Below is a rough translation of Matthew 16:21-28 and WAY TOO MANY preliminary comments. Seriously, I’m getting on my own nerves with all of these comments, so please feel free to dismiss them or argue with me about them. At the heart of it all is that this is a key text for discipleship, yet I find many ponderable points along the way that escape easy interpretation. Your comments are truly welcomed.
21 Ἀπὸ τότε ἤρξατο ὁ Ἰησοῦς δεικνύειν τοῖς μαθηταῖς αὐτοῦ ὅτι δεῖ αὐτὸν εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα ἀπελθεῖν καὶ πολλὰ παθεῖν ἀπὸ τῶν πρεσβυτέρων καὶ ἀρχιερέων καὶ γραμματέων καὶ ἀποκτανθῆναι καὶ τῇ τρίτῃ ἡμέρᾳ ἐγερθῆναι
From then Jesus began to show his disciples that it is binding for him to go into Jerusalem and to suffer much from the elders and chief priests and scribes and to be killed and on the third day to be raised.
ἤρξατο: AMI 3s, ἄρχω, 1) to be chief, to lead, to rule
δεικνύειν: PAInf, δεικνύω, to show, exhibit; expose to the eyes
δεῖ PAI 3s, δέω ,1) to bind tie, fasten 1a) to bind, fasten with chains
ἀπελθεῖν: AAInf, ἀπέρχομαι, 1) to go away, depart
παθεῖν: AAInf, πάσχω, 1) to be affected or have been affected, to feel … 1b) in a bad sense, to suffer sadly, be in a bad plight
ἀποκτανθῆναι: APInf, ἀποκτείνω, 1) to kill in any way whatever
ἐγερθῆναι: APInf, ἐγείρω, 1) to arouse, cause to rise 1a) to arouse from sleep, to awake 1b) to arouse from the sleep of death, to recall the dead to life
1. I want to beat my drum again for the verb δέω. It can be shorthanded into “must” as most translations do (KJV, NIV, ESV, NRSV), but I feel like we miss the richness of the term when doing so. It is the same verb as the “binding” of “binding and loosing” in v.19. It signifies a binding necessity and, in this chapter especially, has a sense that Jesus’ road to Jerusalem is one of those things that are “bound in heaven” and should, correspondingly, be bound on earth. Even Young’s Literal Translation’s use of “it is necessary” may be too subtle. I suggest “it is binding” to make the connection between this verse and v.19 more obvious.
2. The verb, “it is binding” is followed by four infinitives. These are the things to which the son of man is bound: to go, to suffer, to be killed, and to be raised.
22 καὶ προσλαβόμενος αὐτὸν ὁ Πέτρος ἤρξατο ἐπιτιμᾶν αὐτῷ λέγων, Ιλεώς σοι, κύριε: οὐ μὴ ἔσται σοι τοῦτο
And having taken him aside Peter began to rebuke him saying, “Mercy to you, Lord: This will not be to you.”
προσλαβόμενος: AMPart nsm, προσλαμβάνω, λαμβάνω (take) with προς (towards) prefixed; to take thereto, that is in addition, take besides.
ἤρξατο: AMI 3s, ἄρχω, 1) to be chief, to lead, to rule
ἐπιτιμᾶν: PAInf, ἐπιτιμάω, 1) to show honor to, to honor … 4) to tax with fault, rate, chide, rebuke, reprove, censure severely 4a) to admonish or charge sharply
λέγων: PAPart nsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἔσται: FMI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. The word ιλεώς in its adjectival form is found here and in Hebrews 8:12, “For I will be merciful toward their iniquities.” As awkward as it may sound, I am trying to keep the meaning of that term clear. I do not know why most translations do not make the connection between this word and the nominal form ἔλεος, which is almost universally translated “mercy” (Mt. 9:13; 12:7; 23:33) or the verbal form ἐλεέω (5:7; 9:27; 15:22; 17:15; 18:33; 20:30; 20:31), which is usually translated “have mercy.” In NONE of these instances does it translate as “God forbid it” (NRSV) or “Never” (NIV).
2. The question arises: Why would Peter respond to Jesus’ disclosure of this forthcoming death with the word ιλεώς? My reading is that Peter is offering Jesus an alternative to the road of suffering, death, and resurrection: Mercy.
3. Peter’s words have a parallel structure between “mercy to you” and “this will not be to you.” In my reading, this is Peter using his voice as the rock upon which the church is built (v.18, from last week’s reading), to loose Jesus from suffering, death, and resurrection and to bind him to mercy.
4. This is, after all, a rebuke. See the various possible definitions for ἐπιτιμάω above. Peter is strongly offering, perhaps demanding, an alternative for Jesus.
