27 August 2017

Matthew 16:13-20

“He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’” (v. 15)

Psalm: Psalm 124


Questions about Jesus' identity fill the Gospels, and Matthew's is no exception. The complex genealogy at the beginning is exploring this question of who Jesus is (Matthew 1:1-17), and the exploration continues here.

The figures of the prophets Elijah, Jeremiah, and of John the Baptist place Jesus in Jewish company: the identity of Jesus is bound up with Israel's experience of the nature and purposes of God, and faithfulness to them.

The geography also presses a question. The passage locates this moment in a definite setting: "the district of Caesarea Philippi" (v. 13) (the modern city of Banias in the disputed Golan Heights territory between Israel and Syria). Rome, empire and imperial rule inevitably hang over a conversation about who Jesus is, located near a city named in honour of Caesar Augustus. Jesus' identity cannot be disentangled either from God's story with Israel or from the ruling powers of the day.

So when Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah (verse 16), God's anointed one, there's at least a hint of a challenge to the status quo in the air. In Jewish terms, anointing is how a king is proclaimed and inaugurated. So the subsequent talk about keys and kingdoms, binding and loosing, has the potential to raise some excitement in the disciples: what if this is the moment when Roman swords will be laid down before the one true power in the universe?

The subsequent verses show how Jesus begins to re-shape and re-direct that excitement (Matthew 16:21-27). The need for this becomes clear later, as the disciples jostle for position and influence (Matthew 20:20-28): how they understand who Jesus is - and who they are in relation to him - carries a risk of simply replacing one empire with another in the same guise.

Who we say Jesus is might lead us to look at how we 'locate' ourselves in the light of our answer: in relation to the story of God with God's people; and in relation to the powers ('empires'?) that shape our lives and our thinking today.

To Ponder

  • In the light of Jesus' question what would you say, at this point in your life, about why you believe in him, trust him, follow him?
  • What are the most important sources for your sense of who Jesus is? Have they always been the same, or changed over time?
  • Has who Jesus is for you ever led you to consider taking a stand against something in contemporary life, culture or politics? How, and why?

Bible notes author

The Revd Carole Irwin

Carole is a presbyter in the Methodist Church. She has served in circuits in Folkestone and Bradford, and is currently Director of Studies at Wesley House, Cambridge.