START WITH SCRIPTURE:
This is a pivotal moment in the life of Jesus with his disciples. Jesus continues on his journeys outside Jewish Galilee and Judea. He has been in the region of Phoenicia, near Tyre and Sidon on the coast (Matthew 15:21-28). He has dropped back near the Sea of Galilee, where he has fed more than four thousand (Matthew 15:29-38). From there he sailed by boat across the lake to Magdala, which is on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. But after some Pharisees and Sadducees begin to pressure him to give a miraculous sign in order to “prove” himself to them (Matthew 16:1-12), Jesus seems to again seek refuge in the non-Jewish region to the north of Galilee, in the region of Caesarea Philippi. (Caesarea Philippi was established by Philip the Tetrach, son of Herod the Great. Obviously he was pandering to his Roman overlords by including the name Caesarea for the city. The city of Caesarea Philippi, was founded at an ancient site known as Paneas, which was devoted to the Greek god Pan. The shrine was built upon an abundant spring that was believed to be the primary source of the waters that fed the Sea of Galilee. It was about thirty miles northeast of the Sea of Galilee near the foot of Mount Hermon).
The setting where Jesus asks his famous question of his disciples — near Caesarea Philippi — may add poignancy to the answers he receives. He is a Jew in a Gentile area asking about the Jewish Messiah:
Now when Jesus came into the parts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?”
It is very clear that Jesus is identifying himself with the role and title of the Son of Man. This title is used to describe Jesus eighty-eight times in the New Testament. In the Old Testament it may have originally merely meant “mortal” or “human beings.” However, in Jesus’ time, it had an apocalyptic and Messianic connotation, created in part by some of the prophets (Daniel 7:13-14).
In a sense, both meanings are conveyed here. Jesus is a human being — he is fully human. But he is also the Messiah — he is, as Christian creeds will later affirm, fully God.
So, this is no casual question that Jesus asks. It is a theological question of utmost importance. He is determining whether anyone is grasping his true identity.
The disciples seem a bit insecure in their responses. They don’t answer for themselves, but they say what they have heard rumored about Jesus:
They said, “Some say John the Baptizer, some, Elijah, and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”
In other words, they focus on his humanity. Granted, he is special — after all, each of the prophetic figures named is either recently dead or long dead. The speculation about Jesus certainly seems to lend itself toward paranormal supernatural visitations! By this time, John has been beheaded by Herod’s executioner (Matthew 14:1-12). The rumor that Jesus was some kind of “zombie John the Baptist returned from the dead” seems to have actually originated from a very nervous King Herod (Matthew 14:2).
Elijah, of course, was the prophet who confronted King Ahab of Israel in the 9th century B.C., and became famous for his miracles.
Jeremiah was famous as the “weeping prophet” who warned the king of Judah of the imminent judgment of God to be visited on Jerusalem by the Babylonian empire — which did come to pass in 586 B.C.
But the disciples’ tepid response, quoting what others have to say about him, is not the end of the interrogation:
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
To be fair, in his first question Jesus did ask them a more general question — who do men say that I am? But now Jesus is being very direct. Who do you, the ones who have been with me since the beginning of my ministry, think that I am? You have heard my teachings, you have seen my healings and wonders. What have you concluded?
We can only wonder how many heartbeats passed, how many seconds elapsed, among these disciples after Jesus asks this question. Do they shift their feet nervously? Do they look at one another sheepishly?
Of course, it is the fisherman, the impulsive Simon Bar Jonah (which means Simon the son of Jonah) who speaks up. And what he says is a confession of faith. In fact, it might be said that this is the kernel of all confessions and creeds that are to come:
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
If the title the Son of Man might be a little ambiguous, there is no doubt about what Peter means here. Christ means the anointed one, which in Hebrew is rendered Messiah in most translations. The three offices in the Old Testament in which anointing with oil was done were prophets, priests, and kings. Jesus fulfills all three of these roles. And Simon can see that Jesus must be the long awaited Messiah. No, Simon is not a scholar, a scribe or a Pharisee — but he knows what he has seen and heard. Although the title, Christ, has been used six times as a description of Jesus prior to this passage, Peter’s declaration is the first time that anyone has actually applied the term directly to Jesus.
And then there is the declaration that Jesus is the Son of the living God. This is an unequivocal statement that Jesus is divine. He is not merely a human carpenter and wandering rabbi. He is God. Again, this is not the first time Jesus has been designated the Son of God. God the Father declares at his baptism that Jesus is his beloved Son (Matthew 3:17). Satan taunts Jesus with this identity — If you are the Son of God (Matthew 4:3, 6) why don’t you prove it with a miracle? The numerous demons who possessed the two men in the Gergesene cemetery recognize him as the Son of God (Matthew 8:28-34). The disciples worship Jesus as the Son of God (Matthew 14:22-33) after they have witnessed him walking on the sea.
Simon is reinforcing what he personally has experienced — when he was briefly able to walk with Jesus on the water — and what he has now become convinced is true of Jesus.
To be sure, Jesus never refers to himself as the Son of God in the Gospel of Matthew. His most common self-identification is that he is the Son of Man (thirty times in Matthew’s Gospel). However, he has clearly defined his own relationship with the Father in Matthew 11:
All things have been delivered to me by my Father. No one knows the Son, except the Father; neither does anyone know the Father, except the Son, and he to whom the Son desires to reveal him (Matthew 11:27).
