Matthew 16:16 (ESV) … Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus Christ is the heart of Christianity. Christianity is Christ. But to know Jesus we must understand two great things about him: who he is and what he did. In theological textbooks these two points are referred to as the person of Christ and the work of Christ. They emerge here in Matthew 16 explicitly for the first time.
This means that Matthew 16 is an important, critical chapter in this Gospel, what I called in the last study the climax or high point of the chapters in which Jesus has withdrawn from the masses and is specifically teaching his disciples. In this chapter we learn that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” that he came to suffer and die and on the third day rise again, and that those who would be his disciples must follow him by taking up their own crosses daily.
Yet strikingly, many commentators have offered widely diverse interpretations of lesser points found in this chapter. Hundreds of books have been written to answer questions such as, Who is the rock on which Jesus says he will build his church? What are the gates of hell? What did Jesus promise Peter when he said he would give him the keys of the kingdom of heaven?
Not everything in Matthew 16 is puzzling, of course. The most important things are not, and foremost among these teachings is Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ. Jesus approached the matter indirectly by asking his disciples two probing questions.
First, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (v. 13). The disciples would have been in a better position than Jesus to have known what people were saying about him, but Jesus did not need to elicit this information from his followers. These identifications were standard speculations for anyone who stood out above the common people. They were raised about John the Baptist, when he was asked whether he was the Christ and, if not, whether he was Elijah or “the Prophet” mentioned in Deuteronomy 18:15 and 18. John denied being any of these figures, claiming to be only a “voice … calling in the desert” (John 1:19–23).
Some time has passed, however, and now one of the popular speculations was that Jesus was John the Baptist himself. John had been killed by Herod (Matt. 14:1–12), but even Herod was wondering whether Jesus was somehow John the Baptist resurrected (v. 2). A second speculation was that Jesus was Elijah. Elijah was always on the list because of the last verses of the Old Testament: Malachi 4:5–6. “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.” Jeremiah was mentioned because the Jews had a tradition, preserved in 2 Maccabees 2:4–8, that he had hidden the ark of the covenant and altar of incense at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and that he would come again to restore them at the start of the messianic age. Some were throwing out names of other prophets (Matt. 16:14).
The surprising thing is that no one was suggesting that Jesus was the Messiah, though that speculation had been made of John the Baptist. Apparently Jesus did not match up to anyone’s messianic expectations.
Now Jesus asked his second question: “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” (v. 15). It was at this point that Peter spoke for the rest and gave his classic answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 16). Peter’s answer did two things, both forcefully. First, it identified Jesus as the Messiah, the one who was to reign forever on the throne of his great ancestor David. Second, and even more important, it identified Jesus as divine: “the Son of the living God.” It is that combination of ideas that makes Peter’s confession so important, for he was confessing that Jesus was no mere man but God himself come to save his people.
In the Greek text this is as forceful as any confession could be. It is only ten words, but in it the definite article occurs four times, like this: “You are the Christ, the Son of the God, the living One.” This was so true and so important a confession that Jesus pointed out that it was not in the same category as other things Peter was in the habit of blurting out, most of which were wrong. He told Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven” (v. 17). It was the result of a specific divine revelation.
So also today. The first and most important thing any person needs to understand about Jesus is that he is the Son of God, “very God of very God,” as one of the ancient creeds puts it. That is because the value of his work, dying for sin, depends on who he is. If he is not God, his death would have no more value than any other person’s death. But because he is God his death has infinite value and is able to take away sins.
Do you see that? Can you believe it? If you can, it is because God has revealed it to you. It is because he is blessing you by bringing you from death to spiritual life, just as he was blessing Peter. Salvation is God’s work from the beginning to the end.