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11. PETER’S CONFESSION; OR, CURRENT OPINION AND ETERNAL TRUTH

Matt. 16:13–20; Mark 8:27–30; Luke 9:18–21.

From the eastern shore of the lake Jesus directed His course northwards along the banks of the Upper Jordan, passing Bethsaida Julias, where, as Mark informs us, He restored eyesight to a blind man. Pursuing His journey, He arrived at length in the neighborhood of a town of some importance, beautifully situated near the springs of the Jordan, at the southern base of Mount Hermon. This was Cæsarea Philippi, formerly called Paneas, from the heathen god Pan, who was worshipped by the Syrian Greeks in the limestone cavern near by, in which Jordan’s fountains bubble forth to light. Its present name was given to it by Philip, tetrarch of Trachonitis, in honor of Cæsar Augustus; his own name being appended (Cæsarea Philippi, or Philip’s Cæsarea) to distinguish it from the other town of the same name on the Mediterranean coast. The town so named could boast of a temple of white marble, built by Herod the Great to the first Roman Emperor, besides villas and palaces, built by Philip, Herod’s son, in whose territories it lay, and who, as we have just stated, gave it its new name.

Away in that remote secluded region, Jesus occupied Himself for a season in secret prayer, and in confidential conversations with His disciples on topics of deepest interest. One of these conversations had reference to His own Person. He introduced the subject by asking the twelve the question, “Whom do men say that I, the Son of man, am?” This question He asked, not as one needing to be informed, still less from any morbid sensitiveness, such as vain men feel respecting the opinions entertained of them by their fellow-creatures. He desired of His disciples a recital of current opinions, merely by way of preface to a profession of their own faith in the eternal truth concerning Himself. He deemed it good to draw forth from them such a profession at this time, because He was about to make communications to them on another subject, viz. His sufferings, which He knew would sorely try their faith. He wished them to be fairly committed to the doctrine of His Messiah-ship before proceeding to speak in plain terms on the unwelcome theme of His death.

From the reply of the disciples, it appears that their Master had been the subject of much talk among the people. This is only what we should have expected. Jesus was a very public and a very extraordinary person, and to be much talked about is one of the inevitable penalties of prominence. The merits and the claims of the Son of man were accordingly freely and widely canvassed in those days, with gravity or with levity, with prejudice or with candor, with decision or indecision, intelligently or ignorantly, as is the way of men in all ages. As they mingled with the people, it was the lot of the twelve to hear many opinions concerning their Lord which never reached His ear; sometimes kind and favorable, making them glad; at other times unkind and unfavorable, making them sad.

The opinions prevalent among the masses concerning Jesus — for it was with reference to these that He interrogated His disciples282282Luke ix. 18, οἱ ὄχλοι. — seem to have been mainly favorable. All agreed in regarding Him as a prophet of the highest rank, differing only as to which of the great prophets of Israel He most nearly resembled or personated. Some said He was John the Baptist revived, others Elias, while others again identified Him with one or other of the great prophets, as Jeremiah. These opinions are explained in part by an expectation then commonly entertained, that the advent of the Messiah would be preceded by the return of one of the prophets by whom God had spoken to the fathers, partly by the perception of real or supposed resemblances between Jesus and this or that prophet; His tenderness reminding one hearer of the author of the Lamentations, His sternness in denouncing hypocrisy and tyranny reminding another of the prophet of fire, while perhaps His parabolic discourses led a third to think of Ezekiel or of Daniel.

When we reflect on the high veneration in which the ancient prophets were held, we cannot fail to see that these diverse opinions current among the Jewish people concerning Jesus imply a very high sense of His greatness and excellence. To us, who regard Him as the Sun, while the prophets were at best but lamps of greater or less brightness, such comparisons may well seem not only inadequate, but dishonoring. Yet we must not despise them, as the testimonies of open-minded but imperfectly-formed contemporaries to the worth of Him whom we worship as the Lord. Taken separately, they show that in the judgment of candid observers Jesus was a man of surpassing greatness; taken together, they show the many-sidedness of His character, and its superiority to that of any one of the prophets; for He could not have reminded those who witnessed His works, and heard Him preach, of all the prophets in turn, unless He had comprehended them all in His one person. The very diversity of opinion respecting Him, therefore, showed that a greater than Elias, or Jeremiah, or Ezekiel, or Daniel, had appeared.

