Our story again takes us away from Capernaum and the Sea of Galilee, and this time to the country under Mount Hermon. You will like to go nearer to the mountain, for you have seen its snowy range far away in the north from many hilltops in Galilee and from the lake. It is a charming region, a broad valley under the mountain lying open to the sun and watered by large springs and streams; flowers are plenty and thickets of shrubs and groves of trees - iris, oleander, roses white and red, and trailing clematis. You notice especially one great spring which comes from the side of a little hill lying out in the open valley. It is the spring of Dan where the town of that name once stood, often mentioned as the northern limit of the land. Another great spring is at the foot of the cliffs of Mount Hermon, at a place now called Baneas, and in the Gospel days Caesarea Philippi. The great springs about the Hermon range seem to be fed by the melting snows on the mountain, and these two springs are main sources of the Jordan river.
The Lord came with His disciples into this region of Caesarea Philippi, this sunny homelike country of springs and flowers and trees and fresh mountain air. While they were there the Lord asked the disciples questions about who He was: first who men said that He was, and then what they themselves would say to the same question. Different people were thinking and saying many different things about the Lord. Herod had said that He was John the Baptist risen from the dead. (Matthew 14:1, 2; Luke 9:7-9) Others said that He was one of the old prophets, Elijah perhaps, or Jeremiah, or some other prophet.
But when the Lord asked the disciples for their own answer Peter spoke for them, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." The Christ, or the Messiah as the Jews called Him, meant "The anointed One " whom they were all expecting. (John 1:41; 9:22) Peter's answer said as plainly as he could say, that the Lord was not a man like other men, not even a man like the prophets, but Divine. The Lord said, "Upon this rock I will build My church." He meant that of all the things that we learn in church and Sunday-school this is the most important. If we learn that the Lord is God, living with us in the world, and learn to know Him and to trust Him, we have a strength and protection that nothing can shake.
Still there would be trials for the Lord and for the disciples. The Lord began to tell them of these trials, but they could not understand, even Peter could not believe it. But it is true that everyone must have his trials and temptations, what the Lord calls His cross; they are his opportunity to give up what is selfish and wrong and to grow stronger. We need not fear these trials when we know that the Lord our Heavenly Father is living with us to help us and protect us. Listen while I read a part of the chapter. (Matthew 16:13-28)
If you go into the great church of Saint Peter in Rome you can read in a circle on the frieze around the dome in huge letters of mosaic the sentence: TV . ES . PETRVS . ET . SVPER . HANC . PETRAM . AEDIFICABO . ECCLESIAM. MEAM. ET. TIBI. DABO. CLAVES. REGNI . COELORVM. It, is the Latin translation of the Lord's saying to Peter in verses 18 and 19 of our chapter.
We must learn about the circumstances under which the words were spoken and consider their meaning. In verse 13 we learn where the Lord and the disciples were; they were in the region of springs and trees and flowers under Mount Hermon. The modern name of the town is Baneas, in which you recognize the name of the heathen god Pan, the god of life, to whom the great spring at this place was dedicated by people long ago. In Gospel times the town was called Caesarea for the Roman emperor, and Philippi to distinguish it as the Caesarea of Philip's district. (Luke 3:1)
The visit to this region is remembered for a question which the Lord asked the disciples and the answer of Peter, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." In the Lord's reply to Peter He said, "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church." The Lord Himself had given Simon the name Cephas, in Greek, or Peter, in Latin, which means "a stone." (John 1:42) And He added, "The gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven."
Some persons have thought from this that Peter personally was to be the foundation of the church and was given power to let people into heaven and to shut them out of heaven; and they have claimed that he passed this power on to his successors, the Popes. This has been the belief of the Roman Catholic Church, and of those who put the words around the dome of Saint Peter's. But the Lord could not give such power to any man; and also see in verse 23 how the Lord spoke to Peter after something else that he had said: Get thee behind Me, Satan: thou art an offence unto Me." It was not Peter in either case that the Lord referred to, but in one case the truth and in the other case the falsity that Peter spoke. The truth of Peter's answer, the truth of the Lord's Divinity, was the foundation stone of the church, and not Peter, except as he stood for this truth.
The Lord was still speaking of this great truth when He said, "The gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven." He was speaking of the eternal certainty of this truth, and of the strength which they would find who accepted it as the foundation of their character and looked to it for defense against every evil that assailed them. What the Lord said about binding and loosing on earth and in heaven also teaches that evils which are resisted in the Lord's strength in this world we are protected from forever; and that good things chosen and made a part of our life here remain ours and develop in the life of heaven. They are tremendous words that are written on the dome of Saint Peter's, expressing a tremendous truth if rightly understood, and a tremendous falsity if misunderstood.
