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Who Do You Say That I Am?

February 12, 2023 Speaker: Jim Davis Series: Matthew

Passage: Matthew 16:13–20

Generally speaking, there are five different levels of communication. Level one is called the cliche level. It’s like elevator talk. It’s not really sharing anything at all. Level two is fact sharing. Like the weather or times of sports games. Level three is called the opinion level. Like which teams you like and why. Then there is this big gap between the first three levels and the last two. Level four is the emotion level. This is where you share your hopes, your dreams, and your fears. You’re opening up a lot more here. Then, lastly, level five is the transparency level. This is where you are sharing who you are.

Most friendships and marriages live in levels one through three. Actually, 85% of marriages live in the first three levels. But, for relationships that do dip into levels four and five in appropriate ways, those relationships will always be the most life giving, the most healing, and the most long lasting. And this is exactly what Jesus is calling his disciples into in this passage and all of us by asking, “Who do you say I am?” Jesus isn’t making them guess. They have all the information they need. Jesus has fully opened up to them and is calling them into a deeper, more real relationship with him.

Jesus could have made the question easier by staying in those first three levels. He could have asked them, “‘What’ do you say I am?” or “‘What’ have I done for you?” These questions are less demanding than the ‘who’ questions, because they are dealing with easily observable, surface-level facts. But, Jesus is asking this ‘who’ question to get below that, to the very identity and core of who he is as Messiah, Son of God, and Son of Man.

There is, in fact, no one in human existence for whom this question, ‘who is he?’ is more important and has more ramifications than Jesus. I don’t know of any historian that would argue the fact that Jesus was the single most influential person to ever exist. Even so, for over 2000 years, humanity has struggled to understand who was he really. Just think about the interest and impact of The DaVinci Code, The Passion of the Christ, The Jefferson Bible, The Search for the Historical Jesus, or the Jesus Seminars. Just turn on the History Channel or Discovery Channel every Christmas and Easter and I can guarantee you there will be a show on trying to figure out who Jesus was. Just this week, our intern, Clark Bartholomew, sent me a picture of the cover of Life Magazine in the Publix checkout line with a painting of Jesus and the simple question, “Who do you say that I am?” 2000 years later and we are still asking this question and, still, the answer to this question has drastic and eternal implications for each of us.

That is the very question Jesus poses in this passage. He poses it to Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” So I want to look at this passage with this most important of questions and see 1) who is he?, 2) how can we see him for who he is?, and 3) what Jesus does with our response

Who he is

Jesus starts by asking who do people say I am? Now, Jesus isn’t actually concerned about who the crowd thinks he is at this point, but it’s how he chooses to start this particular time of teaching. It feels like he’s priming the pump. So, they start listing the things people have said. Some say the prophet Elijah resurrected, because Malachi 4 says that, in some way, Elijah will return at the end of the time. Others say Jeremiah, probably because Jeremiah’s ministry of saying harsh things and not being listened to looks very much like Jesus’ ministry.

I guess it might sound like a compliment to be mistaken as a true prophet of the Old Testament. Maybe it would be for most of us, but not for Jesus. This week, I was driving my kids to school and one of them asked, “Dad, who’s Shaquille Oneal?” Then, another kid piped up and said, “You know who he is. He’s that Papa John’s guy.” Well, not entirely inaccurate, but not complete either. I’d be very happy to be known as the Papa John's guy, but not if I was also one of the best basketball players of all time.

In the same way, Jesus is like these great prophets, but he is also much more than them. While there are elements of truth in these comparisons, it’s like the old saying, “A half truth masquerading as a whole truth is a lie.”

There is actually no one like him because he’s unique. He’s in a class by himself. These guesses about who Jesus is that are going around, they are not demeaning or mean. In fact, many probably thought they were giving Jesus a compliment, but they all fall short. In the same way, if we only think Jesus was a great teacher or a prophet or someone who simply exemplified love, we don’t understand him and the ramifications of that misunderstanding in our life will have devastating effects.

So Jesus turns it on the disciples by asking, and I’m reading from the DSV (the Deep South Version of the Bible), “Who do y’all say I am?” He’s asking the whole group, but Peter steps up at the mouthpiece for the group saying, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” And the way the Greek is placing emphasis on the word ‘the,’ it would be like writing this sentence in a text message or email and capitalizing every use of the word ‘the.’ You are THE Christ, THE son of THE living God. You can see that Peter gets the uniqueness of Jesus.

Peter’s confession does two more things. It identifies Jesus as the Messiah and as divine. He’s declaring that this is no mere prophet or teacher. This is the long awaited anointed prophet who was prophesied about so long ago. He doesn’t just say ‘so saith the Lord’ the way the prophets did who spoke on behalf of God. He says ‘so saith I’ because he is not speaking on behalf of God, he is God. And it is this claim of his own divinity that ultimately got him crucified.

So, what allowed Peter to see this when so many couldn’t? Second point.

