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Questions God Asks

Who Do You Say That I Am?

Matthew 16:13-19

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The series explores some of the many questions that the God of the Bible asks different people. God asks questions, not because He seeks new information or because He needs advice – but because, like a wise counselor, He knows that questions can help us to become more receptive to the help He wants to give us.

Questions can help us make important faith decisions. They can help us to realize what we actually believe about something, and they can help us to decide to take that belief to a deeper level (EXAMPLE). Jesus’ asks two questions to His disciples in Matt. 16 to help them in this way.

Jesus’ question(s)

SETTING: Jesus’ disciples have been with Him for about three years. They have heard the insight of His teachings, they have seen His supernatural power through His miracles, and they have experienced His character (love and truth/righteousness). They have been asking themselves who Jesus is (cf. Mk. 4:41).

Now for the first time, Jesus raises this question Himself – first more generally (read 16:13,14), and then specifically and personally (16:15).

Down through the centuries, many people have misunderstood Jesus’ motive for asking these questions. Some think He asked 16:13 because He was dependent on high public approval ratings for His next political move. Some think He asked 16:15 because He was psychologically unsure of who He was (“JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR”), or because He felt insecure in His relationship with them. All of these interpretations are projections onto Jesus of our own common motivations. But Jesus was never unsure about who he was, or insecure in His personal relationships, nor did He ever make decisions to curry public favor.

Jesus asks these questions (especially 16:15) entirely for His disciples’ benefit, because their spiritual and eternal welfare depend on believing the truth about who He is. His question is meant to be a catalyst of this decision. Jesus’ asks this same question to all of us, for the same reason.

Peter’s answer

Read 16:16. “The Christ” means “the Messiah” – God’s chosen Savior-King who was promised and foretold by the Old Testament prophets (Ps.2). “The Son of the living God” emphasizes Jesus’ deity (Jn.5:16). Jesus’ response (read 16:17) shows that Peter’s answer is correct, the proof that he has understood God’s revelation of His Son.

Jesus’ identity-claim cannot be reconciled to religious syncretism (DEFINE). Religious syncretism may affirm 16:14 – that Jesus is one of many prophets. But by affirming Peter’s answer, Jesus insists that He is the one and only Messiah, the fulfillment of all true prophecy. Religious syncretism will affirm that Jesus is one of many legitimate ways to God. But Jesus insists that He is the only legitimate way to God because He is the unique Son of God, the unique revelation of God to humanity (quote Jn.14:6).

Maybe this is why Jesus picked a religiously syncretistic location as the setting for this question. Caesarea Philippi (MAP) was not in Israel; it was in a multi-ethnic and religiously pluralistic area.

What Peter answered, the early Christians proclaimed as the condition for salvation to their religiously syncretistic culture (read Rom.10:9). This is how Paul answered a religiously syncretistic jailer’s question” “What must I do to be saved?” (read Acts16:31).

At the heart of biblical Christianity, then, is Peter’s personal answer to Jesus’ question: “Who do you say that I am?” The living Jesus still asks you this question. Just as He did with His disciples, He will provide you with adequate evidence for His claims (e.g., OTHERS’ TESTIMONIES; APOLOGETICS). This is a process which He does not rush – but it leads to a point. He will ultimately put you on the spot and ask you for your answer to this question. And how you answer is the most important decision you will ever make!

4 privileges

What if you answer Jesus’ question the way Peter did? .Then Jesus will usher into a radically new life (quote 2Cor.5:17) with new privileges. This is why Jesus immediately promised Peter four privileges concerning this new life. Although some details of these privileges were unique to Peter, they apply in principle to all who believe in Jesus.

Read 16:18. This is the first time that Jesus makes reference to His church. Although He uses the metaphor of a building to describe His church, His church (ekklesia) refers to His people, those who belong to Him because of their faith in Him as the Messiah. So the first privilege Jesus gives believers is membership in His church.

What is the “rock” upon which Jesus will build His church? Some think that the rock is Peter – but Jesus seems to be making a distinction between Peter and the rock. “Peter” is petros (masculine; “small stone”), while “rock” is petra (feminine; “large slab”). It makes more sense that Jesus (or Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah) is the rock. Jesus is the “foundation” or “cornerstone” of His household, and those who confess Him as Messiah are the “stones” with which he builds His household. This is indeed the way Peter understood Jesus – read 1Pet.2:4-6. Jesus is the precious cornerstone. He who believes in Jesus becomes a living stone, a member of His household who mediates His presence to others (“priesthood”).

Consider two important implications of this provision:

If you believe in Jesus as the Messiah, you already are a member of the only church that matters – His church. Baptism or confirmation are not necessary. This is why we don’t talk about becoming a member of this church. We should not add conditions that Jesus didn’t give.

For believers in Jesus, the key question is: “Is your involvement consistent with your membership? You already are united with Jesus and other Christians. Are you living your Christian life as an isolated, outlier stone (SLIDE) – or are you allowing Jesus to build you alongside other Christians (SLIDE) so that you relate to Him together and reach out together to tell others about Him?”

