WHO DO THE PEOPLE SAY THAT I AM?
In the story that we are about to read from Matthew 16 Jesus is with his disciples in a place called Caesarea Philippi. You might wonder where that is. If you look at a map of the area as it was 2,000 years ago, you will find Caesarea Philippi pretty much at the northern most point of where Jesus did his ministry. Today, it would be in the area of the Golan Heights that is located sort of where Israel, Lebanon and Syria all meet.
It appears that Jesus and his disciples have been travelling around. From Matthew 15:21 we know that they had been in Tyre and Sidon on the Mediterranean coast. From there they had travelled to Galilee which was where Jesus grew up in Nazareth (Matthew 15:29). And now they are in Caesarea Philippi. It appears that Jesus is trying to share his message far and wide and the number of his followers is growing.
But now, Jesus wants to be alone with his disciples and seek to understand where they are on this faith journey. And so we come to Matthew 16:13 (NIV) which says, “When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked the disciples, “Who do the people say the Son of Man is?”
That’s an interesting question. Who do the people say that the Son of Man is? By that he was asking the more direct question; who do they say that I am? It’s an important time because after this Jesus will lead his disciples south back through Galilee and into Capernaum (Matthew 17:24). From there he will lead them into Judea along the bank of the Jordan River (Matthew 19:1) where increasingly large crowds gather to hear him. They spend a bit of time in Jericho (Matthew 20:29) before finally travelling south to enter Jerusalem at the Triumphal entry which will signal the beginning of the final week in Jesus’ earthly life.
That means that time is short. The disciples have been following Jesus for up to three years. But have they caught on? Have they come to understand who he is and what he came to do? And so Jesus asks them what they have heard. What are the rumours out there? You’ve been in the crowds. They have spoken to you. They have asked questions. They’ve told you what they think. Now tell me.
The story continues in Matthew 16:14 (NIV): “They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.'” So, the disciples had heard what the people had said. And note that these answers didn’t just come from one person. Picture them gathered around in a circle and each one remembers something he has heard: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah.
Who were these people? First of all, they were all prophets and all respected. Second of all they were all dead which means that what the people were saying was not exactly that Jesus was these prophets come back to life – because reincarnation never was and never will be a feature of mainstream Judeo-Christian thought. What the people were suggesting rather was that Jesus is like these people. He is like John that Baptist, like Elijha, like Jeremiah, like one of the other prophets.
All of these historical Jewish men had something else in common. The people saw them as leaders who would rescue the people of Israel from the clutches of Imperial Rome. They were the Saviours who in previous times, called the people back to faithfulness in God who then rescued them from the nations that oppressed them. That’s who the people say Jesus is.
But are they right? No they aren’t. Jesus is very clear. His kingdom is not of this world. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t care about the world because clearly he does. But rescuing the people from the clutches of Imperial Rome is not high on Jesus’ priority list.
What those people were doing, you see, is exactly the same thing that so many people do today. They were trying to make Jesus into who they wanted him to be. I find that especially today as Christians with various points of view rush to create a Jesus who supports their cause.
The other day, I was talking with a Christian friend. Shall we say that he is on the more liberal end of the Church and that’s okay because it usually means that we can have some good discussions. But like many of my liberal friends these days, everything has to come down to racial tensions and the colour of someone’s skin. He and I both agree that the white supremacists simply have to go. Racism cannot be tolerated. But then he went on to say that the world already has a king. He is a brown skinned Jew.
That might be truer that most of us realize because Jesus was certainly not a Caucasian. But at the same time, I’ve always considered the colour of Jesus’ skin to be irrelevant. It makes not difference to me what colour his skin happened to be. The important thing is that his blood was the same colour as all those he came to save. My friend disagreed saying that God purposely became incarnate in Jesus by design as “dirt-poor, Palestinian Jew under the boot-heel of an oppressive Empire.” That’s when my eye started to twitch because what he was doing was creating a Jesus to support his causes. He’s into poverty issues. He’s very much a supporter of the Palestinian cause against Israel which, I believe, he considers to be an oppressive state.