These opinions, valuable still as testimonials to the excellence of Christ, must be admitted further to be indicative, so far, of good dispositions on the part of those who cherished and expressed them. At a time when those who deemed themselves in every respect immeasurably superior to the multitude could find no better names for the Son of man than Samaritan, devil, blasphemer, glutton and drunkard, companion of publicans and sinners, it was something considerable to believe that the calumniated One was a prophet as worthy of honor as any of those whose sepulchres the professors of piety carefully varnished, while depreciating, and even putting to death, their living successors. The multitude who held this opinion might come short of true discipleship; but they were at least far in advance of the Pharisees and Sadducees, who came in tempting mood to ask a sign from heaven, and whom no sign, whether in heaven or in earth, would conciliate or convince.

How, then, did Jesus receive the report of His disciples? Was He satisfied with these favorable, and in the circumstances really gratifying, opinions current among the people? He was not. He was not content to be put on a level with even the greatest of the prophets. He did not indeed express any displeasure against those who assigned Him such a rank, and He may even have been pleased to hear that public opinion had advanced so far on the way to the true faith. Nevertheless He declined to accept the position accorded. The meek and lowly Son of man claimed to be something more than a great prophet. Therefore He turned to His chosen disciples, as to men from whom He expected a more satisfactory statement of the truth, and pointedly asked what they thought of Him. “But you — whom say ye that I am?”

In this case, as in many others, Simon son of Jonas answered for the company. His prompt, definite, memorable reply to his Master’s question was this: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.”283283So in Matthew; in the other Gospels the reply is abbreviated, and the confession of Messiahship alone mentioned. Matthew’s account of this memorable incident is throughout the fullest, a fact of importance when it is considered that Matthew’s, according to even Dr. Baur, is the oldest and most historical Gospel.

With this view of His person Jesus was satisfied. He did not charge Peter with extravagance in going so far beyond the opinion of the populace. On the contrary, He entirely approved of what the ardent disciple had said, and expressed His satisfaction in no cold or measured terms. Never, perhaps, did He speak in more animated language, or with greater appearance of deep emotion. He solemnly pronounced Peter “blessed” on account of His faith; He spake for the first time of a church which should be founded, professing Peter’s faith as its creed; He promised that disciple great power in that church, as if grateful to him for being the first to put the momentous truth into words, and for uttering it so boldly amid prevailing unbelief, and crude, defective belief; and He expressed, in the strongest possible terms, His confidence that the church yet to be founded would stand to all ages proof against all the assaults of the powers of darkness.

Simon’s confession, fairly interpreted, seems to contain these two propositions, — that Jesus was the Messiah, and that He was divine. “Thou art the Christ,” said he in the first place, with conscious reference to the reported opinions of the people, — "Thou art the Christ,” and not merely a prophet come to prepare Christ’s way. Then he added: “the Son of God,” to explain what he understood by the term Christ. The Messiah looked for by the Jews in general was merely a man, though a very superior one, the ideal man endowed with extraordinary gifts. The Christ of Peter’s creed was more than man — a superhuman, a divine being. This truth he sought to express in the second part of his confession. He called Jesus Son of God, with obvious reference to the name His Master had just given Himself — Son of man. “Thou,” he meant to say, “art not only what Thou hast now called Thyself, and what, in lowliness of mind, Thou art wont to call Thyself — the Son of man;284284For a fuller exposition of the view we take of this title, which has occasioned so much discussion, we may refer our readers to The Humiliation of Christ, note, p. 225 (Cunningham Lectures, sixth series, 2d ed.). Thou art also Son of God, partaking of the divine nature not less really than of the human.” Finally, he prefixed the epithet “living” to the divine name, to express his consciousness that he was making a very momentous declaration, and to give that declaration a solemn, deliberate character. It was as if he said: “I know it is no light matter to call any one, even Thee, Son of God, of the One living eternal Jehovah. But I shrink not from the assertion, however bold, startling, or even blasphemous it may seem. I cannot by any other expression do justice to all I know and feel concerning Thee, or convey the impression left on my mind by what I have witnessed during the time I have followed Thee as a disciple.” In this way was the disciple urged on, in spite of his Jewish monotheism, to the recognition of his Lord’s divinity.285285On this topic consult Wace, Christianity and Morality, the Boyle Lectures for 1874-75, Lecture V., second course.

