Matthew 16 opens with another attack by the Pharisees and Sadducees who view Christ as a threat to their control of the perspective of the Jews. The Pharisees and Sadducees were philosophical enemies. The Pharisees were highly concerned with the conduct of life according to the established traditions derived (extrapolated) from covenant law. Through their legalistic set up, they believed that God could be satisfied only through meticulous attention to the activity defined by the oral teachings of the rabbis. We have seen in Matthew that through his teaching Jesus emphasized the internal aspect of Kingdom living—a denial of self (pride and will) in recognition of God as Lord. This concept, foreign to the Pharisees who focused on the externals of activity, which developed self-serving pride, threatened the Pharisees control of the activity and obedience of the people. Therefore, they wanted to either discredit Jesus in the eyes of the Jews or bring him under their control.
The Sadducees were more political in wanting assimilation with Greek and Roman culture. Of course, they controlled the temple and its activity, but in other more mundane cultural pursuits, they favored a society with less Hebraic distinction. Clearly they were at odds with the Pharisees, but their views seemed to be also threatened by Jesus who preached a distinctive message about Kingdom living for God.
Thus, though at odds with each other, these two groups found common concern with Jesus as a threat to their philosophies of life, control, and focus on self. They confront Jesus at Magadan (western shore of the Sea of Galilee) with the same demand that the Pharisees and scribes presented previously in chapter 12—show us a sign! And, just as last time, Jesus says no. He recognizes their request not as coming from searching penitents, but rather from control-seeking unbelievers.
But though he leaves them to travel with the disciples back across the Sea of Galilee, Jesus keeps their undermining efforts in mind. He most likely recalls, on the boat ride across, his own parable likening the kingdom of heaven to leaven placed in flour. The leaven imperceptibly, but surely, grew to impact all the flour. So too had the self-serving interests of the Pharisees and Sadducees grown through the covenant nation until impacting every part of it. And reaching the other side, Jesus voices this concern by saying to his disciples, “Beware the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” And immediately the disciples realize that they had forgotten to bring bread, certain that Christ was upset with them for their oversight.
Actually, Mark lets us know that although they had forgotten bread, they did have one loaf with them. But we have to think back to recent events to understand what is happening here. Christ fed the 5000 with five loaves and two fish when they were in the deserted area on the northeast side of the Sea of Galilee just east of Bethsaida. They crossed back over (which included the walking on the water event) and arrived in Gennesaret. From there they headed northwest toward Tyre and Sidon to meet the Canaanite woman. Then they come back very close to, if not exactly in, the same spot on the northeast corner of the Sea of Galilee where the 5000 were fed. Here Jesus tells his disciples that he has compassion on the crowd, and they should feed them. The disciples, obviously forgetting the miracle of the 5000 (although they are in the same general area), complain to Christ that they have only seven loaves and a few fish. Jesus takes these and again performs a miracle by feeding 4000. Again Jesus and the disciples head across the Sea of Galilee to the region of Magadan where Jesus encounters the Pharisees and Sadducees. After that, they get right back in the boat and head back across the sea, arriving probably for the third time now in the general vicinity of the previous two feeding miracles. And it is in arriving here that Jesus mentions the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. This is what makes the disciples conclusion that Jesus is upset that they forgot bread so amazing. We want to scream, “Look around! Recognize this place!” And Jesus seems to do precisely that. “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread?” (16:8-11).
We have to be careful not to just chuckle at the disciples forgetfulness and move on. There is a point here. And the point is not that Christ wants us never to prepare, never to concern ourselves about job or home or food or clothing. He is not arguing that we should not be good stewards. Jesus is teaching the disciples how to think—how kingdom living must be approached. Jesus has come to be Lord of all. And we can consider his resurrection as coronation day. As we move through life now as members of that kingdom, we must approach everything with the understanding that Jesus is Lord. If the disciples had done that they (1) would not have thought Jesus was upset over lack of food and (2) would have immediately dismissed that thought in favor of a more fitting deeper meaning of his comment.
We tend to divide up our activity of life and put it in separate categories. We have activity, like going to a Bible study, that we toss in the sacred category. We have activities like driving to the store that are normal life activities. And then we have activities that make us stop and think to be sure we are making the correct moral decision—I’ll call them questionable activities. If we think about life activities in these groupings, we miss what kingdom living is all about. Every activity in which we engage is simply a kingdom activity. Each has to have the banner of “Jesus is Lord.” This is what Paul meant when saying that whatsoever we do in word or deed do all to the glory of God. For the Christian, a Bible study is not more sacred that driving to the store. Now, of course, the fact is that Jesus is Lord slips to the back of our minds so that we are often not consciously aware of it (just like the disciples in Matthew 16). But that may be because we simply don’t involve our minds as much with the realization of Christ’s Lordship throughout our lives. It shouldn’t be forced. We don’t get extra points by playing pseudo-spiritual games in our minds or in our speech. But a mind that prays without ceasing naturally finds Christ at the center of everything.
This failure by the disciples was the very point Christ was warning them about in telling them to beware the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. It is in the imperceptible, yet ever marching movement toward self-interest that the center does not hold. The constant renewal of our minds is probably a good practice.
From this region Jesus and the disciples head north to Caesarea Philippi. This is well north of Bethsaida (about 25 miles). Matthew does not record that Jesus had been in this region previously. While a few of the people here possibly saw Jesus from travels down to the Sea of Galilee, most likely had not seen him, but probably heard of him. When people traveled in this day, they usually spent the night outdoors along the road. In cities and towns, since there were no regular hotels or inns, travelers often asked about lodging in public areas and someone would usually offer a room in his house for the stranger. No doubt as Jesus and the disciples entered Caesarea Philippi, they did the same thing, dividing up, talking with people, and being invited to spend the night at various people’s homes. But then they would meet together again at an appointed time.
As they come together again after being on their own in the city and in various homes, Jesus asks them about what the people have heard of his ministry. In verse 13 Jesus asks, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Immediately the disciples, who have heard Jesus refer to himself in this manner many times, understand his question. Mark and Luke even record the question as “Who do people (or, the crowds) say that I am?” (Mark 8:27, Luke 9:18). And the disciples answer based on what they’ve heard. Jesus has performed miracles—healing, feeding, giving sight to the blind, etc. Unlike the Pharisees of Matthew 12, these people recognize that the good things done must come from a good person. So they wonder if it is John the Baptist raised or Elijah or Jeremiah or another of the prophets.
And then Jesus asks a question that is often, I think, understood incorrectly. The words of verse 15 say, “But who do you say that I am?” Now, the disciples had already told Jesus that they believed he was the Son of God (14:33). So it is not so likely that Jesus is asking them merely to repeat that. And if you consider the wording, it is really not what Jesus would ask to find out what they thought of him. He did not ask them, “Who do you think I am?” (think = Greek dokeo, meaning to be of the opinion, judge, suppose). He asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” (say = Greek lego, meaning speak, affirm, teach). In other words, Jesus was continuing the conversation. First, he asked about his reputation there—”Who do people say that I am?” Getting the answer, Jesus then asks his disciples what happened next—”When they told you who they thought I was, what did you tell them? Who did you say that I was?” So, Jesus here is not trying to find out what the disciples think of him—he knows that already. He is trying to find out how the disciples carry their kingdom message to these people. Do they tell the others that Jesus is Lord?
Peter’s response is right on the money. He says, in effect, “We tell them that you are the Christ, the Son of the living God!”