5. I suggested last week that whenever we read v.19 to say that whatever the church binds/looses will then be bound/loosed in heaven, then we are making the same mistake as Peter. The point is not that the church binds/looses and heaven complies. It is that the church binds/looses that which has been bound/loosed in heaven (see the syntax of those verbs). This is the church’s first opportunity to exercise its way of discipleship and Peter fails. Jesus is bound to go, suffer, be killed, and be raised; Peter opposes it in a very strenuous way.
23 ὁ δὲ στραφεὶς εἶπεν τῷ Πέτρῳ, Υπαγε ὀπίσω μου, Σατανᾶ: σκάνδαλον εἶ ἐμοῦ, ὅτι οὐ φρονεῖς τὰ τοῦ θεοῦ ἀλλὰ τὰ τῶν ἀνθρώπων
But having turned, he said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, because you are not opining the things of God but the things of humans.”
στραφεὶς: APPart nsm, στρέφω, 1) to turn, turn around 2) to turn one's self
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
Υπαγε: PAImpv 2s, ὑπάγω, 1) to lead under, bring under 2) to withdraw one's self, to go away, depart
εἶ: PAI 2s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
φρονεῖς: PAI 2s, φρονέω, 1) to have understanding, be wise 2) to feel, to think 2a) to have an opinion of one's self, think of one's self, to be
1. If Peter were simply trying to dissuade Jesus out of his filial love for him, Jesus’ response would seem like overkill. This is not just a response to natural concern, it is a test of wills.
2. There are three parts to Jesus’ devastating critique of Peter. The first puts me in mind of the temptation story of Matthew 4 and the second seems to be the undoing of last week’s reading about Peter and his role in the church.
a. Jesus uses the phrase Υπαγε ὀπίσω μου, Σατανᾶ (“Get behind me, Satan!”) which is very similar to his words to the devil in Mt. 4:10, Υπαγε, Σατανᾶ (“Be gone, Satan!”) What that usage suggests is that Peter’s rebuke functions as a temptation to Jesus, much as the devil’s words did. It suggests that when Jesus discloses his forthcoming suffering and death, he is quite aware of the tempting alternate path of remaining in Galilee, where it seems evident that he had the wherewithal to feed the hungry, heal the sick, gather thousands of followers, including non-Jews, and possibly raise a rebellion to carve out independence and establish a new God-fearing community there.
b. Jesus calls Peter “Satan” but also a “stumbling block” (σκάνδαλον which transliterates as “scandal”). A “stumbling block” would be a destructive use of a “petra” as opposed to the foundation on which a church can be built (v.18).
c. Peter’s wisdom (φρονέω) is a familiar term in philosophy, often signifying practical reason. His wisdom here is based on earthly and not heavenly things, the exact opposite of his charge in v.19.
24 Τότε ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν τοῖς μαθηταῖς αὐτοῦ, Εἴ τις θέλει ὀπίσω μου ἐλθεῖν, ἀπαρνησάσθω ἑαυτὸν καὶ ἀράτω τὸν σταυρὸν αὐτοῦ καὶ ἀκολουθείτω μοι.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to come behind me, one must deny oneself, take up one’s cross, and follow me.”
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
θέλει: PAI 3s, θέλω, 1) to will, have in mind, intend
ἐλθεῖν: AAInf, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come 1a) of persons
ἀπαρνησάσθω: AMImpv 3s, ἀπαρνέομαι, 1) to deny 1a) to affirm that one has no acquaintance or connection with someone
ἀράτω: AAImov 3s, αἴρω, 1) to raise up, elevate, lift up 1a) to raise from the ground,
ἀκολουθείτω: PAImpv 3s, 1) to follow one who precedes, join him as his attendant, accompany him 2) to join one as a disciple, become or be his disciple 2a) side with his party
This is, of course, one of the most powerful statements in all of the Christian Scriptures. With that in mind, there are some features of it that are worth exploring, even if I run the risk of sounding as if I am messing with a sacred cow. 1. The phrase “behind me” (ὀπίσω μου) is the exact phrase Jesus used when ordering Peter to get “behind me” in v.23. The verb “come” (ἔρχομαι) is different from the verb “get” (ὑπάγω) in v.23. We read “get behind me” as a disputative command in v.23, echoing the verb “get away” to Satan in Matthew 4:10. Then, we read the verb “come” in v.24 as an invitation, however costly, and so completely differently than we read Jesus’ words to Peter. Both verbs, ὑπάγω and ἔρχομαι, can have a ‘coming’ and ‘going’ movement to them. Both can mean “go” as in “go away” or “come” as in “come hither.” What determines the translation is context, and in this case our interpretation of Jesus words to Peter as a rebuke (the fact that Jesus calls Peter “Satan” is pretty hard to ignore) and the call to discipleship as an invitation.
2. That said, the repetition of ὀπίσω μου, however, is worth a life of meditation. Both the rebuke and the invitation end up “behind me.” I wonder if we ought to interpret this action of following behind Jesus as an act of ‘binding’.
