Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
(Matthew 16:13-16 ESV)
At this point in His ministry Jesus, with only about six months left to live, spent all His time in remote locations such as Caesarea Philippi, teaching the disciples the information they would need to carry on after His death.
In today’s passage Jesus asked His disciples a question: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The term “Son of Man” was how Jesus’ often referred to Himself. It was the term the prophet Daniel used to refer to the Messiah [Daniel 7:13]. Jesus humbly declared Himself the Messiah each time He used it.
Jesus posed this question not because He didn’t know the answer or because He cared what people thought. He is getting the disciples to think (a la the Socratic method) and is also setting them up for His next question.
Some thought Jesus was John the Baptist, perhaps because Jesus and John proclaimed the same message [Matthew 3:2, 4:17]. Others thought Jesus was Elijah, who Jews consider the greatest prophet. In the Old Testament, God promised to send Elijah back to earth before the day of judgment. In fact, to this day Jews leave a vacant chair during their Passover celebrations as a symbolic expectation of Elijah’s return. Finally, some believed that Jesus was Jeremiah, another revered prophet who, like Jesus, was full of lament and grief for the Jewish people.
Notice that in each of these cases the people thought Jesus to be a forerunner of the Messiah but not the Messiah himself. While they recognized His supernatural abilities, they did not accept Him as their savior since He didn’t use those abilities to conquer Rome, as the Jews had been erroneously taught the Messiah would.
But none of these are the correct answer to Jesus’ question as we can tell from His next question: “But who do you say that I am?”. The inclusion of the word “but” tells us that these answers are wrong.
Not surprisingly it is Peter who answers Jesus. Peter was the leader of the disciples and was never shy about speaking up, even when He says the wrong thing, which often did. This time, however, He says the right thing. He declares that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Whereas others thought Jesus was a precursor to the Messiah, Peter recognizes Jesus as the Christ (which is Greek word for the Hebrew word “Messiah”).
Since Jesus’ day many speak highly of Him as a prophet (as Muslims do) or a great teacher (as some atheists do). But even the most complimentary of human accolades are inadequate to describe Jesus. Calling Jesus John the Baptist, or Elijah, or a prophet is a great tribute. But it falls woefully short of the truth.
The truth is Jesus is the Son of God. That is, He is deity. He is God. Thinking Jesus is anything but God is to deny who He is and to deny the fact that He is the Savior each of us most desperately need [Isaiah 43:11, 45:21-22; Hosea 13:4 et. al].
The question “Who is Jesus” is the question that will ultimately determine each person’s eternal destiny. If one does not believe Jesus is God then that person will not cast their sins upon Him and therefore won’t receive forgiveness of those sins. They will, therefore, be ineligible to enter heaven.
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