By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
August 23, 2020
Matthew 16:13–20 (ESV)
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?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And 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. 18 And 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. 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.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.
Who do people say that the Son of Man is?
How many of us have really thought about this question? For those of us who have considered this question, how many of us have considered the implications of the answer to this question?
This question comes to the disciples during a transition period of Jesus’s ministry. Jesus had already made quite a name from himself as he taught and healed those that came to him while he ministered in the Judean countryside. Now he had gone outside of confines of the province of Judea, he had visited the areas around Tyre and Sidon and today we find him in the district of Caesarea Philippi. I have spoken of this place many times over the past few years. This is a city that is in northern regions of Judea, and today it would be in the disputed area between Israel, Lebanon, and Syria called the Golan Heights. The city has historical importance for many reasons, but mainly because it is near base of Mount Hermon. Many scholars believe it was upon this mountain that the transfiguration of Christ took place. This makes this mountain scared to us, but it was considered consecrated or holy by many ancient cultures and religions because this mountain is considered the source of the river Jordan. This river has often been the historic eastern boarder of Israel. It is this river that symbolizes the entrance into the promised land.
I mention that it has significance in many ancient religions. The source of a river is often held in great esteem by various religions because water is life. Without water we do not have life, so the source of the beginning of a river is often regarded as the place where life began. And there is an interesting tradition that comes from the Book of Enoch, which is not scripture but is interesting historically. In this tradition Mount Hermon is the place where the class of angels called the Watchers descend to the earth.
Caesarea Philippi is a city of religious identity; it was originally known as Paneas. It was a city founded by the Hellenistic Greeks after the conquests of Alexander the Great. They built this city as a cult center devoted to the worship of the Pan. With it being near this sacred mountain it became a center of pagan pilgrimage as people traveled to worship at the sacred headwaters of the Jordan river. When Philip the son of Herod the Great took control of this area, he made this city the capital of his province, and he built a temple in honor of Caesar, and it was then renamed Caesarea Paneas or Philippi to distinguish it from the other Caesareas in the area.
There is a great deal of trivial history that we may not care about. The city devoted to the god of goats, music, desolate places, and victory, the city devoted to Caesar, the mountain the angels descend to, which is the mountain that becomes the source of the Jordan, which defines the boundary of Israel. It is at this weirdly dynamic diverse religious site Jesus asks a question of his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
We live in a culture that is dynamic and diverse. There are not many places in the world the is as diverse as America. That I feel is one of the greatest things about our nation. My ancestors came from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Germany. There are other’s we know that may have a heritage from several European, Asian, African, or any number of cultural nationalities or cultural identities. I love that diversity because it enriches us. I cannot imagine life without pizza, spaghetti, burritos, or general Tso chicken which are all foods that emerged from the blending of cultural palettes. We have a unique culture because we are diverse, but diversity has some limits. Can you define American culture?
Jesus took his disciples on a journey. They had spent their time in Judea, the place that gave them their identity as Jews. They were comfortable in that place, they understood who they were and what was expected of them. Then Jesus did something strange, he took them far to the north, outside their nation to Tyre and Sidon. And when they were in that region, they encountered a woman that was not one of them. They were annoyed and put out by this woman that was attempting to gain an audience with their Messiah. And Jesus gets annoyed at his disciples for their prejudice while commending the faith of the Canaanite woman. Then they leave that area and they go to this religiously diverse city Caesarea Philippi.
I do not know if we fully grasp the tension the disciple might be feeling. Yes, this place has some significance to their own faith, but it is not mainstream. They walk into this city and they see temples and shrines. They have left the comfort of home and are like fish out of water. They have entered the land of diversity, and Jesus asks them, “Who do the people say that the Son of Man is?”
“Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Think about those answers for a moment. Do you find them interesting? They are all prophets, people that many regarded as people that spoke with the authority of God. But they are also human beings that have ceased walking on the Earth. We see in this answer diversity of belief. For the son of man to be one of those prophets there would some form of reincarnation occurring. Some might say that the answer was that Jesus was like those prophets, but that is not how it is written, Jesus asks who do people say the he is and the disciples answer that people are saying he is one prophet of old. They are in a city where that idea would not be too far fetched because it is a city of diverse religious beliefs.
People say a great deal about Jesus. Most people have some opinion as to who Jesus is. Some might say he is a prophet, or a teacher. Some may just say he is a wise man that had a lot of good things to say. Some may even say that Jesus was insane. The answers to this question are diverse. People say many things about various topics though.
