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Lesson Five: Riddles of Rejection, Rock of Foundation
1. To read Matthew 11-18 with understanding.
2. To understand the Old Testament background to Jesus’ teaching in parables.
3. To understand the deep Old Testament context by which Matthew conveys that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah and the Church is the restoration of the Davidic Kingdom.
- Review and Overview
- Speaking of Mysteries
- The Apostles Confess
- Upon This Rock I Will Build
- Study Questions
With this lesson we move into the third and fourth "books" of Matthew’s Gospel.
In Matthew’s prologue (see Matthew 1:1-2:23) and first book (see Matthew 3:1-7:29), the evangelist introduced us to the person of Jesus - His birth, ancestry, and early work, climaxing with the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5-7).
In his second book (see Matthew 8:1-10:42), he showed us Jesus’ mighty powers and deeds and His choosing of twelve Apostles to preach to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" that "the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand" (see Matthew 10:6-7).
As we have seen in our earlier lessons, Matthew’s story in these two "books" is built on an Old Testament sub-structure that provides.
The narrative section of the third book describes the growing controversy over Jesus’ preaching among the Jewish religious establishment - the Pharisees and scribes - who finally accuse Him of being possessed by the Devil (see Matthew 12:24).
At this point Jesus begins to speak in "parables" (see Matthew 13:3).
A parable is comparison that uses everyday images and stories to illustrate deeper truths.
In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, parabole translates mashal, a Hebrew word used to describe proverbs (see 1 Samuel 10:12; 1 Kings 4:32), riddles (see Psalm 49:4; Sirach 47:15, and allegories (see Ezekiel 17:2; 24:3).
All these Old Testament types of mashals are important for studying and understanding the structure and style of the individual parables told by Jesus.
But we’re interested here in why Jesus has begun to speak in parables. It’s a question that’s also on the Apostles’ minds (see Matthew 13:10).
Again, the Old Testament provides the context for Jesus’ answer (see Matthew 13:13-15):
This is why I speak to them in parables, because "they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand." Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says:
"You shall indeed hear but not understand,
you shall indeed look but never see.
Gross is the heart of this people,
they will hardly hear with their ears,
they have closed their eyes,
lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart and be converted,
and I heal them."
Isaiah wasn’t foretelling the future in the passage Jesus quotes (see Isaiah 6:9-10). He was talking about his own contemporaries - the people that God had called him to preach to in the 8th century, after the death of King Uzziah (see Isaiah 6:1; 2 Chronicles 26).
Jesus knows this. He doesn’t treat the passage from Isaiah as a prophecy that has gone unfulfilled for eight centuries. He is finding parallels between Isaiah’s contemporaries and his own. In the Pharisees’ rejection of Jesus’ preaching, history was repeating itself.
Jesus also wants to evoke God’s earlier punishment of Israel for its hardness of heart.
In the verses immediately following those that Jesus quotes, God tells Isaiah that his faithless generation will be punished with exile and captivity - their cities laid to waste and made desolate, their populations carried off to far distant lands (see Isaiah 6:11-12).
Jesus will later say directly that the kingdom is being "taken away" from Israel and given to the Gentiles and Jews who believe (see Matthew 21:43). Interestingly, this is the precise message in the other places where Isaiah 6:9-10 is quoted in the New Testament (see John 12:20; Acts 28:26-27).
Speaking in parables, Jesus is pronouncing judgment on those who refuse to hear Him, to recognize in His words and deeds, the Messiah promised by the prophets.
However, if parables are used to cast judgment on unbelievers, they are also given for the benefit of the faithful. This is the message of Matthew’s second explanation of why Jesus speaks in parables (see Matthew 13:34-35):
All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables. He spoke to them only in parables, to fulfill what had been said through the prophet: "I will open my mouth in parables, I will announce what has lain hidden from the foundation (of the world)."
The "prophet" Matthew quotes is actually Psalm 78. Again, the Old Testament context offers rich ground for meditation and interpretation.
Psalm 78 is a long, didactic history of Israel that itself is something of a parable. It is quoted (see John 6:31) and alluded to throughout the New Testament (for a few of the examples, compare 1 Corinthians 10:4 and Psalm 78:15-16; Matthew 15:8 and Psalm 78:36-37; Revelation 2:17 and Psalm 78:24; Acts 7:21 and Psalm 78:37; Psalm 78:70 and Romans 1:1; John 21:16 and Psalm 78:71-72).
