Connections 08.27.2017: What about Me?

Matthew 16:13-20

I write to you today after yet another harrowing time in our nation—a time when any progress we have made in race relations takes a few giant steps backwards. Once again we are reminded that the loud voices of a relatively small group are occasionally more powerful than the quiet voices of the many. As I write, the events in Charlottesville, Virginia—in which a meeting of a white nationalist group inspired violence—are fresh on my mind. I hope that, when you study this lesson a couple of weeks out, the temperature of the nation has cooled a bit and some justice has been enacted.

Events like this one, when human beings act in hatred toward other human beings because of some difference they perceive in the others’ worth, never fail to turn me inward. I read quotes like Benjamin Franklin’s—“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are”—and ask myself some deep questions. What about me? Am I outraged on behalf of people of color (or LGBTQ people, or Muslim people, or Jewish people, etc.)? If not, why? If so, what am I going to do about it?

To me, there is no question more important in the Bible than the one Jesus asks in our lesson text. People were saying all kinds of things about him. They loved his miracles. They appreciated his words that uplifted the downtrodden. They put him right up there with honored religious figures like Jeremiah, Elijah, and John the Baptist. Peter told Jesus what people were saying about him. Jesus, though, wanted to know something more important, asking, “But who do you say that I am?” (v. 15).

Jesus knew what others were saying about him. He realized that his disciples knew these things too. But he wanted each of them to know who he was to them.

I can live my life agreeing with poignant quotes about race relations, equality, and human rights. The people who have said or written them are smart, well read, and passionate. Ultimately, though, what matters for my heart and my life is what I say and do about those issues.

Likewise, I can live my life quoting from all kinds of pastors, theologians, interpreters, and commentators who have told me who Jesus is. They are smart, well read, and passionate. Ultimately, though, that’s not what matters for my heart and my life. What matters is this: Who do I say that Jesus is? If my answer is anything less than “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” (v. 16)—and everything that identity entails—then I’ve got some serious soul work to do.

Discussion

1. Over the last two weeks, how has the nation coped with the events in Charlottesville, Virgina? What actions do you think were helpful? Which were unhelpful?
2. How have you reacted to these events? What could you do better?
3. What have you heard about Jesus from other people? Why are these things important and helpful for your faith?
4. Who do you say Jesus is, and why does this matter?
5. How can you show others who Jesus is to you? What would that change about your life?

Resource Shelf

Hardly any ministry story is more familiar than the one about Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi, north of Antipas’s territory of Galilee. It is a story that draws upon Mark 8:27-30 in its first part and on special Petrine traditions in vv. 17-19.

Jesus himself prompts the discussion, and you will notice that no one on his or her own was coming up with the idea that Jesus was Jewish Messiah or God’s unique Son. The question Jesus asks is the polling question—“Who do people say that I am?” In a culture where names were not mere labels but were considered at least clues to someone’s nature and character, the way people named Jesus was revealing of what they really thought of him. Not even as a result of Jesus’ miracles were people coming up with the idea that Jesus was Messiah, which is somewhat surprising since in the north there was the tradition about Elijah and miracles, and there had been some suggestion that John was an Elijah figure after whom came a greater one.

Jesus, however, did not play out the messianic script along Davidic (or warrior) lines, and that confused various people. One of the more interesting things about this story is that Jesus is going to admit that human beings and mere human logic was not likely to come up with the right answer about the identity of Jesus—it required a revelation from above. This being the case, ordinary people, whether Jewish or well informed about Judaism, could not be faulted for lacking full understanding of Jesus. It was then not transparent or immediately evident who Jesus was from his words and deeds, however remarkable, and it would appear that Jesus wanted it that way. In this way, only by his revealing himself in his own way and on his own terms, or by God’s revelation, would even the disciples come to understand the mystery that was Jesus.

Notice that while Caesarea Philippi involves the Twelve, the transfiguration only involves the three. In both cases this is revelation for a select group. But there was good reason for Jesus only to reveal himself to his inner circle. They had the opportunity of interpreting such a revelation in the large context of the ongoing relationship they had with Jesus and their knowledge of what he had been saying and doing over a considerable period of time, which included hearing him ask and answer questions about his identity.

Notice how at v. 15 after sampling the opinions of the general public, which suggested Jesus was likely some sort of prophetic figure, Jesus then turns and asks the disciples who they say Jesus is. Notice the emphatic position of the word “you” in this verse—“but you [plural], who do you say that I am?” Peter, as so often is the case, responds as the representative and leader of the inner circle, and he confesses Jesus to be Messiah. As far as the Synoptic accounts go, only in Matthew do we have the additional phrase of acclamation “the Son of the living God,” and of course John’s Gospel does not record the Caesarea episode. This latter title indicates Jesus is more than just a human being. He is rather a unique manifestation of God, God’s very agent and Wisdom. It is no accident that the two titles “Christ” and “Son of God” come up again on the lips of the High Priest in Matthew 26:63, where the tables are turned and Jesus is asked if he is these things. Both the ministry of Jesus and the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus suggest these acclamations are true of Jesus.

It is in Matthew that we learn Peter’s confession comes from the prompting of a revelation of God, not from a flash of human ingenuity or Sherlock Holmes-like deduction. What then follows is the unique commissioning of Peter, which material is not found in the First Evangelist’s Markan source, so it must have come to him from his special Petrine source. It must be borne in mind, lest too much be made of what is said here, that the powers bestowed on Peter are also bestowed on the community of Jesus’ followers in Matthew 18, so one could conclude that Peter is simply seen as the representative of the group in his endowment. As Bornkamm has shown, there is no reason to see one of these texts (i.e., this text or the one in Matt 18) as source and the other as later Christian formulation; they both seem to come from the same source and layer of tradition and in light of the Semitisms in both texts seem to be early.

Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006) 309-311.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She is also the office administrator for Jay’s HOPE, a local charity serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (12) and Natalie (10) and her husband John. For fun, she tries to stay caught up on the latest amazing TV series (including Doctor Who, Sherlock, Gilmore Girls, and The Crown).

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