When Jesus knows that his disciples understand enough, he asks them about his identity. The setting is significant: Caesarea Philippi (Matt. 16:13; also Mark 8:27) was a predominantly Gentile city known for its worship of the pagan deity Pan. Jesus chooses a Gentile region for the first confession of his identity, prefiguring a mission that will eventually extend to all peoples. It is no surprise that Matthew chooses to include this important information in his very Jewish Gospel, which emphasises God’s concern also for Gentiles (Matt. 1:3-5; 2:1-11; 4:13-15; 8:5-13; 10:14-15, 18; 11:21-24; 12:41-42; 15:21-28; 24:14; 27:54; 28:19).
Many people believed that Jesus was just a great prophet, but Simon Peter declared that he was the Messiah, God’s Son (Matt. 16:16). Peter is not the first person in this Gospel to suggest that Jesus might be the promised Son of David—that is, the Messiah (9:27; 12:23; 15:22; later 20:30-31; 21:9, 15). But he is the first to do among those who are Jesus’ disciples, his close followers.
Although Jesus must qualify Peter’s understanding, he first praises it. Only God could reveal Jesus’ identity truly (11:27), and he had done this for Peter (16:17). God had revealed the truth not to the highly educated scribes, but to the comparatively unlearned Peter (compare 11:25).
Jesus promised to build his community of followers “on this rock,” on Peter’s affirmation of Jesus’ identity (16:18). (Scripture already spoke of God “building” his people, e.g., Jer. 24:6; 31:4; 33:7). Jesus plays on Peter’s nickname here (“Simon” was such a common name it required an additional name to specify which Simon it was). In Greek, petros (“Peter”) means “rock,” and on this petra (“rock”) Jesus would build his church. As Paul says, the church is built on the foundation of apostles and prophets, with Jesus being the cornerstone (Eph. 2:20; cf. Jesus in Matt. 7:24-25). But why apostles and prophets? And why Peter, and especially now? Jesus praises Peter here because Peter has just confessed Jesus as the Messiah. Peter plays a foundational role by declaring Jesus as Messiah.
The “gates of Hades” will not prevail against Jesus’ church (Matt. 16:18). “Gates of Hades” was a common ancient expression for the realm of the dead. Death itself would not prevail against Jesus’ church; martyrdom—about which Jesus will soon have more to say (16:21, 24-25)—will not stop his work. The holder of palace keys was a major official (cf. Isa. 22:22); by confessing Jesus as Christ, Peter would exercise great kingdom authority. Whereas the wrong-headed teachers of God’s people were shutting people out of the kingdom (Matt. 23:13; Luke 11:52), Peter’s confession of Jesus was a key to let people in.
After praising Peter’s confession that Jesus is the promised king, Jesus goes on to define his kingship in a way that none of his contemporaries anticipated—in light of the cross (Matt. 27:37). Jesus’ Messiahship must remain a secret at that stage in his ministry (16:20), since no one was prepared to understand it. As Christ, Jesus was going to be rejected by the religious and political leaders of his people, killed, and would then rise again (16:21).
Having boldly confessed Jesus’ Messiahship by divine revelation, Peter now denies Jesus’ true messianic mission (16:22)—by satanic revelation (16:23). The good “rock” of 16:18 now becomes a bad rock, “a stumbling block” to Jesus (16:23). A disciple’s role was to “follow” after his teacher (16:24), but Jesus has to command Peter to “get behind” him (16:23; intended figuratively, since Jesus turns to him).
Granted that Peter misunderstands Jesus’ mission, is this offence serious enough to call him “Satan”? Sadly, yes. The devil’s climactic temptation to Jesus in Matt. 4:8-9 was to offer Jesus kingship over all the world—if Jesus would bow down to the devil. In contrast to the Father’s will, the devil’s way for Jesus to be “God’s Son” (4:3, 6) was the kingdom without the cross. Jesus responded, “Begone, Satan!” (4:10), and Jesus responds to Peter in the same way, because Peter now echoes Satan’s temptation.
Nor will Peter be the last one in this Gospel to echo Satan. As the devil urged Jesus to prove by some dramatic act that he was God’s Son (4:3, 6), so do Jesus’ mockers at the cross: “If you’re really God’s Son, come down from the cross!” (27:40; cf. 27:43). The scribes and elders mock, “He supposedly saved others; now he can’t save himself. He is supposed to be Israel’s king; let him come down from the cross and then we’ll believe in him” (27:42). In other words, Jesus could get everyone to “follow” him if he offered a more popular way. But it was not the Father’s way, and everyone would still die in sin. Jesus could not save himself if he wished to save others; God’s Son would obey his Father.
This was not the sort of Messiah whom people wanted to follow. The popular idea of the Messiah was a king who would lead his people to victory; that was what Peter wanted. But if Jesus’ messianic mission was the cross, that was also to be the mission of his followers. If we follow, we must follow to the cross: “If anyone wants to come after me, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow me” (16:24).
Condemned criminals normally had to carry their own cross to the site of their execution. Later Jesus’ disciples literally failed to take up the cross and follow him; the Romans had to draft a bystander to do it for Jesus (27:32). Happily, Jesus’ resurrection changed them, and eventually they were prepared to follow him to the death. Jesus is forgiving and he patiently forms us into the people he has called us to be. But as much as he desires to lavish his gifts, such as healing and deliverance, on people, he also cares enough to make us realistic about this world. If we follow the Father’s way instead of the devil’s, we will face suffering. The kingdom without the cross is still a temptation, and it is still a satanic message.
But the promise of God’s reward far exceeds the suffering. It is those who recognise that eternity is longer than the present, who are willing to give even their lives for their Lord if that need arises, who will have life forever (16:25-27). We were worth everything to Jesus, and he is worth everything to us.