Many times Jesus’ church has seemed close to extinction: under Saul’s savage persecution of the church in Acts 7-8, under the vicious imperial persecutions of the first three centuries, under the scourge of Muslim conquest in the seventh and eighth centuries, under the almost complete loss of the gospel in the Middle Ages, under the toxin of liberalism prior to World War II, and so on. Jesus will build his church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail.
“I’m frightened.” These were my Pop’s last words. I saw him just after death, and his face and body evinced struggle. He did not profess to be a Christian, and I asked my pastor whether this struggle was perhaps a sign that God was working on his spirit, and that perhaps he could have come to salvation in his last hour?
My pastor, knowing that Pop had not professed faith, answered with a straightforward “No.”
I was a little shocked. How could he speak with such certainty?
Matthew 16:13-19 explains how, a passage that Michael Green rightly calls “the hinge on which the whole Gospel turns.”
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (Matt. 16:13-14; all Scripture passages from NIV version)
Caesarea Philippi, at the foot of snow-veiled Mount Hermon (the source of the Jordan river) is in the picturesque northern extremity of Palestine. In Matthew’s day it was the famously pagan center of pan-worship. Jesus probably retreated there with his disciples for a time of rest and instruction.
The lessons begin with this vital question: “Who do the people say the Son of Man is?”
“Son of Man” is Jesus’ favorite designation for himself. It captures both his humanity and, from Daniel 7:13-14, both his divine nature and divine destiny of universal and eternal rule (see Matt. 26:64).
Jesus knows exactly who he is. And by his authoritative teaching, healings, domination over the demonic realm, and supernatural command and control over nature, he has categorically revealed his identity and mission.
Having seen and heard this, what conclusions have the people drawn? “John the Baptist, Elijah, or Jeremiah …” Perhaps these great prophets had been resurrected in the person of Jesus. Without doubt he reprised the spirit of their ministry.
Is there a common thread? Were these three not the more poignant and pessimistic of the prophets? Certainly they were very exalted Jewish figures. Should not Jesus be flattered by the comparison? Not at all. None of them, like Jesus, claimed a divine identity and mission—nor proved it with supernatural acts of power. They were as inferior to Jesus as the ambassador is to the King, as the creature is to the Creator (Matt. 23:37).
What may have been meant as a compliment was in truth a profound denigration, a patronizing and willful denial of Jesus’ manifest identity.
The patronizing has never paused. A person with a passing knowledge of Jesus may perhaps deign to grant his existence, or even his importance as “a great moral teacher.”
Beyond excuse, however, are those New Testament scholars who shut their eyes to the arc-lamp of his glory that blazes from every paragraph of the Gospels, and who demote and disqualify and denigrate Jesus as “a very fine example.” J. Gresham Machen described this:
The modern liberal preacher reverences Jesus; he has the name of Jesus forever on his lips; he speaks of Jesus as the supreme revelation of God; he enters, or tries to enter, into the religious life of Jesus. But Jesus for him is an example of faith, not the object of faith. (Christianity and Liberalism, p. 85)
Any conception of Jesus that falls short of what Jesus revealed himself to be is not only an error or lie—it is perverse idolatry. It is to concoct a false image and to call it “Jesus.”
“But what about you?” Jesus asked.
“Who do you say I am?” The NIV captures the urgent personal emphasis and the life and death probing of the original. What do you yourself think?Your answer to this question fixes your eternal destiny!
Notice also how important it is to say what we think about Jesus. Heart and mouth must work together, for a merely inward faith is no faith at all (Rom. 10:8-11).
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matt. 16:16)
The Christ is the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Divine and Saving Prophet, Priest, and King promised on every page of the Old Testament (Luke 24:27). And Jesus is the eternal “Son of the Living God” in a way that no one else is or ever can be (John 1:1-3).
Like King Josiah before him, Peter smashes down the idols to leave nothing but the One True Jesus Christ.
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.” (Matt. 16:17)
The makarios, the blessed, is the one who should count themselves truly happy. This is the person the world should congratulate (see Matt. 5:3-10).
Why is Peter so blessed? Because, literally, no “flesh and blood” had brought him to this truth, least of all himself. He was blessed because the truth he had owned and expressed had been revealed (apokalyptō) by “my Father.” He had only believed and said what the Father had, first of all, placed there.
“You are one of the happy ones, Simon, whose father is Jonah, because my Father in Heaven has come and opened your eyes and mouth to say what you have just said.”