Theme: Who Is Jesus?
This week’s lessons show from Peter’s confession the need for personal faith and commitment to Christ, who alone is the foundation of the church’s belief and practice.
Scripture: Matthew 16:13-20
Now he begins, as I said, in an interesting way, and the way he begins is by asking them what the various people that they had come in contact with were saying concerning himself. The actual question is what we find in verse 13: “He asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’” Now that was a very lively question in that day. Whenever anybody of any unusual stature came along, any leader-type emerging from the people, it was more or less a checklist that the people of the day would run off in order to determine who he was.
We find it, for example, in the first chapter of John’s Gospel in connection with the ministry of John the Baptist. He was an unusual person, a strong leader, one, moreover, who seemed to repudiate the luxury of the day and certainly was not aspiring after the kind of leadership the scribes and the Pharisees were providing. He was off in the desert. “Well,” they said, “here’s somebody unusual. Let’s go down and see who he is.” So it was actually an official delegation that came to John, and they had this little checklist of questions. They wanted to know whether he was the Messiah, first of all, because the Messiah is the one who was going to drive out the Romans. John the Baptist said, no, he wasn’t.
Next they asked him, “Are you Elijah then?” Now the reason they asked whether he was Elijah is that at the very end of the Old Testament in Malachi there’s a prophecy that Elijah is going to come just before the Messiah. So you see how their minds work. If John the Baptist is not the Messiah, well then, perhaps he is Elijah the forerunner of the Messiah. And John the Baptist denied that as well. He said, “I am not Elijah.”
So they moved on to the next question on their list and asked, “Well then are you that prophet?” The reason they referred to “that prophet” is that in the book of Deuteronomy God speaks to Moses and says, “In the latter day I’m going to send a prophet to whom they will listen.” They weren’t listening to Moses very well, but he said in that day I’m going to send somebody special, and they are going to listen to him. So they went down the list, you see. Are you the Messiah? Are you Elijah? Are you the prophet? He wasn’t any of those things, so they didn’t know who he was. And they said, “Well then, tell us who are you so we can go back and tell those who sent us.”
Now that was the spirit in which this question was asked by Jesus of his disciples. It is significant that when they reply, although they reply in some of the terms I suggested, they do not mention Messiah. That, of course, is who Jesus was. But apparently the people weren’t saying this at the time. If they were that undoubtedly is the first thing that the disciples would have replied. It’s also interesting that they didn’t reply by telling Jesus some of the negative things that people were saying. We recall from earlier in the Gospel that on one occasion they said, “Well, he’s the son of the devil,” that is the son of Beelzebub.
They instead said that some are saying that he’s John the Baptist. John the Baptist had been killed already by Herod. But, you see, maybe this is John the Baptist brought back from the dead. It’s hard to understand how they would say that since John the Baptist and Jesus were both living at the same time before John was martyred. Maybe they thought it’s the spirit of John the Baptist in Jesus.
Some of them were saying, “You’re Elijah.” And that, of course, was a bit better. They were saying Jesus must be that one who is prophesied at the very end of the Old Testament in the book of Malachi. He is the forerunner of the Messiah, one who’s going to point out the Messiah when he comes. Others were saying “You’re Jeremiah,” another of the other prophets. They repeated all the answers that they had heard circulating at this particular period of Jesus’ ministry.
But after their response here’s the point at which, as we say, the rubber meets the road, because now it becomes personal. Jesus turned to them and said, “What about you? Who do you say that I am?” At that point we have what was the highest moment in the life of Peter. Peter, no doubt, was speaking for the others also. He wasn’t speaking only for himself, but he did give a great testimony of his faith in Jesus Christ. Peter replied, “You are the Christ the Son of the living God.”
Now that really was something. It was not everything, of course. For one thing, he didn’t understand the atonement, and that becomes very obvious as the story goes on. As soon as Jesus begins to speak about it, Peter is offended at the idea. He doesn’t want his master, the Messiah, the Son of the living God, to die, and so he begins to rebuke Jesus about it. So we know that he didn’t understand the nature of the atonement. And undoubtedly many, many other things about the ministry of Jesus Christ were also unknown to Peter at this time.
But you see, nevertheless it was a great confession, because what he was saying was that the people don’t really understand who you are. Oh, they’re talking in miraculous terms, the reincarnation of John the Baptist. They’re identifying you with the greatest figures of Israel’s past saying you’re Jeremiah or Isaiah or Daniel or one of the other prophets. They even see you in terms of the fulfillment of prophecy saying you’re the Elijah who Malachi said would come before the beginning of the appearance of the Messiah. But none of those things is adequate to explain you. You’re not the forerunner; you’re not the prophet; you are the Messiah himself, and moreover, being the Messiah, you are not merely a man but the very Son of God. And that’s extremely strong in the Greek text. That reply of Peter’s, brief as it is, uses the definite article the four times. He says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the God who is the living One.” Four times, you see. You are the unique Son of God. There’s nobody like you, and as the unique Son of God you are anointed, which is what the word Messiah means, to do God’s work.
Why did people wonder if either John the Baptist or Jesus were Elijah?
Given the context of Jesus’ question in light of what people were saying about who Jesus was, what is significant about Peter’s answer?
Reflection: What do people believe about Jesus today? How do some of these ideas fail to understand what the Bible says?
For Further Study: To see how the need for personal belief and an outward confession before others belong together, download and listen for free to James Boice’s message, “Heart Belief and Mouth Confession.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)