Jesus promises a second privilege (re-read 16:18b) – the “gates of Hades” will not prevail against His church. “Hades” means “the grave” and signified physical death (Rev.20:13) or the afterlife apart from God (Lk.16:23). Death is a kingdom (“gates”) that will oppose Jesus’ church, but it will not ultimately “overpower” or “prevail” over it. So Jesus promises that those who believe in Him as Messiah will be victorious over death. Jesus’ bodily resurrection defeats all kinds of death for all of His followers. The New Testament applies this promise in at least two ways:

All who believe in Jesus will receive a new and immortal body when Jesus returns (1Cor.15:50-57). Therefore, we do not have to be afraid of physical death, or live as though this life is all there is. This is a huge theme in the New Testament, one that is worthy of its own series.

Jesus will work through His church to liberate people who are captives of death’s kingdom. The church is a liberating army, invading the kingdom of Death (with closed “gates”) by telling people that Jesus died for their sins so that they may live forever by believing in Him (Jn.3:16).

Jesus promises Peter two more privileges in 16:19 (read 16:19a). What are these “keys of the kingdom of heaven?” Keys obviously open doors, or provide entrance. Jesus will give Peter the privilege of providing others entrance into His kingdom. So the third privilege is helping others to faith in Jesus.

Peter received this privilege in a unique way. The book of Acts narrates the fulfillment of this promise to Peter. He got to be the one who opened Jesus’ kingdom to the first group of Jewish people (explain Acts 2) and to the first group of Gentile people (explain Acts10).

But the New Testament teaches that God gives all Christians unique opportunities to invite people to believe in Jesus (explain Col.4:3-5). “There are hands out there that only you can hold. There are people out there that only you can reach. There are hearts breaking that only you can heal... God made you like a fingerprint, and there are certain people out there that He wants to touch through you, and they’re not going to be touched without you. So go...” What an awesome privilege!

Lastly, Jesus grants Peter unique authority (read 16:19b). “Binding and loosing” was a rabbinic phrase that referred to the authority to declare something permissible or impermissible in Jewish religious practice. So Jesus promises Peter the authority to declare what is permissible or impermissible in His kingdom/church. Jesus gave this same authority to the other Apostles (Matt.18:18; Jn.20:23). This was not the authority to decide what is permissible or impermissible – but rather to announce and enforce what Jesus has already decided.

This is what Christians call apostolic authority – that Jesus made the Apostles His official and inspired spokespersons, through whom He communicated His message of salvation and His description of the Christian life. The New Testament (which is authored by the Apostles) preserves this message for us. The New Testament books are often called the New Testament “canon” (rule; standard) because they are the standard of spiritual truth. Spiritual or ethical teaching is “Christian” only if it agrees with the New Testament.

How do we know whether a given group or leader is truly Christian in its message of salvation? The answer is: Does it/he agree with the teaching of the New Testament? If not, it is false, no matter how long it has been around or how many degrees he has or what his title is. If so, it is true, no matter how new it may be, etc.

How do we know if a behavior or attitude is truly ethical for Christians? The answer is: Does it agree with the teaching of the New Testament? If not, it is unethical, no matter how popular it may be in our cultural (e.g., racism in 19th century; materialism in 21st century). If so, it is right, no matter how unpopular it may be in our culture (e.g., sex within heterosexual marriage).

What a privilege to have an unchanging basis of spiritual truth and ethics! What stability it brings! Let’s learn it deeply and use it faithfully!


NEXT WEEK: Job38 – “Where were you when I created the universe?”


“It (Caesarea Philippi) has since returned to its ancient name of Banias... The name was derived from the fact that a grotto... there was reputed to be the birthplace of the god Pan, the most famous fertility symbol in ancient paganism... All around the land was filled with the temples of classical pagan religion. Towering above them, resplendent in its white marble and massive dimensions, was the new temple to the emperor from which the city derived its changed name. This was the place Jesus chose to see if any of His disciples really understood Him... It is as if most of the rivulets of various ancient religions converged here. And calmly, as his due, Jesus accepts (their) adoration (as) the Son of God!” Green, M. (2001). The message of Matthew: the kingdom of heaven (p. 177). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Note that Jesus’ promises in Matt.16:18,19 are in the future tense (“I will”), emphasizing that these provisions will take effect after (and are based on) Jesus’ death and resurrection. Since Christians live after Jesus’ death and resurrection, these promises and provisions become ours immediately when we receive Jesus (see for example Eph.1:3-14).

These keys obviously are not for providing Peter entrance into Jesus’ kingdom. His own faith in Jesus has already provided that entrance.

Tim Keller in a teaching entitled “Witness”

The verbs are future perfect passives. They mean that Peter can declare whatever has already been declared “in heaven” – namely, by Jesus.