Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Matthew 16.13-19
Confession of St. Peter

Other texts: 

The week between the Festival of the Confession of St. Peter (Jan 18) and the Festival of the Conversion of St. Paul (Jan 25) is the "Week of Prayer for Christian Unity." Peter, the apostle to the Jews, and Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, represent the unity of the Christian mission to all people, as well as the particular mission of individual believers. Besides this distinction, Pfatteicher (Festivals and Commemorations) also presents Peter as representing "the Mosaic tradition of law, and Paul... the Abrahamic tradition of faith."

I would also suggest that Peter might represent those who moved from a non-religious life (an assumption about fishermen) to a life of faith; and Paul represents those who moved from a very strong legalistic religious commitment, to a grace centered faith.

I'm certain that there are other similarities and contrasts that can be made about these two great apostles of Christianity.

The Gospel Lesson for this festival is nearly identical to the one for Proper 16 A (Matthew 16:13-20). I repeat, with some adaptations, my notes from that date.

CAESAREA PHILIPPI (the following description comes from Eugene Boring, Matthew, New Interpreter's Bible):

Caesarea Philippi, about twenty miles north of the Sea of Galilee, had earlier been the site of a Baal cultic center, then in Hellenistic times became known as Paneas because the god Pan had been worshiped in the famous grotto and spring there, but was renamed by Herod the Great after he built there a temple to Caesar Augustus. After Herod's death it was made part of the territory of his son Philip, who enlarged the town and named it after Tiberius Caesar and himself. During the war of 66-70, Caesarea was a recreation spot for the roman general Vespasian, who began the siege of Jerusalem and then left his son Titus in charge to complete it when he became emperor. After the fall of Jerusalem, Titus and his troops returned to Caesarea, where Josephus reports he had some of the Jewish captives thrown to wild animals. [The Jewish War 3.9.7., 44-44; 7.2.1. 23-24]. Matthew's preservation of this location (dropped by Luke) may be only incidental, but since he did omit Mark's setting on the road, Matthew may have wished to emphasize that the significant scene took place in a setting with older nationalistic and religious associations, Jewish and pagan. He brings the scene of Jesus' confession as the Jewish Messiah into the shadow of a Caesar temple, where the Roman destroyers of Jerusalem had celebrated their victory, a revered site long associated with both pagan and Jewish revelatory events (cf. 1 Enoch 12-16). [p. 342]

Confessing Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God, may be easy within the confines of the church. What if we took the congregation to the front of a strip-tease bar or a New Age temple or an astrologist's office or local, state, or federal government buildings or their places of work and asked them about Jesus in those locations? Perhaps a clearer contrast might be made between the "Son of the living God" (a phrase included only in Matthew) and the places and people serving dead idols. It can be more difficult to believe in the power of the living God when we are surrounded by indications of contrary powers and authorities.


Phrased more literally: "Who are the humans saying that the son of the human is?" The Greek anthropos is used twice in the sentence. In the second question, Jesus does not use "Son of Man/Human," but "I".

The phrase "Son of Man" could be an eschatological title or it could simply be a way of saying, "this (human) person" as it is used in Ezekiel. The first question could be an impersonal, "Who are the people saying that this person is?" The second question is personal, "You, who are you saying that I am?"

The disciples' answer in Matthew adds "Jeremiah." Matthew is the only NT book that mentions Jeremiah (2:17; 27:9). Perhaps he was a favorite scripture in Matthew's community.


The "you" in the second question is emphatic and plural. It was not a question addressed just to Peter, but to the whole community. Perhaps we need to challenge our congregations as a whole with this question. How is their corporate (and individual) understanding of Jesus differ from what other people might say about Jesus? How does that confession affect what they do as a group and how they relate to one another? The confession of Jesus certainly should make a church something different than a social club.

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 continuing confession.

Peter, who answers, sometimes represents the disciples, sometimes represents all believers, and sometimes plays a unique and unrepeatable role in founding the new community. Which "Peter" is portrayed here when answering Jesus' question?

In Matthew the reader has been told six previous times that Jesus is the Christ (1:1, 16, 17, 18, 2:4; 11:2) all by the narrator. This is the first confession by the disciples that Jesus is the Christ/Messiah. However, calling Jesus the Christ is not necessarily a sign of faith. Jesus indicates that there will be false Christs (24:5, 23). Jesus is called "Christ" by the High Priest (26:63); by scribes and elders (26:68), and by Pilate (27:17, 22).

Besides God declaring Jesus to be his son at his baptism and the transfiguration, the disciples had declared Jesus to be the "Son of God" after he walked on the stormy sea (14:33). Otherwise, this phrase is used of Jesus by his enemies: the Tempter (4:3, 6); demons (8:29); the high priest (26:63); and mockers (26:40, 43). However, the centurion and those with him declare: "Truly this man was God's Son!" (27:54).

