24 August 2014Matthew 16:13-20
“Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’” (v. 16)
At the start of this chapter in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus is asked by his opponents to show them a sign from heaven. They clearly haven't seen the many signs that Jesus has already shown in his ministry so far. He dismisses them with a cryptic word about the "sign of Jonah" (Matthew 16:4) (reiterating his words in Matthew 12:38-41 - pointing to his death and resurrection). For all his wonderful healings, his well-reported feeding miracles, and his unsurpassed teaching, there are some who still want proof. Jesus' disciples, however, have taken note of all of these signs, and many more. So what is going through their minds when Jesus takes them on a little retreat out towards the city of Caesarea Philippi in the far north west of the country? Jesus doesn't wait for them to raise the subject. "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" (v. 13): he basically asks them what people are saying about him. ("Son of man" is a strange phrase which refers to the mysterious biblical figure in Daniel 7, who returned to heaven and was given all authority by God to rule over the earth. Time and time again, Jesus used the phrase to refer to himself.)
The disciples respond to the question with various accounts of what people are saying about Jesus: linking him to various prophets who have gone before, and suggesting they might be reincarnated in Jesus. Although these answers are wrong, they do show that the people in general had a sense that Jesus was sent from God in the style and tradition of these great prophets. (This suggests that Jesus was not the gentle, mild and harmless chap we sometimes like to imagine: John the Baptist, Elijah and Jeremiah were wild and zealous prophets who stood up to wayward kings and called people to repentance.)
So now that they've successfully 'beat around the bush', Jesus asks them straight: "But who do you say that I am?" (v. 15). Simon Peter, typically, jumps in first: Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. He's the one all Israel has been waiting for. He's the one the prophets were talking about. He's the one John the Baptist was preparing the way for. He's the one who would be God's humble and victorious king, anointed by God himself, and as such adopted as God's son, in the way that David had been before him. He would be like David but greater than David, bringing God's justice and peace in his wake; an end to oppression and the restoration of true worship. And since Israel was chosen to bring God's blessing to all, the Messiah would turn out to be the Lord of the whole world. Our simple explanations sometimes fail to do justice to all of the hopes and expectations that were loaded into 'the Messiah' from centuries of prophecy and promise. When Simon Peter calls him "Son of the living God", it too is filled with this messianic meaning; not necessarily the divinely-related-to-God way that the apostles and the Church would later try to put into words.
So Peter has hit the nail on the head! Jesus doesn't deny it; instead telling his disciples not to tell anyone about it (verse 20). There was so much misunderstanding about 'the Messiah' that messianic groups could easily find themselves in trouble with the ruling Romans or at odds with the differing religious sects of Judaism. Jesus knew that would come for him, but the time was not right.
Peter was the one who put into words what the others were thinking. He was the first to witness to God's revelation; the revelation that is Jesus the Christ. And so Peter would become the solid foundation of the Church. And he got this status, not because he was a particularly good leader, or a particularly faithful disciple, but only because God had revealed it to him and Peter had responded by speaking the truth. And it's this witness that the Church is called to continue today. God has revealed God's own self along with God's own purposes in Jesus the Messiah, the son of the living God.
- Jesus says, "And on this rock I will build my church." He says that he will build it: not us. How often do we think and act as if the future of the Church depends on us?
- How can we put aside our often-misplaced 'church-building' activities, and concentrate instead on being (like Peter) a faithful witness to God's revelation in Christ?
- Who do people say that Jesus is? What do you hear people say about Jesus Christ today? More importantly, who do you say that he is?