Some thoughts on Matthew 16:14
Matthew 16:13-16 is a famous passage in the New Testament. The beginning and end are justly the best-known parts, but in this post I wanted to share something that jumped out at me this year from the verse in the middle:
13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” 14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
I had a physics teacher in high school who would sometimes mark homework problems "WBC", meaning "wrong but consistent" (or perhaps it was InBC = "incorrect but consistent"—it's been almost two decades so the details could be fuzzy) when a student had made a mistake in arithmetic or something early on, but followed a reasoning and calculation process that would have gotten to the right answer if it hadn't been for that one error. That's what I think of Matthew 16:14. Peter gives the vital, true response in verse 16; the people in verse 14, although they're missing some crucial pieces of the puzzle, still are following insightful lines of reasoning though.
Elijah and John the Baptist are fairly obvious answers. Elijah was a powerful miracle worker, just as Jesus was. Also, the fact that he was taken up into heaven by a chariot of fire instead of dying meant that his return was expected (for example, a glass of wine is often left out for him at Passover meals). John the Baptist was prominent in recent memory and Jesus preached a very similar message (Mark 1:4-8,14-15). But out of all the other prophets, why does Jeremiah get singled out by name here?
Jeremiah was one of the major prophets in the Old Testament. Let's consider his life and message for clues. One of the things that stands out is that the book that bears his name has a lot of biographical details. Many of the prophetic books focus on the prophet's message, but the book of Jeremiah tells us a lot about his life experiences (Daniel and Jonah are similar in this regard).
Jeremiah had a very awkward message to deliver. Rather than being able to tell his countrymen that they could triumph in war over their enemies if they would trust God, instead he had to advise them to surrender to the Babylonians and submit to exile as discipline from the Lord. Using the imagery (and a prop!) of a yoke, Jeremiah's message of surrender is contrasted to the false hope held out by a false prophet. But Jeremiah did have hope to offer: exile was discipline, not destruction (a theme that I think is echoed by other prophets), and it would be of finite duration. This comes up over and over. He sent a letter to the exiles instructing them to settle down and have families, expecting to be there for a couple of generations, but that there would be a future return. While Jerusalem was under siege, he bought a piece of property to testify that "houses and fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land". And he prophesied that Babylon would fall and a time would come to flee.
Still, his counselling surrender made him viewed as a traitor, and he suffered a lot of persecution for it. He was arrested and beaten by a priest. Religious leaders called for his death. One king (Jehoiakim) burned a scroll of Jeremiah's prophesies when it was read to him; another king (Zedekiah) imprisoned Jeremiah but still wanted to hear what he had to say (reminding me of Herod and John the Baptist or Felix and Paul). The culmination of this persecution saw Jeremiah lowered into an underground cistern and left to die (although he ended up getting rescued and raised back out).
Here are some of the specific details of his life and message that I believe may be relevant to his mention in Matthew 16:14:
- Jeremiah was chosen before he was born (1:5)
- His suffering; see how he describes it in Lamentations 3, for example (and compare to Psalm 22)
- The piece of property he acquired wasn't just any real estate transaction, but a specific type known as a redemption from a near kin.
- His experience in the cistern was like being as good as dead then returning to the land of the living.
Before trying to tie it all together in the final section, the next section is a digression into the history of Mesopotamia in the time of Jeremiah.
Last year, on one of my trips to Kansas, I passed the time driving across the wide-open landscape by listening to a very long podcast series about the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian/Achaemenid empires (technically neo-Assyrian and neo-Babylonian). This was the "Kings of Kings" series by Dan Carlin (parts 1,2,3). Dan Carlin is a masterful storyteller, and I found learning more about the secular history of the Ancient Near East and Mesopotamia during this era quite helpful for understanding more context about the Biblical prophets. These Hardcore History episodes really drove home how tumultuous the century and a half from 650 BC - 500 BC (this spans the Jewish Babylonian captivity (597 - 538 BC) plus about a generation on either side) was in that region. Aside from Isaiah (c. 740 - 680 BC), the rest of the 4 major prophets were active in this timeframe: 626 - 587 BC for Jeremiah, 593 - 571 BC for Ezekiel, and during the 500s for Daniel. It was a period that saw three major empires succeed one another in rapid fashion. In addition to where these events intersect the prophetic books of the Bible, there are some other very interesting episodes in the rise and fall of these empires. I particularly liked how Dan Carlin told about the rise of the Persian king Darius, and how if you read between the lines of history, there likely was a conspiracy and cover-up that put him on the throne. As the Persian empire expanded, it started clashing with the Greeks. If your history education was more Western-focused (as mine was), you'll be familiar with the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC) featuring the Spartans' famous last stand, and then, several generations later, the conquests of Alexander the Great (356 - 323 BC), which included the Persian Empire. The detailed accounts of the Greco-Persian wars and the conquests of Alexander the Great also make these podcast episodes worth listening to.
Between these episodes of Hardcore History linked in the previous paragraph and the useful reference site geacron.com, here are some notable people and events from the time of Jeremiah and some of the other prophets that are good context to keep in mind:
- The Neo-Assyrian empire lasted from 912 - 612 BC. They were a powerhouse, conquering Babylonia by 700 BC, Egypt around 672 - 665 BC, and the Elamites around 644 BC. Notable kings include Sargon II (722 - 705 BC) and Tiglath-Pilesar III (745 - 727 BC).
- The Neo-Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel around 722 BC. They also campaigned in Judah, including the siege of Lachish by Sennacherib in 701 BC.
- The Neo-Babylonian empire took over the Assyrians in 608 BC. They had a short tenure at the top, being overrun by the Persians in 538 BC. They captured Jerusalem in 597 BC and 586 BC (in between, a king who was supposed to be their vassal rebelled, as covered in Jeremiah).
- A fascinating Babylonian king was Nabonidus (556-539 BC), who seems to have gone into a self-imposed exile for awhile (at least how Dan Carlin interprets some of the evidence).
- The Persian/Achaemenid empire began with the Medes expanding over the course of decades up to around 550 BC. At that point, the Persians seem to have gotten started in their territory and wound up in charge. In 538 BC they conquered Babylon, and by 500 BC they would be the rulers of a vast territory stretching from just north of Greece all the way to Pakistan. This would last until they themselves were invaded by Alexander the Great.
Section II listed some of the parallels between Jeremiah and Jesus. One of the things that stands out with Jeremiah being mentioned in the same sentence as John the Baptist and Elijah is that each of them suffered persecution. Elijah had to live in hiding/exile because of King Ahab and Jezebel. John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded by one of the Kings Herod. And as we've seen above, the religious and political authorities kept trying to silence Jeremiah. Indeed, later in the same chapter of Matthew, Jesus explains that suffering is an unavoidable part of his mission on earth.
Another commonality is that these three answers hint towards life after death (contra the sect of the Sadducees). John the Baptist had been beheaded only a couple of chapters earlier, so anyone that thought Jesus was he would have to believe that he had miraculously survived or been raised to life. Elijah didn't die but was taken up. For Jeremiah, there's the incident with the cistern, where he was basically buried for a period of time. (And even for "one of the prophets" Jesus mentions the sign of Jonah—another image of burial, this time beneath the waves—earlier in Matthew 16).
To finish this post, one of my favourite accounts on YouTube, Clamavi de Profundis, recently released a musical setting of Lamentations 1:1-5, where Jeremiah is mourning over Jerusalem (another parallel with Jesus).