The line that Jesus quotes comes at the start of the Psalm. The Psalmist promises that he will be explaining "mysteries from of old" - that is, declaring "to the generations to come the glorious deeds of the Lord and His strength (see Psalm 78:1-4).
Isn’t this what Jesus says He is doing in His parables - revealing "the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven" - God’s salvific plan (see Matthew 13:11)?
And is it a coincidence that Psalm 78 ends by describing the ascendancy of King David to "shepherd Jacob, His people, and Israel, His inheritance" (see Psalm 78:68-72)? As we’ve mentioned, one of the underlying themes - if not the predominant one - in Matthew’s Gospel is the fulfillment of God’s promises to David in the life and work of Jesus.
Israel’s increasing opposition to Jesus dominates Matthew’s third book, climaxing with His rejection by His hometown of Nazareth (see Matthew 13:54-58).
In his fourth book, Matthew returns to depicting Jesus’ mighty, god-like deeds. He miraculously feeds a crowd of 5,000 (see Matthew 14:13-21) and another crowd of 4,000 (see Matthew 15:32-39). He performs miraculous healings (see Matthew 14:34-36; 15:29-31; 17:14-21), walks on water (see Matthew 14:22-33), and is transfigured in glory (see Matthew 17:1-13).
In the midst of these miracles, the Pharisees and Sadducees still demand that He show them "a sign from heaven" (see Matthew 16:1-4).
But only those with faith can recognize Him. And one of the subplots in this fourth book is the growing faith and awareness among the Apostles that Jesus is the Son of God.
We will look at two illustrations of this - the story of His walking on the water and the story of Peter’s confession of faith.
The story of Jesus walking on the water is a dramatic one (see Matthew 14:22-33).
He sends the Apostles across the lake in the boat while He dismisses the crowds. Then He goes up to the mountain by Himself to pray.
He apparently remains in prayer for most of the night. All the while the Apostles are struggling and fearful as their boat is being tossed about in the waves.
How do we know this? Because the Romans divided the 12 hours between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. into four "watches." Matthew tells us that Jesus didn’t walk out to the boat until the "fourth watch" (see Matthew 14:25) - sometime between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. That suggests that the turmoil in the boat went on for many hours before Jesus began walking toward the Apostles on the sea.
But the full meaning of the story depends on our understanding Matthew’s use of the Old Testament substructure.
Remember that Israel was "born" in a dramatic rescue at sea - the night crossing of the Red Sea and the drowning of Pharaoh’s army (see Exodus 14:10-15:21).
God’s powers over the waters are extolled throughout the Old Testament as a sign of His omnipotence over all creation and that He alone "can save from any danger" (see Wisdom 14:3-4; Psalm 77:14-20; Isaiah 43:16-17; 51:9-10).
Typical of the Old Testament’s treatment is Psalm 107, which has many echoes of the story we’re reading from Matthew (see Psalm 107:23-32):
They saw the works of the Lord, the wonders of God in the deep.
He spoke and roused a storm wind; it tossed the waves on high…
their hearts trembled at the danger.
They reeled, staggered like drunkards; their skill was of no avail.
In their distress they cried to the Lord, who brought them out of their peril,
Hushed the storm to a murmur; the waves of the sea were stilled.
They rejoiced that the sea grew calm,
that God brought them to the harbor they longed for.
Let them thank the Lord for such kindness, such wondrous deeds for mere mortals.
Treading upon the sea, Jesus is being depicted as having all the powers and prerogatives of God. That He rescues the Apostles from the sea is a further reflection of His divine powers (see Psalm 77:20-21).
And He assures the Apostles with the words: "Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid." The phrase "do not be afraid" appears often in Jewish and Christian stories of divine revelation (see Matthew 17:7; 28:5; Revelation 1:17). But we want to pay particular attention to the phrase, "it is I."
Ego eimi, the Greek words translated as "it is I," literally mean "I am." This is the same phrase that God used to reveal Himself to Moses (see Exodus 3:14) and in the Old Testament is a sign of divine identity and authority (see Isaiah 41:4,10,14; 43:1-13).
This is further reinforced by Peter’s response - "Lord, if it is You…." - requesting a miraculous sign.
Peter is asking for a share in Jesus’ powers and Jesus makes a one-word response, "Come." We may have here an allusion to Job, where God challenges Job: "Have you entered into the sources of the sea or walked about in the depths of the abyss" (see Job 38:16).
