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“Who Do You Say that I Am?”

Matthew 16:13-23
Bob DeGray
March 5, 2017

Key Sentence

What is your answer to Jesus’ most important question?


I. The Christ (Matthew 16:13-19)
II. The Mission of the Christ (Matthew 16:20-23)
III. The Mission of the Christ follower (Matthew 16:24-26)


Okay, so I’m a fanatic for The Lord of the Rings. One of my favorite sequences is when Frodo and the other hobbits are leaving the Shire and reach the town of Bree. At the inn called the Prancing Pony, Sam and Frodo are uncomfortable. Sam says “That fellow's done nothing but stare at you since we arrived!” Frodo asks the innkeeper, “Excuse me. That man in the corner. Who is he?” The innkeeper says “He's one of them rangers. They're dangerous folk they are. Wandering the wilds. What his right name is, I've never heard, but round here, he's known as Strider.” Moments later Frodo foolishly puts on the Ring and goes invisible right in the middle of the pub, creating an uproar. When he takes it off, there is Strider, seeming to know more than he should and wanting a private talk. He warns Frodo about the Black Riders, and dangers in Bree. He offers to lead them across the many miles to their destination, Rivendell. But Frodo is now cautious, not knowing who this travel-worn man might be.

Today we continue to explore the life of Jesus as he lives out God’s redemption plan. We’re in Matthew 16, where his mission and his calling on his followers is suddenly made plain. I preached this relatively recently, three years ago, but you can’t do key moments in the redemptive life of Christ without this text.

Peter and the other disciples have been following Jesus for months, but still don’t have a clear idea what he is doing or how he will do it. So Jesus asks them a question which is crucial to all of us who meet him, the question “Who do you say that I am?” Like Frodo, the answer to that question is a turning point in our journeys. Matthew 16:13-19 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Herod Philip, one of King Herod’s sons, built a town near Mount Hermon, named for himself and Caesar. The inhabitants were largely Gentile. Jesus went there to focus his attention on his disciples. He asks them one of the key questions of the Gospel: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”, referring to himself.

They answered that opinion was divided. Some, such as Herod Antipas, thought he was John the Baptist risen from death. Some thought he was Elijah, forerunner of a Messiah still to come. Others apparently favored Jeremiah or one of the other prophets. But no one had yet proclaimed Jesus as Messiah, even if a few he’d cured had in hope called him the “Son of David.”

But that first question, important as it was, was really only a lead-in to Jesus’ second question “who do you say that I am?” Though Jesus asked the question of his discioples in private, it is really a question that must be answered by each of us. Over the years it has often been asked of ‘the man on the street:’ “Here’s the million dollar question, okay, in your opinion: who is Jesus?” “He’s a myth created by man in order to control society,” “I don’t consider Jesus my Savior and my spiritual leader.” “Jesus is, in my opinion, he’s everything; around here; he’s spiritual, everything; earth, water, fire . . .” “I believe he’s a higher power in the form of a man. Everyone else walking around, there’s not another Jesus, there’s just one, so yeah, I believe he definitely did something.” “I mean you don’t know about no Jesus Christ cause there ain’t nobody never seen him. Has you seen him?” “Jesus Christ was just a normal guy who people made out to be a figure head, and it was completely blown out of proportion. I’m sure the guy existed, but I don’t think he was all that he was cracked up to be.” “I think he was just a guy, and I think it’s really strange how there’s a religion based on him.” “Good question. Do you really know who he is?”

None of those is the right answer; but the disciples have seen Jesus. Peter speaks for them "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Jesus is not only ‘Son of Man’ but also the divine ‘Son of the living God,’ and the promised Messiah. In the Old Testament this word was used of anointed someone to a task. Priests were the first to be anointed. But so were the kings. 1 Samuel 2:10 “the Lord “will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed.” 2 Samuel 23 “The oracle of David, the son of Jesse, the man who was raised on high, the anointed of the God of Jacob.” Thus the "Messiah, or "Christ," in Greek was a promised figure like David who would bring an eternal reign. We’ve seen that Davidic promise often in our study, especially in 2nd Samuel 7.

In Jesus' day Palestine was rife with this expectation. The first verse of Matthew, linking "Christ" to "Son of David" shows how important this fulfillment was to the disciples. Jesus is the promised one, the king of David’s line who would reign on David’s throne forever, the son Isaiah foresaw, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” God's promises were not forgotten; Jesus and his ministry were the fulfillment.

Peter is affirming all this about Jesus. He is the rescuer and the kingdom bringer, though as yet Peter and the others have not seen that Jesus had come to be a sacrifice. But Jesus affirms what Peter has said. “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” Notice that it took a work of God for Peter to recognize Jesus. And for us, even with all the data revealed in Scripture, it takes a work of God in our hearts before we really recognize who Jesus is. This truth does not come from man’s wisdom, from flesh and blood, but from God. Jesus asks all of us the same question, “who do you say that I am,” and we need God to reveal at the heart level that this is the Christ, the rescuer, the redeemer.

