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Questions Jesus Asks Us: “Who Do You Say I Am?”

March 18, 2012

Sermon:  Questions Jesus Asks Us:  “Who Do You Say I Am?”
Text:  Matthew 16:13-17


On this fourth Sunday of Lent, we continue our series Questions Jesus Asks Us.  Please keep your Bible open as we look at several passages in the course of this message.  Turn with me to Matthew 16:13-17 as I read the text for today.  Hear now the Word of the Lord.

13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

            15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

            16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

 17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 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.” 20 Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

This is the Word of God for the people of God.

Mark Twain recounts his travels to the Holy Land with a group of Episcopalians in his absolutely delightful book entitled Innocents Abroad.  His tale of how the group traveled on mules is one of the funniest of all of his books.  Before you plan a trip to the Holy Land, you should read Innocents Abroad.  Twain pokes fun at every place and every person during his travels, especially the Episcopalians with him.  He claims that Mary, the mother of Jesus, must have been a very homely looking woman because, he says, “I went to Nazareth, and there was not one good-looking woman anywhere in the whole village.”

On one occasion, Twain and the tour group visited the Temple Mount, a rock that is important to three of the world’s great religions.  Abraham offered Isaac there as a sacrifice.  David offered a sacrifice there as well, and Solomon built a temple in that same location.  The Islamic faith also values that rock, which has been covered by a mosque called the Dome of the Rock.  Muslims point to what appears to be a footprint on the rock and say that it was from there that Mohammed lept into heaven.  When Mark Twain looked at that indentation, he teased, “If that is Mohammed’s footprint, he wore a size seventeen shoe!”

The one exception to Twain’s mockery in Innocents Abroad occurs when he tours the city of Paneas, another name for Caesarea Philippi.  Mark Twain must have had a very devotional experience there because he writes in reverential tones as he describes this place of striking beauty.  From the side of Mount Herman, the view of all of Galilee, the Jordan River Valley, is stunning.

Why did Jesus take his disciples to this particular location to ask the important question “Who do you say I am?”

Some would say that the group had gone on a mountain retreat.  That location is similar to Ridgecrest, Montreat, or another mountain retreat where we feel closer to God in the rarefied atmosphere.  That may be the case.

The original name of Caesarea Philippi, Paneas, was named for Pan, the Greek god of nature that people worshiped. In Old Testament times, an altar had been set up there to worship Baal.  Out of a cave, said to have been the birthplace of Pan, flows the headwaters of the Jordan River.  With the arrival of Alexander the Great, many other Greek gods were worshiped there as well.  Herod the Great even built a large marble temple in Paneas for the worship of Roman gods.

Only after the death of Herod the Great and the division of his possessions by his three sons, did the city become known as Caesarea Philippi.  Herod’s son Phillip the tetrarch obtained this particular area.  He changed the name to honor the emperor, Tiberius Caesar, and to distinguish it from another city also named Caesarea, which was located on the coast.  The name means the town of Caesar done by Phillip.

In this place where so many other gods had been worshiped, Jesus asks the pivotal question “Who do you say I am?” at a pivotal time in his ministry.  This is the bend in the road where Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem takes a turn.  It is after this question that Jesus sets his face, as the Gospel of Luke says, to Jerusalem to suffer and die.

Jesus’ question to his disciples is really unavoidable.  It is a question that we, too, must ask, one that we, too, must face.  The word Christ in Peter’s answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” means anointed and messiah in the Old Testament; but its meaning goes deeper.  At one time the word Christ just meant the anointed king.  Then it came to mean the one who saves.  In Peter’s confession, he is saying, “You are the Messiah, the one prophesied in the Old Testament.  You are the Savior.”  We see this part of the expectation of the Christ, the Messiah, even as early as Gabriel’s encounter with Mary at the annunciation when he says, “He will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

As we follow the Roman road through the writings of the Apostle Paul, we see that we have “all sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  The wages of sin is death, (Romans 6:23) but God, through Christ Jesus, has provided a way for that debt to be paid (Romans 5:8).  We are saved when we acknowledge Christ (Romans 10:9). “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

We begin to get a little glimpse of a basic Christian affirmation here in Peter’s confession.  When he says, “You are the Christ,” Jesus changes his name, saying, “Your name is Peter, Petra, rock,” then adds, “but upon this rock I will build my church.”  Many people think that Jesus planned to build his church on Simon Peter.  That interpretation has been a part of Roman Catholic doctrine for a long time.  I can imagine Jesus using hand motions when he says, “You are Peter, the rock.”  Then pointing back to himself, he continues, “But upon this rock, I will build my church.”  Jesus is the cornerstone, the foundation, not Peter.  We sing, “The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.”

Peter’s confession, though amazing, is incomplete.  Paul gives us the early Christian confession.  In fact, the mistake that many of us make is that when someone asks, “What do you believe?” we are more apt to tell them what we are supposed to believe instead of what we actually do believe.