In the Greek translation, we see remarkable similarities in the language of these two passages. In the Greek, the word "entered" is the same as the word that Jesus and Peter use for "come." The word "walked about" is the same as that used to describe Peter’s walking on the waters. And the word "sea" has already been used in describing Jesus walking on the sea (see Matthew 14:24).
An interesting footnote: though others have called Him "Lord," up until now the Apostles have not referred to Jesus as "Lord" except on one other occasion - in begging Him to save them from the raging seas (see Matthew 8:23-27). And the appeal, "Lord, save Me" appears in only one other place in the New Testament - in Matthew’s earlier sea-rescue narrative.
The story ends with the Apostles’ confession of faith: "Truly, You are the Son of God" (see Matthew 14:33).
With Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah and Jesus’ establishment of His Church "on this rock" we reach one of the highest peaks of Matthew’s Gospel.
These are some of the most important verses in the New Testament. And, as we have said repeatedly in this course, to understand them fully requires a thorough grounding in the assumptions of Matthew’s Old Testament substructure.
In particular, this story depends on our recalling that God’s covenant with David is at the heart of Matthew’s Gospel.
We discussed the Davidic covenant background in our first lesson. But we now have to look at that covenant in greater detail.
Remember that we remarked on the first lines of Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus was identified as "the son of David, the son of Abraham."
At the start of salvation history, God promised to make Abraham the father of a host of nations, and promised further that kings would stem from Abraham’s line of descendants. He promised that He would be their God and that they would be His people for all time, and that all the nations of the world would find blessing through Abraham’s descendants (see Genesis 17:4-8; 22:15-18).
As the Davidic covenant was explained by the prophet Nathan and later in the Book of Psalms, God promised to establish David’s kingdom for all generations, as an eternal and everlasting dynasty.
He promised, too, that David’s heir would be His own son and a royal high priest, and that this son of David would build God’s "house" or temple (see 2 Samuel 7:8-16; 1 Chronicles 17:7-14; 2 Samuel 23:5; Psalm 89:4-29; 132:12).
And in an echo of God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants, the Scriptures tell us that by the Davidic King and Kingdom "shall all the tribes of the earth be blessed, all the nations" (see Psalm 72:17).
The covenant with David was to further God’s covenant plan by which all the world would be made children of Abraham, blessed and beloved sons and daughters of God (see 2 Kings 13:23; Psalm 102:45; Jeremiah 33:26; Luke 1:54-55,69,72).
Matthew presumes we understand all of this Old Testament background. Indeed, the key concepts and images in these verses - the Messiah, the Son of God, rock, building, gates of Hades, keys, and kingdom- are all drawn from Old Testament traditions surrounding the Davidic Kingdom.
Matthew wants us to see that Jesus is the long-awaited Son of David and Son of God, the Anointed One ("Messiah") come to lead the restoration of the ancient kingdom of Israel.
Matthew adds a further wrinkle that deepens our appreciation of the divine kingdom that Jesus is establishing:
He doesn’t record Jesus saying, "Who do people say that I am." Instead, Jesus asks what people’s opinions are about "the Son of Man" (see Matthew 16:13).
Jesus frequently refers to Himself as the "Son of Man" in Matthew’s Gospel and throughout the New Testament.
He associates the Son of Man with the power to forgive sins (see Matthew 9:6); to supersede the Sabbath laws (see Matthew 12:8); to offer Himself as a "ransom" for many (see Matthew 17:12,22; 20:18,28; 26:2); to rise from the dead (see Matthew 12:40; 17:9); and to reign in everlasting glory as Judge and King (see Matthew 13:41; 16:28; 19:28; 24:30; 26:64).
In the context of Matthew’s Gospel it would appear that Jesus intends to evoke the prophecy of Daniel, who in a wild, night vision saw "one like a son of man" ushered into the heavenly court on the clouds of heaven.
There, as Daniel saw, the Son of Man "received dominion, glory and kingship - nations and peoples of every language serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not be taken away. His kingdom shall not be destroyed" (see Daniel 7:1-28).
Jesus is identifying Himself as this Son of Man, who appears in Daniel’s vision as the one through whom God would establish the everlasting kingdom He promised to David.
Jesus’ question prompts Peter’s great confession of faith: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."
The word is Hebrew and means "Anointed One." The Greek word for Messiahis Christos or "Christ."
And in the later Old Testament tradition, the Messiah was expected to be a single figure - a priest, prophet and king - who would fulfill God’s promises, restore the kingdom of David, and usher in a new and everlasting covenant (see Isaiah 9:7; 61:1-11; Matthew 21:9-11; Mark 12:35).