This revealing is the same sort of thing that happens in the Lord of the Rings. Despite his dark appearance, Frodo is inclined to believe Strider, who says “You will never get to Rivendell now on your own. To trust me is your only chance.” But then the innkeeper, with apology, gives Frodo a letter from Gandalf the wizard. Gandalf had been called away by a crisis, and was warning Frodo to flee. He says “You may meet a friend of mine on the road: a Man, lean, dark, tall, by some called Strider. His true name is Aragorn. He knows our business and will help you. Make for Rivendell.” He adds a poem about Aragorn, that he is “the crownless” who “again will be king.” So it is revealed to Frodo that this is the promised and trustworthy king. So also it is revealed to Peter.

Verses 18 and 19 are difficult because they are used to justify the authority of the Pope by the Catholic Church. Jesus says “you are Peter, Petros, a masculine noun, and on this ‘petra,’ a feminine noun, I will build my church. There may be a distinction here between a small stone, Peter and a large rock, the truth Peter sees about Jesus, on which the church is really built. But a Roman Catholic view which makes Peter the sole, authoritative and infallible head of the church is not in this text. Carson says “Peter is first to make this formal confession. His prominence continues in the early years of the church. But he, along with John, can be sent by other apostles; held accountable for his actions by the Jerusalem church and rebuked by Paul. He is, in short, first among equals, and it was on the foundation of such men that Jesus built his church.”

But notice that it is Jesus who builds the church. He applies this common word for an assembly, a synagogue or simply a crowd, to the community that will result from his rescue. As one commentator says “A Messiah without a Messianic Community would have been unthinkable.” So solid is this community that “the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” The "gates of hell" represent the strength of Satan and his cohorts: the church, because Jesus is building it, cannot be defeated by them. The gates can also represent death. Because the church is the assembly of the people Jesus has rescued, death cannot defeat it.

Verse 19: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Jesus changes the metaphor. Peter is the one who uses the keys of the kingdom, the power to exclude or permit entrance. This isn’t based on his preeminence, as the Catholic church says, but on the truth he proclaims. In Luke 11:52 Jesus says of the teachers of the law that they “have taken away the key to knowledge," and thus "hindered those who were entering." By their misuse of the Scriptures they make it hard for those who hear their teaching to receive the truth. In contrast, Peter has discovered, by God’s revelation, the truth about Jesus. Now, proclaiming "the good news of the kingdom," he will open the door for many, while shutting it against those who reject it. Peter doesn’t make these decision, but his preaching and the choices of those who hear him work perfectly in accord with the sovereign choices made in heaven.

And this is not just Peter’s role. All the disciples receive a great commission to be fishers of men, to be salt and light, to preach the good news of the kingdom, to disciple all nations. And this commission is passed on. We too proclaim the Good News. We are Messiah’s community: our assignment is to also use the Gospel to call out believers from among the hardened. And this doesn’t exclude a special role for Peter. He was the first stone laid in Christ’s church, he plays a key role in its early years. But his focus is on building the Messiah’s community on the truth he has received. This is the same calling we have when we answer Jesus’s question, ‘who do you say that I am,’ with the personal response ‘you are the one God sent, my rescuer and redeemer.’

The first thing we see is that Jesus is the promised Messiah. But what kind of Messiah? A political or military victor, one coming in power to vanquish his enemies? No, not yet. Jesus goes on to clarify his mission. Verses 20-23. Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one he was the Christ. 21From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” 23But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but the things of man.”

One of the key ideas in the Lord of the Rings is that having been given the Ring of Power, the wise, like Gandalf, recognize that they must destroy it. That path, least expected and most painful, is the path to victory. The man Boromir doubts this wisdom and says “Why do you speak of hiding and destroying? Why should we not think that the Great Ring has come into our hands to serve us in the very hour of need? Wielding it we may defeat the Enemy.”

This is how Peter responds to Jesus’s revelation of his path. “From that time,” Matthew says, something new was introduced into Jesus’ ministry. Now that his Father had assured the disciples he was the Messiah, he began to reveal what he would do as the Messiah, and it wasn’t what they expected. He says that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer many things from the elders, chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. All this is familiar to us, but think how revolutionary it is. First, on the level of prophecy, this is a man predicting the details of his violent death, months or years in advance. That doesn’t happen in normal life. More than that, he was predicting that he would rise from the dead. That doesn’t happen at all: nobody rises from the dead. It doesn’t happen as fulfilled prophecy: no one who said this of himself ever pulled it off. Apart from Jesus the mortality rate is still 100 percent.

I’m convinced that this is the single most important prophetic moment in Scripture. It’s not one of the Old Testament prophecies. It’s by Jesus himself telling the disciples, telling Israel, telling us exactly what he will do. Which wouldn’t mean a thing, but then he goes and does it. That’s what makes it so profound.

It’s also revolutionary in that it overturns the disciples’ expectations of the Messiah. Even though passages like Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 predicted the suffering of God’s servant, these weren’t scriptures most Jews associated with Messiah. They expected one who would kick out the Romans, set up a kingdom and reign. So the disciples failed to understand this saying. Well, on the one hand they understand perfectly: Peter would not have rebuked Jesus if he didn’t take somewhat literally what Jesus said. On the other hand they won’t believe the Messiah can be killed; their world view didn’t include a suffering servant.

