“Who Do You Say That I Am?”
Personal ownership is a powerful thing, is it not? We spend much of our lives developing a sense the things we own, and the things we don’t. From a young age even, and we see this in our children, there are very clear lines between what is “mine” and what is “theirs”; however, most children think that just about everything is “mine”. But it goes beyond just knowing what’s “mine” and what is somebody else’s. Indeed, it reflects on how we care for the things that are ours. To use a personal example, one of my favourite things about Danielle is her care and attention to our home. Things are organized, and cared for with diligence and respect, befitting the things that are ours, or more properly, that God has given to us; because we own them. Are there things like that in your life? That you own, and as a result of your ownership, pay special attention to?
I think that this idea extends beyond just material objects, but to values and beliefs as well. From a young age I can recall my father demonstrating care and attention to his old Seiko watch. This taught me to care for the watches that I would one day come to own, but also to value watches as a thing. Perhaps we could extend the analogy to hunting. A father raises his children and takes them hunting on the weekends and they enjoy the time with him. However, there might come a day where the son or daughter takes a personal ownership of hunting. It has changed from something they did with their father to something they now value and enjoy. And this transfer, this process, is an essential part of growing up, and indeed, discovering what it is we value and why we value it, and how we should behave in relationship to it.
In this first part of our weekend series of “questions Jesus asks” we see Jesus demonstrating this process of the need for personal ownership to his disciples and not just the necessity of it, but the dangers involved if we don’t. Let’s read our passage for this evening and we’ll discover what the Spirit has to say about it.
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And 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. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. (Matthew 16:13-20)
So any time we approach a text, we must keep at the forefront of our minds the 5Ws so common to good journalists: who, what, why, where, when, and if it applies, how. And in verse 13, we should be prompted to ask what might seem to be a somewhat obvious question, where is Caesarea Philippi, and indeed, why does Matthew see fit to mention it? If you take a look at the back your bibles in the book of maps—one of the little known books of the bible—you’ll find that Caesarea Philippi is one of the northernmost points in the region of Palestine, at the southern slopes, the foot, of mount hermon, near the ancient city of Dan. Caesarea Philippi is a fascinating site because it features, and remains to this day, a cave underneath the initial portion of the mountain, with a cavernous well inside of it—a seemingly unlimited source of water. This made the site desirable for settlement and piqued the spiritual interest of various pagan groups.
Before the 2nd century, the site was probably inhabited by northern Canannintes, and was a distinct site of worship for their abominable pagan god Baal. After the 2nd century, the Greeks claimed the site and called it Paneas, in honour of the god Pan, building a small shrine to worship at the cave. In about the 4th century, Herod the Great built a temple there, and passed the site on to his son, Philip, who built the settlement, Caesarea Philippi, around there. And so you can see in the name, that Caesarea Philippi acknowledged both Caeser Augustus, and also, Philip, the settler and establisher of the city. What is fascinating, is that we see Jesus enter this site with his disciples—a site that has seen its share of religious and spiritual traffic. From the early days of Baal, worship, to the Greek god Pan, and now, the cult of Emperor worship—and it’s here that Jesus has a very fascinating dialogue with his disciples. Let’s tune in to that.
Who Do People Say That I Am?
We see that it is entering into this area that prompts Jesus’ question of his disciples, v.13 “Who do people say that the son of man is?”. However, this question is by no means prompted only by their entrance into the city of Caesarea Philippi. Rather, this question has been building throughout the whole narrative of Matthew. Earlier in Matthew we see that Jesus has developed quite a following. If you flip back to Matthew 4:23-25, we see, that Jesus “…went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, those having seizures, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.” As well as numerous other incidents that have invoked the crowds’ “amazement” (7:28-29; 9:8, 26, 3, 33; 13:54; 15:31). We have seen people speculate about who Jesus is, from Herod Antipas in 14:1-2, “At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus, and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” To a guarded but hopeful assessment from John the Baptist in Matthew 11, wondering if Jesus is the messiah, or if they should expect someone else.
So this question about the identity of Jesus has been mounting throughout Matthew, and as a result, Matthew 16 represents a hinge point in the narrative, where the identity of Christ will be disclosed, and the course to Jerusalem will be set. So there is really quite an elegant arc in the story here, is there not? The tension builds to the northernmost point on the map, the identity of the Christ is disclosed, and events gain a rapid acceleration as Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem. So then—to Jesus’ question—who do people say that he is?
A Prophet or the Son of a Prophet—Platitudes
We see that Matthew describes their response as a corporate one: “And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”” And it’s important to note a little bit about their answers here. When Jesus asks who people say the “Son of Man” is, we need to realize this is a title or a designation. It happens to be Jesus’ favourite designation for himself, and ties directly back to the book of Daniel and the messianic expectation contained therein. But obviously, the title needs further clarification—who is this person? And so the disciples, who “mix it up with the crowds” a little more, are in a good place to answer. And so we see them suggest, some say John the Baptist (Herod) and some Elijah. Now in one sense, neither of these answers are surprising—John had close connections with Jesus, and so Jesus might have been thought to be the continuation of John’s prophetic ministry, which worked powerfully throughout the regions of Palestine. Or similarly, Elijah, one of the foremost prophets of old. It was thought that Jesus was a continuation of Elijah’s divinely sanctioned prophetic voice to the community of Israel (possible note on Jeremiah, as well).