But the problem is this: his description of Jesus a dirt-poor, Palestinian Jew under the boot-heel of an oppressive Empire is hardly accurate. For example, was Jesus dirt-poor? By our standards yes but by the standards of the day, he was doing okay. He and his disciples had enough money that they required someone to look after it – who just happened to be Judas – whereas the vast majority of people in Jesus’ day simply lived hand to mouth and were seldom able to save anything. Also you might remember that when Jesus was crucified, the guards cast lots to see who would get his under garment. What was special about it was that it made of one piece of fabric woven top to bottom and seamless. Back in those days, that was almost a luxury item. So was Jesus really dirt poor? I also think Jesus would have been surprise to be called a Palestinian. More likely he would have seen himself as an Israeli because that was his national heritage. Palestine was a region back then but it was not a people. Jesus was of the people of Israel of the tribe of Judah. In terms of Rome being an oppressive empire, it certainly could be a bitter foe but as long as you behaved yourself, Rome pretty much left you alone. In fact, the security that they offered helped the people to flourish in a way that otherwise may not have been possible.
That is what my friend was doing, he was making Jesus into the image that he needed to support his cause. The people of Jesus’ day did the exact same thing. They said he was John the Baptist, Elijah and Elijah because that’s what they wanted him to be.
WHO DO YOU SAY THAT I AM?
But then the story goes on in Matthew 16:15-16 (NIV): “‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.'” Ah, that’s another good question. In fact, it might have been the real question all along. I suspect that Jesus already knows what the people are saying about him, that he is John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the prophets. But what Jesus really wants to know is what his true disciples are thinking. He wanted to know who they think he is. Remember that time is short. Jesus only has so much time before going to Jerusalem. The cross is looming. It is these few people who will still be around after his death and resurrection. It will be upon their shoulders to carry his good news throughout the world. That’s why Jesus really wants to know who they think he is.
Amazingly, the answer is instant and it is clear. It is Peter who says, “You are the Christ, the living God.” Notice that when Jesus asked the disciples who the people said he was, that was not one of the options. None of the disciples said that they people thought that Jesus was the Son of the living God. They said all kinds of other things but that was not one of them. And yet it is the very first thing that comes from the mouths of the disciples.
This is important because it affirms for Jesus that the disciples have finally figured it out. They know who he is. They know that he’s more than a prophet. They know that he’s more than a gifted preacher and healer. He’s something special, something different, something unique. He is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
The implications of this are really quite profound because it says that the disciples see Jesus not as they want him to be but as he really is. Who Jesus is will not be found in the crowd or on our wish list of who we would like him to be. Who Jesus is can be found in one place. That’s the Bible.
As Christians, we believe that the entire Bible, from front to back, is about Jesus. That is the unifying forces that brings the whole book together. But you might ask how the Bible could be all about Jesus when he doesn’t even show up until the New Testament. That’s a good question. The answer is that while Jesus is not mentioned by name in the Old Testament, his birth, life and ministry are foretold in those ancient writings. There are, in fact, forty-four different Old Testament prophecies that directly speak about Jesus, who he was and what he came to do. Micah 5:2 says that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Isaiah 7:14 says that he would be born of a virgin. Genesis 12:3 says that he would be a descendant of Abraham. Genesis 49:10 says that the Messiah would be from the tribe of Judah. Hosea 11:1 tells us that he would spend some time in Egypt which he did when he parents fled from Herod when Jesus was a child. Isaiah 9:1-2 says that he would bring light to Galilee. Zechariah 11:12-13 tells us that he would be betrayed. Zechariah 12:10 says that his hands and feet would be pierced. Psalm 16:10 says that he would be resurrected from the dead and Psalm 24:7-10 tells us that he would ascend to heaven. The list goes on.
The unity of the entire Bible is the constant and steady theme of the coming of the Messiah and the fulfillment of those prophecies in Jesus. The disciples know who Jesus is because they read the Old Testament prophecies, saw what Jesus was doing, put two and two together and came up with the best answer ever: You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus must have let out a huge sigh of relief. While he knows that he is heading toward the cross of crucifiction. He also knows that he can go there with the assurance that the disciples know who he is. He is not who they want him to be. He is, rather, who the Bible says he is. And that’s all he had to know.
YOU ARE THE ROCK
Now we come to Jesus’ response to this good news. In Matthew 16:17-19 (NIV) he says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I will tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 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.”
There it is. Jesus lays it all for Peter. First of all he blesses him. Why? Because he didn’t listen to the people and what they were saying about Jesus. Rather he listened to God, whom Jesus calls the Father, who revealed who Jesus was through the Bible. That’s the first thing. Jesus says, “Yes Peter, you got it right. Bravo!”
The second thing Jesus does is tell Peter what his ministry will be for the rest of his life. He will be the rock. Peter, by the way, means rock and his ministry will be foundational to the formation of the church. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, Peter became a important figure. He was a key organizer of the earliest church in Jerusalem. He traveled throughout the Middle East and into Europe where he shared the Gospel and planted churches in various places. Peter would end his days at the very centre of the Roman Empire, in Rome itself, where he would become the first bishop of the church there. The first bishop of Rome eventually became known as the Pope. For years the church that Peter established was the centre of the Christian world. And all of us, Catholic or not, can trace our faith roots in one way or another back to him.
