Gospel: Matthew 16:13-19

Who Are You, Jesus?

Have you ever found a moment in life when you asked “what is life really all about?” How did you answer? Where was Jesus in your answer?

Sometimes reflection comes not at the end of life, but before great questions of life. For the followers of Christ, the question “What is life all about?” could be asked in another way: “Who are you, Jesus?”

Popular Translation

13 When Jesus went to the area around Caesarea Philippi, he asked his followers: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

14 “Some people say John the Baptist,” they replied, “but others say Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”

15 “Who do you say I am?” Jesus asked them.

16 “You are the Messiah, the Savior we’ve been waiting for. You are the Son of the living God,” Simon answered.

17 “Happiness is yours, Simon Barjona!” Jesus exclaimed. “No one told you this. Only my Father in heaven could show you the truth. 18 So I tell you now. You are Peter, the Rock. On this rock I will build my Church, the community of my followers. And death itself will not overpower the community.”

19 “I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven. From now on, God approves of everything you prohibit or permit in the community.”

Matthew’s narrative on the great question can be divided into two sections: the question of Jesus with Simon's response and 2) Jesus’ mission for Simon.

Literal Translation

13 Having come into region of Caesarea Philippi, JESUS kept asking his disciples, saying, “Who are men claiming the Son of Man to be?” 14 (They) said, “(Some) say John the Baptist, but others say Elijah, and (still) others say Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 HE said to them, “Who do (all of) you claim ME to be?” 16 Having answered, Simon Peter said, “You are the CHRIST, the SON of the living God!”

16:13 Caesarea Philippi was a town at one of the head waters to the Jordan river. It lay at the base of Mount Hermon, in the modern day Golan Heights.

“JESUS kept asking his disciples” In his Gospel, Matthew pictured the question of identity for the Son of Man (i.e., Jesus) as an ongoing debate. The possible answers described popular views about Jesus and set up the ultimate question in 16:15.

16:15 Jesus posed the question in the second person plural (“all of you”) to shift the discussion away from the outsiders’ view to the insiders’. In other words, Jesus asked (and keeps asking!) the Church about his identity.

16:17 “Simon bar-Jonah” translated is “Simon, son of Jonah.” Jewish sons took the first name of their fathers as their last name.

“flesh and blood” was a Jewish phrase that described the human person in his or her totality.

“Who are you, Jesus?” In a non-Jewish neighborhood of Galilee, Jesus popped the question [13]. In an atmosphere of anticipation for the time of God’s judgement, the disciples must have been asking themselves the same question. “We are following you, Jesus,” they may have wondered, “but what’s your place in God’s great plan?” Many expected Elijah to announce the coming of the Messiah before the end of the world. The paranoid Herod Antipas, the ruler who beheaded John the Baptist, was said to believe that Jesus was actually the Baptist raised from the dead! There were many other theories [14]. Did Jesus fit any of these popular ideas, or was there more?

Simon, as the leader of the apostles, spoke up. His words represent the consensus of Jesus’ inner circle. In Matthew, Simon’s answer “Son of the living God” defined the title “Messiah.” [16] Jesus was not a political Messiah, one who would lead an army against the Romans. He was not a popular Messiah, who would merely feed the poor. Here, Simon recognizes the unique relationship between Jesus and God, his Father.

17 Having answered, JESUS said to him, “Fortunate are you, Simon bar-Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal (this fact) to you, but MY Father, the one in heaven. 18 I also say you are ‘Peter’ (the Rock) and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades will not have strength against it. 19 I give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosened in heaven.” 20 Then he commanded his disciples, so that they should not tell anyone that he was the Christ.

16:18 This entire verse is full of questions. What is the relationship between “Petros” (the man Peter or “Rock” in Greek) and “petra” (the rock in “Greek” for the foundation of the Church)? What does Jesus mean when he said “build my Church?” And, what does Jesus mean by “Church?”

The priority of the questions give different answers. The Roman Catholic Church answered in the following way: The Church equated the person Peter with the rock. His office and ministry as leader would be the basis of the Church. The Church itself is meant in a universal sense with Peter and the apostles forming the structure of the institution.

Many Protestants equate the actions of Peter (i.e., his faith confession in 16:16) with the rock; his faith confession was the core of the Church; the Church itself was universal in a spiritual sense, but was only realized in small local communities, not in a superstructure.

There are so many combinations and so many positions to defend that this verse has become a landmine of controversy. The interpretation found in the commentary below is the traditional Catholic teaching.

“gates of Hades” Since Hades (in Greek, “Sheol” in Hebrew) was seen as the dwelling place for the dead (not the place of eternal torment), Jesus focused upon the power of death, the ultimate evil, not upon the home of Satan and his followers, per se.

16:19 “keys to the Kingdom” What does this phrase and its power to bind and loose mean? One interpretation saw Peter as the celestial gate keeper, with the power to allow or deny entry into heaven. Another interpretation saw Peter as the chief scribe that made judgments on the Law within the Jewish-Christian community. This controversy is not addressed here.

In return for the answer to his question, Jesus “anointed” Simon with a blessing and a mission. Simon was blessed in two ways: 1) by a direct revelation by the Father and 2) by recognition from his Son [17]. Then Jesus gave Simon a new mission, represented by a new name and a new status. Jesus called Simon, Peter, or “Rock.” [18] Now, Peter was not only leader of the apostles; he was leader of the Church with the power of its head, Jesus Christ. [19]

Peter’s answer and commission marked a turning point in the life of Jesus and his followers. From this point forward, Jesus was on the road to Jerusalem, to his death and his resurrection.

Who are you, Jesus? This question has been asked over and over throughout the centuries. For Christians, the answer is simple: Jesus is God’s Son and the bridge between the Father and his people.

Who is Jesus for you? Where does he fit into the meaning of your life?