Now 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.” (Matthew 16:13-14)
We reach a climax and turning point in the gospel of Matthew this week as the last few chapters have been building to Peter’s confession, which takes place in Matthew 16:16.
The location of these events is important. Last week we saw that Jesus returned to the Sea of Galilee area after his excursion into Gentile territory. In verse 13, he leaves again, this time to Caesarea Phillippi, a city in the foothills of Mount Hermon, about 30 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. When he is done teaching the disciples here, Jesus begins moving toward Jerusalem and the culmination of his earthly ministry. It would seem that this trip was for the sole purpose of getting the disciples away from the crowds so that he could teach them about who he is and what was upcoming, to prepare them for the events leading up to his death and resurrection. Some commentators also see significance in Peter’s confession taking place in a city associated with Greek paganism (specifically the god Pan) and where there was a temple in honor of Caesar Augustus.
Jesus asks the disciples what people are saying about him, and they list some flattering, but incorrect names. What all the names have in common, however, is that they were all seen as being forerunners to the promised Messiah. We’ve already seen in Matthew that Herod Antipas was one of those who believed Jesus was John the Baptist. Elijah was expected to return prior to the Messiah due to his never experiencing death and verses like Malachi 4:5. Jesus himself associates John the Baptist with Elijah in Matthew 17:12. And during the intertestimental period, many traditions arose claiming that any number of the great figures in the Old Testament would return prior to the Messiah, with Jeremiah and many of the major prophets being included.
I think there are 2 important lessons here:
1. Sometimes we need to get away so Jesus can teach us.
The interaction surrounding Peter’s confession is of vital importance, and it’s not a coincidence that Jesus does not allow it to happen in the midst of busyness and ministry and crowds. He took them away to have the conversation because it was important that there not be any distractions.
The book Imaginary Jesus by Matt Mikalatos includes the following conversation:
“…your head is full of static. Stuffed full of television and radio and comic books and noise. You say you can’t hear Jesus, but it’s because you have earbuds in all the time. You’re afraid of silence. … You get in the car and turn on the radio. You take a book with you to the bathroom. You listen to your iPod while you do yard work. You watch television and write on your blog at the same time. When exactly is Jesus supposed to have a conversation with you?”
“If he talked, I would listen.”
Daisy shook her head. “No, Matt. He is talking. You’re not listening. You’re trying to avoid him by filling up your every moment. You need to clear some of the static.”
Maybe this is just a problem for my generation, but I don’t think it is. It may be more a problem for us than for those of you who are older, but I don’t think young people are the only ones who struggle in this area. Contemporary culture does not value silence, meditation, or even just thinking. We are encouraged to fill our down times with media, whether that be smartphones and iPods, books and newspapers, or TV and movies. It is important, however, that we allow ourselves time without those things so that we can talk and listen to Jesus, so we can meditate on his Word and discern his will, because it is in those times that Jesus reveals himself.
2. We need to come to Jesus without expectations and preconceptions.
It’s clear from the answers that the people Jesus asked about had some knowledge of Scripture, intertestimental writings, Jewish tradition, etc. They had a basis for their beliefs about Jesus. The problem was that they just didn’t understand what kind of ministry the Son of Man was going to have. They didn’t understand the kingdom. They looked at Jesus’ life and ministry and thought it looked more like a prophet or forerunner than the conquering Messiah they were expecting so they completely missed who Jesus was.
Last week we looked at the Pharisees and Sadducees and the dangers of religion. We saw that they wanted God to submit to them, that they wanted him to act according to their expectations. This week we see that the crowds missed who Jesus was because he didn’t meet their expectations. We need to be careful that we do not miss the real Jesus because of our own expectations of what he should be like. We need to conform to him; we must not try and make him what we want him to be.
Things to Reflect on in Light of This Passage:
1. How much of my down time is filled with media (of any kind)? Do I allow an appropriate amount of quiet and restful time to listen to Jesus or do I shut out his voice?
2. Am I approaching Jesus to find out who he truly is? Or am I approaching him with expectations and preconceptions, interpreting him in a way that justifies my own beliefs and behaviors?