Jesus—His Life and Message: Peter’s Profession of Faith
February 5, 2019
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: Peter’s Profession of Faith
As Jesus’ disciples lived with Him, learned from Him, and witnessed the miracles He performed, over time they developed an understanding that Jesus was the long-awaited promised Messiah. One of the most poignant statements proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah was made by the apostle Peter.
Until this time, Peter had been known only by his given name, Simon. The first two times Peter is referred to in Matthew, he is referred to as Simon who is called Peter.1 Peter was a second name, given to him by Jesus at the event described in this passage.
The setting was in the area of the town of Caesarea Philippi, a Greco-Roman city located in the northern part of Israel, near Mount Hermon and about 40 km. north of the Sea of Galilee. Caesarea Philippi was built on top of a massive wall of rock, which was about 30 meters high and 150 meters wide. It was originally called Paneas, because it was a center for the worship of the Greek god Pan. Herod the Great built the Temple of Augustus there. The town was enlarged by Philip the Tetrarch, one of Herod’s sons, and was dedicated to the Caesar in Rome. Because there was already one town on the coast named Caesarea, this town was renamed Caesarea Philippi.
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.”2
Jesus, referring to Himself as the Son of Man,3 asked His disciples who people outside His circle of followers thought He was. In their response, the disciples relayed the opinions of those who, to some extent at least, saw Jesus favorably. We read elsewhere that the scribes and Pharisees linked Jesus to Beelzebul/Satan,4 but the common people had a much more positive view of Him. Some thought Jesus was John the Baptist resurrected.
Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus, and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.”5
Some thought Jesus was Elijah, who had returned in fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy:
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.6
The comparison made to Jeremiah may have been in relation to the steep opposition Jeremiah faced among his own people, especially since he predicted the destruction of the temple. Jeremiah prophesied:
If you will not obey these words, I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that this house shall become a desolation.7
Later in the Gospel of Matthew, we read that at Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin, one of the accusations against Him was:
“This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days.’”8
Clearly when people heard Jesus teach and saw the miracles He performed, it caused them to see Him as someone significant sent by God—similar to John the Baptist, or prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah.
Jesus continued speaking to His disciples, saying:
“But who do you say that I am?”9
Moving on from the question of who the people thought He was, He asked His closest followers, those who had left all, followed Him, heard so much of His teaching, and seen His many miracles, who they thought He was. The question was directed to all the disciples who were present, but Peter responded on their behalf.
Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”10
This is the only time in the Gospel of Matthew that both of Peter’s names are used together. Given that Simon, now called Peter, made this momentous declaration, Matthew may have chosen to use both names, Simon Peter, to convey a more formal tone.
What did it mean for Peter to say you are the Christ? He was saying that Jesus was the Messiah. The word messiah comes from the Hebrew word mashiyach, which means “anointed one” or “chosen one.” It is used throughout the Old Testament when referring to the kings of Israel and the high priest, who were anointed with oil when they were appointed to their positions. In the New Testament, which was originally written in Greek, the word used for “anointed one” is Christos, or in English, Christ. So when we refer to Jesus Christ, it means “Jesus the anointed one, the Messiah.” We see this expressed in the Gospel of John:
[Andrew] first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ).11
Besides declaring that Jesus is the Christ, the promised Messiah, Peter also states that Jesus is the Son of the living God. Throughout the Old Testament, God is referred to as the “living God.”
The LORD is the true God; he is the living God and the everlasting King.12
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.13
While traveling through Caesarea Philippi, which housed a major temple to false pagan gods, Peter made this powerful declaration that Jesus was the Son of the true God, the living God.
Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”14
Jesus congratulates Peter for his insight, stating that he is blessed for understanding this deep truth. In doing so, He uses Peter’s family name—Simon, son of Jonah. He goes on to express that this exceptional understanding didn’t come about by human effort or by learning from other mortal men. Rather, it was revealed by God Himself.
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.15
There are various connections running through this verse and verse 16 above. There, Peter declared Jesus’ title: You are the Christ (Messiah). Here, Jesus declares: You are Peter. They both go on to mention fathers. Jesus is called “the Son of the living God,” and Peter is called the “son of Jonah.” Jesus is the Christ (Messiah), and Simon is also given a name, Peter (which means rock), which speaks of his future role. (It’s interesting to note that it was near a city built on a wall of rock that Jesus bestowed on one of His disciples a name which means “rock.”) This new name Petros means “stone” or “rock.” Author R. T. France explains that the name Petros is otherwise virtually unknown as a personal name in the ancient world, which makes it the more probable that Jesus chose it for Simon with a view to its literal meaning.16
Peter is to be a “rock” which would be foundational to the building of the body of believers, the church. While he wasn’t always rocklike, true to Jesus’ calling, Peter came to the fore in the early church, as seen in the first half of the book of Acts, where we’re told of the revelation he received which resulted in bringing the Samaritans into the faith,17 as well as his role in the decision allowing Gentiles to be part of the church.18
Elsewhere in the New Testament, the image of the foundation stone of the church refers to Jesus. The apostle Paul wrote:
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.19
In the book of 1 Peter, we find Jesus referred to as a living stone, and believers as the same:
As you come to him [Jesus], a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.20
We also read of all the apostles being referred to as the foundation, along with Christ.
