Possibly the most important question in the world is, ‘Who do you say Jesus is?’ There is general agreement that Jesus was a great teacher – though I wonder how many of those who say so agree with his teaching. The people who are reported by the disciples as saying Jesus was John the Baptist or one of the prophets were also commenting on his ability to teach, and the connection he had with God as shown by his miracles. But all those answers were inadequate.
Peter went a lot further in his answer, given on behalf of all the disciples. The ‘Messiah’ was the promised saviour sent by God, the ‘anointed one’ who would bring into being the perfect kingdom promised by the prophets, when all creation would live in peace and harmony. The ‘Son of the Living God’ was the title given to that saviour in Psalm 2, where God’s king is declared to be God’s son. Most people would have assumed that was by adoption; only later was there a realization that the Messiah shared God’s divine nature. When Peter gave his answer he did not know the half of what he was saying – he did not even know how the Messiah would begin his work of salvation. Yet his words were the complete truth: Jesus was and is indeed the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
Jesus’ response must have surprised Peter! God was at work in him, Peter! His answer was God’s truth! And it is on that rock that the Church, the gathering of God’s people, is built. (The word ‘church’ in that context referred to a congregation or community of people; what we think of as ‘church’ hadn’t been invented then!) Jesus played with Peter’s name. In Aramaic (the language Jesus probably was speaking) the same word was used for ‘rock’ and for ‘Peter’. In Greek also it was similar. Jesus was saying that Peter would be the foundation stone, the bed-rock of his new community, and so it proved to be: Peter’s speech on the day of Pentecost began the Christian church, his visit to Cornelius opened the gate for Gentiles as well as Jews, and it is believed his presence in Rome made that city such an important centre for the growing church in the early days. But what made him the rock was the truth that he uttered, and it is that truth which underpins Christianity. The earliest statement of faith seems to have been, ‘Jesus is Lord.’ He is the King, the Messiah.
Jesus said more. The gates of Hades (the realm of the dead) would not prevail against the church. Death would never hold the church. The community of God’s people that Peter was to begin would last until the end of time – and beyond! Moreover, Peter would have remarkable authority. The keeper of the keys was the chief steward of a house, with great responsibilities delegated to him by the master. ‘Binding’ and ‘loosing’ were technical terms for legally forbidding or permitting activities for Jewish people. What Peter (and the rest of the church – Jesus includes us all in Matthew 18:18) bound and loosed would have been bound or loosed in heaven. The new community would reflect decisions made in heaven, in the freedoms and restrictions it observed. Again we see this in the admission of the Gentiles to the church, and the abandoning of circumcision and the Jewish feasts and regulations.
Jesus wanted the truth to be kept secret for the time being. The time for proclamation had not yet come. It has now.
1) Who do you say Jesus is? Who do you say it to?
2) Why is that question important?