Today’s Scripture is a big reveal.
Matthew has been building up to it. He told us about Jesus’ invitation to the disciples – his call to “follow me” and promise that he’ll make them into fishers of people. He wrote about Jesus’ proclamation in the form of the Sermon on the Mount, the radical reversal that is the kingdom of God. He showed us Jesus’ domination over the forces of wind and rain with just a few words. He gave us the story of Jesus’ multiplication of a meager 5 loaves and 2 fish into a feast for 5,000 (and then again for 4,000). Through these stories, Matthew has been telling us about Jesus the Christ – who he was, what he did, what he was all about.
And now, Jesus asks two questions that will reveal exactly who he is. First, he wants to know:
“Who do people say that I am?”
If this is a pop quiz for the disciples, they’re ready for it. Answers seem to come without hesitation: “John the Baptist.” “Elijah.” “Jeremiah, or some other prophet.” That’s who people are saying Jesus is.
All of these answers show what the people thought of Jesus: he was an important man who stood for God against opposition.
Jeremiah stood for God when the southern kingdom of Judah was disobedient enough to be abandoned and exiled. Elijah stood for God against the prophets of Baal and the wicked king Ahab and even wickeder queen Jezebel. John the Baptist stood for God to preach his message of baptism and repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
I can easily understand Jesus’ original audiences drawing their conclusion: “Jesus is like one of those guys; he’s an important man standing for God.” For some: “He’s standing for God against the legalism of the religious establishment.” For others: “He’s standing for God against the occupation by Rome.”
But this answer isn’t complete. There’s more to who Jesus is. He pushes the disciples on: “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter answers immediately: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus isn’t just a man standing for God against opposition. He’s the Son of God. He’s not a man who got a message from God; he is the message. He’s the Christ, the Messiah himself.
This is a big revelation… except that it’s not.
It’s actually old news in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew started his gospel with “the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (1:1). Jesus’ true identity came out of Satan’s mouth during the temptation in the wilderness: “If you are the Son of God…” (4:3, 6). It was declared by the army of demons in the man from the Gadarenes: “What have you to do with us, O Son of God?” (8:29). Even the disciples said it out loud after Jesus calmed the storm: “Truly you are the Son of God” (14:33).
No wonder Peter was so ready with his answer. They already knew that Jesus was the Son of God.
But naming it here, in this place, brings it to another level.
If you’re like me reading the Bible, you might be picturing this conversation in some nondescript, middle-Eastern looking location: Jesus and the disciples standing in front of a backdrop of palm trees, brown sand, and maybe some plain block buildings. But we can do better than generalities because Matthew tells us specifically where this takes place: Caesarea Philippi.
They are way, way up north in Israel’s territory. Caesarea Philippi wasn’t always the name of this location. Originally it was a center for the Baal cult (remember, the god of the prophets that Elijah went up against?). Then, when Greek culture came rolling through, it was a place to worship the god Pan… although neither of these gets worshipped there at the time of Jesus.
Herod the Great was the client-king under the Roman Empire. He was a bad person but an effective builder. Among his accomplishments was to build a temple on this spot, not to the God of the Israelites but to Caesar Augustus. If this strikes you as odd, remember that Roman emperors were viewed as sons of gods. And what better way for an ambitious client-king to endear himself to the emperor than to build him a temple?
Caesarea Philippi was, in other words, a place to worship gods and leaders who wanted to be treated as gods. Jesus is standing on that spot, in front of that monument, and asking his disciples:
“Who do you say that I am?”
Peter doesn’t hesitate, but that may not mean the answer was easy. Maybe he looked at the temple and mustered his courage to defy everything Caesarea Philippi stood for. He made this declaration in the face of all the would-be gods of the world:
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Maybe we could make that same statement today. All sorts of would-be gods are vying for our attention: money and status and politicians and all sorts of shiny things. Imagine all that in the background as Jesus asks us, “Who do you say that I am?” And we answer like Peter:
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
But like Peter, we might not fully know what we’re saying. We might not yet fully understand what kind of Christ Jesus is.
In today’s Scripture Peter is a disciple all-star. Shortly after he plummets from that status. Jesus tells them about the moment that will define him as the Christ… and Peter “rebukes” him.
I don’t fault Peter, though. The defining moment of Jesus’ reign – the moment when Jesus took the cross – is pretty unexpected. Now that the disciples have declared that he’s the Christ, Jesus tells them that he will suffer and be killed by the religious establishment that he’s been standing against. He also says that he will rise again after three days – but I can see how the disciples wouldn’t get that. Rise again? No one does that. It doesn’t compute.
So Peter hears about Jesus’ suffering and death – what sounds to any normal person as defeat – and he resists. More that that – he rebukes. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!” (16:22). And Jesus reacts in a way that shows you don’t rebuke Jesus, and certainly not concerning his most important job: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me…” (16:23).
And poor us, if we don’t understand that Jesus our Christ was defined by an act of self-sacrificial love.
If all we get is “Jesus is the Christ” over and against any would-be gods, then the only message we get is that we’re on the winning team. Jesus is a rock star and we’re with him. Jesus paid the way and we’re in the clear. Booya! In your face, losers!
That sounds ridiculous, right? Being a Christian isn’t about flouting our status in the face of others. But it can be, if we let it. We can be smug in our church attendance. We can easily judge others from our position as Jesus’ followers. We can rest confidently in our winning choice and forget that Jesus intended this team to include everyone.
We are on the winning team – but our peculiar leader makes this a peculiar team.
Our Jesus the Christ gave his whole life in order to save the whole world. Our Jesus the Christ used his power to allow himself to be defeated. Our Jesus the Christ chose the way of self-sacrificial love.
If we declare Jesus to be the Christ – above any other would-be gods – then we need to know exactly what that means. We aren’t just choosing the most powerful One, we’re choosing his Way of love and servanthood and peace.
Jesus is asking us, “Who do you say that I am?”
How will we answer?