William Kelly Major Works Commentary - Matthew 16:1 - 16:28

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William Kelly Major Works Commentary - Matthew 16:1 - 16:28

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Matthew Chapter 16

In the last chapter, which introduces a new part of the subject in Matthew, we saw two great pictures: first, the hypocritical disobedience of those who boasted of the law completely exposed out of their own prophets, as well as by the touchstone of the Lord Himself; and, secondly, the true nature of grace shown to one whose circumstances demanded nothing but sovereign mercy if she were to be blessed at all. At the close, the Lord's patient and perfect grace towards Israel is manifested, spite of the condition of the Jewish leaders. If He compassionated the Gentiles, His heart still yearned over His people, and He showed it by repeating the great miracle of feeding thousands in their needy condition; with no figure here of retirement from earth, which we saw in chapter 14, following the first miracle of feeding the multitudes - the type of our Lord's occupation at the right hand of God.

Now we have another picture, quite distinct from the previous one, though akin to it. It is not the flagrant disobedience of the law through human tradition, but unbelief - the source of all disobedience. Hence, in the language employed by the Holy Ghost, there is only a shade of difference between the words unbelief and disobedience. The former is the root of which the latter is the fruit. Having shown us the gross systematic violation of God's law, even by those who were religious leaders in Israel, and having convicted them of it, a deeper principle is now brought out, All that disobedience Godward flowed from unbelief of Himself, and, consequently, misapprehension of their own moral condition. These two things always go together. Ignorance of self flows from ignorance of God; and ignorance of both ourselves and God is proved by despising Jesus. And what is true in full of the unbeliever, partially applies to the Christian who in any measure slights the will and person of the Lord. All these are only the workings of that heart of unbelief of which the apostle warns even believers. The grand provision against this, the operation of the Holy Ghost, in contrast with the working of the natural mind of man, comes out here plainly.

"The Pharisees also with the Sadducees came, and tempting, desired that He would show them a sign from heaven." They were beginning the same story over again; but now it is higher up the source, and, of course, therefore, worse in principle. It is an awful thing to find opposed parties with one only thing uniting them - dislike of Jesus; persons who could have torn each other to pieces at another time, but this is their gathering point - tempting Jesus. "The Pharisees also with the Sadducees came, and tempting," etc. There was no conflict between the scribes and Pharisees, but a wide chasm separated the Sadducees and Pharisees. Those were the freethinkers of the day; these the champions who stood up for ordinances and the authority of the law. But both joined to tempt Jesus. They desired a sign from heaven. The most significant token that God ever gave man was before them in the person of His Son, who eclipsed all other signs. But such is unbelief, that it can go into the presence of the full manifestation of God, can gaze at a light brighter than the sun at noonday, and there and then ask God to give a farthing candle.

But Jesus "answered and said unto them, When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather, for the sky is red. And in the morning, It will be foul weather today, for the sky is red and lowering. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?" (vers. 2, 3). Their own moral condition was the sign and proof that judgment was imminent. For those who could see, there was the fair weather, the Day-spring from on high that had visited them in Jesus. They saw it not! But could they not discern the foul weather! They were in the presence of the Messiah, and were asking for a sign from heaven! The God that made heaven and earth was there, but the darkness comprehended it not. "He came to His own and His own received Him not." They were utterly blind. They could discern physical changes, but had no perception of moral and spiritual glories actually before them. How truly - "A wicked and adulterous generation seek after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it but the sign of the prophet Jonas. And He left them and departed."

Men constantly err as to the character of Jesus. They imagine that He could use no strong language and feel no anger; yet there it is in the Word, written in the light. Unbelief is always blind, and betrays its blindness most against Jesus. The same unbelief that could not then discern who and what Jesus was, sees not now Jesus coming, and discerns not the signs of their own impending ruin. It is the moral condition of men, no matter where they are, only the more remarkably manifested where the light of God is.