A friend who is an Episcopalian rector says that most Episcopalians cross their fingers, at least during some part of the Apostle’s Creed, because they really do not believe the creed in its entirety.  The most honest confession appears in Mark 9 where the father of the epileptic boy says, “Lord, I believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”  Most of us are somewhere between belief and unbelief.  We have a mixture of faith and doubt much of the time.  None of us has perfect faith.  Thank goodness that is not required.  “A mustard seed,” Jesus said, “will be enough,” as recorded in Matthew 17:20.

Paul tells us in a hymn recorded in the book of Philippians that the earliest Christian affirmation of faith can be summed up as this:  “…that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord…” (Philippians 2:10-11).  Peter gets part of the affirmation correct in his response “You are the Christ, Son of the living God.”  The complete Christian affirmation is that Jesus is the man of Nazareth, the human being born in Bethlehem, the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior, the Lord, Yahweh, God incarnate.

I want us to look at passages in all four of the Gospels, passages that reveal Jesus’ identity.  In John 1:40-42, we read that Andrew and another disciple have been following John the Baptist.  Look at Andrew’s reaction when John the Baptist points to Jesus and says, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

40 Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. 41 The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ).” 42 And he brought him to Jesus.

When Andrew informed Simon Peter that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, I do not know whether the reality of the statement registered.  At this point, the Gospel of John says that Jesus looked at him and stated, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter).”  Maybe Jesus named this disciple Peter because he was hard-headed.  Some of us are like that; it takes us a while to get the full scope of the message.  You will see that stubbornness was certainly true of Peter.

In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus simply says, “Follow me.”  Luke 5, however, records a longer version of the Galilean call.  We see that Jesus has been teaching from a boat and that Simon has been fishing with no success.  Fishing is hard work. When Jesus calls the disciples in this Gospel of Luke, they leave everything to follow Jesus – their livelihood, their boats, their nets.  Two of them even leave their father standing in the boat.

4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”

5 Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”

6 When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. 7 So they signaled their partners (James and John) in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.

8 When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” 9 For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, 10 and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.

Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” 11 So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.

Think about all the disciples see once they follow Jesus.  We know that Simon Peter is aware of men ripping the roof off of his home and lowering a paralytic to the feet of Jesus who is there teaching one night.  Simon Peter hears Jesus say to this man, “Your sins are forgiven,” and witnesses the religious leaders there wanting to see the man healed.  He hears Jesus’ instructions to the paralytic: “So that you can believe that I have the authority to forgive sins, I say to this man, ‘Rise.  Take up your pallet and walk.’”  Simon Peter also sees Jesus restore his own mother-in-law to good health and participates in the feeding of 5000 people with five loaves and two fish.

We read in Matthew 14 that the following night,

25 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.

27 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I.  Don’t be afraid.”

28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

29 “Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

Here is a salvation experience in the sense that it is similar to a lifeguard pulling a drowning man out of the ocean.  It is a prelude to salvation of another kind.  Peter actually took a few steps on the water until he looked down to check how he was doing.  When he began sinking, he cried out for Jesus to lift him out of the waves.

Consider other experiences Simon Peter has had up until the point Jesus asks the question “Who do you say I am?” in Caesarea Philippi.  “Simon Peter, when your brother Andrew tells us I am the Christ, who do you say that I am?  “Simon, you fished all night, and you have heard me teach.  When I tell you to try the nets and again and you catch a load of fish, who do you say that I am?”  “When you try walking on the water and I pull you out of the deep, who do you say that I am?”

Now, here in the rarefied atmosphere of Caesarea Philippi, a place having a history of pagan worship, Jesus asks, “Simon Peter, who do you say I am?”  His response was, “You are the Christ, Son of the living God.”  Maybe it was easier for Simon Peter to make that assertion away from the crowd.  Maybe it was easier for him to make that claim away from Galilee, certainly away from Jerusalem.  We need to ask ourselves, What kind of Christian are we in the dark?  What kind of Christian are we when nobody is looking?

We can come to Jesus’ question at this point and say, “Of course, Jesus is the Christ” because we have instant replay.  We know what happens.  Simon Peter, however, gives a remarkable confession though he knows nothing about the end of the story. Though he knows nothing about the crucifixion and nothing about the resurrection at this point, he offers this beginning confession.

Jesus must have wondered, I have been at this ministry for a while.  Does anyone really understand what I am doing here?  We know that the disciples really did not understand.  Look at Verses 21-23:

21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Peter has just acknowledged Jesus as Christ and even called him Savior, which is implied in the word Christ.  He has also acknowledged that Jesus is the Son of God, but he has not reached a complete understanding of Jesus’ purpose yet.

The disciples are in an upper room, celebrating what we call the Last Supper, when Jesus reveals, “One of you will betray me.”  The question circulates around the room with disciples asking, “Is it I?”

It is Peter who responds, “Lord, I will never betray you.  I will never deny you.  Even if I have to go to death with you, I will never deny you.”

Consider his behavior once Jesus has been arrested and is being held at the home of Caiaphas.

66 While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came by. 67 When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him.

“You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus,” she said.

