Who Do You Say I Am?

Who Do You Say I Am?

“Who do you say I am?” If we had to encapsulate the Gospel message to one key point, it would probably be the answer we provide to this question being posed by Jesus to his disciples: “Who do you say I am?” And by means of posing this question, we have in our passage this morning yet another example of how Jesus was always teaching his disciples. As we’ve seen over the past few weeks, there were many things Jesus taught them and many ways he did so:

He taught them by proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom of heaven having arrived in him;

He taught them by teaching in the synagogues demonstrating how all the Scriptures, or our Old Testament—all 37 books of it—pointed to him;[1]

He taught them by means of parables, some of which he interpreted for them, some of which he left for them to wrestle with and figure out for themselves;

He taught them by his deeds—by healing the sick and casting out demons.

And in his teaching, Jesus was patient for he realized that as devoted Jewish believers, they wouldn’t immediately understand how to hold in tension the core of their belief in God, the shema, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One,”[2] with the fact that Jesus himself wasn’t just a man but was also the Christ, the Messiah, God who had entered history in human flesh to provide fallen humanity a way of being reconciled to the God they had rejected so that all who accepted him might know his love and care over them.

Now though we can’t know what precipitated Jesus’ question to his disciples, it’s interesting to note that this chapter begins with Matthew recounting in verse 1 how “The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.” As we know, with few exceptions[3] Pharisees and Sadducees did not believe that Jesus was the Christ. As such they were regularly challenging his teaching and sought to trick him. It’s odd that these two particular branches of Judaism would be together at all since they disagreed on one of the key tenets of Jewish belief, the resurrection of the dead—the Pharisees (correctly) believed it was taught in the Scriptures; the Sadducees did not (and I can never resist this eye-roller: That’s why they were so sad, you see!). But, as the saying goes, politics makes strange bedfellows so despite their usual antipathy towards one another, their antipathy towards Jesus was even greater, causing them to unite forces as they challenged Jesus to show them a sign from heaven.

Now Jesus surely could have shown them a sign—but he didn’t. Heavenly signs are God’s prerogative. He’s not there to do our bidding like some heavenly magician in the sky but has placed us on earth to do his bidding. When signs are given, they are given to demonstrate his lordship and greatness. These Pharisees and Sadducees desired a sign right then and there that would prove that Jesus was who he said he was—which, when you think about it, is absolutely ridiculous because, again, Jesus had been performing signs throughout his ministry that bore witness to the fact that he was the Messiah—from healing the sick, to casting out demons, to raising the dead, to demonstrating his sovereignty over nature. So in Jesus’ reply to them he didn’t take the bait but instead pointed them to the Scriptures—specifically the sign of Jonah. Now this wasn’t the first time that Jesus had mentioned Jonah. Earlier in Matthew 12, in a similar exchange with the Pharisees, we read:

38 Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”

39 He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.[4]

In this earlier account, at least two things are notable. First, as is the case with Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees and Sadducees at the beginning of our chapter, Jesus makes clear the sufficiency of Scripture. God’s Holy Spirit has ever worked by means of his Word to convict people of the truth of who he is and of what the Scriptures teach. We may think we need added signs and wonders in order to believe but we don’t because faith really comes down to believing the truth of what God has disclosed of himself in his Son and in his Word. What the Scriptures teach is sufficient to know how we can know, love, and live before God.

But, second, in Jesus’ earlier reply to the Pharisees and teachers of the law it’s evident that his choice of Jonah isn’t an arbitrary one for he connects Jonah’s spending three days and nights in the belly of that great fish with his own looming death. The message is clear: just as Jonah’s life was used by God to bring his enemies to a saving faith in the One, true God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, so too Jesus’ death would be used by God to bring his enemies to a saving faith in himself—the One, true God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So this One, true God had now been disclosed to be Christ Jesus himself. And as the Ninevites repented at Jonah’s preaching, Jesus adds that “now something greater than Jonah is here”—so how much greater should be the repentance of those who hear him. Jesus is greater than Jonah for he is the Christ, God who took on human flesh for the salvation not only of the Ninevites but of any and all who acknowledge him as Savior and Lord.

Again, I don’t think that the events that take place at the opening of this chapter are incidental so far as the questions Jesus posed to his disciples in our morning’s passage. In response to the religious leaders’ request for a sign, for some kind of proof, that he was the promised Messiah, Jesus declined to concede their request and instead pointed them to God’s Word for confirmation that he was God’s Messiah. And given that many religious leaders didn’t believe Jesus was the Christ, his first question to his disciples was, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” The religious leaders clearly don’t believe in me but what do others think? Who do they same I am?

Now to better appreciate the significance of what Jesus is asking, it’s helpful to understand the importance of the title he uses, “Son of Man.” This was Jesus’ favorite title, his favorite way of referring to himself and the New Testament records 88 instances of his doing so. Now there are at least two pertinent uses of this title from the Old Testament. First, “Son of Man”—as indicated by the 93 occurrences in Ezekiel—was a way of confirming that though greatly used by God to communicate his message, Ezekiel was fully human. When applied to Jesus, the title “Son of Man” similarly confirmed his full humanity. As John also acknowledges and proclaims about people’s response to Jesus: “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.”[5] So a Scriptural understanding of the person of Jesus is one that affirms his full humanity.