3. The language of this invitation has some echoes of Matthew 4:19-20, when Jesus first called the disciples: καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς, Δεῦτε ὀπίσω μου, καὶ ποιήσω ὑμᾶς ἁλιεῖς ἀνθρώπων. οἱ δὲ εὐθέως ἀφέντες τὰ δίκτυα ἠκολούθησαν αὐτῷ. (NRSV: And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.)
4. One last comment about Peter. While disciples are called to deny themselves, Peter is the only one for whom the verb “deny” (ἀπαρνέομαι) is used in subsequent chapters of Matthew. However, the verb is used when Peter is predicted to, and then actually does, deny Jesus three times.
5. Is it worth noting that when Jesus discloses his journey to Jerusalem, suffering, death, and resurrection in v.21 that he does not mention his cross? It is only in his call to discipleship and in the crucifixion story itself that “cross” is mentioned in Matthew.
6. Jesus has already mentioned the cross once in Matthew 10:38, in an earlier similar call to discipleship: “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
25 ὃς γὰρ ἐὰν θέλῃ τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ σῶσαι ἀπολέσει αὐτήν: ὃς δ' ἂν ἀπολέσῃ τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ ἕνεκεν ἐμοῦ εὑρήσει αὐτήν.
For whoever may wish to save one’s soul will destroy/lose it, and whoever may lose/destroy one’s soul for my sake will find it.
θέλῃ: PASubj 3s, θέλω, 1) to will, have in mind, intend 1a) to be resolved or determined, to purpose 1b) to desire, to wish
σῶσαι: AAInf, σῴζω, 1) to save, keep safe and sound, to rescue from danger or destruction
ἀπολέσει: FAI 3s, ἀπόλλυμι, 1) to destroy 1a) to put out of the way entirely, abolish, put an end to ruin
ἀπολέσῃ: AASubj, ἀπόλλυμι, 1) to destroy 1a) to put out of the way entirely, abolish, put an end to ruin
εὑρήσει: FAI 3s, εὑρίσκω, 1) to come upon, hit upon, to meet with 1a) after searching, to find a thing sought
1. This statement feels like it is a chiastic parallel, with A1 saving / A2 losing equivalent to B1 losing / B2 saving as the four beams of the X-chiasm.
May Save A1 May Lose B1
Will Save B2 Will Lose A2
A friend of mine once said, “Some people have been known to fake chiasms,” and that seems to be the case here. In fact, A1 is not “may save” but “may wish to save” with “may wish” as the parallel syntax to B1 “may lose.” The phrase “to save” is the infinitive voice with no parallel. Likewise, A2 “will lose” is not the same syntax as B2 “will save” but “will find,” which has no chiastic parallel. Another friend once pointed out to me that after all the work of diagraming a chiasm is done, there still remains the question “So what?” which very few commentators go on to answer.
2. I’ll fashion an answer. The apparent but disrupted chiastic parallel may not a result of bad writing, but a way of showing that what one wills is the key here. To fit this matter within the framework of vv.21-28 as well as last week’s reading of vv.13-20, I suggest that what one wills is indicative of being in accord with whatever is bound/loosed in heaven or whatever is bound/loose on earth. It is likewise indicative of having one’s thinking on human things or heavenly things.
2. Even more importantly, this statement stands in complete contrast to the abjectly Pelagian manner in which people customarily read the next verse. It is often assumed that “to save one’s soul” is the only absolute value in the reign of God. One might lose one’s mortal coil, one’s reputation, one’s family, all that one has, etc., for the sake of the one true thing – to save one’s soul. And yet, here is the paradoxical statement that the wish to save one’s soul will in fact lead to its destruction. What can this verse mean, when juxtaposed with the next? Likewise, what can the next verse mean when juxtaposed to this one?
26 τί γὰρ ὠφεληθήσεται ἄνθρωπος ἐὰν τὸν κόσμον ὅλον κερδήσῃ τὴν δὲ ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ ζημιωθῇ; ἢ τί δώσει ἄνθρωπος ἀντάλλαγμα τῆς ψυχῆς αὐτοῦ;
For what will it profit a person if one should gain the whole world but one’s soul be damaged? Or what will one give in return for one’s soul?
ὠφεληθήσεται: FPI 3s, ὠφελέω, 1) to assist, to be useful or advantageous, to profit
κερδήσῃ: AASubj 3s, κερδαίνω, 1) to gain, acquire, to get gain 2) metaph.
ζημιωθῇ: APSubj 3s, ζημιόω, 1) to affect with damage, do damage to 2) to sustain damage, to receive injury, suffer loss
δώσει: FAI 3s, δίδωμι, 1) to give 2) to give something to someone
1. It just seems to me that there is an inherent tension between v.25 and v.26. One seems to indicate that the attempt to save one’s soul is a sure way to lose it; the other seems to indicate that saving one’s soul is the only true value there is.