That’s why Peter dares to rebuke Jesus; he must be wrong. Verse 22: “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” Peter's strong will, linked to his ignorance produce arrogance. In fact I often think Boromir in the Lord of the Rings was modeled on Peter. He speaks as if he knows more of God's will than the Messiah himself. ‘You’re wrong: this isn’t the way it’s going to happen.’

Verse 23: But Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” “Get behind me, Satan!” means ‘get out of my way: do not stand between me and my mission.’ Satan had already tempted Jesus to short circuit God’s will, God’s plan of redemption. He’d be tempted that way again in the Garden. When his friend Peter makes the same suggestion, Jesus sees it too as coming from the enemy. Jesus just called Peter a rock. Now he’s a different rock, a skandalon, stumbling block, a hindrance to Jesus.

Earlier Peter had been thinking God's thoughts; God truth was revealed to him. Here he is aligning his thinking with men. He’s repeating Satan’s lies out loud. Peter had not yet caught on to the fact that God’s way is higher and more righteous than man’s, while at the same time way more difficult and painful.

Who is Jesus? He is the Messiah, the one God sent to rescue and to reign. What is his mission? He will suffer and die and rise again. Later Paul will summarize the good news in very much these same words, saying “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” Jesus fulfilled his own prophecy, but Paul adds what the Gospels say in other places: it was for our sins. He wasn’t to be the militant Messiah they wanted, but the suffering servant we needed to rescue us.

But if that’s Jesus’ mission, what is ours? Jesus makes it quite clear. We are to follow him, even to suffering. Verses 24-26 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?

Though addressed to Jesus' disciples, the thought is expressed in widest terms: “if anyone would come after me, let him deny himself.” To ‘come after’ is simply to follow. Jesus commanded his disciples to leave what they were doing and follow him. But to do so they must deny or disown or renounce themselves. This is so clear: you can either deny God and serve yourself or you can follow God and deny yourself. Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane chose self-denial: “not as I will,” he told the Father, “but as you will.” For us, walking the path of sin, the word repent comes along and helps us see that we need to turn from ourselves to God. And the word believe comes along, telling us to stop trusting ourselves and place our trust in Jesus. But this text uses ‘follow.’ I can deny Jesus and follow self, but salvation comes as I deny self and follow Jesus.

And this self-denial is not at all abstract. It is linked with ‘taking up your cross.’ This does not mean putting up with some awkward or even tragic situation in one's life. It means walking the road to death. Any Jew in Palestine would have seen the man condemned to crucifixion, forced to carry part of his own cross. After Jesus' death and resurrection, the emotional impact of these sayings must have been greatly heightened; but even before those events, the words would carry visceral images of shame and pain.

So Jesus is calling his disciples and us to join him in self-denial with the presumption that it will lead to suffering. It’s not ever promised that by following Jesus we will enter into a path of ease, luxury, health, wealth or freedom from pain. No, just as the path he was on would involve suffering, death, and resurrection, so the path he calls us to will involve suffering, pain, even death, and resurrection to eternal life. Suffering is essentially promised here, but so is satisfaction.

That’s the same choice Frodo has to make in following Aragorn into the wilderness. Aragorn says “We shall have a rough road tomorrow. If once we shake off the pursuit, I shall make for Weathertop.’ ‘Weathertop?’ said Sam. ‘What’s that?’ ‘It is a hill, just to the north of the Road, about half way from here to Rivendell. It commands a wide view all round; and there we shall have a chance to look about us. Gandalf will make for that point, if he follows us. After Weathertop our journey will become more difficult, and we shall have to choose between various dangers.’ So they are following Aragorn into danger in order to reach the goal, Rivendell. In the same way we are called to follow Jesus not into ease and pleasure, but into danger and suffering because it is through that suffering we reach the goal of resurrection and eternal life.

Jesus emphasizes that the choice to follow self is mutually exclusive with the choice to follow him. Verse 25 “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” The logic is relentless: saving one's life now will result in losing it at the end, and losing it now will result in finding it. Verse 26 furthers the argument with twin rhetorical questions: For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” It is the ultimate foolishness, Jesus says, to possess all created abundance and wealth at the expense of one's soul, one’s eternal life, is a bad bargain. There is nothing, Jesus implies, that you can give to rescue your own soul from death and judgment. But if you give up on this life to follow him, you gain eternal life. That’s a good bargain.

As I was writing this I picked up my phone and saw an ad for the film “Facing Darkness,” coming later this month. It’s the story of the Samaritan’s Purse doctors, Kent Brandtly and others, who were on the front line in battling the ebola epidemic in Liberia. While the world dithered and hesitated, in the words of Samritan’s Purse founder Franklin Graham, “we run to the fire, we don’t run away from it.” We won’t all have an ebola plague to battle, but we will all have battles, and we are called on mission to follow Jesus. He is the Christ. His mission is to rescue by suffering for us and rising. And our mission is to follow, even into suffering, trusting him and confident that the price he paid has won our salvation and assures our resurrection as well.