That the famous confession, uttered in the neighborhood of Cæsarea Philippi, really contains in germ286286Of course all that was implied was not yet present in Peter’s mind. the doctrine of Christ’s divinity, might be inferred from the simple fact that Jesus was satisfied with it; for He certainly claimed to be Son of God in a sense predicable of no mere man, even according to synoptical accounts of His teaching.287287E.g., in Matthew xi. 27, though we cannot go into the discussion here. But when we consider the peculiar terms in which He expressed Himself respecting Peter’s faith, we are still further confirmed in this conclusion. “Flesh and blood,” said He to the disciple, “hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.” These words evidently imply that the person addressed had said something very extraordinary; something he could not have learned from the traditional established belief of his generation respecting Messiah; something new even for himself and his fellow-disciples, if not in word, at least in meaning,288288The words, with exception of the epithet “living,’ are found in John i. 49. to which he could not have attained by the unaided effort of his own mind. The confession is virtually represented as an inspiration, a revelation, a flash of light from heaven, — the utterance not of the rude fisherman, but of the divine Spirit speaking, through his mouth, a truth hitherto hidden, and yet but dimly comprehended by him to whom it hath been revealed. All this agrees well with the supposition that the confession contains not merely an acknowledgment of the Messiahship of Jesus in the ordinary sense, but a proclamation of the true doctrine concerning Messiah’s person — viz. that He was a divine being manifest in the flesh.

The remaining portion of our Lord’s address to Simon shows that He assigned to the doctrine confessed by that disciple the place of fundamental importance in the Christian faith. The object of these remarkable statements289289Matt. xvi. 18, 19. is not to assert the supremacy of Peter, as Romanists contend, but to declare the supremely important nature of the truth he has confessed. In spite of all difficulties of interpretation, this remains clear and certain to us. Who or what the “rock” is we deem doubtful; it may be Peter, or it may be his confession: it is a point on which scholars equally sound in the faith, and equally innocent of all sympathy with Popish dogmas, are divided in opinion, and on which it would ill become us to dogmatize. Of this only we are sure, that not Peter’s person, but Peter’s faith, is the fundamental matter in Christ’s mind. When He says to that disciple, “Thou art Petros,” He means, “Thou art a man of rock, worthy of the name I gave thee by anticipation the first time I met thee, because thou hast at length got thy foot planted on the rock of the eternal truth.” He speaks of the church that is to be, for the first time, in connection with Simon’s confession, because that church is to consist of men adopting that confession as their own, and acknowledging Him to be the Christ, the Son of God.290290This was the usual formula by which converts confessed their faith in the apostolic age. He alludes to the keys of the kingdom of heaven in the same connection, because none but those who homologate the doctrine first solemnly enunciated by Simon, shall be admitted within its gates. He promises Peter the power of the keys, not because it is to belong to him alone, or to him more than others, but by way of honorable mention, in recompense for the joy he has given his Lord by the superior energy and decision of his faith. He is grateful to Peter, because he has believed most emphatically that He came out from God;291291John xvi. 27. and He shows His gratitude by promising first to him individually a power which He afterwards conferred on all His chosen disciples.292292Matt. xviii. 18; John xx. 23.] Finally, if it be true that Peter is here called the rock on which the church shall be built, this is to be understood in the same way as the promise of the keys. Peter is called the foundation of the church only in the same sense as all the apostles are called the foundation by the Apostle Paul,293293Eph. ii. 20. viz. as the first preachers of the true faith concerning Jesus as the Christ and Son of God; and if the man who first professed that faith be honored by being called individually the rock, that only shows that the faith, and not the man, is after all the true foundation. That which makes Simon a Petros, a rock-like man, fit to build on, is the real Petra on which the Ecclesia is to be built.