Calling Jesus "the Christ" or even "Son of God" are not necessarily signs of faith. What else might we look for? One answer from this text is that we need to look at the source of that confession -- whether a divine source or a human source.

Verses 17-19 of our text are found only in Matthew. Jesus addresses Peter singularly (but he may represent all the disciples or all Christians). The proper confession of faith comes as a revelation, a gift from God. This could be a fitting theme during the Epiphany Season. It’s like a light coming on in one’s head. In some way, God reveals the truth about Jesus to us.

When people talk about their faith, I listen for the subject of their sentences. Are they talking about what they do: "I prayed to God, I accepted Jesus, I received the Holy Spirit, I love the Lord, etc."? Are they talking about what God has done and is doing: "God accepted me, God received me, Jesus died for me, God forgives me, God loves me, etc."?

I've had this brief conversation a few times: Someone asks, "Do you love the Lord?" I respond, "Yes, but more importantly, God loves me." Faith and our proper confessions of Jesus begin with God. Luther states this clearly as he begins his explanation to the Third Article of the Creed in the Small Catechism:

I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort
believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him.
But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel,
enlightened me with his gifts,
and sanctified and kept me in true faith.

I'm not sure how many of our people in the pews understand this gospel-centered theology. Perhaps the most powerful idol we need to overcome is our selves and a works-righteousness (even if the work is having the proper confession) that puts self in the center of our faith rather than God -- a self that wants to declare, "I believe that I have come to believe by my own understanding and efforts."

If "flesh and blood" can't reveal Jesus to the people, why have Sunday school with "flesh and blood" teachers? Why have "flesh and blood" preachers? Why send out "flesh and blood" evangelist? Congregations could save a lot of money and volunteer time if we didn't need to have those people and programs.

We do such things, first of all, because Jesus told us to. Secondly, because we have the promise that God is revealed through the Word and in the sacraments and in the fellowship of those gathered in Jesus' name. When any Christian speaks the Word of God, it is not just "flesh and blood" speaking. It is a word with all of heaven behind it (v. 19).


There is no other ancient evidence of any person being named "Rock". The reference may go back to Isaiah 51:1-2.

Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness,
you that seek the LORD.
Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which you were dug.
Look to Abraham your father
and to Sarah who bore you;
for he was but one when I called him,
but I blessed him and made him many.

Just as Abraham was given a new name as he became the founder of a new community of God's people; so does Peter.

What is the "rock"? I think that it is Peter himself, but to think that Jesus would build his church on someone as unstable as Peter leads to other interpretations. Some have pointed out that the Greek petros (Peter) and petra (rock) are different words, so they conclude that Jesus is making a contrast between the wavering Peter and the solid rock foundation of the church. However, in Aramaic, the language Jesus probably spoke, the two words are the same. A more common argument is that the rock is Peter's good confession or his faith; but not Peter himself. I think that many people have a hard time accepting that Jesus built and continues to build the church upon sinful human beings. They keep looking for that perfect church. A perfect church doesn't need Jesus.

Some years ago I received this brief autobiography from a seminary student. (He is no longer 45 and has since been ordained in the ELCA and is serving a three-point parish.) I asked if I could share it. He agreed:

For the record, I am 45 years old, three times divorced, four times married, a convicted felon, (homicide,) a biker and a former businessman. I struggled for nearly fifteen years with my sense of call, asking what congregation in their right mind would call ME as a pastor. The answer from a pastor friend of mine, (Assembly of God,) that the ONLY kind of church that would call me would be one that had real sinners in it, people with real problems who wanted to see the Lord at work in the lives of real people. In other words, the Body of Christ. I liked his answer.

I like his answer, too. We might ask: "What congregation in their right mind would want Peter as their pastor?" Most of the time when he spoke, he said the wrong things. Jesus even called him "Satan!" He publicly denied knowing Jesus three times. Yet, he is the foundation Jesus is building his church on. Couldn't Jesus have picked someone better -- like pious me? <G>

Peter, as "Rock" is a foundation upon which Jesus builds his church. Peter, as "Rock," sank in the water like a stone when he became frightened and doubted (Mt 14:28-31). Peter, as "Rock," seemed to continually backslide -- or roll downhill, which rocks will naturally do. In our text, he confesses Christ. In the next paragraph, he rebukes Jesus and is called "Satan" by Jesus. Peter, as "Rock," becomes a "stumbling block" to Jesus (Mt 16:22-23). At the Last Supper, Peter pledges his undying allegiance to Jesus after Jesus has predicted his denial (26:33-35). Peter (with others) will fall asleep when Jesus has asked them to pray with him (26:40-45). Peter will deny Jesus three times (26:69-75).