27 μέλλει γὰρ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἔρχεσθαι ἐν τῇ δόξῃ τοῦ πατρὸς αὐτοῦ μετὰ τῶν ἀγγέλων αὐτοῦ, καὶ τότε ἀποδώσει ἑκάστῳ κατὰ τὴν πρᾶξιν αὐτοῦ.
For the Son of Man is about to come in the glory of his father with his angels, and then he will give to each for one’s actions.
μέλλει: PAI 3s, μέλλω, 1) to be about 1a) to be on the point of doing or suffering something 1b) to intend, have in mind, think to
ἔρχεσθαι: PMInf, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come 1a) of persons
ἀποδώσει: FAI 3s, ἀποδίδωμι, 1) to deliver, to give away for one's own profit what is one's own, to sell
1. It seems like the most appropriate definition for μέλλω at thebible.org is the 8th option: “to delay; with an infinitive following, to be about to do anything (immediate or remote).” What is intriguing about this word is that it can means something that is ‘on the verge’ or ‘delayed.’ When we add the μέλλω to the infinitive ἔρχεσθαι, I am rendering it as “about to come.” The tension between Jesus’ return and its delay just about sums up the NT’s eschatology and a whole lot more, IMHO.
2. The NIV and ESV simply translate μέλλω + ἔρχεσθαι as “is going to come.” The KJV has “shall come.” I agree with Young’s Literal Translation, “about to come.”
28 ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι εἰσίν τινες τῶν ὧδε ἑστώτων οἵτινες οὐ μὴ γεύσωνται θανάτου ἕως ἂν ἴδωσιν τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐρχόμενον ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ αὐτοῦ.
Truly I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
εἰσίν: PAI 3p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
ἑστώτων: PerfAPart gpm, ἵστημι, 1) to cause or make to stand, to place, put, set
γεύσωνται: AMS 3p, γεύομαι, 1) to taste, to try the flavor of
ἴδωσιν: AAS 3p, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes 2) to see with the mind, to perceive, know
ἐρχόμενον: PMPart asm, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come
1. The plain meaning of this verse is that Jesus (via Matthew) expected his return to occur some time before some of the persons standing there died. That plainly did not happen. In order to square that plain meaning with the obvious fact that all of the persons standing there are dead and buried, Christian interpreters have tried to interpret this verse in other ways. I see three options, each of which is fraught with a different kind of challenge.
a. The plain meaning of the text is what it is and Jesus/Matthew were simply wrong. The obvious downside to this option is the fact that we do not think of Jesus as being wrong without incredible difficulty. And, if Matthew’s gospel was written as late as the mid-80’s as popular scholarship often suggests, then it was quite likely that the company around Jesus had all met their demise already, so why would Matthew interpret this in the plain sense? My argument against this reading of the text is that it would have been just as obvious to Matthew that Jesus would not return before the actual persons standing there had met their demise as it is to us. (I could be wrong and perhaps there were some exceeding long livers among those standing there.
b. Perhaps what it means to “see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” is something other than imminent return of Christ with whatever the Reign of God may look like in its fullness after that. It could certainly mean something like ‘witnessing Jesus after the resurrection’ or ‘those who witnessed the transfiguration’ or something like that. In the literary context, the transfiguration is actually the most likely option, since it is the very next story. However, the challenge of this option is one of consistency. If this phrase does not mean what it seems to mean, but is suggestive of something less grandiose and final as how we popularly conceive of the Second Coming, then are we willing to read every other reference to the Second Coming in a similar fashion?
c. Another option could be that Matthew (following Mark) inherited this phrase from the oral tradition, yet by the time they write their gospels it is evident that many of the disciples have already tasted death and the Second Coming has not occurred. Their literary choice, then, to pair this saying with the story of the Transfiguration may be a way of re-calculating, or reconfiguring the meaning of the story. The plainness of its meaning may be true for what M&M inherited from the oral tradition, but the literary act of connecting this story to the Transfiguration may be M&M’s theological interpretation. If that is true, it may suggest that every time we see a reference to the imminent return of Christ, we need to give close attention to context because are peeking behind the story to the ongoing issue of the delay of the parousia and the church’s need to come to terms with that. Of all the options that I can imagine, this is the one that is most robust to me.
2. We should not lose sight that this mention of the imminent return of Christ is likewise situated in a chapter that is about the construction of the church and its obedient authority of binding/loosing. Such an institution would be unnecessary in a situation when the return of Christ is imminent. Or, perhaps we could imagine that the church itself is a way of understanding the returned presence of Christ. That is, perhaps, another option for interpreting this text, but it goes against both the plain reading of the text as well as a plain reading of the church. As a human institution and as a spiritual reality called into being by God, the church is a very ambiguous entity.