Years ago, I saw a skit about a baseball player who made that mistake. There he stood in his stance in the batter's box. The pitcher threw the ball his way, the catcher caught it, the umpire cried, "Strike Three," and several seconds later, the batsman took his swing. Then he said, "Let me see if you can throw that again." The umpire pointed out that there really wasn't anything left for the pitcher to prove, so the batter should have a seat in the dugout.
Matthew 16 opens with a group of Jesus' enemies acting even more stupidly than that ball player (Matthew 16:1-4). On the heels of Jesus' miraculous feeding of 4000+ people, the Saducees and Pharisees come to Him, resistant to acknowledging His religious authority for fear of diminishing their own, and demand that Jesus give some sign that He is the Messiah. Jesus must have been tempted to ask, "You mean like what I just I did?"
His response was perhaps the moral equivalent of that rhetorical question. Jesus alludes to what was apparently a common expression those days, the Eugene Peterson paraphrase of it being especially cool:
He told them, "You have saying that goes, 'Red sky at night, sailor's delight; red sky at morning, sailors take warning.'"Jesus then upbraids these supposedly pious people for being able to understand what the skies told them about impending weather patterns, but being clueless when the obvious truth was looking right at them! The only sign they were going to get, Jesus said, was "the Jonah sign."
Jonah, of course, was the Old Testament prophet who was commanded by God to travel to the city of Nineveh and tell them that their evil was so pervasive that God was going to destroy the place. Jonah didn't want to do this. He hated the Ninevites and, aware of how merciful and forgiving God is, he was certain that the people there would repent--turn from their sin--and that God would forgive them and spare the city. Jonah wanted Nineveh destroyed.
So, instead of going on the mission on which God had sent him, Jonah decided to sail away on the Mediterranean. Angry with Jonah, God caused a storm to beat on the boat on which he was sailing. Jonah told the others on board that he was the reason for the danger in which they found themselves and that they should toss him overboard. The moment they did so, the sea turned calm.
God, being merciful even to this rebellious preacher, provided for Jonah's rescue. He was swallowed by a great fish and rode in its belly. Three days later, after Jonah had worshiped God in this unlikely sanctuary, Jonah was vomited out, apparently close to Nineveh. There, Jonah told the people of God's plans and just as he feared, the Ninevites repented. Also just as Jonah feared, God forgave them.
Jesus is saying here that, like Jonah, who emerged from the belly of a fish after three days, He would emerge from a tomb on the third day following His death and be the sign to the world of God's willingness to bring forgiveness to repentant people.
One of the ways in which we can put Jesus off, endlessly delaying actually dealing with His call on us to turn away from sin and receive His forgiveness or ignore His claims to be God-in-the-Flesh, the Savior Who can give us new and everlasting lives, is to say, like the Saducees and Pharisees, that we need some sign. His willingness to take our rightful punishment for sin and His resurrection ought to be sign enough.
What I've learned is that the only way any of us can ever know that Jesus is all He claims to be is to dare to believe in Him. "I don't understand everything about You, Lord," we can say, "but I am willing to believe."
The resurrected Jesus says, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe" (John 20:29).
In Matthew 16:5-12, Jesus is still steaming over the Pharisees' and Saducees' disbelief. It incites Him to speak metaphorically when the disciples reveal that they've forgotten to bring along all that bread with which Jesus had fed the 4000. At first, the disciples don't get what He's talking about. But as one commentary explains Jesus' words:
"When yeast is put in a batch of dough made of flour and water, it makes the whole batch rise and expand...Jesus was saying that the dishonest teaching of the Pharisees and the Saducees affected the whole people of Israel in the way a little bit of yeast makes a whole batch of bread dough rise..."Matthew 16:13-18 brings a climactic moment. After having observed Jesus up close, Simon, soon to be re-dubbed Peter by Jesus, confesses his belief that Jesus is the Messiah, God's Anointed Savior-King. Jesus says that it's on the Rock of such faith--Peter or petros in the New Testament Greek--He will build His Church. Jesus says that not even hell will be able to bring down the Church.
When Jesus speaks of the Church here, He doesn't have in mind bureaucratic structures or buildings. The Church--or in the Greek of the New Testament, the ecclesia, a word that literally means called out ones--is the fellowship of believers in Jesus called together by God's Holy Spirit through the lives and words of ordinary people who believe.
It's very much in the spirit of this understanding of the Church that the Augsburg Confession, a statement of belief to which members the Lutheran movement of which I'm a part adhere, says:
"It is also taught among us that the one holy Christian church will be and remain forever. This is the assembly of all believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel. For it is sufficient for the true unity of the Christian church that the Gospel be preached in conformity with a pure understanding of it and that the sacraments be administered in accordance with the divine Word. It is not necessary for the true unity of the Christian church that ceremonies instituted by men [sic], should be observed uniformly in all places..."In Matthew 16:19, Jesus hands to the Church what are called the keys of the kingdom. The upshot is that the Church has the awesome responsibility of proclaiming God's truth to the world. That includes sharing the truth of forgiveness to those who repent in Jesus' Name as well as the truth of the continuing need of forgiveness to those who turn away from Him.
This is not a responsibility to be taken lightly. Nor is it a license for legalistic preaching. God wants all people to be in relationship with Him. But God never forces Himself on anyone. Paying heed to God's Word and living accountably to one another, the people of the Church are to proclaim these and other truths about God to the world.
So, why does Jesus tell the disciples to tell nobody He's the Messiah in Matthew 16:20. Isn't the whole idea for them to tell the world that this is true so that they too, can follow Him and receive the new lives He wants to give people?
Yes, but until Jesus goes through the cross, the crowds attracted to Him, the very crowds who would welcome Him as a conquering hero on the first Palm Sunday and then cry for His death on the first Good Friday, are unlikely to understand what they're getting themselves into in following Jesus.
The person who follows Jesus allows Him to enact a kind of daily crucifixion and resurrection in their lives. Daily, He calls us to crucify our self-centered impulses that can only lead to our separation from God, so that our new, better, and eternal selves can rise with Christ.
Until we understand that bearing a cross and submitting to the execution of our old sinful natures is a daily part of the Christian's life, we won't be ready to follow Jesus.
Jesus believes in truth in advertising. He doesn't want us to ignore the obvious and so, understand both the challenges and the glories of following Him.
[Check out the previous installments of this series:
Scholars from the East
The Freedom to Be Weird
This is a Test
Trusting What You Can't See
The Theme Taken to Its Ultimate Expression
Explicating the Beatitudes...and More
Authenticity and Trust
Jesus' Radical Ethics
Friend of the Outcasts...
The Conflict Deepens
Guidelines for Loving the World for Christ
No More Religion!
The Subversive God
Stories About the Kingdom
The Emperor Who Had No Clothes vs. the God Clothed in Humanity
So Much for Being a Milquetoast]