13 When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”16 Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”17 Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.18 And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.19 I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”20 Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah. (Matthew 16:13-20)
A large part of the Matthean narrative is devoted, in part, to the tripartite question: (a) who is Jesus, (b) what does it mean to be his disciples in the light of his identity, and (c) what choices will you make because of his call. In previous two Sunday gospels we have seen these questions addressed in the story of Peter walking upon the waters (Mt 14:22-33) and the encounter with the Canaanite woman (15:21-28) – and both episodes move Jesus to comment upon the faith of the disciple. These stories serve as the immediate context for our gospel about Peter’s confession and what it will mean for him in his on-going role of discipleship.
Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah forms the climax to the long section of the Gospel which began in 4:17 with Jesus’ public teaching in Galilee. Along the way the questions of Jesus’ identity has repeatedly arisen. Matthew has been clear from the beginning about Jesus’ identity – he is the one in whom God’s salvific purposes are fulfilled. From the beginning, Matthew has recorded the clear declarations of Jesus identity by God (3:17) and by the demons (8:29). But there is no record of any explicit declaration by Jesus of his role as Messiah (though of course much of the recorded teaching points unmistakably in that direction). Mainly we have only the testimony of the people who witness his miracles and signs: frequent amazement of the crowd at his authority in word and deed (4:24–25; 7:28–29; 9:8, 26, 31, 33; 13:54; 15:31). This amazement has led to speculation if he is the son of David (12:23; the title is also offered to him by petitioner in 9:27; 15:22), which no doubt gave rise to the authorities’ repeated demand for a sign to authenticate his supposed claims (12:28; 16:1). The messianic identity is heightened when John the Baptist pointed forward to a ‘coming one’ (3:11–12) and has tentatively identified Jesus in this ‘Messianic’ role (11:2–6),; all the while Herod confused Jesus’ ministry with that of John (14:1–2).
People want certainty about Jesus and who he is before they commit to be his disciples. But even after all that Jesus has said and done, there is always one more sign that is requested (16:1-5) – and eventually the answer is “No.” The time for signs is over. It is time to decide.
In this situation it is time for the issue to be clarified, but it is significant that, in accordance with the principle set out in 13:11–17, it is to the disciples in private that the clarification is given, here and in 17:1–13. The crowds remain in a state of uncertainty, and this, as 16:20 will vividly show, is quite deliberate.