Our Lord does not hesitate to touch the evil with unsparing hand. He was the perfect manifestation of love: but let men remember He is the one who said, "wicked and adulterous generation," "generation of vipers," etc."? It flows from true love - if men would but bow to the truth that convicts them. To submit to God's word, to the truth now, in this world, is to be saved; to be convicted of the truth only in the next world is to be lost for ever. Christ was the faithful and true Witness; He brought God face to face with man, and caused His perfect light to shine upon them. Jesus can meet a soul in its ruin; He may eat with publicans to show that He is able to receive sinners - yea, came to seek and to save the lost, and to forgive sins to the uttermost; but He will never give any sign to satisfy the unbelief that rejects Him. These Pharisees and Sadducees would not hear His voice of grace, and they had to hear their own sentence from the judge of all the earth: "A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign, and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas." Had Jesus not been there, to ask for a sign would not have been so wicked; but His presence made it audacious unbelief and frightful hypocrisy. And what was this sign? The sign of one that disappeared from the earth; that, through the figure of death, passed away from the Jewish people, and after a while was given back to them. It was the symbol of death and resurrection, and our Lord immediately acted upon it. He "left them and departed." He would pass under the power of death; He would rise again, and the message which Israel had despised, He would carry to the Gentiles.

But there are other forms of unbelief; and the next scene (ver. 5) is with His disciples: so true is it that what you find working in its grossest shape in an unconverted man may be traced, in another way perhaps, in believers. "Jesus said unto them, Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees." They did not understand Him; they reasoned among themselves; and whenever Christians begin to reason, they never understand anything. "They reasoned among themselves saying, It is because we have taken no bread."

There is such a thing, of course, as sound and solid deduction. The difference is that wrong reasoning always starts from man and tries to rise to God, while right reasoning starts from God towards man. The natural mind can only infer from his experience, and thus forms his ideas of what God must be. This is the basis of human speculation in divine things; whereas, God is the source, strength and guide of the thoughts of faith. How do I know God? In the Bible, which is the revelation of Christ from the first of Genesis to the end of Revelation. I see Him there, the key-stone of the arch, the centre of all Scripture speaks of; and unless the connection of Christ with everything is seen, nothing is understood aright. There is the first grand fallacy, the leaving out of God's revealing Himself in His Son. It is not the light behind the veil as under the Jewish system, but infinite blessing now that God has come to man, and man is brought to God. In the life of Christ I see God drawing nigh to man, and in His death man brought nigh to God. The veil is rent; all is out, of man on the one hand, and of God on the other, as far as God is pleased to reveal Himself to man in this world. All stands in the boldest relief in the life and death of Christ. But disciples are apt to be very dull about these things now as ever; and so when He warned them about the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees, they thought that He was merely speaking of something for daily life - very much like what we see at the present time. But our Lord "said unto them, O ye of little faith, why reason ye among yourselves, because ye have brought no bread" (ver. 8). Why did they not think of Christ? Would they have troubled themselves about loaves if they had thought rightly of Him? Impossible! They were anxious, or thought Him so, about bread! "Do ye not yet understand," says the Lord, "neither remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets ye took up? Neither the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many baskets ye took up? How is it that ye do not understand that I spake it not to you concerning bread, that ye should beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees? Then understood they how that He bade them not beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees" (vers. 9-12). And this is what disciples even now often misapprehend. They do not understand the hatefulness of unsound doctrine. They are alive to moral evils. If a person gets drunk or falls into any other gross scandal, they know, of course, it is very wicked; but if the leaven of evil doctrine work, they do not feel it. Why is it that disciples are more careful of that which mere natural conscience can judge, than of doctrine which destroys the foundation of everything both for this world and for that which is to come? What a serious thing that disciples should need to be warned of this by the Lord, and even then not understand! He had to explain it to them. There was the darkening influence of unbelief among the disciples, making the body the great aim, and not seeing the all-importance of these corrupt doctrines, which menaced souls in so many insidious forms around them.

But there is another way and scene in which unbelief works. This chapter is the dissection of the root of many a form of unbelief. "By faith we understand," says the apostle to the Hebrews. The worldly man tries to understand first and then to believe; the Christian begins with the feeblest understanding, perhaps, but he believes God: his confidence is in One above himself; and thus, out of the stone there is raised up a child unto Abraham. The Lord now questions the disciples as to the real gist of all the matter, whether among Pharisees, Sadducees, or disciples themselves. "He asked His disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?" It is now Christ's person which comes out; and this, I need hardly say, is deeper than all other doctrine. "Whom do men say that I, the Son of Man, am? And they said, Some say that Thou art John the Baptist; some Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets" (vers. 13, 14). There are so many opinions among men, unbelief argues, that certainty is impossible. Some say one thing and some another: you talk of truth and Scripture; yet, after all, it is only your view. But what says faith? Certainty, from God, is our portion, the moment that we see who Jesus is. He is the only remedy that banishes difficulty and doubt from the mind of man. "Whom say ye that I am?" (ver. 15). This was for the purpose of bringing out now what is the pivot of man's blessing and God's glory, and becomes the turning point of the chapter. Among these very disciples we are to have a blessed confession from one of them - the power of God working in a man who had been rebuked for his want of faith before, as he was indeed just after. When we are really broken down before God about our little faith, the Lord can reveal some deeper higher view of Himself than we ever had before. The disciples had mentioned the various opinions of men: one said He was Elias; another, John the Baptist, etc. "But whom say ye that lam? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." Glorious confession! In the Psalms He is spoken of as the Son of God, but very differently. There He is dealing with the kings of the earth, who are called upon to take care how they behave themselves. But the Holy Ghost now lifts up the veil to show that the "Son of the living God" involves depths far beyond an earthly dominion, howsoever glorious. He is the Son of that living God who can communicate life even to those dead in sin. "Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona; for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but My Father which is in heaven."

