Today is a bit harried. We’ve been on the road, my wife successfully defended her PhD, and we’re on the road again. Consequently, I my original commentary is minimal.
Today’s reading covers several interesting stories, including the “key” discussion at Caesarea Philippi and the Transfiguration.
Caesarea Philippi (i.e. Caesarea of Phillip who rebuilt and renamed it, vs. Caesarea Maritima or Caesarea of the Sea. That was the one on the coast, a huge port, and the usual one meant when simply “Caesarea” is said.)
This is a lush place with lots of streams and an old temple to Pan, hence its alternate name, Banias. (If pics seem cut off, click on them for larger version.)
Caesarea/Banias is also fairly removed from Jesus’ normal haunts and heavily non-Jewish, giving a safe place to take about his messianic identity and the coming kingdom. This was potentially a fraught and dangerous topic.
“But nobody had a very clear idea of what all this [Jesus spoke of] would look like on the ground. In the first century there were several would-be Messiahs who came and went, attracting followers who were quickly dispersed when their leader was caught by the authorities. One thing was certain. To be known as a would-be Messiah was to attract attention from the authorities, and almost certainly hostility.
So when Jesus wanted to put the question to his followers he took them well away from their normal sphere of activity. Caesarea Philippi is in the far north of the land of Israel, well outside the territory of Herod Antipas, a good two days’ walk from the sea of Galilee. Even the form of his question, here in Matthew’s gospel at least, is oblique: ‘Who do people say the son of man is?’, that is, ‘Who do people say that this person here, in other words (but without saying it) I myself, am?’ Jesus must have known the answer he would get, but he wanted the disciples to say it out loud.
The disciples report the general reaction—which tells us a good deal about the way Jesus was perceived by the people at large. Not ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’; not the cosy, comforting friend of little children; rather, like one of the wild prophets of recent or of ancient times, who had stood up and spoken God’s word fearlessly against wicked and rebellious kings. Jesus was acting as a prophet: not simply ‘one who foretells the future’, but one who was God’s mouthpiece against injustice and wickedness in high places.
But within that prophetic ministry there lay hidden another dimension, and Jesus believed—otherwise he would scarcely have asked the question—that his followers had grasped this secret. He was not just God’s mouthpiece. He was God’s Messiah. He was not just speaking God’s word against the wicked rulers of the time. He was God’s king, who would supplant them. That was indeed the conclusion they had reached, and Peter takes on the role of spokesman: ‘You are the Messiah,’ he says, ‘the son of the living God.’
What are the implications of this Messiahship?
Peter, speaking for them all, has just told Jesus that as far as they’re concerned he is not just a prophet, he’s God’s anointed king, the Messiah. Their natural next move would be to sit down and plan their strategy: if he’s the king, and if his people are going to be like the house built on the rock, then they must figure out how to get rid of the present kings and priests who are ruling Israel (or, more accurately, misruling it).
This planning the overthrow of the current rulers is not what happens, though. After Simon/Kepha speaks for all of them in declaring Jesus’ Messianic identity, Jesus both swears them to secrecy and gives Simon a nickname, Rocky… aka “Peter.”
Regarding the “gates of Hell”, this conjures up imagery that is inaccurate. When most of us today hear “hell” our conception of that has been heavily influenced by medieval Christian imagery and things like Dante’s Inferno.
More importantly, in language that LDS often read as fairly narrow and technical, Jesus gives Peter the keys of the kingdom, saying “whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” We tend to see this as the bestowing of the sealing power, which today is primarily associated with marriage in the temple. However, that’s not what appears to be going on here nor in the Book of Mormon. ( Nephi is given the power to seal, but not for marriages. Instead, it’s for a drought, as I recall, similar to Elijah’s shutting up of the heavens.) Note that Peter’s keys and binding and loosing is connected to mention of Christ’s Church. This is a clue. A second clue comes in Matthew 18:18 which repeats the binding and loosing phrases, but the context is decisions of Church government in disputes. Third, Jewish background- “In rabbinic Judaism the motif of binding and loosing was often applied to careful interpretation of biblical law in areas of personal conduct, or halakha; the rabbis rendered authoritative opinions on what was permitted and what was forbidden.”- Turner and Bock, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary on Matthew and Mark.
The Jewish New Testament Commentary (written by a Jew who converted to Christianity) says
In consequence of his confession [Jesus] makes [Peter] both (1) shammash (“steward”; see Ro 16:1N, Pp 1:1N, 1 Ti 3:8–13), with the keys, and (2) dayan (“judge”), who, as the one who can prohibit and permit, establishes new covenant halakhah
Notably, the language in this passage which suggests stewardship echoes Isaiah 22:22, which speaking specifically of a wicked steward to be replaced by a righteous one. “I will place the key of the house of David on his shoulder; he shall open, and none shall shut. He shall shut and none shall open.” See my discussion of Isaiah 22.
In other words, this seems to be a more general bestowing of authority to make binding decisions on and for the Christian community (consistent with how we view Apostles), not a specific bestowal of marriage-in-the-temple sealing keys.
Mount Tabor is the traditional site of the transfiguration, the extraordinary incident which Matthew, Mark and Luke all relate about Jesus. Actually, we don’t know for sure that it took place there. It is just as likely that Jesus would have taken Peter, James and John—his closest associates—up Mount Hermon, which is close to Caesarea Philippi, where the previous conversation took place. Mount Hermon is more remote and inaccessible, which is of course why parties of pilgrims have long favoured Mount Tabor. From both mountains you get a stunning view of Galilee, spread out in front of you.
– Matthew for Everyone
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