Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:

Matthew 16:13-20

 Peter’s Confession of Christ

     13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

     14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

     15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

     16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

     17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.

Our Friday study group has been watching and discussing some talks by a very insightful theologian named Sarah Bachelard, and in one of these talks, she read a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who said that in the presence of Jesus, the only question we can legitimately ask is, “Who are you?”

That might seem a little strange, at first blush. We think, ‘Well, Jesus is the Son of God, of course.’ But when you start thinking about what that means, lots of Christians kind of struggle to wrap their heads around it. And we say he’s the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, our Lord and Savior, etc. But what Bonhoeffer had in mind, I think, is that all of those ways of answering the question of ‘who Jesus is’ involve – in one way or another – our assigning to Jesus the role we think he’s supposed to play. They’re all a way of us telling him who he is rather than asking him to reveal his identity to us.

This passage we’re thinking about today deals with this question.

The passage begins with Jesus asking the disciples who people said he was. And the answers the disciples give – John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets – you could just say all those answers are wrong.

But some wrong answers are less wrong than others. It’s worth noting that the answers the disciples give make it plain that even though people hadn’t figured out that Jesus was the Messiah, at least lots of them could see that he was an important religious figure. Some said he was a prophet, which meant an important spokesman for God – someone who spoke with an authority that came from God. And all of the people the disciples named were thought of as very important prophets. So while people may have been confused about exactly who Jesus was, they understood that he was someone with the authority to speak for God.

And then, of course, Jesus asks the disciples, “But what about you? Who do you say I am?”

And that’s when we come to Peter’s “confession of Christ” — his statement that Jesus was in fact “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And for the first time, someone actually states who and what Jesus is: the Messiah, the Son of God.

Lots of people in our time tend to think of “Christ” as Jesus’ last name. But the truth is that the word Christ is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word messiah. So this story is the first occasion in the gospels where one of the disciples actually states what we take for granted: that Jesus was in fact the Messiah.

And when Peter rightly identifies Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus says that this isn’t something Peter had figured out himself, but rather is something that has been revealed by God. The Messiah turned out to be so different from people’s expectations that it’s unlikely anyone would have figured out who he was if God had not chosen to reveal that fact to the disciples.

Then Jesus gives Peter his new name, which means something like ‘the Rock.’ And Jesus says that Peter will be the rock – the foundation – on which he will build the church. We know from reading the Acts of the Apostles that Peter really did become the foundational leader of the church in its early years. But notice that as Jesus expresses it, it is he himself who builds the church. It’s not the disciples who build the church, but rather Jesus acting through them. That makes it pretty clear that the church is not a human institution, but rather a project of God in Jesus.

And as part of his new role, Jesus gives Peter the power to “bind” and “loose.” He is thus given the power to determine what is authoritative teaching for the church that Jesus would build. In a sense, Peter is appointed as a leader of the disciples, and of the church that Jesus would form. However, there is no indication here that Jesus intended to have Peter be the first of a long line of leaders, as in Roman Catholic doctrine. There was only one Peter, but he was given great authority, and the exercise of that authority is also a major theme of the Acts of the Apostles.

It seems to me that it would be a mistake to leave this passage without thinking about the fact that, even after 2,000 years, people still struggle to understand exactly who Jesus is. There are still people who think he was just a wise Jewish rabbi, or an insightful scholar of the Hebrew scriptures, or a great moral philosopher. He was obviously all of those things, but even more important, he was and is the Messiah – God in human form, a person of the Trinity, the one who came to reconcile us to God and announce the establishment of the heavenly kingdom.

Peter was the first of the disciples to whom this great truth was revealed – and he got the honor of being the first to announce it to the world.

Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for coming into the world in Jesus, for teaching and leading us, and for sacrificing yourself to make a new way for us to be reconciled to yourself. And we thank you for revealing the truth to us, and for inviting us to share that truth with all who will hear. Amen.

Grace and Peace,


(The other readings for today are Psalms 36 and 147:12-20; Nehemiah 6:1-19; and Revelation 19:1-10.)