On March 22, 2022, I had the honor of teaching a message on Matthew 16 and 17 to the Tuesday Morning Bible Study at my church. Here is a written version of my message or you may watch the video.
Welcome to Spring. I love it when the daytime temperatures get to the 70s and 80s and the nights remain above 60 because this most closely mirrors home to me. I grew up in Papua New Guinea near the equator and in the mountains which makes for perfect weather 365 days of the year. But I’ve come to also love Spring in this hemisphere because it means new life and brings hope. And I need hope right now because my heart is heavy for the people of Ukraine. It’s difficult to see families separated, innocent lives lost, and cities bombed.
I have been praying “Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you pay no attention during times of trouble? (Psalm 10:1 NET) and “Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?” (Habakkuk 1:2 NIV).
Times like these make me think deeply about my view of Jesus and what I expect him to do for me. Jesus’s question is really pertinent: Who do I say I am? If I’m really honest I’d like him to be a warrior who rushes in on his horse to rescue the innocent—and I want it now. I want him to stop evil tyrants and dictators. I want all wars to end. Yet at the same time I know that I am far removed from a lot of suffering and part of the reason why I’d like Jesus to come in this way is because I want him to take away the problems so I don’t have to suffer. It would be a lot easier to live in my own protective bubble and ignore what’s going on in other parts of the world. I could be fixated solely on my concerns.
I expect I’m not alone in my feelings. I think most of us could answer Jesus’s question theologically. Yet when we see the troubles of the world—as well as the ones in our own lives—we wonder if we’ve got it right? Who exactly is Jesus and what is he doing? Why isn’t he fixing everything? That’s also how the disciples felt. They lived under an evil tyrant. They knew that oppression and suffering are real and they needed a king, to rescue them. But they had in mind the way they thought it would happen. But Jesus had a different mission. He differentiates between human concerns and God’s concerns. The disciples got them mixed up. I get them mixed up. I wonder if you do too?
Let’s see what Matthew 16 and 17 reveal to us about who Jesus is and what his concerns are. These two chapters are a part of the narrative section in between the third and fourth teachings of Jesus in chapters 13 and chapter 18. Jesus has still mostly been in the north, in Galilee. He’s teaching, healing, telling parables, answering questions, instructing the disciples. He’s trying to keep his mission under the radar, but crowds are following him and religious leaders are taking notice.
But he doesn’t want to be arrested before he has completed his mission, so he takes the disciples up north, to a private place to talk about his identity. He takes them to Caesarea Philippi, in North Galilee at the base of Mt. Hermon (one of the possible sites for the transfiguration), about a two day’s walk from from the Sea of Galilee.
Turn with me to chapter 16, starting at verse 13.
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”Matthew 16:13–14 NIV
When I served as a global worker in Indonesia, I wrote a curriculum for children of families coming out of Islam. Starting with Genesis and going to Revelation, I picked the stories that taught the principles someone with a background in Islam needed to learn. When I needed to test the stories, I read them to my house helper. After she had heard all 52 lessons, I asked her what she thought. Her conclusion: “I don’t know what to do with Jesus.” Her answer was the same as the people in this chapter. Maybe Jesus is a prophet. He’s someone special but basically, like my helper, they didn’t know. Then Jesus asked the disciples directly:
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”Matthew 16:15–16
Messiah is “christos” in Greek. Christ. It means “anointed.”1 The Old Testament prophets prophesied that this anointed one would also be a descendant of King David and that he would be king. The Jews of Jesus’s day knew this and believed that this anointed king would be a warrior who would free Israel from oppression, over throw their evil leaders, the Romans, and bring justice and peace to the world. In addition, they believed the Messiah would probably also purge the temple and set up worship of the one true God.
Over the years, “Messiah” came to be synonymous with power, authority, overthrow, a kingdom with a scepter and a throne, even revolution. So, in declaring him king, the disciples had the expectation that they would now begin strategizing for the overthrown of Herod and planning a crowning ceremony for Jesus. They understood he was Messiah, but how much they understand about his deity is debated. Some commentators think Peter’s declaration means they knew he was God. N. T. Wright thinks ‘son of God’ here does not mean the second person in the trinity as we know him but simply the one the Psalms and prophets had spoken of.2
Whatever the case, Peter and the disciples understood more than the crowds did and their understanding and faith were still growing. And Peter got something right because Jesus commends him for his answer. But even though Peter and the disciples were beginning to understand who Jesus was, they didn’t yet understand his method, his way, his end goal. I see this because of what happens next. For the first time, Jesus tells the disciples what’s going to happen:
From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.Matthew 16:21 NIV
As we’ve seen before, Jesus has a new way, an unexpected way. His way will involve suffering and death. In revealing this plan, Jesus is defining himself. He’s answering his own question, “Who do you say I am?” by saying, “I am the suffering King, but I gave up the glories of heaven to die. I’m rejecting power, privilege, and triumph as a way to fulfill my mission.”