But let’s get to the heart of the matter. All of these designations, are pretty favourable, aren’t they? I mean, to be compared to John the Baptist, or even Elijah! These terms show the reverence and respect that the people who heard of Jesus had for him. Right? “Oh man, he’s a great teacher.” “Oh, Jesus? I have heard he done some incredible miracles.” And I think that what we need to see here, is this isn’t a great deal different from the society that you, and I, find ourselves in today. Do you have experience with that? You hear someone on TV, or in movies talk about Christ and it’s generally pretty favourable. They might even give him honour. He’s a great teacher. He showed a great deal of compassion to the outsiders. Jesus is even set up in opposition to the actions and character of God in the Old Testament, supposedly juxtaposing God’s wrath with Jesus’ love and kindness. But notice, that Jesus requires a personal understanding, a personal ownership of who he is. It isn’t enough to go along with the general values of the crowd, Jesus fixes his eyes on the disciples, and we are his disciples and he asks, “But who do you say that I am?”
And this is where we can’t miss where it is that Jesus is asking this question. Caesarea Philippi had seen its share of influential cults and religious fads pass through. And Jesus brings them to this place and in effect is saying “look at this place. The gods and the cults have come and gone. Do you think I am just like one of these gods?” And friends, our culture is no different. We live in a world of transient saviors. Whether it’s the next prime minister, or the great job that we’ve landed, or the family we worked so hard to build up. And Jesus mandates that his disciples answer the question, and therefore we must answer the question, “but who do you say that I am?” Is Jesus an inspirational figure? Is he a pagan figure that will one day be consigned to the dust-bin of history?
Our temptation is to ride into the Kingdom on someone else’s confession. Someone else’s piety. But Jesus doesn’t make that option available for us. For those of us raised in a Christian home, I know this can be an especially great temptation. Perhaps your mother or father were fantastic Christians; loved and served the Lord. And they tried to teach you the faith and they modeled the life that Christ required. Friends, that’s a fantastic gift, but it won’t unite you to Christ. As they say, God has no grandchildren. We must come to a personal ownership of the identity of Christ. It must become our own, we must, like Peter answer Jesus to his face.
So what is it that Peter says? What are we to emulate? ““You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Peter confesses that there is none higher than Christ. Now Christ is not a last name, but rather, a title, just as son of man is. For Peter to say that “Jesus is the Christ” is to say that Jesus is the fulfillment and accomplishment of God’s redemption of all mankind. Jesus is the Messiah. Peter’s response is a model for us as it is the exchange of confession and repentance. To say that Christ is Lord, in a place named for the emperor, is to say that worldly powers are not over us, nor are we the final authority, but instead, Jesus is.
It is important to not just leave it at Peter’s statements, however. Take a look at how Jesus responds: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” Jesus blesses Simon for speaking the truth about Jesus amidst cultural and political confusion. And indeed, speaking truthfully about the Lordship of Christ is a praiseworthy and blessed enterprise. But what we need to notice is that Peter didn’t get there by being clever. As Jesus himself tells Peter, “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” Peter, you didn’t get this by listening to the crowds—you received this insight by paying attention to how God has revealed this to you. Namely, by Jesus miraculous works, prophetic utterances, and love and compassion for those he encountered.
What does this tell us? It tells us that in order to answer correctly the question, “who do you say I am” we must look to the word of God to inform us about who Jesus is. We must seek the Father to reveal it to us. Not listen to the culture, which generally speaking, does not desire the things of God. Not listen to those who we look up to in terms of their faith or their spirituality. In short, nothing shy of the Word and Witness of God the Spirit is sufficient to reveal the truth about God the son. And we must take ownership of our beliefs about Jesus, and we must confess with our lips that he is Lord.
What We Do With What We Own
We spoke earlier concerning what we do with the things we own. Namely, how we treat them. And we concluded that it was reasonable to suggest that we carefully guard the things that we have possession of, be it an object or a belief. And think we see a warning about this following closely on the heels of Peter’s confession. It is significant that Peter is the one to voice the confession of Christ’s divinity, as he is shown so often as boldly leading, and brashly failing. Take a look at what occurs in verse 21 and onwards:
"From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, 'Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.' But he turned and said to Peter, 'Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man'" (Matthew 16:21-23).
One can’t help but read these passages and identify with Peter, no? I think we admire his pluck, and his courage—his willingness to step out and be counted as a natural leader of the disciples. Peter’s courage, however, has landed him in some trouble. It would have been unthinkable for a proselyte to rebuke his Rabbi in the way that Peter has done here. And indeed, we can see the obvious gaffe that Peter makes, clearly overstepping the disciple/master relationship. But I think, as careful readers of the text, there is a warning here for us, as well.
Peter rebukes the Lord for failing to behave in a way that Peter thought the Messiah should. Peter was confident to proclaim the divinity of Christ and testify to his miraculous deeds. But Peter gets carried away and believes he can dictate the terms of Christ’s lordship—not unlike how Jonah tried to prioritize God’s will in destroying Ninevah. What was necessary to complete Peter’s confession of Christ’s lordship, was to act like it. If Christ is Lord, that necessarily means that we are not. So friends, when we say Christ is Lord, we are not simply uttering words, but conforming our lives to the pattern of Jesus’ example—which in this case is suffering for the sake of others. When we take full ownership of the beliefs and values in our lives, we will act in accordance with those beliefs. If we say we value our children, we will treat them respectfully and justly, giving them our time and attention. If we value home-ownership, we will take care of our homes, updating them as we need to and keeping everything in good repair.
And when we answer the question that Jesus asks, “who do you say that I am” our beliefs about him will mould our actions, and the life we live, in a pluralistic and confused culture, one that pays Jesus only a passing lip-service, will testify to our answer. We believe he is the son of God, and we own that belief in a personal, life transforming way. We must look to our lives and ask—if my life was the only word spoken about Jesus, who would it say he was?
So, who do you say Jesus is? As we seek to answer that question, may we reflect lives that reflect the Lordship and beauty of Christ in greater and greater ways, so that we, like Peter, will hear our Lord say, Blessed are you, for my Father in heaven has revealed this to you.”