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The Life of Jesus - Series 7: Episode 1

Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah

| Martin Charlesworth
Mark 8:22-26
Matthew 16:13-20
Mark 8:27-30
Luke 9:18-20

Peter Declares Jesus is Messiah.

Peter Declares Jesus is Messiah.


Hello, and welcome to Series 7, Episode One. This is entitled ‘Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah’. We're going to look at this account from Matthew's Gospel, Matthew 16: 13 - 20, and we're also going to look at the account of a healing that took place just before this event, which is recorded in Mark 8: verses 22 - 26.

Introduction and Recap

Series 7 represents a major development in the story of Jesus' life. Going back a little to remind ourselves of the context - in Series 3, Series 5 and Series 6 we have described three tours of Galilee that Jesus did in his public ministry. Series 4 was devoted to the Sermon on the Mount. These three tours gradually gained momentum and focus, and have now reached the end of that phase of Jesus' ministry, which is the overwhelming majority of the time that he spent in public ministry around Galilee. The first tour was where Jesus was launching his ministry, gradually gathering together disciples and followers. The second tour was characterised by the fact that he'd just appointed twelve key leaders, disciples, who had become and been designated Apostles.

The third tour is characterised by the fact that at the beginning of that tour he sent the Twelve off in pairs, to travel around Galilee independently and preach, teach and heal in order to multiply his ministry. There's been an acceleration; there's been an extension of his ministry and we can honestly say, from all the available evidence, Jesus had saturated this northern province of Galilee with his message. Every part of Galilee would have heard something of the Gospel, heard something of the message that the Kingdom of God was at hand and that it was time to repent and believe the Good News of Jesus. Every part of Galilee would have experienced miracles. People would know people in every district and every village who had felt the touch of Jesus' power in their bodies and in their lives. It was a very remarkable and amazing period of life and it is the bulk of Jesus' ministry. Nothing like this has ever been experienced, in any culture in the world, that I can think of. There have been charismatic leaders, political leaders, military leaders, spiritual leaders, with great powers who gathered great followings but the sheer quality of the miraculous events that are attributed to Jesus is absolutely spectacular and huge. This period in Galilee is coming to an end.

The storm clouds have been gathering during the third tour. The opposition of the religious establishment has grown, and has become much more specific. The religious leaders have designated Jesus is a false messiah, operating under the power of demonic influence, as seen in Matthew 12: 24. In that statement and other similar statements made, the Pharisees in particular, are dogged opponents of Jesus, challenging him and looking for ways to trap him and ultimately wanting to get rid of him altogether - to see him executed. That's a big storm cloud and then secondly, the local regional king, King Herod Antipas, based in Tiberias in Galilee (near Jesus' headquarters in Capernaum) has recently executed John the Baptist, under pressure from his wife and her influence. It's unknown as to whether he might turn his attention against Jesus, simply because of the scale of Jesus' public following, which he could perceive as a real threat to his rule in Galilee. The third tour of Galilee, as represented by our last series, Series 6, sees an acceleration of all these trends. Also many people wanted to turn Jesus into a political leader. This was seen most clearly at the feeding of the 5000, where John's account describes the fact, in John 6: 15, that the crowd wanted to make him king by force. That's a real danger to Jesus because that's not his mission at this point and so he's going to have to manage that. At the end of Series 6, Jesus makes a deliberate effort to spend time outside Galilee, while all these trends are going on and all these threats and challenges to his public ministry are around. He goes off to Phoenicia in the north (modern-day Lebanon) and then over to the Decapolis, east of Galilee. 

Healing at Bethsaida

He's heading away from Galilee to the north and to the east and heading into the territory of Herod Philip (the brother of Herod Antipas) - a different ruler, who ruled in that area. That will prove to be significant. As he's travelling along he comes to the district of Bethsaida, to the north-east of the Sea of Galilee, and it's in this location that he performs a miracle that is recorded by Mark. We're going to start by looking briefly at this miracle before we look at the main event that follows shortly afterwards, as recorded by Matthew. Mark 8: 22 - 26

‘They came to Bethsaida and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit in the man's eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?” He looked up and said, “I see people! They look like trees walking around.” Once more Jesus put his hands on the man's eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him home saying, “Don't even go into the village.”’