It is natural for rocks to roll downhill and to sink in the water. It takes some outside force to keep gravity from pulling a rock down. When Peter makes his good confession, it is attributed to the Holy Spirit. When Peter speaks before the authorities in Jerusalem, we are told, "Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 4:8 -- First Lesson). However, after Peter rebukes Jesus, Jesus replies, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things" (Mt 16:23).

It is not really Peter who makes his confession, but the Holy Spirit who centers his mind on divine things and who speaks through him. If we are celebrating the Confession of St. Peter, we need to be certain about the source of the confession.


This Greek word for "rock" is distinguished from the Greek lithos, (= "stone") in that petra is usually a huge, immovable bedrock or mountain and lithos is a smaller and movable stone. Both words are used in Mt 27:60: "and laid it [Jesus' body] in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock (petra). He then rolled a great stone (lithos) to the door of the tomb and went away.

Another place where Matthew uses petra is Mt 7:24-25: "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock." [NOTE: the same Greek word for "build" is used here and in our text, too.]

Peter was certainly a person who acted on Jesus' words -- not always the brightest of acts, e.g., wanting to build three booths at the transfiguration or becoming Satan -- but he acted. We could describe Peter as a good Lutheran: he sinned boldly -- and often!

In contrast to the stability of the rock in our text and the above verses, Matthew also writes: "At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split" (27:51). God is more powerful than the solid rock.

Ignoring the distinction I've just mentioned: Could Jesus have been making a joke (and an exaggeration) about Peter who only last week "sank like a stone" when he tried walking on the water (14:30)? Although that text says, "He began to sink" -- implying a slow descent; and even if Jesus weren't making fun of the incident, we might in sermons mentioned how quickly a huge rock would sink in the water -- that's Peter (or we could translate his name: "Rock Johnson"). Exaggeration is a characteristic of Hebrew humor, e.g., a camel and a needle.

The image of the church being made up of "living stones" (lithoi) from 1 Peter 2 could be related to our text.

A distinction has made between being a rock (an object that can do absolutely nothing for itself = orthodoxy) or a clam (something that looks a lot like a rock, but it can do a few things for itself = (Semi-Pelagianism).


ekklesia translated church originally referred to the local political assembly -- the people "called out" to a town meeting. The people who didn't show up, were not part of the ekklesia! Matthew is the only gospel to use this word. Its other occurrences are in the discipline section (18:17). Our word "congregation" has some of this idea. It comes from the Latin: con or com = "together" + gregare = "to collect (into a flock)" or "to gather". In a literal understanding of the word, those who do not "gather together" are not part of the "congregation".


What are the "gates of Hades" that will not, literally, "be stronger than" Jesus' church? Hades was the realm of the dead and not a place of punishment. Jesus may be saying that the power of death is not stronger than the church -- the church will never die. Jesus may be saying that as Hades can represent the portals of Satan, Satan and the demonic forces will not be stronger than the church.

Often in the midst of church conflicts, we may not always believe these words of Jesus. Sometimes we may need to check if the congregation is still a group that has been built by Jesus -- if it is still a group who recognizes that they are sinful human beings who have been grasped by God's revelation concerning the truth about Jesus.

The strength of the church is not the stability of its people and their faith (e.g., Peter), but the all-powerful God whom we sinners trust. Neither death nor the powers of evil can over-power God, although, at times, they can often overpower our faith.


The keys of the kingdom of heaven given to Peter represent teaching authority. A similar image is given in Isaiah 22:20-23:

On that day I will call my servant Eliakim son of Hilkiah, and will clothe him with your robe and bind your sash on him. I will commit your authority to his hand, and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open.

The opening and shutting in Isaiah become binding and losing in Matthew. Those are rabbinic terms for authoritative teaching, the authority to interpret Torah and apply it to particular cases, the authority to declare what is permitted and not permitted. This authority is given to the ekklesia in 18:18.

It seems this authority is still needed, but it often is the source of conflict as we struggle to apply gospel and scriptural truths to our contemporary world -- and often not agreeing with one another. Who has been given this authority today? In the ELCA, the Churchwide Assemblies determine the "official" social applications. The "practical" applications of many more issues are often put into the prayerful wisdom of the pastors who are confronted with faith issues of members (and self) daily.

A theme that is being used in the ELCA (at the last churchwide assembly and, at least at our Sierra Pacific Synod assembly) is Faithful Yet Changing. We need to understand the aspects of Christianity that we are faithfully bound to and the aspects that we can and need to change for the sake of our mission to the world. Certainty about what are part of the rock foundation of our faith also implies knowing what parts are not part of the foundation – those things known as adiaphora in Lutheran circles.


As I've suggested above, we will need to remind ourselves that this festival ultimately is not about Peter, but about God. Peter was often as dense as a rock, but God could still turn on the light in his mind and give him the proper confession about Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of the living God. As such, Peter was not Mr. Super-Saint, but Mr. Every Believer.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran, Marysville, CA