Peter, then, is here identifying Jesus as the fulfillment of all Israel’s hopes for the new Davidic Messiah.
And indeed, Matthew has been preparing us for this confession all along in his Gospel. He has shown us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the city of David, the place from which the Messiah was to come (see Matthew 2:5-6). He has shown Jesus being anointed with the Holy Spirit and being declared God’s beloved Son (see Matthew 3:16-17; Matthew 2:15; 4:3,6; 8:29; 14:33; Acts 10:38).
With Peter’s confession, Jesus for the first time acknowledges that He is the Davidic Messiah.
He blesses Peter, saying that this insight into His Messianic identity must have been revealed to him by the "heavenly Father."
Then Jesus gives Peter a new name (his name had been Simon; see Matthew 4:18) and a new God-given role in salvation history - to be "the rock" upon which the Church of Jesus will be built.
Again, there is a crucial Old Testament background to all this. Some scholars see a special connection being made here between Jesus and Abraham, one that highlights Peter’s new role in salvation history.
Indeed, we are witnessing the birth of the new people of God. At the first birth of the people of God, Abram was blessed (see Genesis 14:19), given the new name of Abraham (see Genesis 17:1-8), and promised victory over the "gates" of his enemies (see Genesis 22:17).
Peter (from the Greek Petros for "rock" or "stone") was not a common name in biblical times. If, as many scholars believe, Jesus spoke His words to Peter in Aramaic, He would have used the word, Kepha, which means "large rock" (for New Testament instances where Peter is called Cephas: John 1:42; 1 Corinthians 1:12; 15:5; Galatians 1:18; 2:9).
The name change is symbolic. Peter is to be the foundation stone of the new people of God.
While this imagery may be found in this passage, we believe that it is far more likely that Matthew wants to stress Peter’s role as "the foundation stone" of the new "house of God" - not a temple of brick and mortar but a spiritual temple.
Jesus has already referred to the foundation stone in Matthew’s Gospel (see Matthew 7:24). And we see ave here - in the use of the words "rock" and "build" - an evocation of the Old Testament notion of the Temple and of the people of God as a "temple" and a "house."
Jesus is describing His Church as a spiritual temple. The Greek verb for "build" (oikodomeo) is used only here and in two other places in Matthew - both referring to Jesus’ claim that He will rebuild the Temple (see Matthew 26:61; 27:40).
Now the Temple has a rich and influential symbolism in the Israelite tradition. It was the site of the presence of God in the midst of His chosen people.
The Temple was the house of prayer, the place of pilgrimage and the center of worship for the people of God. It was destroyed by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C. (see 2 Kings 25:9; Jeremiah 52:13).
In the ensuing centuries after the Davidic Kingdom crumbled and during which the people were scattered in exile, the prophets foretold the day when the people of God would be restored and "rebuilt" (see Amos 9:11,14; Jeremiah 12:16; 18:9; 31:4: 33:7; 42:10).
This is the Old Testament background to Jesus’ blessing of Peter. Jesus is the new son of David (see Revelation 22:16) and He has come to build the new and eternal Temple, to restore the everlasting Kingdom of God, which he calls "My Church."
The word for "Church" - ekklesia - is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament to translate the Hebrew word, "qahal," which referred to "assembly" or "congregation" of Israelites in the years after the Exodus (see Deuteronomy 4:10, 9:10; 18:16; 31:30).
The term, however, is widespread in the book of Acts and the New Testament epistles, referring to both the local church and the universal church (see, for example, Acts 9:31; 12:5; Romans 16:23; 1 Corinthians 4:17; Ephesians 1:22; 5:23-32; Revelation 22:16).
And the Church, throughout the New Testament is conceived in the way that Jesus envisions it here - as the new temple of God, the spiritual edifice of the people of God.
Whereas under the Old Covenant God dwelled in a tabernacle in the Jerusalem Temple, under the New Covenant He will be embodied in a new spiritual temple, the Church (see 1 Corinthians 3:9-17; 14:4-5,12; Ephesians 2:19-20).
Further, the foundation stone of the temple was believed to be seated at the center of the world. It was believed also to seal a long shaft leading down to the realm of the dead or the "abyss" (see this tradition expressed in Revelation 9:1-2; 20:1-3). This seems to be the Old Covenant background for Jesus’ remarks about "the gates of the netherworld" not prevailing against the Church.
By New Testament times, Hades was regarded as the dwelling of not all the dead, but only of the ungodly dead, who were evil forces that threatened to deceive and destroy the people of God (see Revelation 6:8; 20:1-3).