Mark 8:22-26, NIV

We've come by boat across the lake to the region of Bethsaida. This is a very similar journey to the one they made when they came a little bit earlier, just prior to the feeding of the 5000, and a whole crowd followed Jesus around by walking along the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, probably walking somewhere between 10 and 15 km in order to get from where they were to Jesus in the Bethsaida region. A huge crowd gathered in Bethsaida on that previous occasion which, if you've been following Series 6, you will remember me describing in detail. In fact, the feeding of the 5000 is the largest stated crowd in Jesus' ministry. Jesus comes back to the same area. He's heading through there, going north and east, and heading to a place called Caesarea Philippi, much further away from Galilee.

An interesting characteristic of this story is that he took the man out of the village in order to heal him and then he encouraged him not even to go back into the village but to go to his home elsewhere. That might seem just an incidental detail to you, and it's the sort of thing people don't really comment on very much, but remember, here in Bethsaida, had gathered the largest known crowd in Jesus ministry just a few weeks earlier, probably, and so it would be very easy for Jesus' presence to generate a vast crowd. It appears that he is quite consciously trying to avoid this, at this stage. He's going away from people who know him. He's going into more remote districts. He's actually going to do something completely different in the forthcoming days, with his disciples - preparing them for an absolutely fundamental change in what was going to happen in his ministry. He says to the man “Don't even go into the village”. He wants to keep this healing as quiet as possible and to move on quickly, so he is not encumbered by a crowd and the responsibilities of dealing with them. He wants to be as private as he can because he is taking his disciples to a private place to have a very important conversation.

Who is Jesus? Popular Views

He continues on from Bethsaida and we take up the story in Matthew 16: 13 - 20. This features a town called Caesarea Philippi, and this town is in present-day northern Israel, in the district of the Golan Heights, which is disputed territory between Israel and Syria, (but under the control of the Israelis as I record this). I've had the privilege of visiting the ruins of this Roman city which is named after the Emperor Caesar, and also after Philip, the ruler in the region. Matthew 16: 13 - 20

‘When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and still others Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked, “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 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. 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. 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.” Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.’

Matthew 16:13-20, NIV

This is one of the most important conversations recorded in the Gospels and one of the most important events in the life of the disciples. Jesus is provoking them to clarify their understanding of who he is and to compare their views with other views. There were many versions in popular culture of who people thought Jesus was, and so he asked the question, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” and they replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and still others Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” These are various options. Some people thought that John the Baptist, who had been executed, was being raised from the dead. In fact, this was the fear of Herod Antipas himself, that miraculously John the Baptist would return from the dead. “Still others say Elijah” That's very interesting. The Jews had a very firm belief that Elijah would return and he was a very prominent prophet in the Old Testament, and his story can be read in the book of Kings. Elijah and his successor Elisha performed some remarkable miracles, not least the defeat of the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Elijah was a very prominent prophet but there is a particular reason why, in Jewish tradition, Elijah is considered as one who will return again and be associated with the Messiah and the coming in of the messianic Kingdom. This reason is that, in the book of Malachi, there are two verses, two particular small passages, which are associated with Elijah in the minds of many Jewish interpreters. Let's read them. We've referred to them when discussing John the Baptist and I'll come back to them again in this context. The book of Malachi 3: 1 prophesies,

‘I will send my messenger who will prepare the way before me, then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple.’

Malachi 3:1, NIV

This particular prophecy has been associated in the Gospels with John the Baptist, who is a representation of the type of ministry that Elijah had but, if you continue the book of Malachi 4: 5, you'll find something very explicit stated.

‘See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.’ 6‘You will turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the hearts of the children to their parents, or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.’

Malachi 4:5-6, NIV

This prophecy is very particularly identifying Elijah as returning and returning at the end of the age when the messianic Kingdom comes, when peace comes to the earth, spiritual harmony comes, and God brings judgement and renewal. This is a very familiar Jewish theme and appears many times in the Old Testament prophets. It's associated there with Elijah. When they say “Some others say Elijah,’ there is a good reason why they should do that. “and still others Jeremiah’ - a very prominent and respected prophet of the Old Testament - “or one of the prophets.’