Of course, Peter reacts:
Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”Matthew 16:22
I find it interesting that this time Peter addresses Jesus privately. And I wonder how Matthew got this information. Peter must have humbled himself and admitted it later. Peter rebukes Jesus. The student, the disciple, the mentee sharply admonishes the teacher, the rabbi, the master, the Son of the living God! Can you imagine the audacity!
“No, you’re wrong. I won’t let this happen. This can’t be right. That’s not the way,” Peter says. In answer Jesus speaks to Peter. Jesus corrects without shaming him:
Jesus turned to said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.Matthew 16:23 NIV
This phrase stood out to me. I love to do word studies so I went to Blue Letter Bible to look up the Greek for “concerns.” Well, the word in Greek is “that.” And that is not very helpful. The literal translation is: For not you think that of God but human’s that.
That is generic and it’s translated often as things3. But it can be translated many different ways as we see in the various versions of our bibles: interests, thoughts, things of God, God’s point of view, God’s purposes, things God cares about.
From the context we discover that Jesus is telling Peter to think about (set his mind on, have his thoughts on) God’s point of view, God’s interests, plans, perspective, the things God cares about. In other words, Peter has a human point of view, he’s setting his mind on human purposes, interests, plans, the things humans care about. His concerns revolve around setting up Jesus as king. And in this case, God’s concerns include Jesus going to Jerusalem, suffering, dying, and being raised.
I want to be interested in God’s concerns. I want a heart that cares about what God cares about. But what are God’s concerns? How do we know if we have set our minds on human concerns or God’s concerns? There are many things that God is concerned about throughout Scripture, but let’s just look at the various stories and encounters in these two chapters for some clues.
If we have our mind set on human concerns, we have the wrong or incomplete idea of who Jesus is
Some people think he’s a prophet or miracle worker. Or just a good man (like Gandhi) for us to exemplify. Or just one of the many gods of the world. But even believers can have a human perspective on Jesus. We can view Jesus as a circus performer to do tricks for us at our bidding (as the Pharisees wanted). Or think he’s the king who will destroy all our enemies and let us sit next to him on his throne (like the disciples believed). I used to view him as a vending machine. If I put obedience and service in, I’d get blessing and comfort out. That’s a human point of view. (16:14)
But if we have our mind set on God’s concerns, we personally know that Jesus is God himself, the eternal King
We will not only say “He’s my Savior, Lord, God, King, Creator” but we will know hm personally, deeply, intimately. He is Christ, both God and Man, the second person of the Trinity. He is not only the eternal king, but he is the one who suffers, meek and lowly, humble, compassionate, merciful, who lays down his life for us. Even though I have known Jesus all my life, I have had to relearn some things about him over the years, especially in the areas of his goodness as it relates to suffering. (16:16)
Those with human concerns seek signs and listen to many voices
The Pharisees and Sadducees asked Jesus for a sign, a proof that he was Messiah. Like them, we want proof Jesus is God. We’re attracted to those with the flashiest performance, the biggest tricks, the largest audience. We ask: What will Jesus do for me? We want personal proof that we’ll get something from him. And we can miss the signs God has already sent, namely Jesus himself. With access to so many mediums, I find myself listening to too may voices, even Christian ones. (16:1, 4; 17:12–13)
But those set on God’s concerns listen to Jesus alone and are not afraid
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased. Listen to him! When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown and were terrified. Jesus came up, touched them, and said, “Get up; don’t be afraid.” When they looked up they saw no one except Jesus alone (17:5–8). “Listen to him” is an addition from the words God spoke during Jesus’s baptism (3:17). Learn to listen to Jesus’s voice. “Do not be afraid” is the most repeated command in the Bible. I love that the guys look up and see only Jesus. While his way may mean suffering, we can look at him alone and not fear.
