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, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. (Matthew 16:13-20 – NRSV)
Matthew takes Mark’s account – see Mark 8:27–30 and edits it. See also Luke 9:18–20 for his use of Mark’s account.
Matthew makes an obvious connection – a connection that is not so obvious in Mark as he gives a minimal account of Peter’s confession – between the affirmation of Peter and the rebuke of Peter. In the Gospel today we therefore have only the first part of a story which is clearly central to Matthew’s account of the Good News. The other half – Matthew 16:21-28 – is omitted. In the story taken as a whole we have point and counter point – Peter is said to be a “rock” and a “stumbling block” (skandalon – σκάνδαλον), he speaks with words that come from “the Father in heaven” and with words that come from “Satan” (Satanas – Σατανᾶς)
Caesarea-Philippi is north of Jerusalem, near the sources of the Jordan River. Click here for map of Palestine.
Scholars cannot agree on the origin of the naming of Simon Bar-Jona as “Peter”. The naming is also found in John 1:42, Luke 6:14 and Mark 3:16. “Peter” is the English translation of the Greek Petros (Πέτρος) which is a pun on the word for “rock”, petra (πέτρα). It seems that this was not used as a name for a person before this.
The English word “church” here translates the Greek ekklesia (ἐκκλησία). It was a commonly used word at the time to designate a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, an assembly. The word is used on one other occasion in Matthew – see 18:17. This usage by the first (Jewish) Christians continues today to name that gathering or assembling of people, drawn together through Word and Sacrament.
Peter names Jesus quite explicitly as the “Messiah”. The Greek word is Christos (Χριστός). The title has already been used on three occasions in Matthew – see 1:1 & 16-18 and 11:2. But this is the first time that one of the disciples uses the term of Jesus. Recall a similar naming of Jesus by the Canaanite woman in last Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 15:22). The religious authorities either do not recognize this truth about Jesus or are unwilling to acknowledge it if they do.
This is first and foremost a story about Jesus, not Peter, not the Church. Everything emerges from and flows back to the reality of Jesus. In fact, for the disciple, every story – including one’s own – is a story about Jesus. We too easily forget this, especially under the destructive pressures of moralism that push us and our “right behaviour” to the centre.
Jesus’ identity is therefore paramount. The response to the question, “Who do you say that I am?”, is as critical for each of us today as it was for Peter and first disciples then.
No one else can answer that question for me. And there really is no “answer” as we might think of an “answer” to the question, “Where do you live?” There is an incomplete response. Our response is always incomplete. The response is a journey.
Our recognition of Jesus and our response to his presence in our lives is like our recognition of and response to someone we love deeply. There is no end to the recognizing and the responding.
Perhaps the words of John Henry Newman may be understood in this light: “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often”. (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Chapter 1, Section 1, Part 7)