Who is Jesus? Peter's View

Peter is the one who goes beyond all these popular statements and nails his colours to the mast, so to speak. He is clear; he is specific; and he describes his fundamental conviction in a beautiful phrase.

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus said, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.”

Matthew 16:16-17, NIV

It's a wonderful moment in the Gospels when this categorical declaration is made by Peter, who will emerge as the leader of the Apostles and the primary leader of the Early Church. When he used the term Messiah, what did he mean, what did he refer to, and what would people have in mind when that term was used in that context? The Hebrew ‘mashiach’ is translated into Greek with the word which, in English, becomes Christ, Christos. When we say Jesus Christ, we are saying Jesus the Messiah. We are using the equivalent Greek word for ‘mashiach’,the word in Hebrew. In English we have both words but when we use the word Messiah, it's a derivative of the original Hebrew word. The fundamental meaning of this word, is ‘anointed’ or supernaturally empowered. It's supernatural empowerment that defines the Messiah, defines anointing. This anointing, this empowering, is described in the Old Testament and referred to a number of different people. Kings and prophets are described as having anointing, supernatural empowering, It is used generally of people who have a remarkable, miraculous empowerment of God. In the Old Testament, it is both a general term and a specific term. The term ‘God's anointed’ or ‘the anointed one’ in some Old Testament prophetic context becomes very specific and it is these very specific references to the anointed, the Messiah, that are the ones that give rise to this view. There will be a particular anointed person who comes in the future who is associated, incidentally, with King David - King David's successor. I've mentioned this concept of Jesus being the Son of David, following the covenant given to David - 2 Samuel 7:16. We mentioned that on a number of occasions.

Sticking to the term Messiah, let me point you to the two most definitive texts in the Old Testament that are considered to prophesy an 'anointed' or 'supernaturally empowered' ruler coming and this is the person who is identified as a future Messiah. Psalm 2 is a strongly prophetic Psalm and it says the following, verse 1,

‘Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed.’ (That's the term Messiah, (mashiach)). ‘Saying, “Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.” The one enthroned in heaven laughs. The Lord scoffs at them. He rebukes them in his anger, terrifies them in his wrath saying, “I have installed my King on Zion, my holy mountain. I will proclaim the Lord's decree.” He said to me, “You are my Son. Today I have become your Father. Ask me and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possessions. You will break them with a rod of iron. You will dash them to pieces like pottery.” Therefore, you kings, be wise, be warned you rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling. Kiss the Son or he will be angry and your way will lead to your destruction. For his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.’

Psalm 2:1-12, NIV

This Psalm is literally a Messianic Psalm and that anointed person is defined as a Davidic king, first of all, who rules in Zion. Secondly, the son of the deity, the Son of Yahweh. This prophecy is understood in the New Testament to apply to Jesus. For example, in Acts 4. A second prophecy that's very specific to a future king or ruler, appears in Daniel 9:24 - 27 where there is a chronological prediction that, from the time the Jews returned from their exile, get back to the city of Jerusalem from Babylon, there will be a certain period of time before there is an appearance of someone called the Anointed One. Verse 25

‘From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the anointed one, the ruler comes, there will be seven sevens and 62 sevens.’

Daniel 9:25, NIV

It's not for us to go into the details of this prophecy here, but simply to point out that this prophecy in Daniel 9 and the prophecy in Psalm 2, point to the term Anointed or Messiah, to be a concrete, specific term relating to a future ruler. This ruler is associated with Jesus in the mind of Peter, when he said, “You are the Messiah.” There are other associated ideas: Son of David, the Son of Man in Daniel 7: 13 -14 and the Servant of the Lord, a Prophet like Moses. We discuss these ideas in passing in different parts of our teaching. The central idea here is the concept that the Messiah is a supernaturally anointed, empowered ruler who is going to be in the line of King David and is going to bring in the Kingdom of God. Peter is very clear this is the identity of Jesus. He's also clear that that identity involves the fact that Jesus is literally the Son of God. He's not just a human. He's fully human but he is also fully divine - what we would now call the second person of the Trinity.