But an important difference between Ezekiel and Jesus is that though Jesus was fully human, he wasn’t merely human for he was also the Messiah, the Christ, God who entered history in the flesh. And this leads to a second important use of the “Son of Man” title in the Old Testament from the book of Daniel:

13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man,[6] coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.[7]

As we’ve already noted, Jesus clearly understood himself as fulfilling and completing Old Testament prophecy, including that of Daniel. Jesus is indeed “given authority, glory and sovereign power” by his heavenly Father; And because he is not only Jesus but also the Christ, also God, he is indeed worshiped by “all nations and peoples of every language” in fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham to one day bless all nations through him; and being the promised King who has successfully conquered not only sin and the devil but even death, King Jesus Christ’s kingdom is certainly “one that will never be destroyed.”

Now given that Jesus’ disciples had spent so much time with him, they would have known—and no doubt acknowledged and accepted as we’ll see—that he was the “Son of Man” prophesied and promised by Daniel. But in answering his question as to who other people thought he was, they replied according to what they had heard, verse 14: “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” All of these answers were common perceptions within Judaism of Messiah’s coming.[8] We recently saw one instance of this when Matthew noted how Herod had assumed that Jesus was able to do the miracles he did because he was John the Baptist risen from the dead.[9] With regards to seeing Jesus as Elijah, the seed of this belief may have been the understanding that Elijah would one day return. But earlier Jesus had noted that John the Baptist, not Jesus, was “Elijah who was to come.”[10] In short, “the people” were saying that the Son of Man—that is Jesus—was most likely John the Baptist returned to life or Elijah or one of the other Old Testament prophets returned to life. How else could he do the things he did—again, healing the sick, raising the dead, casting out demons, controlling even nature by walking on water and stilling the wind and waves—unless he had returned from the dead with some added super powers enabling him to do such things?

But that, of course, was the wrong answer. It’s an incorrect way of understanding or construing Jesus’ abilities. So Jesus turned to his disciples, verse 15, and asked: 15 “But what about you?… Who do you say I am?” And Peter provided the right answer, verse 16, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” If the title, “Son of Man” highlights Jesus’ full humanity and indicates he is the Messiah about whom the Old Testament prophets prophesied, “Son of the living God” bears witness to the fact that this promised Messiah is not only fully human but also fully God. This is so much the case—and was understood by those around Jesus to be the case—that when Jesus referred to God as his Father and stated that he and the Father were one, he was accused of blasphemy and those who were listening “picked up stones to stone him.”[11] And one of the key charges put before Pilate at Jesus’ trial was that “he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.”[12] And if, as we saw earlier, John noted that a Christian confession requires believing that Jesus is fully human, so too he makes clear that we must also believe he is fully God, that is, God’s Son: “…everyone born of God overcomes the world….” John tells us. “Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.[13] So Peter’s confession—“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”—ought to be our confession. As Jesus elsewhere asserted, the One, True God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not a God of the dead but of the living for all live unto him because all who belong to him rise from the dead through him—including Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob[14] from whom God made the people of Israel; including Elijah and other Old Testament prophets. And as God’s Son, Christ Jesus, too, gives his—that is God’s—eternal life to all who come to him.

But what is important to remember is that confessing Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of the living God is possible for us not because we’re so terribly bright or insightful. No, look at what Jesus states about Peter’s answer in verse 17: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” The only way Peter or anyone is able to confess that Jesus is the Son of God, that Jesus is God, is by God’s enabling. He is the one who must open eyes that would otherwise be blind to this truth. To know Jesus is the Christ, Son of the living God and therefore God himself isn’t something we can know “by flesh and blood”—by human ability, power, or insight. It is something we can only know by a supernatural working of God in our hearts.

Now I want to spend a moment on what Jesus goes on to tell Peter starting in verse 18 because this is a passage that to this day divides Protestant and Catholic Christians. You may know that Catholic believers understand Peter to be the first Pope in the church. And a large part of the reason why is because of what Jesus states in verses 18 and 19: “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.” We can see how one might conclude from these verses that Jesus intended to build his church on Peter the Pope, can’t we? If Christ Jesus is building his church upon Peter the rock—Peter’s name in Greek sounds like the word for rock so Jesus is using word play here—and he is being given by Jesus “the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” then wouldn’t it make sense that Peter should be understood as the first Pope? Because further Jesus is also giving Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven so that whatever he binds on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever he looses on earth will be loosed in heaven.[15] In other words, whatever Peter says, goes; whatever he determines to be the case in a particular matter, will stand. And isn’t this what Popes have ever been entrusted to do—to give the final word on all matters, moral, doctrinal, and otherwise?