Peter became the rock upon which Jesus built the church. But Jesus could not have done that if Peter had not first figured out who Jesus was. Remember that it was not until Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” that Jesus said, “Peter, on this rock I will build my church.”
The message to us is clear. If you want to do what Jesus calls you to do, if you want to live the lives he wants you to live, if you want to be the people that he needs you to be, you must first be willing to acknowledge who he is. He is the Christ, the Son of the living God. He is more than prophet, more than a healer, more than a preacher and teacher. He is unique. His life and his ministry were foretold in the Old Testament and the way that he fulfilled those prophecies is outlined in the New Testament. He is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
That was Peter’s confession about who Jesus is. It needs to be ours too. We may not be the rock upon which Jesus builds the church but we can still be his hands and feet where we are today in our corner of creation.
Know who Jesus is and then let him
give you your calling so that you can fulfill the purposes for which God put
you on this earth.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
Holy God, we offer our praise to you without hesitation or reservation! We praise you in morning and in the evening, in our homes and at work. We praise you everywhere for everything at every time. You are our refuge and strength. Thank you for the assurance that we are never alone. We can depend on you when our own resources come to an end. You are worthy of praise and adoration and we will honor you with our thoughts, words and actions.
Creative and Living God, our Heavenly Father, we give thanks for the remaining summer. This is the last week before Labour Day, the beginning of the school year and, for many of us, a return to more scheduled activities. Grant us your mercies this coming week that we may enjoy our breaks and prepare for another year of activities around the church.
We pray for our baseball team as it plays it last games for the season on Monday evening. Thank you for fun and safety and cooperation. May we learn to lift you up in all things, even sports, in Jesus’ name.
We are entering a new activity season filled with both concerns and opportunities. Much around our church is changing and the community is changing with it. Help us, O God, to continue to shine the light of your love upon the people we meet. May your blessings flow through us that we may declare that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. May his name be praised.
Our prayers are lifted up for the sick of our congregation and community, remembering especially Sharon, Millicent, Don, Helen and Jacqui. Bless them with a special measure of your Healing Spirit.
Lord of Love, thank you for the
assurance that, as we grow to know your Word, peace and grace will increase in
our lives. That is your promise and your promises never fail. Thank you for the
many other promises that you have given. Enable us to walk in them fully,
trusting in your great mercy, so that through them, and by them, we may become
more like you. We lift our prayers in Jesus’ name. Amen.
WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE
August 7, 2017 / Pentecost 12 / Proper 16
Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 1124; Matthew 16:13-20; Romans 1:1-8
CALL TO WORSHIP
ONE: God hears our voices and attends to our cries;
ALL: God listens to our prayers and responds.
ONE: May God’s grace and judgment come into our presence;
ALL: enabling us to discern righteousness.
ONE: Let us call upon God;
ALL: who satisfies our every need.
PRAYER OF APPROACH
God of Hope and Peace, hear our prayers. We gather to worship and sing praises to your glorious name. Your majesty extends from east to west, north to south. Our love covers us like a thick downy quilt, giving warmth and comfort. Enable us to feel, once again, the assurance of your constant peaceful presence, beside us, amongst us and within us. In a world of uncertainty, you are the rock upon which we stand. You are the breath that gives us life and the strong arms the lift us up.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
You call us to come to you but we often struggle against you. You ask us to do one thing and we do something else You lead us in one direction and turn aside to walk another path. You call us to work for justice but we often chose to ignore the acts of inhumanity that surround us. We deserve your condemnation but you bless us with mercy. Forgive us and set us free from the chains that bind us. Enable us to live anointed lives in Christ.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
One of our greatest struggles is against the temptation of sin. Rejoice when, by God’s grace, we resist and live in righteousness. Rejoice, also, that when we fall to temptation, God delivers us from the chains of death. Through Jesus Christ, we have our forgiveness and the promise of eternal life.
DEDICATION OF OFFERING
For your many blessings, we praise you. For the wonders of Creation, we give you thanks. You have given us, O God, far more than we need. You have given us far more than we deserve. Remind us, once again, that you are the source of all good things that we may offer our heartfelt gratitude and glory.
God calls us to be one in the body of
Christ. God calls us to seek reconciliation from the things that would separate
us one from another. As we leave, may our lives be examples of unity and
harmony. May we seek to be the people whom God has called us to be.