Matthew 16: 13 – 20
This extract from Matthew’s Gospel has a number of interesting dimensions, but we’ll focus on just 2.
1 – Identity.
Understanding someone’s true identity makes a huge difference.
When people understand the true identity of Darth Vader, it makes a huge difference – especially for Luke Skywalker.
When people understand the true identity of Superman, it makes a huge difference – especially for Lois Lane.
In the film ‘The Bourne Identity’, a man comes round from a near death experience not knowing who he is. The story charts his quest to find out – no matter how difficult and painful that is.
Identity is important.
Let’s set the scene. Jesus’ relationship with the leaders of his own ‘nation’ is under strain. He’s been critical of religious practice! Jesus is reshaping the Jewish community, but from now on, Matthew helps us to see this community more clearly and hear about Jesus’ own plans and desires for it.
Jesus is zig-zagging around Galilee and this incident happens in Caesarea Philippi in the far north of the area and out of Herod’s territory.
Referring to himself (as he usually does) as the Son of Man, Jesus asks a pertinent question, “Who do people say that I am?”
The disciples offer some responses they’ve heard from others, an ‘opinion poll’! Their answers cast Jesus as a prophet, returned to minister to God’s people.
But when Jesus asks for the disciples’ own view, Simon Peter jumps in with his own ringing affirmation, which confirms and expands on what they’d begun to see in Jesus. Simon Peter recognises Jesus as much more than just a prophet, a spokesperson for God. For Simon Peter, Jesus is Israel’s promised Messiah, the ‘One’ who brings the life and the presence of God to his people with new depth, richness and power.
Acknowledging Jesus as Messiah – literally ‘the anointed one’ or ‘King’ – is a risky business, but the cat is out of the bag. Yet Jesus wants it kept quiet, perhaps knowing he had more work to do and his true identity would be like red rag to a bull to the Jewish authorities.
Knowing Jesus’ true identity made a huge difference, because, armed with this information, Jesus feels the disciples need to hear about his suffering and death. So, the bubble begins to burst.
2 – Rock
Jesus is pleased with Simon Peter’s answer. The faith he demonstrates to reach this level of understanding is a gift from God, only God gives that sort of insight.
So, Jesus says that from that moment on Simon Peter will be called ‘Peter’, the ‘rock-man’.
Matthew uses a play on words. In the Greek that Matthew uses to write, the word ‘petra’ means ‘stone’ and ‘Petros’ is the name ‘Peter’. In the Aramaic (the language most Jews spoke) the link is even more direct, because the name given to Simon is ‘Kepha’ the exact word that means ‘stone’.
It’s on this ‘rock’, the man Peter, that Jesus will build the community he is shaping. Peter, and the insightful faith he’s declared will be the base on which the church will stand and grow.
Peter, flawed as he is, will lead the church as it opens up the kingdom of God and demonstrates its likeness on earth, drawing many people in and setting out (permitting and prohibiting) the way that believers should live.
Two things are noteworthy about the ‘rock’. Firstly, there’s the possibility that the ‘rock’ is, in fact, Jesus himself, whom Peter has just confessed as Messiah. So, is ‘the rock’, in fact, the confession that Peter made when he identified that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God”? Is this ‘truth’ the foundational ‘rock’, the solid ground on which the Church is built? Thus, it is Peter’s solid acclamation which creates the bed rock of our faith. This was the view of the African Theologian, Augustine (circa AD400) taken up by the Reformers of the Church in the 16th Century.
And, of course, there’s the possibility that it’s Peter himself who is the rock, whose authority is believed to have been handed down to his successors, the Popes, a practice of the Roman Catholic Church since the 5th Century.
The word play on Peter’s name seems to be important. Yet Matthew is the only gospel writer to add this detail about Jesus naming Peter ‘the rock’ to his confession of faith that Jesus is the Messiah.
Typical really, as Matthew is the writer whose thread, woven throughout his gospel, links Jesus firmly to Old Testament prophecy and writing and there’s an echo here with Isaiah 51:1-2, which describes Abraham and Sarah (the father-and-mother-figures of Israel) as the rock and quarry from which the Jewish nation’s life was cut. They were the founders of faith and the models to copy, people who could hand on to others the heritage of grace, blessing and trust into which God had drawn them.
This is now Peter’s position, the model Christian believer to be copied, the new Abraham and Sarah of the Christian Church, the rock of a new community.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t say ‘Churches’, but just ‘Church’. The Church is eternally and universally ‘one’, because the Church is the Body of Christ (hands, feet, eyes, ears and voice). It’s hard to live up to that ideal, but essentially all Christians, no matter how we order our life and worship, or how we interpret this passage, or any scripture for that matter, belong to one family of faith that started to find its own identity in the northern reaches of Galilee when Peter understood and declared the true identity of Jesus – ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God’.
When the disciples realised Jesus’ true identity everything changed.
And when we understand the true identity of Jesus, for each and every one of us – as well as for the Church – everything changes, life is fuller and richer, but also challenging, as we open up the kingdom of God and demonstrate its likeness on earth. We are the ones now who must draw people in and demonstrate the way Christians should live!
So, a challenge for you for this week!
- If you are asked, how do you respond to the question ‘who is Jesus’?
It’s worthwhile practicing your response to ensure you can give an account of what you believe when called to do so.
You could ask other people who they think Jesus is. You might find this a ‘revealing’ exercise!