After these remarks we deem it superfluous to enter minutely into the question to what the term “rock” refers in the sentence, “Thou art Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” At the same time, we must say that it is by no means so clear to us that the rock must be Peter, and can be nothing else, as it is the fashion of modern commentators to assert. To the rendering, “Thou art Petros, a man of rock; and on thee, as on a rock, I will build my church,” it is possible, as already admitted, to assign an intelligible scriptural meaning. But we confess our preference for the old Protestant interpretation, according to which our Lord’s words to His disciple should be thus paraphrased: “Thou, Simon Barjonas, art Petros, a man of rock, worthy of thy name Peter, because thou hast made that bold, good confession; and on the truth thou hast now confessed, as on a rock, will I build my church; and so long as it abides on that foundation it will stand firm and unassailable against all the powers of hell.” So rendering, we make Jesus say not only what He really thought, but what was most worthy to be said. For divine truth is the sure foundation. Believers, even Peters, may fail, and prove any thing but stable; but truth is eternal, and faileth never. This we say not unmindful of the counterpart truth, that “the truth,” unless confessed by living souls, is dead, and no source of stability. Sincere personal conviction, with a life corresponding, is needed to make the faith in the objective sense of any virtue.

We cannot pass from these memorable words of Christ without adverting, with a certain solemn awe, to the strange fate which has befallen them in the history of the church. This text, in which the church’s Lord declares that the powers of darkness shall not prevail against her, has been used by these powers as an instrument of assault, and with only too much success. What a gigantic system of spiritual despotism and blasphemous assumption has been built on these two sentences concerning the rock and the keys! How nearly, by their aid, has the kingdom of God been turned into a kingdom of Satan! One is tempted to wish that Jesus, knowing beforehand what was to happen, had so framed His words as to obviate the mischief. But the wish were vain. No forms of expression, however carefully selected, could prevent human ignorance from falling into misconception, or hinder men who had a purpose to serve, from finding in Scripture what suited that purpose. Nor can any Christian, on reflection, think it desirable that the Author of our faith had adopted a studied prudential style of speech, intended not so much to give faithful expression to the actual thoughts of His mind and feelings of His heart, as to avoid giving occasion of stumbling to honest stupidity, or an excuse for perversion to dishonest knavery. The spoken word in that case had been no longer a true reflection of the Word incarnate. All the poetry and passion and genuine human feeling which form the charm of Christ’s sayings would have been lost, and nothing would have remained but prosaic platitudes, like those of the scribes and of theological pedants. No; let us have the precious words of our Master in all their characteristic intensity and vehemence of unqualified assertion; and if prosaic or disingenuous men will manufacture out of them incredible dogmas, let them answer for it. Why should the children be deprived of their bread, and only the dogs be cared for?

One remark more ere we pass from the subject of this chapter. The part we find Peter playing in this incident at Cæsarea Philippi prepares us for regarding as historically credible the part assigned to him in the Acts of the Apostles in some momentous scenes, as, e.g., in that brought before us in the tenth chapter. The Tübingen school of critics tell us that the Acts is a composition full of invented situations adapted to an apologetic design; and that the plan on which the book proceeds is to make Peter act as like Paul as possible in the first part, and Paul, on the other hand, as much like Peter as possible in the second. The conversion of the Roman centurion by Peter’s agency they regard as a capital instance of Peter being made to pose as Paul, i.e., as an universalist in his views of Christianity. Now, all we have to say on the subject here is this. The conduct ascribed to Peter the apostle in the tenth chapter of the Acts is credible in the light of the narrative we have been studying. In both we find the same man the recipient of a revelation; in both we find him the first to receive, utter, and act on a great Christian truth. Is it incredible that the man who received one revelation as a disciple should receive another as an apostle? Is it not psychologically probable that the man who now appears so original and audacious in connection with one great truth, will again show the same attributes of originality and audacity in connection with some other truth? For our part, far from feeling sceptical as to the historic truth of the narrative in the Acts, we should have been very much surprised if in the history of the nascent church Peter had been found playing a part altogether devoid of originalities and audacities. He would in that case have been very unlike his former self.


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