Jesus also clearly affirms Simon’s declaration. Simon Bar Jonah got it right:
Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”
Jesus is confirming that Simon’s realization is not something that has been logically figured out, but has been spiritually revealed by God. Understanding the identity of Jesus isn’t a matter of theological insight or mere empirical observation — it is revealed knowledge.
And we also discover when Simon receives his nickname — Rocky.
I also tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my assembly, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
Peter is the Greek version of Rock. In Aramaic Rock is Cephas (John 1:42; 1 Corinthians 1:12; 3:22; 9:5; 15:5; Galatians 2:9). Although Matthew’s Gospel refers to Simon as Peter at least six times prior to our lectionary Scripture, it seems apparent that this account is the first moment that Simon is given the nickname Rocky.
Jesus is honoring Simon Peter for his stalwart declaration — and says further that the Rock of Peter’s faith will become the foundation for the church. The cornerstone of this faith is that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. And we note the nuance of Jesus’ metaphor — the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. The gates of Hades in this image is stationary, like a fortress. It is the church that is aggressively besieging Hell!
Peter himself is given awesome authority:
I will give to you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven; and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven.
A Roman Catholic interpretation of this passage vests ecclesiastical authority with Peter, whom they believe to be the first bishop of the church. He has been given the keys, which denote authority. However, Jesus later speaks of this same authority that is to be vested with the gathered church:
Most certainly I tell you, whatever things you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever things you release on earth will have been released in heaven. Again, assuredly I tell you, that if two of you will agree on earth concerning anything that they will ask, it will be done for them by my Father who is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the middle of them (Matthew 18:18-20).
The verbs bind and release are plural — Jesus is speaking of the whole church, not one individual. Authority is given to the church for the purpose of disciplining church members, and implementing the teaching of Jesus.
Finally, Jesus makes it clear that Peter’s epiphany, though true, is not to be revealed just yet:
Then he commanded the disciples that they should tell no one that he was Jesus the Christ.
The reason for what some have called the Messianic Secret is unclear. Perhaps Jesus doesn’t want to gather people to himself for the wrong reason — to be a mere wonderworker, or an earthly king. This would be consistent with his rejection of the devil’s temptations (Matthew 4:1-10). Perhaps he doesn’t want to be manipulated. Or perhaps he wants to be in control of what his identity as Messiah really means, especially given all of the interpretations and expectations that have been attached to that concept. But Jesus’ true identity as the Christ will be fully revealed after his resurrection.
There are many important questions that we may be asked in our lives. What do you want to be when you grow up? What will you major in when you are in college? Will you marry me? These can be defining questions that set us on a life-changing path.
Of all of the questions we may be asked, there are none more important than the questions Jesus asks. His first question provides the room for us to speculate about doctrine and theology and Biblical history:
Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?
This allows the disciples to say what others are saying about Jesus. This is a tendency that modern preachers and theologians understand well. It is so easy to talk about what other people — theologians, Biblical scholars, and other preachers — might say about Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook. Witness his second question:
who do you say that I am? (emphasis mine)
There is no more important question that Jesus asks of us today. Who do we say that he is?
Is he merely a Jewish carpenter? Or a rabbi? Or a wonderworker? Or a great moral teacher?
C.S. Lewis’s answer on this issue is classic:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse…. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come up with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. (from Mere Christianity)
Jesus is either the Christ, the Son of the living God, and our Lorid, or he is a phony. And our entire faith is founded on the same confession made by Peter. This is not something that we figure out on our own, or simply accept because we were told this in Sunday School. This is a conclusion at which we arrive in the same way that Peter did:
for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.
The affirmation that Jesus is Lord, Christ, and the incarnate God, is the rock upon which our faith is built.
The moment of Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God is pivotal in the Gospel of Matthew, and in Christian doctrine. This is also, in one form or another, the definitive profession of faith required of those who call ourselves Christians.
Paul says it this way:
If you will confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart, one believes unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation (Romans 10:9-10).
We are not “grandfathered” into Christianity simply because our family have been members of a local church for several generations. And we aren’t even de facto Christians simply because we have been baptized, however important this sacrament is. We are Christians when our spirits respond to the Spirit’s witness in our hearts that Jesus is Lord, Christ, Son of God, and has been raised from the dead.
Over the years in my ministry, I have preached the necessity to profess our faith in Christ as our Lord. I have no idea how many have responded in their own hearts to my pleas to confess Christ as Savior. As a pastor, I have received hundreds of people as new Christians and church members who have professed faith in Christ for the first time in their lives. They have answered the question asked by my own denomination’s ritual of profession of faith:
Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior,
put your whole trust in his grace,
and promise to serve him as your Lord,
in union with the church which Christ has opened
to people of all ages, nations, and races?
This kind of profession, modeled after Peter’s confession, is the beginning of a new life in Christ. But it is not the end. This profession leads to the great adventure of following Jesus for the rest of our lives.
Lord, your Spirit has borne witness with my Spirit that I am a child of God. I confess that Jesus is my Lord and Savior, and is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. This profession has forever changed my life. May this faith be the “rock” of my life and ministry, and of my church. Amen.
PHOTOS: "Who do you say that I am" by Dave Ruark is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license.