The question of questions. Matthew 16 is one of the most interesting and discussion-worthy chapters in all of the gospel accounts. The chapter includes a confrontation with the Pharisees and Sadducees that causes Jesus to spank them with the Old Testament and give them the divine cold shoulder and turns around to his disciples and tells them to beware of these wackos because they infect your soul. Jesus asks this ultimate question to His disciples in the region of Caesarea Philippi after first asking who the nation of Israel thinks He is. This simple question is perhaps the most poignant and most important question Jesus ever asks and is most certainly deserving of a hard-thought answer.
Let’s examine it in the text. Beginning in Matthew 16:13.
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
(emphasis my own)
The Son of Man is Jesus’ favorite name to refer to Himself by and does so more in Matthew than any other gospel. The name is quoted from Daniel 7:13 where Daniel sees a vision of God’s future reign in the kingdom of heaven. Someone who is “like a son of man” comes and receives the throne and everything is placed under his dominion. Jesus’ use of this title is confirmation that Daniel’s prophecy was foretelling a Messiah born as a man who will rule God’s kingdom. When asked who the people say Jesus is the disciples give pretty much your full gamut of likely candidates. John the Baptist is a strange answer considering that he was killed by Herod just a couple chapters ago and both were alive at the same time. But then they say Elijah. Elijah is an interesting choice because of all the people who have ever lived on Earth, Elijah is one of only two who have never died. Elijah was a mighty prophet of God who was taken up into heaven by a chariot of fire. For your curiosity, the other person was Enoch, back in Genesis 5:24. All it says was that God took Enoch.
The next answer is kind of funny because I can imagine Jesus’ response to the first two answers being kind of like “Hmm, good guess, but no.” The disciples wouldn’t have wanted to fail this test so they say “Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” This reminds me of the scene from the Hobbit where Bilbo and Gollum are playing the riddle game and Bilbo asks, “What have I got in my pocket?” Frustrated, Gollum demands he get three answers. His first answer is handses. Wrong. Second guess: “Knife” Wrong. Final guess: “String, or nothing!” Both wrong. Gollum turns to desperation with his final guess to avoid losing the game. This sounds like what the disciples tried to do by saying “Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” That’s pretty much a blanket answer. Little did they know, but Jesus’ real test was in His next question.
Jesus asks in verse 15, “Who do you say that I am?” We all know Peter’s answer but let’s examine that answer in some detail. Peter speaks up first as he is known to do. “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” replies Peter. Jesus responds by blessing Peter telling him that flesh and blood did not reveal this to him, but Jesus’ Father who is in heaven then says some lovely things about Peter and the church. But let’s camp our here for a while. What did Peter mean when he said that Jesus is the Christ?
The word “Christ” means “anointed” in Greek. The words Christ and Messiah are used interchangeably in the New Testament. The Jews of ancient Palestine were waiting for a messiah to come and usher in a new age of peace for God’s people. At the time they were being ruled by the Romans and although their religion was not affected by Roman occupation they viewed the Caesar as a false king who didn’t deserve veneration because only God was their king (even though they had a monarch, Herod Antipas). The Jews were also required to pay taxes to Caesar as tribute which was added onto their tithe to the temple for the priests. They had a vision of a messiah who would come and free Israel from the rule of Rome and restore their nation to its former glory. They envisioned a political leader. It is unclear whether this is the version of the Christ that Peter was referring to in this verse but whatever was going through Peter’s head was clearly revelatory in nature since Jesus tells him that God revealed this knowledge to him.
From Jesus’ response to Peter’s proclamation we do understand that the confession of Jesus as the Christ is something that must be given to us by God. We cannot see Jesus for who He really is apart from the revelation and gift of faith from God. This is similar to what we see throughout the gospels when Jesus speaks in parables. Jesus says in Matthew 13:13, “This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” Only those to whom God has granted understanding and sight to can understand the meaning of Jesus’ parables. Those who are Jesus’ sheep hear His voice (John 10:27) so we can conversely conclude that those who aren’t Jesus’ sheep don’t hear His voice.
What blows my mind is that Jesus called Peter blessed for confessing Jesus as the Christ! Jesus says “Blessed are you Simon bar Jonah! Flesh and blood have not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven.” So we can see here that this confession is a gift from God and not possible on our own but that God rewards us for making this confession that He gifted us with! That’s like a teacher giving a test and posting the correct answers on the chalkboard and still giving everybody an A+. That just blows my mind when I consider the goodness of God. But why is this question so important?
Jesus is by far the most polarizing person in all of human history. Jesus Himself claimed to be God many times in the gospels. The people who say otherwise simply don’t know what they’re talking about and/or take verses out of context (or hyper-contextualize them to the point of error). Such a claim to divinity demands some kind of response. Mark Hopkins in his book Lectures on the Evidences of Christianity says “Christ either deceived mankind by conscious fraud, or He was Himself deluded and self-deceived, or He was Divine. There is no getting out of this trilemma. It is inexorable.” Furthermore, C.S. Lewis also says:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.
We see from Jesus’ response to Peter that Peter’s confession was the correct one and He truly God in the flesh. If this is indeed true then this has some pretty weighty implications in the lives of every human being.
John 5:22 says that the Father has given all judgment to the Son. Jesus says in Matthew 28, “And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” As God, Jesus has authority over all people and all of God’s creation. We see in Colossians 1:15-20 that Jesus is the sustainer and upholding of all the universe and the God who died to make peace for us.
If Jesus is God then every single human being is held accountable to Him for our lives. To Jesus is given the authority to judge all of our thoughts, words, and deeds on the final day (Jn. 5:22) and He will determine the fate of your soul. As Jesus says in Matthew 10:28, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Jesus is talking about Himself here. The eternal fate of your soul is in His hands. To those who receive the gospel in faith and believe Jesus died for your sins, eternal life. To those who reject the gospel in pride and selfishness, eternal punishment for your sins. Jesus is the gospel and the gospel is Jesus, they are inseparable. Jesus died on the cross for the sins of all those who will believe. All that is necessary to have your sins forgiven is to believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that He died for your sins and that God raised Him up on the third day. To reject Christ is to condemn your soul for all eternity.
There are many ways people like to think of Jesus.
Jesus is not just a good moral teacher who tells neat stories with advice for living like an ancient Oprah.
Jesus is not a therapist who helps you deal with your problems and your messy relationships.
Jesus is not some new age hippie who is into general spirituality with no conviction or truth.
Jesus is not an open-minded teacher who loves everybody, except for people who aren’t open-minded.
Jesus is not just a martyr who died so everyone could feel sorry for him.
Jesus is not the poster boy for the Aryan Nation with blonde hair, blue eyes, and a fair complexion.
Jesus is not some yuppie who encourages us to reach for the moon because even if you miss you land among the stars.
Jesus is God. He is the savior of mankind. As Colossians 1:15-20 puts it:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
Even today the words of Jesus in Matthew 16:15 reach across time and space and demand our thoughts and attention. “Who do you say that I am?” This is a very personal and intimate question. The way we answer it will determine the fate of our soul.