The Bedrock of the Church

Jesus goes on to say,

“You are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”

Matthew 16:18, NIV

Peter in Greek is ‘Petros’. It's his name - the name means rock. Also in this phrase is used the expression rock, in the second phrase, “and on this rock” -a different noun ‘Petra’, which means foundation or bedrock. You are Peter - a rock - and on this bedrock I will build my Church. We need to be clear what that bedrock or that foundation is. What is the bedrock on which the Church is built? Is it Peter himself, as some have claimed? No. There is a distinction being made between Peter - a little rock, and the bedrock. Is it Jesus' teaching, as some people claim? His teaching in general? That's rather a generalised meaning; it doesn't fit the context very well. The best explanation of what the bedrock is, is Peter's confession. ‘You're Peter, but the Church is going to be built on your confession - the bedrock’. The revelation of the Messiahship of Jesus is the foundation of the Church. The Church is built entirely on seeing the identity of Jesus and his salvation that flows from his identity.

“and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” This is a reference to death. Death will not overcome the Church, the Kingdom of God, that Jesus is building. In other words, it goes into eternity. It's not just a message for this life. Death is not powerful enough to put an end to this message and this Kingdom. What are the keys of the Kingdom that are promised. “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.” The keys of the Kingdom almost certainly here is a reference to the preaching of the Gospel itself. The concept of binding and loosing in Jewish understanding meant forbidding or allowing. There's an authority given to Peter and to the Church to open the door, or close the door to certain things. The Gospel will open the door of salvation to people by being preached. This is a loosing. We are loosed, we are freed to respond to the Gospel by the preaching of the Gospel. This binding and loosing, this forbidding or allowing, also represents a kind of legal reality. What's right and what's wrong, what's going to be allowed in the community, is also (as we'll find out later on in Matthew 18) used as a reference to the boundaries in the shaping of the Church community. Peter and the Apostles with him, will open the doors of salvation to people by preaching the Gospel. If they don't preach the Gospel it will be a binding - it will be a forbidding but they're called to open the door - to loose the word. This is exactly what Peter does very specifically. He opens the door of the Gospel. If you read through the book of Acts you'll see, he opens the door of the Gospel to the Jews by preaching on the day of Pentecost, in Acts 2. He opens the door to the Samaritans to have full access to God's power by bringing the power of the Spirit to enforce Phillips preaching in Acts 8. He opens the door to Gentiles by preaching to Cornelius and his household in Acts 10. He opens the door to bringing together a church of Jews and Gentiles alike when he makes a contribution to the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, which decides that all ethnic groups are going to be in the church on an equal basis - no hierarchy in the church. Peter opened the door of the Gospel. He loosed people to believe. That was his privilege and it was shared by the other Apostles.


Some reflections in conclusion. We can only understand who Jesus is through God's revelation. The second reflection is that, here Jesus is preparing the way for the formation of the Church community. This is the first time that the concept of the Church is very specifically articulated and the word is used. There is going to be a living community of faith. My interpretation of this passage will suggest to you that this passage is not primarily about techniques of spiritual warfare or prayer. It's primarily about the foundation of the Church, the preaching of the Gospel and the opening up of the opportunity of people to believe the Gospel and explaining what the foundation of the Church is, which is understanding the identity of Jesus. It's not talking about Peter being that bedrock, being infallible, being the foundation of the Church or the first Pope. It says that he is the leader of the Apostles in the first generation. Peter's declaration here opens up the way for the Apostles to all wholeheartedly identify who Jesus is, unambiguously, and begin to see what their mission is going to be in the days to come. This event is a precursor to another very dramatic event, which happens on a nearby mountainside, when Jesus takes Peter, James and John on a further retreat and they have a remarkable experience of God's power and glory which opens up the way for the next stage of Jesus' ministry. That's called the Transfiguration. Thanks for joining us.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. If you were asked, who would you say Jesus is?
  • Discipleship
    1. What exactly is your role in making Jesus known to people? Revelation is up to God so how can your words make a difference?
    2. How can you open or close the way for people to believe in Jesus?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. What, or who is the foundation of the Church?
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