As the rock of the Old Temple kept the gates of the netherworld closed, protecting the people of God, Peter, too, as the rock of the new Temple, will protect the new people of God from the demons and the evil spirits (see Revelation 9:1-11; 11:7; 17:8).
In fact, Matthew may intend us to hear echoes of Isaiah’s prophecy (see Isaiah 28:15-19) - that those who make "a covenant with death" will be swept away by the waters of an avenging flood, while those who put their faith in "a precious cornerstone" laid at Zion (the site of the Temple) will be saved.
Perhaps that is how we are to regard Peter - whose faith has been tested by his witnessing of the miracles and teaching of Jesus, by his brief experience of walking on the water - and rewarded by God with this blessing.
There is one more possible Old Testament image in this passage that we would like to point out: Notice that Jesus calls Peter, "Simon, son of Jonah" (see Matthew 16:17). Peter’s father is actually named "John" (see John 1:42). So what is Jesus up to?
Some believe that Jesus is here "adopting" Peter as His spiritual son. Remember, Jesus has already identified Himself as a new Jonah (see Matthew 12:39-41). And later, in the curious story of the payment of the Temple tax (see Matthew 17:24-27), Jesus again seems to imply that Peter is His "son."
Jesus asks Peter whether "the kings of the earth" collect taxes "from their subjects or from foreigners." The word that the New American Bible translates as "subjects" is the Greek word for "sons." Jesus then proceeds to send Peter fishing to find a coin worth twice the Temple tax - to be used to pay the tax for both He and Peter. He again is underscoring the close bond He has established with Peter.
The final blessings that Jesus gives to Peter are the "keys to the kingdom of heaven" and the powers to "bind and loose."
This image seems to evoke a passage from Isaiah (see Isaiah 22:15-24) in which he prophesies God’s transfer of "the key of the House of David" from a corrupt "master of the palace" named Shebna, to a righteous servant, Eliakin. Of Eliakin, the prophet says:
He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the House of Judah. I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder - when he opens, no one shall shut; when he shuts, no one shall open.
In Davidic Kingdom, the king appointed a prime minister to handle the day-to-day affairs of the Kingdom. He was variously called the royal "vizier," the "major-domo," the "superintendent" or "master of the palace." He is considered to be "a father to the inhabitants" of the Kingdom (see 1 Kings 4:1-6; 16:9; 18:3; 2 Kings 15:5; 18:18,37; 19:2; Isaiah 22:22).
Peter is here being appointed prime minister of the restored Kingdom of David, the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus proclaimed, the Church He called His own. The "keys" are a symbol of the King’s power, authority, and control.
We see this in the Book of Revelation (see Revelation 22:16; 3:7; 1:8), where Jesus describes Himself as: (a) "the offspring of David"; (b) "the Holy One, the True, Who holds the key of David, Who opens and no one shall close, Who closes and no on shall open"; and (c) as the One holding "the keys death and the netherworld."
The reference to "binding" and "loosing" is a familiar allusion the powers of the rabbis to declare what is permitted and what is not permitted. As prime minister of the Kingdom of Heaven, Peter is the chief rabbi, with the ultimate teaching authority, the ability to declare what will be allowed and what will not.
This understanding is reinforced by Jesus’ later condemnation of the teachers of Israel, the Pharisees and scribes (see Matthew 23:13). Jesus rebukes them for using their teaching to "lock the Kingdom of Heaven" and prevent "entrance to those trying to enter."
Jesus here is indicating that the authority of the Pharisees and scribes is passing to Peter (see also Matthew 21:43). Peter will govern Christ’s Church, the restored Kingdom. It is no longer only an earthly and temporal kingdom but a heavenly and eternal one. Through the power of the keys, Peter will have authority to bind and loose, to open the gates of salvation for all men and women on earth.
This is the deep Old Testament substructure, the rich biblical foundation of Catholic teaching on the ministry and authority of Peter, a ministry and authority that continues today in the Papacy.
1. Based on what we’ve learned about the Old Testament context for the parables what message or messages was Jesus sending by beginning to speak in parables?
2. How does the Old Testament context help illuminate our understanding of Matthew’s depiction of Jesus’ divine identity in the story of His walking on the water?
3. What are the specific promises that God made to David? How are those promises fulfilled in Jesus and the Church.
4. Explain the Old Testament background for each of the following images in the story of Peter’s confession of faith: the Messiah, the Son of God, rock, building, gates of Hades, keys, and kingdom.