Preserving life and gaining power is the focus of human concerns
As the Jews did, we like the idea of a strong Messiah who will come with his weapons and win even if it means violence. So we try to get our people in power, pass laws that benefit us, make life easier, and be more comfortable. The disciples didn’t want Jesus to die. Likewise, we don’t want our heroes to die. We want to be the winners, to overthrow. We don’t want to look like failures or losers. We want the victorious ending. We want a tribulation free escape from our suffering here and now. And Jesus says this approach will mean we ultimately lose our life and forfeit our soul. (16:25–26)
But denying self, taking up our cross, and following Jesus are God’s concerns and and reap eternal rewards
There would have been no doubt in the minds of the disciples that when Jesus said “take up your cross” he meant death. That’s what crosses were for in those days. Following Jesus meant giving everything, even to death. The way to true life and finding one’s soul was through losing it. I saw this in the example of the missionary, Jim Elliot, who was killed by the very people he tried to share the Gospel with. After he was martyred, these words were found in his journal: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” In his death, Jim received his eternal reward. (16:24, 27)
When we are focused on human concerns, we try to stay on the mountain top, creating heaven on earth
Jesus takes Peter along with James and John to a mountain. While there, his appearance transforms. He face shines and his clothes become white. And suddenly Moses and Elijah appear and talk to Jesus. And Peter reacts again. Peter wants to build shelters for the special guests. He wants to stay on the mountain top—on his high—in his little piece of heaven, in his special place beside Jesus and Moses and Elijah. I too struggle with wanting to hoard my kingdom life, to maintain my transfiguration moments, to hunker down with those just like me to create little pieces of problem-free heaven, with those I love. (17:4)
But in God’s mindset, the mountain top propels us outward to proclaim the kingdom
Jesus gave Peter, James, and John a glimpse of kingdom life so they would know what it’s supposed to be like. So that they knew it is worth suffering for. So they can tell others what to expect. So that they could invite others to join it. Likewise, we’re not meant to stay on the mountain hoarding our kingdom moments like Peter wanted to do. Or build safe insular worlds where we try to keep all evil out. Instead God’s concerns are all about sharing the kingdom and inviting others in. (17:4)
Those with human concerns have corrupted God’s truth
“Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (16:6). Leaven was a symbol for something that made bread less pure. Therefore, Jesus is telling the disciples to beware the corrupted truth that the Pharisees taught. Peter didn’t like the idea that his Messiah would die so he diluted Jesus’s message. Are there truths in scripture we don’t like so we water them down? Are there things about Jesus we don’t appreciate so we dilute him and his message? I feel this tension when I write and teach.
But those with God’s concerns exercise faith, even little faith
“For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will tell this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move.” (17:20). Take note of the times Jesus says someone has great faith and the times he speaks about their little faith. At first I heard his words as a rebuke, a criticism. But here I see that even little faith is enough to move mountains. Faith, small or large, is having God’s concern. “The size of your faith isn’t important; what’s important is the God in whom you believe” say N. T. Wright.4
We can see from this that human concerns are the way of power, triumph, comfort, and an earthly kingdom of privilege and glory. And God’s concerns are the way of death, self-denial, and God’s kingdom as exemplified in the Sermon on the Mount. So I ask you:
Who do you say Jesus is? Is he a king who will come at your bidding to overthrow your enemies to make your life comfortable, or is he Christ, the son of the living God who is working all things to advance his kingdom.
Which human concerns have you been occupied with lately? Are you trying to find heaven here on earth? God has mercifully given us little snippets, little glimpses in Matthew (as well as in our own lives) of his kingdom. And it’s great. And we love it. And so our tendency is to cling to it, strive for it. Through our church, small group, kids, our denomination. Through our government, freedom, leaders, our patriotism. We try to find utopia in the laws that we make and the leaders we elect. But when our efforts to build our own heaven on earth exclude others and turn them off, put up a wall, show that we are disagreeable, or cause unnecessary offense (17:27), then we are concerned with human things.
Which of God’s concerns might you focus on this week? Can you exercise faith and seek to live as a kingdom citizen sharing its beauties with others? How are you doing listening to Jesus? How’s your fear factor? In what way do you need to deny yourself, and let go of your life? Remember that the kingdom comes through servanthood, to being the least, not the greatest.
This means we pray for God’s kingdom to come on this earth, and we fight against injustice and work for freedom, health, and provision for all; and we rescue people from trafficking and help the refugee. But the reason we do this is not so we are more comfortable, but that the world will see a glimpse of the kingdom of God and be attracted to it. So that the world may hear and believe.
What is one step you can take to set your mind on God’s concerns? We can set our minds on the concerns of God—deliberately think about this instead of that—because we know the end of the story. We know that we live on the other side of the cross—Jesus has already died for us. Yet some of us are acting like we’re still waiting for our Messiah to overthrow our rulers. Friends, we don’t need an earthly king. We have Jesus. He has already set us free. Let Jesus be the king he needs to be, not the king you think he should be. Let him do the unexpected.
I want to close by reading what Peter said in his letter of 1 Peter. This is the same guy whose mind was filled with human concerns. At the end of his life, he tells us how to think on God’s concerns:
For you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light. Dear friends, I warn you as “temporary residents and foreigners” to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against your very souls. Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world.1 Peter 2:9, 11–12
What would it look like for us to think on God’s concerns, not human concerns? I think we’d declare that Jesus is the Messiah, the eternal king, the Son of the living God, the one who will deal with the wicked and ease the burdens of those who suffer. We’d be a community that chooses the way of servanthood and self-denial instead of the way of power and triumph. The way of losing our life instead of insisting on our right to it. We would not seek to create and maintain our own little kingdoms but work for the advancement of God’s kingdom. And we’d invite others to join the kingdom rather than hoarding it for ourselves. Let’s think about God’s concerns, not human concerns.
2 N. T. Wright, Matthew: 25 Studies for Individuals and Groups (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 75.
4 N. T. Wright, Matthew: 25 Studies for Individuals and Groups (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 79.