First, the Father is revealing; and the moment Christ hears Himself confessed as the Son of the living God, He also sets His own seal and honours the confessor. It is the assertion of one who at once rises up to His own intrinsic dignity: "And I say also unto thee, Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." He gives Simon a new name. As God had given to Abraham, Sarah, etc., because of some fresh manifestation of Himself, so does the Son of God. It had been prophetically announced before; but now comes out for the first time the reason why it was affixed to him. "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church." What rock? The confession Peter had made that Jesus was the Son of the living God. On this the Church is built. Israel was governed by a law; the Church is raised on a solid and imperishable and divine foundation - on the person of the Son of the living God. And when this fuller confession breaks from the lips of Peter, the answer comes, Thou art Peter - thou art a stone: a man that derivest thy name from this Rock on which the Church is built.

In the early chapters of the Acts, Peter always speaks of Jesus as God's holy Servant. He speaks of Him as a man who went about doing good; as the Messiah. slain by the wicked hands of men, whom God raised up from the dead. Whatever Peter might know Jesus to be, yet when preaching to the Jews, he presents Him to them simply as the Christ, as the predicted Son of David, who had walked here below, whom they had crucified and God had raised again. Then, at Stephen's martyrdom, a new term is used about the Lord. That blessed witness looks up and says, "I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God." It is not now merely Jesus as the Messiah, but "the Son of Man," which implies His rejection. When He was refused as the Messiah, Stephen, finding that this testimony was rejected, is led of God to testify of Jesus as the exalted Son of Man at God's right hand. When Paul is converted, which is given in the next chapter but one, he straightway preaches "Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God." He did not merely confess Him, but preached Him as such. And to Paul was entrusted the great work of bringing out the truth about "the Church of God."

So here, upon Peter's confession, the Lord says, "Upon this rock I will build My Church." You understand the glory of My Person; I will show you the work I am going to accomplish. Mark the expression. It is not, I have been building; but I will build My Church. He had not built it yet, nor begun to build it: it was altogether new. I do not mean there had not been souls believing in Him before, and regenerate of the Spirit; but. the aggregate of saints from the beginning to the end of time it is an error to call "the Church." It is a common notion which has not one shred of Scripture for it. The expression in Act_7:38, "The church in the wilderness," means the whole congregation - the mass of Israel - the greater part of whose carcasses fell in the wilderness. Can you call that "the Church of God?" There were but few believers among them. People are deceived in this by the sound. The word, "church in the wilderness," merely means the congregation there. The very same word is applied to the confused assembly in Acts 19, which would have torn Paul to pieces. If it were translated like Acts 7, it would be the "church in the theatre," and the blunder is obvious. The word that is translated "church" simply means assembly. To find out what is the nature of the assembly, we must examine the scriptural usage and the object of the Holy Ghost. For you might have a good or bad assembly: an assembly of Jews, of Gentiles, or of God's assembly distinct from either and contrasted with both, as can be readily and undeniably seen in 1Co_10:32. Now it is this last which we mean, i.e., God's assembly, when we speak of "the Church."

What then, to return, does our Lord intimate when He says, "Upon this rock I will build My Church"? Clearly something that He was going to erect upon the confession that He was the Son of the living God, whom death could not conquer, but only give occasion to the shining forth of His glory by resurrection. "Upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hades" - the power of death - "shall not prevail against it." This last does not mean the place of the lost, but the condition of separate spirits. "And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven."