How we can see him for who he is

Jesus is making it very clear not only THAT Peter sees the truth about who Jesus is, but WHY. It’s not because Peter is smarter, more moral, or more spiritual. Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, hbut my Father who is in heaven. And listen to how Jesus says this. Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah (that’s what Bar-Jonah means). For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but MY Father who is in heaven. Jesus in this answer is again reinforcing his own divinity.

So, in what way does the Father reveal this to Peter? This is a doctrine we call effectual calling. There is a general aspect to the gospel going out in that we are called to share it indiscriminately to all. But, it works, that is, it is effective or effectual for those whose eyes are opened by God. All those God has chosen in eternity past are called by God during their lives and at this moment our heart is regenerated, that is, given eyes to see Jesus for who he is for the very first time.

Because this is a more misunderstood and even contested doctrine. I want to flesh it out just a bit more. The Bible is clear that sin has so ravaged all of our faculties that we do not even have the ability to see Jesus as our only hope. No stream of historic Christianity debates that. It is God’s regenerating work in our hearts that gives us the ability to genuinely choose Jesus and all whose hearts are regenerated are given a free will for the first time and all who are given this free will will all willingly repent of our sin and freely choose Jesus.

John 6:44 44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. - John 6:37 zAll that athe Father gives me will come to me, and bwhoever comes to me I will never cast out. Jesus doesn’t say ‘whoever will come to me the Father will give to me’ but whoever the Father gives me will come to me. John 6:65 “This is why I told you ethat no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” Galatians 1:15 15 But when he cwho had set me apart dbefore I was born,4 and who ecalled me by his grace, 16 was pleased to reveal his Son to5me, In 2 Corinthians 4 Paul says that the same God who said ‘let there be light’ in Genesis 1 said, ‘let there be light’ again and that is when we see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

This is why Jesus tells Peter he is blessed to understand who Jesus is. Remember, in Matthew 13 Jesus says, 16 But iblessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. -Matt 13:16,17 If we really understand the nature of our conversion, it should make us more humble people because we don’t deserve salvation any more than anyone else and we didn’t do anything to cause it to happen. It should drive us to boldly share the gospel more because we believe there are those in whom God is already working. And it should cause us to give God praise whenever we see God choose to work in someone’s heart.

Then, in the last part of this passage, Jesus moves to tell us something he does through those whose eyes are opened and who respond like Peter.

What he does with our response

In short, Jesus says he will build his church. Verse 18 18 And I tell you, iyou are Peter, and jon this rock2 I will build my church - Matt 16:18a So, if you’ve been around any branch of the Christian church for any significant amount of time, you know that there is a lot of debate about what is going on here. The Roman Catholic church says the church is built on Peter which makes him the first Pope and establishes their true authority as the purest form of church in the world. Now, many protestants, wishing to refute this claim have pointed out that the main point of this interaction is who Jesus is and that it is Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah that the church is built on. While I don’t think Jesus is establishing Peter as the first Pope (and there is no mention of any kind of succession here or anywhere else in the Bible), I do think Jesus is talking about more than just Peter’s confession.

There does seem to be a clear play on words here between Peter’s name and the word rock which are almost identical in Greek and if these words were spoken in Aramaic (and they likely were), they would have been identical. So, it has to be more than just Peter’s confession. I do believe that it is Simon Peter himself, in his historical role, who is the foundation rock. When we fast forward to Acts, Peter is the clear leader of the church for a time. Peter is the one who takes this confession of Christ as Messiah to the Jews, he is the one who takes it to the Samaritans, and he is the first one who takes it to the Gentiles as well. By the time James, Jesus’ brother, takes over as leader of the church in Jerusalem, the foundation has already been laid. Galatians 2:20 makes it clear that all the apostles constituted the foundation of the church with Jesus as the cornerstone, but as a matter of historical fact it was on Peter’s leadership that the earliest phase of the church’s development would depend. So, it is in fact on Peter AND his confession that Jesus will build his church.

Tim Keller makes the helpful point that because Catholics and Protestants have argued so much over what the implications are here for church authority, we often overlook the fact that all Christians agree on the main thing Jesus is saying. He’s basically saying that if you don’t understand what Peter just said, you’re not in the church. You’re not a Christian. Every other religion has a founder who is a prophet who says, “Salvation is through striving. Go and do it. Jesus is the only founder of any religion who has come and said salvation is not through striving, but receiving. We don’t strive to earn our salvation, Jesus came and strived to accomplish it for us. God’s work in his people from Genesis to Revelation has always been to save us first and then give a desire to strive to honor him with our lives. Until we understand that, we are not in the church. We are not a Christian. We can’t lose that in the debate over the implications for church authority.