68 But he denied it. “I don’t know or understand what you’re talking about,” he said, and went out into the entryway.

“Peter, who do you say I am?”

“I don’t even know you.”

69 When the servant girl saw him there, she said again to those standing around, “This fellow is one of them.” 70 Again he denied it.

After a little while, those standing near said to Peter, “Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.”

71 He began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know this man you’re talking about.”

“Peter, who do you say I am?”

72 Immediately the rooster crowed the second time. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows twice you will disown me three times.” And he broke down and wept.

It is one thing for Simon Peter to say that Jesus is the Christ, the Savior, when he was at Caesarea Philippi.  When it comes time to acknowledge Jesus as Christ when the heat is on, however, Peter fails miserably.

Feeling hopeless, Peter decides to return to fishing after Jesus’ death.  He does not mean that he is just going to take a day off for fishing.  He means that he is returning to the lifestyle he knew before Jesus.  “I know how to catch fish.  I am going back to that.”

John 21 records a story that should sound at least vaguely familiar to you.  Just as in Luke 5, the disciples have caught nothing though they have been fishing all night.  Fishing all night long and not catching anything provides a lot of time to think, a lot of time to ponder.  I imagine it was that way for Simon Peter.

When morning arrives, the fishermen see a man on the shore who suggests, “Cast your nets on the other side of the boat.”  Where have they heard that directive before?  We see that Jesus expects them to catch fish.  He has even built a fire.

The men cast the nets into the water and catch 153 fish, according to Scripture.  William Barkley says that the known countries in the world at that time numbered 153.  Each fish represents every nation.

It is Simon Peter who recognizes Jesus.  He gets out of the boat and wades through the water to him.

Three times, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?”  We see a play on words here, a play between the two words for love: agape and philio.  Jesus asks the question three times, and Peter seems hurt.  It is as if Jesus is erasing Simon Peter’s three-fold denial and reinstating him.  The truth often hurts.

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

Jesus gives the very same call he gave Peter by the Sea of Galilee in the first chapter of Mark, “Follow me.”  Peter has been called once again away from the boats, away from the nets, to follow Jesus.  We are called to discipleship many, many times.

Did Peter finally get it?  We read in Acts 2 that the Day of Pentecost has arrived.  The city is full of people from all over the world.  The Holy Spirit has come in power on the disciples.  During Peter’s keynote address, he says in Verse 36:  “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this:  God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”  Jesus Christ is Lord.  You have all three of them right there.  Jesus Christ is Lord.

Peter again affirms his understanding later in Acts when he is before the Jerusalem Council.  To the question “Can Gentiles who come into the church be saved?”  Peter responds, “So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17).  His response is the basic affirmation of faith.  Yes, he did get it finally.

Look at Simon Peter’s letters.  I Peter 1:3 says, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!  In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…”  Yes, he got it.

In Romania during the time of Nicolae Ceausescu, Christians were persecuted.  One night, Romanian soldiers burst into a home where twenty or so Christians were worshiping in the basement.  After ripping off the picture of Jesus from the wall and throwing it on the floor, they ordered the people in the room, “Come spit on this picture of Jesus and deny him.”

The first man denied Jesus and spit on the picture.  The second and third did the same.  The fourth Christian in line, a young girl, a high school student, walked over to the picture and picked it up off the floor.  As she wiped off the spittle, she said, “You are Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior.”

The soldiers grabbed those four people and pushed them outside.  The remaining Christians inside the room heard rifle shots.  When the door opened, the captain pushed the young girl back into the room and said, “If you are going to be a Christian, be like this one!”

If you were arrested and charged with being a follower of Jesus Christ, would there be enough evidence to convict you?

We learn from the writings of Origen of Alexander that enough evidence was available to convict Simon Peter.  In this early Christian’s text Martyrdom of Simon Peter, we learn that Simon Peter was arrested, charged with being a Christian, and condemned to death.  Tradition says that he requested that he be crucified upside down because he felt unworthy to be crucified in the same manner that Jesus died.  Yes, Simon Peter finally understood.

Our profession of faith has a beginning, but our faith grows with experience.  “Who is Jesus?” is not a one-time question.  We answer it one time and then again and again and again.  Answering that question repeatedly is called maturing in the faith.  This question is unavoidable.  This question is one we cannot escape.

In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis addresses the question, “Who do you say I am?”  He writes,

I am trying here to prevent anyone from saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Jesus:  “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t except His claim to be God.”  That is the one thing we must not say.  A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.  He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or he would be the Devil of Hell himself.  You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else he is a madman or something worse.  You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon, or you can fall at His feet and call Him Jesus, Christ, Savior, and Lord.  But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher.  He has not left that open to us.  He did not intend to.

“Who do you say Jesus is?” is an unavoidable, inescapable question.

Do you acknowledge Jesus as the Lord of your life?  If not, could I invite you to make that decision?  This is the time.  This is a time for other decisions as well.  You know what God is leading you to do.  We invite your response.

Kirk H. Neely
© March 2012

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