The Church and the kingdom of heaven are not the same thing. It is never said that Christ gave the keys of the Church to Peter. Had the keys of the Church or of heaven been given to him, I do not wonder that the people should have imagined a pope. But "the kingdom of heaven" means the new dispensation about to begin on earth. God. was going to open a new economy, free to Jews and Gentiles, the keys of which He committed to Peter. One of these keys was used, if I may so say, at Pentecost when he preached to the Jews; and the other, when he preached to the Gentiles.* It was the opening of the kingdom to people, whether Jews or Gentiles. "I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (ver. 19). The eternal forgiveness of sins has to do with God only, though there is a sense in which forgiving was committed to Peter and the other apostles, which remains true now. Whenever the Church acts in the name of the Lord, and really does His will, the stamp of God is upon their deeds. "My Church," built upon this rock, is His body - the temple of believers built upon Himself. But "the kingdom of heaven" embraces every one that confesses the name of Christ. This was begun by preaching and baptizing. When a man is baptized, he enters "the kingdom of heaven," even if he should turn out a hypocrite. He will never be in heaven, of course, if he is an unbeliever; but he is in "the kingdom of heaven." He may either be a tare or real wheat in the kingdom of heaven; an evil or a faithful servant; a foolish virgin or a wise one. The kingdom of heaven takes in the whole scene of Christian profession.

*It has been thought that the "baptizing" and "teaching," which the risen Lord commanded in sending the disciples to all nations Mat_28:18-20 are really the "keys" of the kingdom. - [Ed.

But, as we have seen, when Christ speaks of "My Church," it is another thing. It is what is built upon the recognition and confession of His person - "the Son of the living God." We know that "he that believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God." And, again, "He that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God overcometh the world." But there is a deeper power of the Holy Ghost in acknowledging Him as the Son of God; and the higher the acknowledgment of Christ, the more spiritual energy in going through this world and overcoming it. If one believer is more spiritual than another, it is because he knows and values the person of Christ better. All power for Christian walk and testimony depends upon the appreciation of Christ.

Mark also the order of our Lord's words. First, "Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona; for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but My Father which is in heaven." Christ must be found outside the Church, and before it; Christ must be discerned first and foremost by the individual soul; Christ and what He is must, before and above all, be revealed to the heart by the Father. He may employ persons who belong to the Church as instruments, or may directly use His own word. But whatever the means employed, it is the Father revealing the glory of the Son to a poor sinful man; and when this is settled with the individual, Christ says, "Upon this rock I will build My Church." Faith in Christ is essentially God's order and way before the question of the Church comes in. This is one great controversy between God and the mystery of iniquity which is now working in this world. The aim of the Holy Ghost is to glorify Christ; whereas that of the other is to glorify self. The Holy Ghost is carrying on this blessed revelation that the Father has made of the Son; and when the individual question is settled, then comes the corporate privilege and responsibility - the Church.

If I have got Christ, it is infinitely blessed. But I ought to believe, also, that He is building His Church. Do I know my place there? Am I found walking in the light of Christ - a living stone in that which He is building - in healthy action as a member of His body? Salvation was wrought here upon earth, and here it is that the Church is being built upon this rock; and the gates of hades - the invisible state, or separate condition - shall not prevail against it. Death may come in, but the gates of hades shall not prevail against it. The Lord says in Revelation that He has the keys of death and hades. The death of the Christian is in the hands of Christ. By the cross He has annulled the power of Satan, and He is the Lord both of the dead and of the living; death is not our Lord, but Christ. "Whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether, therefore, we live or die, we are the Lord's." The Lord has absolute right over us; and therefore death is robbed of all that makes it so terrible. In Revelation you have the Lord with the keys of death and hades. The keys of the kingdom of heaven He gives to Peter because he it was who was to preach to Jews and Gentiles. The door was flung open on the day of Pentecost first, and afterward yet more widely when the Gentiles were brought in.

