Peter and the Rock
From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day” (Matt. 16:21, NKJV).
The New Testament is clear: Jesus had to die. As He faced the looming shadow of the Cross, Jesus prayed: “ ‘Now My soul is troubled, and what shall I say? “Father, save Me from this hour”? But for this purpose I came to this hour’ ” (John 12:27, NKJV). This was the divine plan, conceived within the mind of God, even “before time began” (Titus 1:2, NKJV; see also 2 Tim. 1:9).
That’s why Jesus didn’t say simply that He was going to suffer many things and be killed and raised up on the third day, but that He must face these things. Given the nature of God, the sanctity of the law, and the reality of free will, His death was the only way that humanity could be saved from the penalty of transgression.
This week we pick up more of the story of Jesus, though we will focus on Peter and how Peter responded to the ministry of Jesus as He marched toward a death planned from “before time began.”
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, May 21.
Imagine what it must have been like for Peter, who had been with Jesus almost from the start. What must have gone through his mind as he witnessed one incredible event after another: the healings, the casting out of demons, the feeding of the multitudes, the amazing teachings, the controlling of nature, raising the dead, and the walking on water together? What questions (such as, again, Why did He allow John the Baptist such an ignominious end?) must have bounced around inside him, day after day, seeing things that no one in all of history had ever seen? After all, Jesus was God in human flesh and lived and ministered to humanity in the flesh (Gal. 4:4; Heb. 7:26; Isa. 9:6; Luke 2:10, 11). So, those who were around Him, who lived with Him, and who were His disciples were going to have plenty of unique experiences.
Peter’s declaration of Jesus as “ ‘the Christ, the Son of the living God’ ” (Matt. 16:16, NKJV) is one of the high points in all of Scripture. Peter called Him “ ‘the Christ,’ ” the Anointed One, and with this confession he was saying (correctly, as it turned out to be) that Jesus was the Messiah, the One who was to come in fulfillment of the covenant promises made to Abraham and then Israel (see Gal. 3:16).
Also, Peter proclaimed Jesus as the Christ in the region of Caesarea Philippi. This was Gentile country. In the days prior, Peter had watched Jesus care not only for the Jews but for the Gentiles, as well. With the aid of the Holy Spirit, Peter recognized that Jesus was something much more than a Jewish prophet, as others had suggested. His ministry extended much further than that of John the Baptist, Elijah, or Jeremiah. Indeed, it was to encompass all humanity; hence, Jesus calls Himself “the Son of man,” showing His personal identification with all human beings. As the Bible later shows, Peter still had so much to learn about Jesus and the fullness and universality of what He had come to do.
Right after Peter’s bold confession of faith in Jesus as “ ‘the Christ, the Son of the living God,’ ” Jesus says something in answer to Peter.
The phrase “on this rock” has been controversial within the Christian church. Catholics interpret the “rock” to mean Peter himself, arguing that Peter was the first pope. Protestants, however, and with good reason, reject that interpretation.
The biblical weight of evidence is clearly in favor of the idea that the Rock is Christ Himself and not Peter.
First of all, in a few places Peter refers to Jesus, and not to himself, with rock imagery (see Acts 4:8–12, 1 Pet. 2:4–8).
Second, found throughout the Bible is the image of God and of Christ as a rock; in contrast, humans are seen as weak and untrustworthy. “For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust” (Ps. 103:14, NKJV). “Do not put your trust in princes, nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help” (Ps. 146:3, NKJV). As John wrote, too, about Jesus: “and [He] had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man” (John 2:25, NKJV). And He knew, too, what was in Peter (Matt. 26:34).
“How feeble the church appeared when Christ spoke these words! There was only a handful of believers, against whom all the power of demons and evil men would be directed; yet the followers of Christ were not to fear. Built upon the Rock of their strength, they could not be overthrown.”—Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 413.
Peter’s problem wasn’t that he was trying to protect Jesus. He was trying to steer Jesus. He was no longer following Jesus; he was telling Jesus to follow him.
Jesus said, “ ‘Get behind Me, Satan!’ ” (Matt. 16:23, NKJV) because, like Satan himself in the wilderness, Peter had become a threat to the mission of Christ.
Mark 8:33 notes that during this exchange, Jesus turned and looked at His disciples. He had come to save them. He was not going to be tempted otherwise, and certainly not by one of His own disciples, no matter how well-meaning that disciple thought he was.
As much as Simon Peter had grown in his walk, he was still trying to control things, including Jesus Himself. In this sense, Peter wasn’t all that different from another disciple, Judas, who tried to manage Jesus and to execute his own plans for what he thought a Messiah ought to be like. But unlike Judas, Peter was deeply repentant and willing to be disciplined and forgiven.
