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Matthew 16:13-23 --- “Who Do You Say I Am?”

Introduction: (who is Jesus?)

Throughout the last two thousand years there have been a lot of conflicting opinions about who Jesus really was. However, in the modern era the number of such opinions have greatly increased, so that there are now dozens of popular ideas about who He was or is. In the midst of this dizzying array of options, how are we to know that our understanding is the correct one? To get an idea of just how varied the conceptions of Jesus are, below is a listing of the most popular notions among U.S. Christians today:

  • Jesus the Guru: the idea here is that Jesus is a teacher who provides pithy sayings that lift one’s spirits and helps them to understand life and how to cope with its different challenges and difficulties.
  • Jesus the Inoffensive: some believe that Jesus is gentle and kind; He would never be corrective or confrontational. According to this understanding, Jesus is seen as distinct from the judgmental God of the Old Testament. In this sense, Jesus came to provide a gentler version of religion.
  • Jesus the Man’s Man: Some present Jesus as the model of masculinity in a culture that is increasingly hostile to the male identity. This image of Jesus is hyper-masculine, aggressive and unwilling to back down from a fight. He promotes guns, hunting, working with one’s hands, and maintaining control of one’s family.
  • Jesus the Liberal: this version of Jesus, along with the ideology that supports it, sees the concentration of wealth and power as the primary evils of the world. This version of Jesus seeks to re-distribute wealth, and promote social justice as His way of saving the world.
  • Jesus the Conservative: According to this view, Jesus seeks to promote economic opportunity, maintain cultural traditions, encourage patriotism, advance the cause of the USA around the world, and ease taxation.
  • Jesus the Counselor: this version of Jesus is oriented to meeting the felt-needs of people as an all-purpose therapist. The primary evils that this Jesus seeks to address are the inabilities of people to live rich and fulfilled lives. This Jesus promotes self-actualization, and personal healing. He differs slightly depending on which psychological theory a person subscribes to.
  • Jesus the Philanthropist: this Jesus seeks to make His followers rich and healthy. By following the teachings of this Jesus, a person can attain great wealth and perfect health as a part of the redemption Jesus accomplished on the cross.
  • Jesus the Individualist: others see Jesus as one who disdains organized religion, and who has concluded that going to any church is an impediment to spirituality rather than an aid to knowing God. He communes with the faithful who separate themselves from other worshippers and who are thus pursuing pure religion.
  • Jesus the Friend: some see Jesus as an all-powerful chum, who hangs around with His followers, who places no expectations upon them, but is just there whenever a person needs companionship or support.
  • Jesus the Legalist: this Jesus is one who structures all of life with rigid rules for every situation and circumstance. Pleasing this Jesus involves scrupulously following His rules above any other consideration.
  • Jesus the Enabler: Many see Jesus as someone who understands troubled souls, and who therefore recognizes that whatever choices one makes it was either the best that they could do, or what they had to do given the circumstances. This Jesus does not teach or require any form of objective righteousness defined in the Scriptures; He only asks that one be true to themselves.
  • Jesus the Victim: this view of Jesus is common in Roman Catholicism, which through its literature and iconography promotes the idea of Jesus’ perpetual suffering, while de-emphasizing the teachings of His resurrection and ascension to the right hand of the Father. This version of Jesus was the basis of the film “the Passion”.
  • Jesus of History: modern theological liberal scholarship (and those influenced by it) promote the idea that the Jesus of history was nothing like the image created by the early church. He was only human, and taught moral principles; He did not die for the sins of the world.
  • I. The Opinion of the Multitude: (vs.13-14)

    The question of who Jesus really is, is not new. In fact, it was already a matter of controversy during His earthly ministry. In the last year of that earthly ministry, Jesus gathered the twelve together to address the issue of who He was and what He had come to do. Matthew records how Jesus initiated this discussion:

  • “When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, ‘Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?’ So they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’”
  • Caesarea Philippi was in an area dominated by Gentiles, about twenty-five miles north of the Sea of Galilee. Therefore, this was a place in which Jesus could talk with His disciples apart from the large crowds that would gather in either Galilee or Judea.

    Jesus used a question to introduce the discussion about His true identity. It was a way to get them to seriously think about the subject themselves in response to the things they were hearing from those who gathered to hear Jesus’ teaching or who had brought relatives to be healed. Jesus asked the twelve, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” The “men” that Jesus has in mind were those of the various crowds that came to Jesus. Their opinions would likely reflect that of the populace at large who had heard of Jesus.


    In response, the disciples recounted four different ideas that were circulating among the crowds. One was that Jesus was John the Baptist resurrected from the dead. We are told earlier that this was an opinion held by Herod the Tetrarch (Matt.14:1-2), the ruler that had executed John the Baptist. Most likely the reason that some had come to this conclusion was because of the similarity of Jesus’ message to John. Herod had concluded that resurrection from the dead would account for the miraculous things that Jesus was doing (Matt.14:2).

    Another suggestion was that Jesus was Elijah. This conclusion was based both upon the prophecy that Elijah would be sent by God prior to the great day of Yahweh (Mal.4:5) and the general messianic teachings by the Jewish Rabbis of the day that Elijah would appear prior to the arrival of the Messiah.

    Still another theory that was being circulated was that Jesus was Jeremiah. The linking of Jesus with Jeremiah was most likely related to both the similarities in their teachings and Jesus’ compassionate ways that reflected this tender-hearted Old Testament prophet.

    The last suggestion was that Jesus was “one of the prophets”. This merely meant that Jesus was one of the series of prophets that God had sent to the Jewish people; one that was not necessarily predicted by the OT.

    All these suggestions reflect the biases of the time. These were the sorts of ideas that the Jews would have been expecting in anticipation of the Messiah’s arrival. Therefore, we see an emerging pattern in regard to how people understand Jesus. There is the tendency to fit Him into one’s preconceived notions, rather than being open to what He will reveal about Himself. These suggestions have one other thing in common; they were all wrong.

    II. The Spirit Empowered Conviction: (vs.15-17)

    Next, Matthew records that Jesus takes the discussion of His identity a little further:

  • “He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’”
  • Matthew 16:15

    The question was no longer about the speculations of the crowd; now Jesus was asking His disciples directly who they believed He was. In the next verse, Matthew records the response that Jesus received to His question:

  • “Simon Peter answered and said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’”
  • Matthew 16:16

    Since no other answers were given, it is likely that Peter was speaking for all the disciples in giving this answer. Peter expressed that Jesus was the Christ, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah. He also said that Jesus was “the son of the living God”. This was not a confession of Peter’s belief that Jesus was Yahweh incarnate. The use of this expression in the contemporary Judaism of Jesus’ time indicates it was a Messianic title. Further, it is used that way in the Gospel of John, when Nathaniel first chooses to become a follower of Jesus (Jn.1:49), before he would have any reason to conclude that Jesus was God.

    Then Matthew records how Jesus responded to Peter’s confession:

  • “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.’”
  • Matthew 16:17

    In Jesus’ answer, He does not say that Peter is perceptive for having reached his conclusion; instead Jesus tells Peter that he has been blessed because it was God Himself who made this truth known to him. To be blessed is the condition or state of being in God’s grace or favor. Therefore, Jesus was saying that Peter was the beneficiary of a special privilege from God; He had chosen to make known the truth of Christ’s identity to Peter. God enabled Peter to comprehend what the majority of those who witnessed the ministry of Christ missed. Cleary the implication is that only God can make it possible for anyone to truly know Christ. The addition of the words “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you” intended to further emphasize the truth that Peter had come to know the truth about Jesus through Divine illumination.

    III. The Messianic Mission: (vs.18-19)

    In this passage Jesus lays out what the Father had sent Him to do as the Messiah, and how it would impact the lives of His followers:

  • “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And 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.”
  • There has been for some time a great controversy surrounding what Jesus says to Peter in these verses. One interpretation defined a long period of Western Civilization, while others were designed specifically to refute this earlier view and ended up creating their own distortions of this text. For centuries, it has been the position of the Roman Catholic Church that what Jesus did here was empower Peter to be in authority over all Christians upon His death, resurrection, and ascension. In other words when Jesus was no longer on Earth, Peter received the mantle of Christ’s authority and was the head of the entire Christian Church. The keys of the Kingdom are said to symbolize Peter’s authority over the Church and relate to the power that would be transmitted to the official priesthood to forgive sins or retain a person in those sins. Finally, whatever Peter, his successors, or those appointed by them decided would in turn be sealed in Heaven.

    There are several serious problems with this view. First, the idea that Jesus was pronouncing ultimate authority on Peter over the Church does not fit Jesus’ description of Peter’s role in the development of the Church. Second, it does not fit the symbolism of the keys. Third, it is not consistent with the history of the Church that is recorded in the Book of Acts.

    Jesus said that the Church would be built upon Peter. That is quite different than saying that Peter would be the head or over the Church. A foundation is never used in the Bible as an image of authority. Instead it is used to represent a key place in the establishment of something that makes it stable and strong. In addition to this, elsewhere in the NT, only Christ Himself is referred to as the ultimate authority over the Church (Eph.1:22; 4:15; Col.1:18; I Pet.5:4).

    The idea that keys are the power entrusted to only Peter and his successors does not fit with later teaching that Jesus gives about either releasing or binding as an agent of the Kingdom of God. We read that this is a power exercised by the entire Christian assembly (Matt.18:15-18).

    Lastly, Peter in fact is shown to be at times in an equal or subordinate role to other apostles in the New Testament. Paul confronted Peter as an equal over his sinful choice to distance himself from Gentile Christians in Galatia (Gal.2:11ff). When the only Church council recorded in Scripture is convened, it is James who presides over it and not Peter (Acts 15:13ff).

    The far worse error is the idea that the Bishops of Rome have been invested with the authority of Peter. There is absolutely nothing in this or any passage that suggests that any of the apostles did or even could pass on any of their authority. The interpretation then that the Roman Bishop has such authority is simply a lie meant to support an unbiblical doctrine.

    However, some of the arguments against the Roman Catholic position are also deeply flawed. These teachings have a common goal; to demonstrate that the Roman Catholic doctrine of Papal authority is wrong because Peter was not the rock upon which the Church was built.

    One teaching is that the rock refers to Christ Himself. A second teaching is that the rock is Peter’s confession of faith. One argument is that when Christ said, “you are Peter”, He pointed at Peter, but when He said, “on this rock I will build My Church”, He pointed to Himself. Clearly, Matthew does not record any reference to Jesus’ gestures in his Gospel. Therefore, there is no evidence at all for any notion about what Jesus was doing with His hands. Such speculation has no place in one’s attempt to interpret Holy Scripture. Another argument is based upon the word play Jesus employs involving Peter’s name. It is noted that the Greek word for “Peter” (petros) refers to a small rock; while the Greek word translated as “rock” (petra) means a large stone (the sort that would be appropriate to incorporate into a foundation). The suggestion is that this subtle change in vocabulary indicates that Christ is making a distinction between what Peter was, and that which was greater than he (such as Christ Himself, or the confession of faith).

    This argument sounds good until it is examined a little closer. First, the word “petros” was a real name. Simon was re-named at this point by Jesus, and such re-naming in the Bible is always significant regarding the nature or role the person is destined to play in God’s purposes. If Peter is not meant to be understood as the rock upon which the church is built, then there is no point to the wordplay (unless the point would be to make Peter seem insignificant; which is clearly not the intent of the passage). The implication of the argument is that if Peter were meant to be the foundational individual, then he would have been called “petra”. However, the word “petra” was never used as a name. In our culture, there are names with the word rock in it, so such a designation does not sound too odd to us. However, a better parallel (in regard to how it would have sounded in the first century to be called “petra”) would be if you were to call someone “soil” in our time. It would sound odd and vaguely insulting. Thus the hypothetical change does not work; further undermining the idea that the intention of the word play is to distinguish the rock from Peter. The biggest problem with the argument is that the way this word play is understood, depends upon the Greek language. However, there is every reason to believe that Jesus was speaking Aramaic, and not Greek, as would be the norm for Jews living in Galilee at that time. In the Aramaic language, there aren’t two different words for rock that distinguish between sizes of rock. Therefore, the intention of the word play is exactly what it sounds like when one simply takes it as it is written. Jesus was re-naming Simon with a name that meant rock, because he would be the rock upon which Jesus would build His Church. Just because we accept that Peter was a foundational Apostle, does not mean that we have to accept all the unbiblical ideas that the Roman Catholics add on the basis of this identification. In the Book of Acts we see Peter playing a foundational role; he delivers the first Christian sermon to the Jews and proselytes (Acts 2), he was the first to take the Gospel to the Samaritans (Acts 8), and he was first to take the Gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 10).

    Having determined what Peter’s role is, it is important to see that it is Jesus who will build His Church; the Church does not build itself. This does not merely refer to the work of Christ by which He makes salvation possible, but it refers to the application of His redemptive work to the believers who will be drawn into the assembly of Christ’s people. It is also helpful to observe that Jesus uses the future tense to indicate that the building of the Church had not yet begun. Clearly the Church could not begin to be built until Christ’s redemptive work had been completed (as is made clear in Jesus’ reference to the keys of the Kingdom).

    Jesus not only said He would build His Church, He also said “and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against” (vs.18b). Hades is the abode of the dead or the grave. The idea is that death will not be able to overpower the assembly of God’s people. In other words, the people of God will not die; but are freed from the power of sin and death.

    Then Jesus added, “And 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” (vs.19). The imagery of keys is clear in the New Testament. They represent the ability to either lock or unlock something, as seen in the following examples:

  • “Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter in yourselves, and those who were entering in you hindered.”
  • Luke 11:52

  • “I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death.”
  • Revelation 1:18

  • “These things says He who is holy, He who is true, ‘He who has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens’:”
  • Revelation 3:7

  • “Then the fifth angel sounded: and I saw a star fallen from heaven to the earth. To him was given the key to the bottomless pit. And he opened the bottomless pit”
  • Revelation 9:1-2

    Jesus’ language about binding and loosing fits the general idea of what a key is for. But what is it that these keys would lock or unlock? This is made clear (as mentioned above) in Jesus’ later teaching about the Church:

  • “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
  • Matthew 18:15-18

    In verse eighteen we find the exact same phrases as we do in Jesus’ teaching about the Keys of the Kingdom. Since the binding and the loosing relates to sin, it is clear that the Keys represent the Gospel that opens the gates of death so that individuals are set free (which is why the metaphor of the gates is employed in regard to the realm of death) and opens the gates of the Kingdom of God so that individuals may enter in. The Gospel relates to Church discipline in the sense that the purpose of that exercise is to distinguish between those who have genuinely embraced the Gospel and those who have not (as evidenced by their unwillingness to repent of sin). Jesus refers to “keys” (plural) because all the disciples (not just Peter) and by extension all believers receive the privilege of employing the power of the Gospel. As believers share the Gospel, the response of those who hear it either results in them being set free from the guilt of their sins if they believe, or it confirms them in their sin if they reject it.

    The final clause (that is also found in Matt.18:18) sounds in this translation as if Christ were saying that God in heaven rubber stamps whatever Christians do on earth. However, the NASB has a much better translation of what Jesus said:

  • “and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”
  • This translation more accurately reflects the tenses of the verbs in this verse. The idea is that the keys when used on earth will simply effect what has already been decreed in Heaven.

    IV. The Popular Distortion: (vs.20-23)

    Next, Matthew records what Jesus tells His disciples in light of the revelation that He is the Christ:

  • “Then He commanded His disciples that they should tell no one that He was Jesus the Christ.”
  • Matthew 16:20

    But why would Jesus command His disciples to not spread the truth about who He was? Wasn’t that necessary if people were going to believe in Him. The reason for Jesus’ command was not to withhold truth, but to ensure that the truth would not be misunderstood because of the wrong use of terminology. Throughout the time of His earthly ministry we find that Jesus did not use the title “Christ” to refer to Himself. In fact, it was the demons who would apply this title to Him. The reason for this is because for the Jews of the first century, the title “Christ” was associated with a very specific set of eschatological expectations. Specifically, they believed that the Messiah would destroy the Roman Empire and establish global peace; setting up the nation of Israel as an everlasting Kingdom. If Jesus were proclaimed to be the Messiah directly, the crowds would be so caught up in the fervor of what they thought was coming, they would never hear the truth concerning His true purpose in coming at that time.

    Having instructed His disciples regarding what they were not to do, Jesus now began to explain His true Messianic purpose in this His first advent:

  • “From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day.”
  • Matthew 16:21

    We read here that it was only at this point, six months before Jesus’ crucifixion that He finally explains to them that He would die in Jerusalem at the hands of the Jewish people, and that He would rise from the dead on the third day. This was something that would never have occurred to the disciples. According to all they had been taught the Messiah would defeat God’s foes; He would not die. One must understand how shocking this revelation was to them, or what happens next will not really make sense.

    Matthew then writes how Peter reacted to this new revelation from Jesus:

  • “Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!’”
  • Matthew 16:22

    We see how quickly Peter goes from being the recipient of Divine truth, to falling into heresy. Peter could not conceive that the Messiah could die. It contradicted everything he had been taught. Given the phraseology that Peter uses in his rebuke, he was most likely trying to dissuade Jesus from thinking such things in the sense of trying to help Him. This was a gentle confrontation, not a strongly corrective one.

    Then Matthew records how Jesus responded to Peter’s urging that such a fate must never befall Him:

  • “But He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.’”
  • Matthew 16:23

    In light of Peter’s overall commitment to Jesus, and even the devotion to Jesus that led to his error in understanding, it is not likely that Jesus was saying that Peter was acting like Satan; rather it was a rebuke meant for both Satan and Peter. Jesus was saying that he recognized the voice of Satan in Peter’s well-meaning rebuke. Satan had been tempting Jesus to forsake the way of the cross for some time. Now the devil tricked Peter into saying the same thing. Of course, Peter was unaware how serious his misunderstanding was. But by allowing himself to be used by Satan (because he fell into the trap of thinking he knew better than Jesus), Peter had made himself a source of serious temptation to Jesus (and thus a stumbling-block). Peter now was no longer receptive to the voice of God, but was parroting the wisdom of fallen men and he values that motivate them.


    The point in this is that even those closest to Jesus and who were most receptive to God’s truth were susceptible to being misled by allowing themselves to be influenced more by the ideas and values of their culture than by the Word of God. This is particularly true about who Jesus is, and why He came to earth. This account should make us very committed to allowing only the Bible to inform our impressions of Jesus, and not our own musings or those of others around us. The only Jesus that exists is the One described in the Bible; it is this Jesus then that can save, the other images of Jesus are merely lies that can lead us into ruin.

    In the Bonds of Christ,

    Pastor Michael

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