Administration is also committed to Peter, both in binding and loosing; it is authority to act publicly here below, with the promise of ratification above: "Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." That is first said to Peter; and doubtless, from what we have in Mat_18:18: "Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven," the binding and the loosing applies also to the other disciples; not to the apostles only, but, I believe, to the disciples as such. Compare also the charge in Joh_20:19-23. On that principle people are received into the Christian Church, and on that principle wicked persons are put away till repentance justifies their restoration. Apostles or disciples do not forgive sins as a matter of eternal judgment, of course, which God alone has the power to do. But God requires of us to judge a person's state for reception into or exclusion from the circle which confesses the name of Christ here below. In Acts 5 Peter bound their sin on Ananias and Sapphira. This does not prove that they were lost; but the sin was bound upon them, and brought present judgment. Neither Peter nor Paul was at Corinth; and there the Lord Himself laid His hand upon the guilty: some were weak and sickly, and some had fallen asleep. This does not decide against their final salvation - rather, indeed, the contrary. When they were judged of the Lord they were chastened, that they should not be condemned with the world (that is, that they should not be lost). They might be taken away by death, and yet be saved in the day of the Lord. The Church puts away a wicked person. The man at Corinth, whom they were told to excommunicate, was guilty of heinous sin, but was not lost. He was delivered unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit might be "saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." In the next epistle we find this person so overwhelmed with sorrow on account of his sin that they were charged to confirm their love to him. Simple indeed is the binding and loosing which people often make so mysterious. The only sins that the Church ought to judge are those that come out so palpably as to demand public repudiation according to the word of God. The Church is not to be a petty tribunal of judgment for everything. We ought never to claim the assembly's intervention except about the evil that is so plain as to be entitled to carry the consciences of all along with it. This I take to be the meaning of binding and loosing.

"Then charged He His disciples that they should tell no man that He was the Christ." A remarkable change comes here. Peter had confessed Him to be the Christ, the Son of the living God: now the Lord charges them to tell no one that He was the Christ. It was as good as saying, It is too late; I am rejected as the Christ - the Messiah, the Anointed of Jehovah. He is refused by Israel, and He accepts the fact. But mark another thing: "From that time forth began Jesus to show unto His disciples how that He must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day" (ver. 2 1). In Luk_9:20, we are told, "He said unto them, But whom say ye that I am? Peter answering said, The Christ of God." "The Son of the living God" is not mentioned in Luke: consequently, nothing is said about the building of the Church. How perfect is Scripture! In Luke the Lord goes on to say, "The Son of Man must suffer many things," etc. There is a great distinction between "the Christ" and "the Son of Man." The latter is His title as rejected, then as exalted in heaven.

Forbidding the disciples to tell that He was the Christ is the turning-point in Christ's ministry. The meaning is that Christ drops His Jewish title, and He speaks of His Church. Before it comes, He says, "Upon this rock I will build My Church." From that time He began to show unto them how that He must "go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day." Luke adds that "He must first suffer," etc. All this is connected with the building of the Church, which began to be built after Christ rose from the dead and took His place in heaven. In Ephesians the Church is spoken of only after Christ's resurrection and His taking a new place in heaven have been brought out. We had God choosing the saints in Christ Jesus, but, not the Church. Election is an individual thing. He chose us - you and me, and all the other saints - that "we should be holy and without blame before Him in love." But when Paul has introduced Christ's death and resurrection, he says that God "gave Him to, be the head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all."

But mark a solemn fact. Immediately after Simon had made this glorious confession of the Lord Jesus, he is called, not Peter, but Satan! He had not said one improper word, according to human judgment. He had not even indulged in haste, as was often his wont. The Lord never called mere excitement "Satan"; but He so called Peter. because he sought to turn Him away from suffering and death. The secret was this: Peter had his mind on an earthly kingdom, and neither fully felt what sin was nor what the grace of God was. He stood in the way of the Lord's going to the cross. Was it not for Peter that He was going there? Had Peter thought of this, would he have said, "Be it far from Thee, Lord?" It was man thwarting Christ, and He pronounces it Satan. "He turned and said unto Peter, Get thee behind Me, Satan: thou art an offence unto Me; for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men" (ver. 23). Peter thus feeling and acting connects with the mystery of iniquity; not with what was taught by the Father.

Our Lord turns to the disciples and puts before them that not merely is He going to the cross, but they must be prepared to follow Him there. If I am to be in the true path of Jesus, I must deny myself and take up the cross and follow - not the disciples - not this church or that church, but - Jesus Himself. I must turn from what is pleasing to my heart naturally. I must meet with shame and rejection in this present evil world. If not, depend upon it, I am not following Jesus; and remember, it is a dangerous thing to believe in Jesus without following Him. Following Jesus maybe like losing one's life. At the present time much confession of Christ is, comparatively, an easy matter. There is little opposition, or persecution. People imagine that the world is changed; they talk of progress and enlightenment. The truth is, Christians are changed. Let us ask ourselves whether we desire to be found taking up our cross and following Jesus. "If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for My sake shall find it" (vers. 24, 25).

What lessons for our souls! The flesh easily arrogates superiority over the spirit; and indulgence to the path of ease comes in (though of Satan) under the specious plea of love and kindness. Is the cross of Christ our glory? Are we willing to suffer in doing His will? What a delusion is present honour and enjoyment!