Jesus looks at the disciples, who are probably uncomfortable as they walk through this city that bears an idolatrous name. The disciples do not really understand why they are there and the question Jesus asked just confuses them more. I imagine that Jesus stop and looks them in the eyes at this point. He waits till they are all looking at him. He waits a bit longer to allow the chaos of the outside world to fade as they focus on him, and asks, “but who do you say that I am?”
People say a great deal. We listen to what they have to say and we build our opinions about any number of things on what we have heard or observed. Our opinions are important, but how we formulate our opinions are also important. Opinions at first are flexible and, at times, can change. Eventually the opinions that we hold evolve and become more ridged. Our opinions become ideologies and beliefs. How we formulate our opinions are important because eventually those opinions become the very things we use to respond and act among those around us.
Jesus looks at his disciples and he asks, “but who do you say that I am?” How do we respond to this? The answer that we give to this question will affect every aspect of our opinions and beliefs and will be how we respond and act with those around us. Who is Jesus?
Simon boldly responds, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Simon in his own mind processes everything that he has heard about Jesus, and he decides Jesus is not merely a prophet, he is beyond that. He considers the things that he observed Jesus doing, and the words that he heard Jesus speak. In his mind Jesus is more than anything he has observed in humanity. Jesus is greater than the prophets, he is greater than the priests of the temple, he has seen Jesus do things that defy everything he has observed in the natural world. The conclusion Simon comes up with is that Jesus must be the anointed Messiah or Christ, and that Christ is of something different than humanity so Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
This is a bold step to take. To say that Jesus is the son of God is not something that would be said lightly. A son is of the same substance of the father, meaning that they hold equal authority.
Jesus looks at Simon and says, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And 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. 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.” 
With that answer Simon became Peter. That one opinion changed the very course of this individual’s life to such a degree that it would change not only that person’s actions, but how people would know and interact with him. Simon son of John would no longer be known as Simon, but the Rock. That is a dramatic shift. Yet Peter was not the only one whose opinion of Jesus prompted a change in a name or how people refer to them.
James, the brother of Jesus, was once urged Jesus to shut up and go home. He opposed Jesus’s teaching because it was too radical and was going to get him killed, like his cousin. After the resurrection Jesus paid a visit to his brother James, and that visit changed something within James. The community began to refer to James as James the Just, and when some ancient historians wrote of the events of Jerusalem but did not know about Jesus, they actually spoke of Jesus as James’ brother instead of James as Jesus’ brother, because they saw something remarkable in how James lived his life.
We see this also with the author of the fourth gospel. We know of this as John’s gospel, but the author of this gospel does not call himself John, but the disciple Jesus loved. That is a pretty bold title to write about yourself, yet tradition tells us that the church has no problem with John holding this title, because as far as they were concerned it was true. But to be able to hold that title something profound would have to be shown through their life, mainly that they reflected the personality of Christ to those around them to such degree that the love of Christ is all that people could see.
The answer to one question changed the course of history. “But who do you say I [Jesus] am?” It changes the course of history because the answer affects every aspect of our lives. If we answer like the people saying Jesus is a prophet his words are important, but if he is God his words are life. If Jesus is just a teacher, then we can add them to all the other teachers we have had, but if Jesus is God the teaching, he provided in scripture is the true direction. If Jesus is just a good guy among many good guys, then we could look at his lifestyle and add some of what we like to ours to give us a bit of culture. But if our answer to Jesus’s question is that He is the Christ the Son of the living God, the lifestyle that Jesus exhibited in scripture is life he is calling us to live.
Who do you say Jesus is? I have asked myself this question many times over the course of my life. Looking back I made my first profession of faith when I was five years old, it was shortly after my Great-Great grandmother passed away, and my mom said that she was in heaven with Jesus and if I believed and put my faith in Jesus I would be able to see her again when I die. A great deal happened since I was five. When my oldest son, James, was born I answered that question again. I looked into the eyes of my child and I realized that I was not enough, and if that kid was going to have a chance, I would need God’s help. Then I became a pastor and every day I seem to be asking and answering this same question. I ask because I cannot share what I do not have.
Jesus looked at Peter and said that on that rock he will build the church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Jesus told Peter that he will give the key of the kingdom will be given to him and whatever bound on earth will be bound in heaven and what even is loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven. And Peter looked at Jesus in utter confusion. He did not know who he was anymore. He had lived his life as Simon up to this point and now he was Peter, who is Peter? Peter is the one that can answer the ultimate question. Peter is the one who does not rely of flesh and blood to formulate his answer but is willing to listen to the Father in heaven.
We look at our diverse culture and we can often get lost. Who are we? Paul wrote to the Philippians, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith – that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (3:8-14). We can get lost in the diversity, but there is one that can speak to our condition. Who do you say Jesus is? Our answer to that question will lead us to the prize and open the gates to the kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven.