Sometimes, we should really count ourselves as fortunate.
Now, I know this isn’t a terribly popular idea at the given moment. There are those who would have us ashamed of ourselves or our society for a multitude of reasons (really, sometimes it’s difficult just trying to keep up!) because we clearly got it all wrong to have gotten to this point.
Then there are those who trade in nostalgia (I unfortunately being one of them), where we look back at the past and think … “it was better when” … “if only I could relive it” … (and for the more whimsical) “if only I had access to a time machine, I would just…” …
But, really, as a student of Christ, when I look at Matthew 16:13-20 … I think “thank God I’m in the know even if I’m two thousand years removed from this conversation.”
Why? Well, because the disciples had a tendency not only to be daft from a modern viewpoint, but Jesus often talked circles around them. On top of that, he had them keep one of the biggest secrets in history, and none of them really had a clue the magnitude of what they were keeping quiet.
So, why the confusion?
Two thousand years out, we might look at this passage and not quite get what’s going on at the beginning … though most of us have a pretty good idea at the end.
Jesus has – once again -withdrawn from society. He’s gone 25 miles northeast of the Sea of Galilee to a pagan city (Caesarea Philippi) known for Ba’al worship. It is strangely here that Jesus asks the disciples who people say he is.
Essentially, he’s asking about his reputation. What are people saying about him? What are the rumors? Did they publish an unflattering selfie of me again? That sort of thing.
However, however the pubic and media are rating him, it’s not a score out of ten, a review by a well-repected think tank or an endorsement from a religious organization that he gets.
Those sorts of things we understand (especially in a year with a presidential election).
No, instead Jesus gets something else… his name is being linked to others, and not just their reputations but their actual manifestations.
The people, who can’t quite put Jesus in a box, who can’t define him … nearly seem to believe that he is various people — beloved people, prophets, great men — reincarnated or come again.
But this isn’t a modern day, Buddhist influenced idea of reincarnation.
It’s a little difficult to quite grasp the concept, given that our religion has been transformed, our culture, history and society are so different, and we live in a different part of the world — but it’s more that Jesus is the embodiment of these great figures.
He is, essentially, version 2.0. A little different, not quite as you remember, updated for your current needs …
… or at least that’s what the people mistakenly think.
I. John the Baptist
I believe that John the Baptist should have gotten his own gospel in the Bible. He’s second only to Jesus Christ himself, arguably, until a man named Saul had a conversion experience on the Road to Damascus.
Sadly, whatever his followers recorded, didn’t quite make it into what we now know as the New Testament. Arguably, however, he had great influence of the gnostic communities of the time.
No one, however, denies John the Baptist’s importance. The story of his conception is told in the Bible and it is nearly as miraculous as the Virgin Mary’s (and, coincidences of all coincidences Mary and John’s Mother, Hannah, were cousins).
John the Baptist withdrew from society, scandalized everyone by suggesting that Jews should be baptized (and not just unclean Gentile converts), and was so provocative and dangerous to the establishment that he was imprisoned.
He was even beheaded because a beautiful girl asked it of Herod Antipas, his head displayed at a Royal feast on a silver platter.
It was gruesome, it was shocking, and, yes, we’re still talking about it two thousand years later.
For Jesus to be his cousin’s successor only made sense. Jesus (in the crowd’s collective groupthink) came to John the Baptist in the desert, allowed himself to be washed clean, and, well, maybe that voice from the sky was talking about John the Baptist and not Jesus?
Where one man left off, dying tragically, his kinsman would naturally take over.
That was the nature of Palestinian society at this time.
If a father died, the sons took over the business. If a man died having no children, it could be argued his brother would marry his wife and given his (now dead) brother heirs (Leviticus contradicts itself on this point). If a man dies, his cousin will take up his mantle as his closest male relative (John the Baptist, after all, had a father who was surely dead and no brothers or sisters).
However, we all know that this was wrong.
John the Baptist himself said that he was preparing the way for another (Matthew 3:1-3), not that when his work would done, someone would take up his mantle. No, it was the other way around.
II. The Prophet Elijah
Elijah is one of the “great” prophets of the Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament. I tend to place him in my head with Jeremiah and Isaiah. However, he is considered to have been at the height of the prophetic line. He is THE PROPHET if ever there was one.
What is perhaps interesting to note is that Elijah was a proponent of worship of the God of Abraham (YHWH, or I am what I am) while the Northern Kingdom was going about worshiping Ba’al and his consort Asherah. And here, in this passage, Jesus is surrounded by temples built specifically to worship Ba’al.
If he were Elijah Reborn, he would certainly be making a statement. He would be revealing himself in the place where he needed to begin his work again, defending the true God of the Israel.
However, Jesus is not Elijah.
But what if he were? Two points:
One. He would be the greatest prophet who ever lived and came to champion the True God. He would be greater than Moses, who led the Israelites out of Egypt. He would be greater than Isaiah, who foretold the coming Messiah. He would be greater than his own cousin, John the Baptist, whose renegade off-the-grid lifestyle was so dangerous, he ended up being a gift from a king to a flirtatious girl.