We live in a culture that tells us to follow our dreams, to sacrifice everything for what we want. But Jesus tells us to do the opposite; He invites us to give up our dreams and entrust them to Him. Peter and the disciples were gradually learning what true faith is. True faith isn’t supposed to be the exciting experience of pursuing what you most want. True faith is the painful experience of releasing what you most want. When you let go of your dreams, you are “losing your life.” And at the same time, you are finding it.
Jesus “had dwelt amid the love and fellowship of heaven; but in the world that He had created, He was in solitude. Now heaven had sent its messengers to Jesus; not angels, but men who had endured suffering and sorrow, and who could sympathize with the Saviour in the trial of His earthly life. Moses and Elijah had been colaborers with Christ. They had shared His longing for the salvation of men. . . . These men, chosen above every angel around the throne, had come to commune with Jesus concerning the scenes of His suffering, and to comfort Him with the assurance of the sympathy of heaven. The hope of the world, the salvation of every human being, was the burden of their interview.”—Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, pp. 422, 425.
How fascinating that Jesus, the Son of God, in His humanity had the need of comfort and encouragement from these men, who themselves knew their own share of suffering and discouragement. Luke records that they spoke to Him about “His decease which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31, NKJV). Notice the word accomplish, which can also be translated as “fulfill,” more evidence that Jesus’ death was necessary for the salvation of humanity. With so much at stake, it’s no wonder that heaven saw the need and sent this encouragement.
Also, despite all that they had seen and heard already, Peter, James, and John were going to get even more reasons to believe. The voice coming out of the cloud certainly had to be encouraging as well, once they got over their initial fear. How revealing, too, that Matthew says that Jesus “came and touched them and said, ‘Arise, and do not be afraid’ ” (Matt. 17:7, NKJV). Even amid all that He was about to face, Jesus comforts and encourages His disciples.
Though all Jews were required to pay the temple tax, priests, Levites, and rabbis were exempt. So, this question about whether Jesus paid the temple tax was also a challenge to His ministry.
Ellen G. White writes that Peter missed an opportunity to testify on this occasion to the absolute authority of Christ. “By his answer to the collector, that Jesus would pay the tribute, he had virtually sanctioned the false conception of Him to which the priests and rulers were trying to give currency. . . . If priests and Levites were exempt because of their connection with the temple, how much more He to whom the temple was His Father’s house.”—The Desire of Ages, pp. 433, 434.
We can learn much from Jesus’ gracious response to Peter. Rather than humiliate him, Jesus gently explains his error. Moreover, Jesus adapts to the course Peter had taken in a most creative way. Rather than simply paying the tax—thereby acknowledging His obligation to it—Jesus gets the tax elsewhere: from the mouth of a fish.
This miracle is unusual; it’s the only time Jesus performs a miracle seemingly for His own benefit. But that wasn’t the miracle’s purpose. Instead, the miracle was a demonstration to everyone of Jesus’ authority not only over the temple but over all of creation. From a human standpoint, how can we even begin to understand how Jesus could have performed this miracle? Of all the things that Peter had seen, can you imagine what must have gone on in his mind when he throws out his line, catches his first fish, and finds the exact amount owed for the temple tax? (See Isa. 40:13–17.)
Further Thought: The story of how Jesus has Peter pull the money, the exact amount needed, out of the mouth of the first fish Peter catches is extraordinary, so extraordinary that some scholars have tried to argue it away as just a “bit of a folktale,” a cute story to make a point, nothing more. Of course, that’s a totally inadequate solution (it’s no solution at all, in fact). Sure, in contrast to the other kind of miracles—for example, healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, raising the dead, feeding the hungry—this one is of a different nature altogether. In the Bible, too, we do have the floating axe head (2 Kings 6:2–7) and the wet fleece on the dry ground and the dry fleece on the wet ground (Judg. 6:36–40); so, it’s not of a nature totally unknown in Scripture. Why didn’t Jesus simply hand Peter the money and tell him to pay it rather than perform such an amazing feat in order to solve what was a relatively small problem? The text doesn’t say. However, as the lesson said, it does show us the incredible power of God, which should not be surprising to us. After all, we see evidence of His incredible power all the time. Our mere existence, much less than that of the visible cosmos, is an amazing manifestation of the power of our God. If God could do this, a specific coin in a specific fish’s mouth was nothing. Though written in a different context, Paul’s point is so well taken: “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!” (Rom. 11:33, NKJV). The account in Matthew is just one more manifestation of this truth.