They had his name right but his identity wrong.
Peter seemed to have had a problem with Jesus, just who is he? He had been teaching, healing and involved in conflict with religious leaders for some time. Crowds had been coming out to see Him, and Jesus was the hot topic of conversation. He was a first-century celebrity. And celebrities, then as now, were the objects of rumour and speculation. Just look on social media to see what I mean.
Jesus asked His disciples “Who do people say that I am?” He wanted to know what people had been saying. Evidently, Jesus had been getting some Face-Book or twitter type coverage, so the apostles told Jesus what had been doing the rounds. Rumour had it He was the reincarnation of Elijah or of his own cousin, John the Baptist. You can imagine the headlines. Sounds bizarre, but rumours about celebrities are often like that, aren’t they?
Turning to Peter, Jesus brought the question closer to home. “Who do you say that I am?” It’s one thing to talk about other people’s opinions and speculations. It’s quite another to go on record by expressing your own. Jesus wouldn’t allow Peter that safety. He asked him, “Who do you say that I am?” That was, and remains, the central question of Christian faith. It’s not, “Do you agree with my teachings?” It’s not, “Do you think I manage conflict with the authorities well?” Nor is it, “Are you impressed with the miracles you’ve seen me perform?” The fundamental question is a question of identity: “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, Son of the Living God.” When Peter made that statement, that confession, Jesus blessed him and made a striking claim: “Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” In other words, “Peter, you didn’t learn this from the rumours or because of human insight. You didn’t learn this or reason your way to this truth. This knowledge was not discovered, but revealed. It is not a work of the human mind, but a gift from God.”
Peter was the first to confess his faith in the great truth about Jesus. Apparently he confessed better than he realised. Sometimes a person who is completely right can be deplorably wrong. Remember your maths teacher, “It’s not enough to have the right answer. You need to know how to get there.”
Peter was right when he confessed Jesus as the Messiah, Son of the Living God. But when it came to understanding just what that meant, he tried to use a flawed formula instead of listening to God’s revelation.
Shortly after Peter’s great confession, Jesus began to speak to His disciples about events to come. That he would go to Jerusalem, face rejection, suffer shame at the hands of the authorities, be executed, and then be raised on the third day. Peter was appalled. He thought he already knew what it meant to be the Messiah. After all, he knew what his people needed. He knew what others had taught about what the Messiah would be like. The Messiah was God’s answer to the people’s problems. He was the rightful sovereign of a wrong-filled world. That much was true.
What Peter was not prepared to accept was that the Messiah would right the wrongs of the world not by gloriously trampling on Roman occupation, but by means of an apparent defeat and a humiliating death of His own. A beat up, hung up, dead and buried Messiah was about as far as anything could be from what Peter meant when he confessed to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, Son of the Living God.”
So when Jesus spoke of His coming suffering, Peter found it unbearable. He pulled Jesus aside and tried to set Him straight. As one translator puts it, Peter said, “Grace is yours, Lord; may this suffering never happen to you.” No doubt Peter meant well. But Jesus’ response was swift and sharp. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”
This same Peter, who confessed the truth about Jesus, given by divine revelation, tried to define the meaning and mission of Christ. But he seriously blundered because he attempted to define the Messiah by means of human needs and ideas. Jesus denounced this as Satanic. Peter was only the first of many who have rightly named Jesus “the Messiah, Son of the Living God,” and then offered definitions of the Messiah that have little to do with what God intends. How we define the Messiah makes all the difference in the world with how we follow Him.
If we define the Messiah strictly as a teacher, then all we need to do is tune-up our thinking and learn His lessons. If the Messiah is a political revolutionary, intent on overthrowing the unjust powers of the world, then we need to take up arms and let the shooting begin. If the Messiah is a harmless, caring chap, then we need to be careful never to offend or make others uncomfortable with what we say and do.
But the Messiah of the Bible is different from any of these. He was, in the words of scripture, begotten of God. He came from God in a unique and unrepeatable way. There was no one ever like Him before or since. He was not just an engaging teacher, someone who wonderfully cared, or a revolutionary activist. Rather, He came as the saving presence of God, to save by enduring suffering and displaying the depth of divine love.
It was not a pain-free and convenient Messiah that declared, “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me…”
Let’s admit it, we need to know more fully the meaning of the confession “Jesus is the Messiah, Son of the Living God.” Our too-human agendas can get in the way. Our flawed ideas lead us to mistaken conclusions. If we want to know Him more completely and follow Him more faithfully, we need look to Jesus alone to give us the definition of what it means to be the Messiah. Only then will we know how to be His people.
We will miss the truth of His mission and grandeur of His identity if we try to impose our doubtful definitions on Him. It is not enough to voice His name or speak His titles. We need to learn from Him who He is, so we can have a deeper relationship with Him.
Before the next time we confess, “Jesus is the Messiah, Son of the Living God.” we must stop defining him by our limited experiences, human agendas, and dubious assumptions but instead learn from Him then maybe we’ll find that our confession means more than it ever did.
The Rt. Rev'd Maureen Lunn, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 30/08/2020