Two. Elijah was a forerunner of the Messiah (and, so, not the Messiah himself). Jesus would be there to foretell of another. As we know, that is far from the case. Everyone who came before were forerunners for him.
III. The Prophet Jeremiah
Jeremiah is another “big name.” He is also the center of a myth during the Maccabean times (which began with a revolt in BCE 167) and are told in 1 & 2 Maccabees (which are not part the Protestant Bible).
According to legend, Jeremiah came and took the Ark of the Covenant and the Altar of Incense from the Temple and hid away in a lonely mountain. It was said that he would come again and restore the ark and the altar before the coming of the Messiah.
If Jesus were Jeremiah, then he is a harbinger for the Messiah — the one everyone has been waiting for. If Jesus were Jeremiah, it means that foreign occupation and rule would soon be over, and isn’t that what every single Jew wanted at that point (minus the ones “on the take”)?
Jesus (as Jeremiah) will return the Ark of the Covenant, he will bring back the law (quite literally in the form of the Ten Commandments), and Israel and the God of Israel would be fully restored.
Well, we can see where this idea is clearly wrong, however popular it is. And let’s remember, the Zealots wanted Jesus to use his popularity to stir up hatred for Rome, so clearly this idea or a version of it was very popular.
Jeremiah may have returned in some form, his spirit certainly lived on, but if Jeremiah had returned it was to pave the way for the coming of the Messiah, Jesus.
IV. Any of the (other) Prophets
People clearly have no idea who or what Jesus is or why he is there. This side note is is just grasping at straws. People want to know, they need to believe, so they’ll take any theory someone comes up with.
The people know he has something to say, they know he is great, they know he could change their world … they just can’t quite figure out how or how to best pigeon hole him to fit their own limited imaginations.
But Who is Jesus Really?
Well, I know, you probably have some idea, and the Bible pretty much tells us that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one, the man who is King of Kings … the one everyone has been waiting for centuries upon centuries for.
That’s why I’m so grateful to live now. I have the entire Bible, I know that Jesus is my Savior (there is no ambiguity to that general principle), I can read (thank you, Reformation, for allowing the Bible to be translated) …
However, when the disciples were alive and serving Jesus, no one had any idea. This passage proves it. Everyone is just straight out confused.
It would be like a great king in the 1500s demanding a faster way to contact his future bride other than receiving a painting of her and sending another in return, and the ambassador giving him a iPhone. The poor king would look at it, possibly think it was shiny, and then quite possibly call off the marriage because he’d been insulted.
Anyone from the 21st-century would know that the ambassador was giving the king what he wanted (providing he had solved the problem of cell coverage and charging batteries) … but everyone there in the Medieval Court? They’d be absolutely baffled and would have absolutely no clue.
This is probably how the people of Galilee felt when confronted with Jesus. They had the evidence before their eyes, they heard his words, they felt his presence, but they had no idea what it meant.
And, well, Jesus wasn’t exactly helpful on that front.
The Messianic Secret
Jesus listens to the disciples and then asks them what they think.
After all, they are his closest friends. Shouldn’t they have an idea?
It is Simon Peter who answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16). He gets it, he knows. He knows that Jesus is the one all the prophets have been leading up to; he is the main event, so to speak. He knows that Jesus is more than a prophet, that he is to be anointed. He is the son of the living God.
While the Messiah isn’t foretold to be God himself, … the disciples know that Jesus is great, they know that he is other, they know that he has divine origins.
Jesus coaxes this answer out of him, and after praising him, tells his disciples not to tell anyone (Matthew 16:20). This is what is known as the Messianic Secret. Jesus knows he’s the Messiah, he gets the disciples to realize it, but everyone else?
They have absolutely no idea.
The Pharisees accuse him of saying he is the Messiah, but he always sidesteps it. In the end it doesn’t matter. Pontius Pilate orders him crucified, a degrading form of execution used against those who have offended the Empire of Rome.
It’s only after his death that the people Jesus came to save suddenly start to realize that Jesus was more than a prophet, but actually the Messiah. That he was (in fact) what they were waiting for … and they might have helped call for his execution.
Would you Tell?
Many wonder why Jesus kept the fact that he was the long-waited for Messiah a secret. It’s a bit baffling, and (really) keeping it a secret did little in the end.
He was still accused of illusions of grandeur.
The crowds still turned on him when he couldn’t deliver what they thought he should give them (because, after all, the mob always knows best, right?).
His Mother and the disciples still suffered when they watched him die…
Perhaps he kept it so much of a secret because he knew it could go badly. Perhaps he dared to tell a few of his closest friends because he didn’t want to feel alone in the knowledge. Perhaps he believed that the people had to discover it for themselves.
We don’t know. And we never will, not completely.
… however, Jesus’s words were transmitted orally, his secret was written down, and today two thousand years later we’re reading them on our computer screens. We’re in the know, and for that I’m grateful.
We know what Jesus is, we recognize him. We know he’s not John the Baptist … not Elijah … not Jeremiah … nor anyone else.
He is himself.
He is Jesus of Nazareth.
He is the Son of the Living God.
He is the Messiah.
He is our Savior.