 6:14–15; 7:40). These views of Jesus were positive, but they proved to be inadequate. The crowd may have viewed Jesus as a prophetic messenger of God, but as the ensuing narrative shows, their understanding was extremely superficial and fickle (27:15–26).
Matthew 16:16 the Son of the living God: The addition of this exalted title to the Marcan confession eliminates whatever ambiguity was attached to the title Messiah.