You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.21
In the book of Revelation, the apostles are referred to as the foundation.
The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.22
While the New Testament speaks of the apostolic foundation of the church, which includes all the apostles, it also speaks of a specific foundational role for Peter. The concept of Peter as being “first” among the disciples is seen earlier in this Gospel when Matthew names them:
The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother.23
While Peter led the church in Jerusalem for a time, later James became the head of it. Author R. T. France explains:
By the time James takes over as president of the Jerusalem church, the foundation has been laid. In principle all the apostles constituted the foundation, with Jesus as the cornerstone, but as a matter of historical fact it was on Peter’s leadership that the earliest phase of the church’s development would depend, and that personal role, fulfilling his name “Rock,” is appropriately celebrated by Jesus’ words here.24
The Greek word translated as church in the statement I will build my church, is ekklēsia. It refers to an assembly of people. It’s translated as church 115 times in the New Testament, and as assembly 3 times. Today the word church often denotes a physical structure, but the Greek term ekklēsia in the New Testament doesn’t denote a building—it refers to a community of people. Jesus wasn’t referring to the church as a building made of stone, but rather as a believing people who, as mentioned earlier, are like living stones … being built up as a spiritual house.25
Jesus stated that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (His ekklēsia). The Greek word translated as hell in the KJV and ESV Bibles is translated Hades in other translations. In ancient times, Hades was considered to be the underworld, the place of the dead. Here the gates of death/Hades is used as a metaphor for death, which contrasts with the earlier phrase “the living God” in verse 16. The “gates” represent the imprisoning power of death; however, death cannot imprison the church of the living God.
Death couldn’t imprison Jesus, as He rose from the dead. It also won’t imprison believers, as they too will rise.
If we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.26
If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.27
After referring to Peter as the rock, Jesus went on to say:
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”28
It seems that Jesus may have been alluding to the book of Isaiah when He spoke of the keys of the kingdom of heaven. In Isaiah we read of Eliakim, one of King Hezekiah’s government officials. He was given the job of overseeing the king’s household after the previous holder of the job, Shebna, was demoted. Isaiah the prophet foretold this.29 In Isaiah’s prophecy about Eliakim taking on this position, God said:
I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.30
Jesus was likening Peter to the steward, or chief administrator, of a king—one who would have authority over the rest of the household and who would be responsible for administering the household affairs of the king.
The metaphor for binding and loosing was one used by Jewish rabbis for declaring what was forbidden or permitted. This indicated that Peter would have a role in deciding what was going to be allowed or not within the church. We see this enacted in the book of Acts, in regard to allowing Gentiles into the church, as mentioned above. Later in this Gospel, we read that Jesus gave this same authority to His other disciples:
Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.31
This indicates that while Peter was singled out as being given a leadership role, he was nevertheless “first among equals.”
Then [Jesus] strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.32
Jesus did not want His disciples broadcasting to others that He was the Messiah, even though He had confirmed to them that He was exactly that. The term Messiah (the Christ) at that time carried political overtones. If the disciples were to make it known that Jesus was the Messiah, people could have easily thought of Him as the political leader or king they were waiting for. In the Gospel of John we see this very thing happen, after Jesus had miraculously fed five thousand people.
When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.33
At this point in His ministry, Jesus wasn’t seeking to make His true identity public. He wanted to keep the information about His being the Messiah within His inner circle of disciples. It would come out soon enough, but it wasn’t yet the time.
The disciples’ arrival at the understanding that Jesus was the Messiah was a major breakthrough in their spiritual growth and understanding. From this point in the Gospel of Matthew forward, Jesus began to prepare His disciples for the coming confrontation which He knew would arise in the near future.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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1 Matthew 4:18; 10:2.
2 Matthew 16:13–14.
5 Matthew 14:1–2.
6 Malachi 4:5.
7 Jeremiah 22:5.
8 Matthew 26:61.
9 Matthew 16:15.
10 Matthew 16:16.
11 John 1:41.
12 Jeremiah 10:10.
13 Psalm 42:2.
14 Matthew 16:17.
15 Matthew 16:18.
16 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 620–621.
17 Acts 8:14–25.
18 Acts 10:1–16; Acts 15:4–11.
19 1 Corinthians 3:10–11.
20 1 Peter 2:4–5.
21 Ephesians 2:19–20.
22 Revelation 21:14.
23 Matthew 10:2.
24 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 623.
25 1 Peter 2:5.
26 Romans 6:5.
27 1 Corinthians 15:19–23.
28 Matthew 16:19.
29 Isaiah 22:15–20.
30 Isaiah 22:22.
31 Matthew 18:18.
32 Matthew 16:20.
33 John 6:14–15.