Then, Jesus says two things about the building of his church. First, It will never be destroyed. The gates of hades shall not prevail against it. In modern times, much has been made about the role of gates as a defensive barrier and how the church is now to storm the gates of hell. As much as I personally resonate with that interpretation, I don’t think that is what is going on here. Jesus doesn’t say ‘the gates of hell’ he says ‘the gates of hades’ which is synonymous in Jesus’ day with death. In the Old Testament, the ‘gates of death’ describes the place where dead people go. It’s also called the gates of Sheol. Jesus is talking about the imprisoning power of death. You can also hear how this contrasts with Jesus’ statement of the living God. Death will not be able to imprison and hold back the church of the living God. Death will not be able to swallow up this new community that Jesus is building.

Then, secondly, and linked with Peter’s foundational role in the church, Jesus says that Peter will have administrative authority in the church. Verse 19: 19 I will give you mthe keys of the kingdom of heaven, and nwhatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed4 in heaven.” - Matt 16:19. Probably no passage in the Bible has contributed to more misunderstandings about Peter’s role in the church than this passage. How many cartoons have you seen with Peter at the gates of heaven essentially as the heavenly bouncer? I remember an episode of the Simpsons where Peter was not only determining who could get into heaven, but then he divided people up into Roman Catholic heaven and Protestant heaven. Protestant heaven was a super boring place where people just stayed on their knees all day praying and Catholic heaven was a bar with drinking, dancing, and fighting.

This passage does not say that Peter is the heavenly bouncer. Revelation 1 tells us that the keys of entrance are Jesus’ to wield. 17 vWhen I (John) saw him (Jesus), I fell at his feet as though dead. But vhe laid his right hand on me, wsaying, “Fear not, xI am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. yI died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and zI have the keys of Death and Hades. - Rev 1:17,18

Jesus is declaring Peter to be the steward of the kingdom of heaven. He’s playing off of Isaiah 22 likening Peter to Eliakim. Isaiah 22 22 And I will place don his shoulder ethe key of the house of David. fHe shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. Is. 22:22 Just as Eliakim is the steward of King David, so Peter is the new steward in the kingdom of God. Peter is the steward, not the owner. The keys are those of the storehouses, to enable him to make appropriate provision for the household, not those of the outer gate, to control who gets in.

The thrust here in the binding and loosing is administrative authority. These same terms are used in rabbinic literature for declaring what is and what is not permitted. You may remember that Jesus says something similar in Matthew 18. 18 Truly, I say to you, twhatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earthnshall be loosed6 in heaven. - Matt 18:18 This time he’s not saying you, he’s saying y’all and he’s saying this in reference to sin in the church community. How to deal with sin and provide for the church. Issues within the church are what is being bound and loosened, not people in the church. That is up to Jesus alone.

And just to drill this home, if we were to translate the Greek literally, it would say, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven.” This just reinforces Peter’s stewardship. Heaven doesn’t respond to Peter. Peter is just responding in his leadership to what has already been declared true in heaven. He isn’t the initiator of new directions in the church, he’s the faithful steward of what God has already decided to do.

Ok, I know we had to do a lot of thinking here, but it’s important because it impacts so much of the way we understand the Christian life. Death will have no more hold over us and God has made provision for us to understand how we as Christians thrive in this life and when we understand that, the church is built both in quality and quantity.

Quality because we know that our most dire problem, our impending death has been eliminated. We will die, unless Jesus comes back before that, but instead of death being a doorway to hades, it is now a doorway to the heavenly realm. It is a doorway to a place where we will know no more fear, no more shame, no more pain, but more than all that, it is a doorway to be physically and permanently with Jesus.

And quantity becuase when that future reality takes hold in our hearts presently, we will desire to tell others about him. This is why Jesus had to tell the disciples not to tell anyone who he is. Jesus knew this would get him killed and the time had not yet come for that. But, now that Jesus has been crucified and resurrected from the dead, we are free to tell everyone. Not only that, but we should want to tell everyone out of an overflow of joy in our own souls and the knowledge that it is God who will open their eyes.

And when we have the privilege of seeing a young believer walking into the kingdom for the first time, we also have the duty to hand to them the teachings that have come through Peter and the other disciples so they would know the path of flourishing in this new kingdom. We call that discipleship.


Let me land the plane by simply asking the same question. Who do you say that Jesus is? Not who do your parents say Jesus is. Not who do your friends say Jesus is. Who do you say Jesus is? Many of you have experienced some sort of relationship that made you feel more whole. Maybe it was a romantic relationship. Maybe it was a child being born. Maybe it was a good friend who was there for you in the hardest times. And in those moments, you don’t know what you would do without that relationship.

That is a glimpse of our need for a relationship with Jesus. It’s not just that Jesus makes us feel better. It’s that he makes us alive. Without Jesus we are spiritually dead, not dying, dead. Jesus died to make us alive. On the cross, he lost the loving, nourishing relationship with the Father that he deserved to experience the relationship of wrath we deserve thus creating a relationship between us and God that can never be broken. He died so we could be made fully alive and fully human.

Humans, we were made for many things, but we were mainly created for a relationship with our Creator. A relationship that can only be realized and knowing the answer to the question, “Who do you say Jesus is?” and experiencing the redemptive and resurrecting power of that relationship.

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