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. – Matthew 16:13-20 ESV
In this passage we see Jesus traveling as far north as He will ever go in His earthly ministry. He and the disciples journeyed all the way to Caesarea Philippi. At this remote location, far removed from the capital city of Jerusalem and beyond the reach of the Jewish religious leaders, Jesus isolated Himself with His disciples in order to prepare them for the events that were soon to take place. It would not be long before He began a return trip to Jerusalem, but it would be in order to sacrifice His life on behalf of sinful mankind.
It appears that one of the objectives behind this excursion to the very borders of Jewish influence was to get the disciples alone and allow them time to process all that they had seen and heard. From the moment they had answered the call to follow Jesus, they had been on a whirlwind journey marked by head-scratching messages and mind-blowing miracles. They must have been confused by the confrontations between Jesus, a man they obviously admired, and the religious leaders, for whom they had deep respect. It had to have been disconcerting to see the Pharisees and Sadducees reject Jesus and to hear Jesus refer to these seemingly righteous men as hypocrites. If Jesus was the Messiah, as the disciples believed Him to be, why weren’t the religious leaders of Israel embracing Him with open arms?
Knowing that His followers were wrestling with all kinds of questions and their own doubts about who He was, Jesus removed some of the pressure by asking the disciples a fairly easy question:
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” – Matthew 16:13 ESV
And the disciples were more than happy to answer the question.
“Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” – Matthew 16:14 ESV
There were a lot of opinions out there. And notice that each of the three options provided by the disciples involves dead men. John the Baptist was the most recently deceased, but all three of the possibilities given by the disciples involved men who were no longer living. This provides a glimpse into the mindset of the average Jew. They believed that the miracles performed by Jesus were best explained as the byproduct of a resurrected prophet. They believed Him to be somebody of great renown who had been raised back to life and been given supernatural powers.
But notice that no one was claiming Jesus to be the Messiah. He was great, but not that great. At this point, Jesus turned His attention to His disciples. He wanted to know what they thought.
“But who do you say that I am?” – Matthew 16:15 ESV
This was the more important question of the two. Jesus knew full well that there were very few of the Jewish people who were willing to recognize Him as their Messiah. They had been blown away by His miracles and left wondering at the authority behind His teaching and the radical nature of His words. But He didn’t seem to measure up to their preconceived notions of how the Messiah would appear and act.
It shouldn’t surprise us that Peter was the first to speak up in response to Jesus’ query. He was an outspoken and sometimes rash individual for whom tact seemed to be a missing character trait. Peter was always quick to speak and sometimes His tendency to put his mouth in gear before His brain was engaged got him into trouble. But in this instance, Peter gave a commendable answer.
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” – Matthew 16:16 ESV
His response stood in stark contrast to the common perceptions of the people. Peter boldly and unapologetically proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah. The term “Christ” is the Greek equivalent of Messiah. So, Peter was unequivocally pronouncing his belief that Jesus was exactly who He claimed to be. And, if you recall, John used very similiar words when he opened up his gospel account.
The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. – Matthew 1:1 ESV
But Peter refers to Jesus as the Son of the living God, not the son of David. This was an acknowledgement of Jesus’ deity. He was not just a man who had been sent by God, He was the actual Son of God. In other words, He was divine.
This statement by Peter was remarkable and Jesus acknowledged it as such.
“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 16:17 ESV
In this statement, Jesus chose to refer to Peter in a manner that emphasized his humanity. He called him Simon Barjonas or Simon, son of John. And then Jesus revealed that Peter’s answer had not been the result of human wisdom or teaching, but because of insight provided by God Himself. God had opened Peter’s eyes and helped him recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Peter wasn’t smarter than the scribes and Pharisees. He wasn’t more spiritual than the Sadducees. He didn’t possess more discernment than the rest of his Jewish neighbors and friends. But God had made possible Peter’s astounding insight into Jesus’ true identity. Remember what Jesus had stated earlier in Matthew’s gospel:
“No one truly knows the Son except the Father…” – Matthew 11:27 NLT
And so, it is God alone who can reveal the identity of His Son.
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” – John 6:44 ESV
“This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” – John 6:65 ESV
Peter had been drawn to Jesus by God. He had been convinced by God that Jesus was the Messiah. And it was this confession that led Jesus to say:
“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.” – Matthew 16:18 ESV
In this statement, Jesus used a play on words. He refers to Peter’s name, which in Greek is Petros and means “rock.” But He used different Greek word when He referred to “this rock.” It was the word petra. Jesus was placing the emphasis, not on Peter, but on Peter’s testimony. It was what Peter had said about Jesus that was critical. In other words, the church of Jesus Christ would be built upon the testimonies of those who expressed faith in Jesus as their Messiah and Savior. Contrary to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, Jesus was not setting up a system of apostolic succession and establishing the office of the papacy. The real “rock” in this passage is Jesus Himself. He is what Paul later refers to as the cornerstone of the church.
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. – Ephesians 2:19-21 ESV
And Peter echoed that same sentiment.
For it stands in Scripture:
“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone…” – 1 Peter 2:6-7 ESV
Ultimately, the church is built upon the rock of Jesus Christ. He is our foundation and the one who holds all things together (Colossians 1:17). And to all those who build their lives on the solid rock of Jesus Christ, He promises to give “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:19 ESV).
Jesus switched from talking about their present view of His identity to the future nature of their authority. He was referring to the millennial kingdom, not the temporal period commonly referred to as the church age. There is a day coming when all those who are children of God will experience the full power and authority available to them as heirs of the kingdom of God. And Jesus clearly articulates the nature of that power and authority when He says, “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19 ESV).
To a certain degree, the disciples were going to experience some of that power and authority in their earthly lives, as they proclaimed the good news and released people from captivity to sin and death. They would have God-given authority to cast out demons and heal the sick and the lame. But the greatest fulfillment of Jesus’ words are in the millennial kingdom to come when Jesus will sit on the throne of David, ruling in righteousness and justice. And all those who place their faith in Him as Messiah will rule alongside Him.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.