But here’s the thing. There’s no question that Peter is being given a sobering responsibility here. But the responsibility is given not only to him, but also to us. It isn’t only Peter who has been given the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whenever we share the truth of who Jesus Christ is with others, we have the awesome privilege of opening the door to heaven to them by means of the good news of the Gospel key that we share with them. And the power of binding and loosing is also an awesome charge given to all believers. In speaking about how we, as believers, are to deal with sin we see in each other’s lives, Jesus teaches: 15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” And listen to what Jesus says next, “18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Sound familiar? These are the very words Jesus earlier said to Peter. The only difference is the switch from singular—Peter—to plural—anyone who is Jesus’ follower.[16] So though the church is built on the foundation of God’s apostles and prophets—with Christ Jesus as the chief cornerstone—all believers are part of that household, of God’s holy temple, who together are being built to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.[17] So there’s a sense in which Peter is a prototype of all who follow Christ and are indwelled by his Holy Spirit.

Well the passage ends with Jesus ordering “his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah” (v. 20) for his time had not yet come and, too, there were those who believed the Messiah would be but a national or political figure—which Jesus clearly wasn’t.

Returning to the key point in this passage, we need to remember that the ability to recognize Christ as the Messiah, Son of the living God is something that is only possible by God’s own self-disclosure. “Who do you say I am?”—Who do we say Jesus is—is the most important question we will ever have to answer.

The Pharisees and Sadducees didn’t know Jesus was the Son of Man, the Messiah, the Son of the living God because they were blind to the many signs and wonders he did confirmed in Scripture;

Other people living in his day didn’t know because they had wrongly understood the Scriptures to mean that one of the prophets of old had returned in the person of Jesus;

But by God’s grace and the working of his Holy Spirit, we have been entrusted with this awesome disclosure. As Paul reminds us, “Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’”[18]

Sisters and brothers, let us not keep the amazing truth of who Christ Jesus is to ourselves but let us use the keys of the kingdom of heaven entrusted to us that others might come to know Jesus—the Son of Man, the Messiah, the Son of the living God—as their Savior and Lord, by the power of his Holy Spirit, and to the glory of our kind and merciful and loving heavenly Father.

Let us pray.

[1] See, e.g., John 5:39: You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me,…. Luke 4:16–21: 16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” And, most notably, Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to the two disciples on the Emmaus Road, Luke 24:25–27: 25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

[2] Deuteronomy 6:4.

[3] Nicodemus was a Pharisee who seemed sincere in his desire to learn from Jesus as “He came to Jesus at night and said, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him’” (John 3:2). Later he voices a minority opinion among the Pharisees “50 Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, 51 ‘Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?’” (John 5:50–51). And he even accompanies Joseph of Arimathea when the latter requests Jesus’ body from Pilate: “38 Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. 39 He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds.” (John 19:38–39).

[4] Verse 42 adds: “42 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here.” A parallel account may be found in Luke 11:29–32: 29 As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. 30 For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation. 31 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom; and now something greater than Solomon is here. 32 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and now something greater than Jonah is here.

[5] I John 4:2–3.

[6] NIV online Bible has the following note after “son of man” here: The Aramaic phrase bar enash means human being. The phrase son of man is retained here because of its use in the New Testament as a title of Jesus, probably based largely on this verse.

[7] Daniel 7:13–14.

[8] For example, see: Deuteronomy 18:15–18: 15 The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him. 16 For this is what you asked of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, “Let us not hear the voice of the Lord our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die.” 17 The Lord said to me: “What they say is good. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him. Malachi 4:5: “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.

[9] 7/30/17, “Giving Thanks and Breaking Loaves [The Feeding of the 5000].” See Matthew 14:1–2: 1 At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”

[10] Matthew 11:14. Some context: 11–14:11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. 15 Whoever has ears, let them hear.” Too, after seeing both Moses and Elijah with Jesus at his Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1–3), the disciples specifically asked him, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” (v. 10) So Jesus took the opportunity to clarify: “‘To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. 12 But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.’ 13 Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.”

[11] John 10:31. Speaking of his sheep, Jesus had said (vv. 29–30), “29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.” The outcome was (vv. 31–33): “31 Again his Jewish opponents picked up stones to stone him, 32 but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?” 33 “We are not stoning you for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.”

[12] John 19:7. See parallels in Matthew 26:63; Luke 22:70.

[13] I John 5:4–5.

[14] Matthew 22:31–32: 31 But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”

[15] δώσω σοι τὰς κλεῖδας τῆς βασιλείας τῶν οὐρανῶν, καὶ ὃ ἐὰν δήσῃς ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἔσται δεδεμένον ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς, καὶ ὃ ἐὰν λύσῃς ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἔσται λελυμένον ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς.

[16] Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ὅσα ἐὰν δήσητε ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἔσται δεδεμένα ἐν οὐρανῷ καὶ ὅσα ἐὰν λύσητε ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἔσται λελυμένα ἐν οὐρανῷ.

[17] Ephesians 2:19–22: 19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

[18] Galatians 4:6.

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