Can you think why the Lord charged the disciples to tell no man that He was Jesus the Christ? (Verse 20.) Compare verse 9 in the next chapter. Was it because an announcement of the truth in that external way would
have been by almost everyone misunderstood, and would have aroused hopes of an earthly king and an earthly kingdom which would have hindered and not helped the Lord's purpose?
In verses 21-23 the Lord foretold His own trials which were coming. Now that the disciples had learned and acknowledged the great truth of His Divinity they were able to hear of His trials and even His crucifixion without being discouraged and losing their faith in Him.
The Lord went on, after speaking of His own trials, to tell the disciples of a cross which they must bear, their own trials and temptations. If the Lord must meet such trials Himself, those who follow Him must meet them also. (John 15:18-20) In these very trials, when they were tempted to do wrong and turned to the Lord for help, they would learn the strength of faith in Him and the reality of His protection of which He had spoken in the famous words to Peter.
1. Where did the first things told in the chapter take place? How do you know? Where did the Lord ask the disciples who He was?
2. What had others said? What did Peter answer? What is the rock on which the Lord builds His church? What can give us strength to resist every temptation?
3. Did the Lord tell His disciples beforehand that He should rise from the dead? Why were they so sad and perplexed on Easter Day?
In the first verses of the chapter the Lord makes the red of the evening and morning sky a picture of the spiritual state of men, in particular of the Jewish Church at that time. The Jews could not read the sign; they were not aware of their own spiritual condition. The evening represents a state of spiritual life which is obscure. The evening redness represents the affection of such a state, imperfect, perhaps, but so from ignorance. The morning represents a state more fully established and its quality more clearly known. The morning redness represents evil affection chosen and confirmed. The state of the Jews in their denial of the Lord was of the latter kind. (A. 22; E. 706)
Someone should make for us a little study of Peter and his meaning. The twelve disciples represented essential elements of the church and of character; among them Peter stood for a true faith in the Lord. For this reason the Lord gave him the name Cephas, or Peter, which means "a stone," because a stone is a type of fixed, sure truth. The truth for which Peter stood is especially the truth which He declares in this chapter, the truth of the Lord's Divinity. And the Lord speaks of this as a "rock" and a foundation of His church, and of its strength against which the gates of hell cannot prevail. Compare Matthew 21: 42-45.
Peter's other name was Simon, which like the old name Simeon is derived from the word for "hearing." When the name Simon is used the thought is not of hard, intellectual faith, but of loving faith and obedience. This tenderer thought is emphasized when to Simon is added the name Bar-jona, "son of Jona." The name Jona means "a dove." Where these names are applied to Peter there is great tenderness. Notice their use in the last chapter of John's Gospel (John 21:15-17): "Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me?" In such a case the faith for which Peter stands is a faith that comes of love and is full of love. This is suggested by the Lord's words in our chapter, verse 17. "Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but My Father which is in heaven." The power to recognize the Lord's Divinity and to acknowledge Him had not come and never comes merely by an outward way, by the force of reasoning and argument: it comes from being touched at heart by a sense of the Lord's great goodness. Notice the very similar statement in John 6:44: "No man can come to Me, except the Father which hath sent Me draw him."
Perhaps you connect with this the charge in verse 20, that they should tell no man that He was Jesus the Christ. The acknowledgment must come, if it was to come at all, by a deeper way. The outward proclamation of the fact of His Divinity to those who did not feel it in their hearts might do more harm than good. (A. Preface to Genesis 18 and 22; T. 379; E. 443; R. 798)
I have suggested in the junior department a reason why the warning of the trials coming to the Lord and of His death, and of trials coming to the disciples themselves, follows Peter's acknowledgment: namely, that they had strength now to hear of these trials, and strength to bear their own cross, which they had not before. It may always be that fuller, truer knowledge of the Lord and His protecting power brings new and deeper temptations, for the reason that with this fuller knowledge one has the needed strength to meet temptation. You may see also another reason for the close connection of these warnings with Peter's confession. It was by His temptations and the continual laying down of all things of evil and finite inheritance, and the bringing down of Divine things in their place, that the Lord was glorified and was becoming wholly Divine. He accepted Peter's answer that He was Christ, but spoke at once of His coming suffering and death. It is almost as if the Lord had said, that the answer was true, but not completely true until these other trials had been met and He was fully glorified. (A. 2816; R. 639)
Our thought that the disciples stood for elements of the Christian Church and Christian character shows us one meaning of verse 28, namely, that the faith for which Peter stood, and principles for which other disciples stood, were being established which were to endure in the Lord's kingdom. Compare the saying to John in John 21:22, 23. A more limited and personal meaning of verse 28 is also suggested by comparison with verse 19. The elements of Christian character established in an individual in this world are not destroyed nor interrupted by death, but continue and increase in heaven. (R. 17)