When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”  They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”  “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”  Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Do you remember dinner parties? Drinks receptions? Work conferences? What with the global pandemic, I suspect that this are little more than a distant memory! Maybe you think that’s a good thing! Back when we did meet up socially more regularly, what would you ask someone you met for the first time? I suspect there’s a very good chance that it was, “and what do you do?” We’ve become very good at defining who we are by what we do for a living. It’s almost as if how we make the money that pays our bills is the most defining aspect of our identity.
Our passage today describes a pivotal point in Jesus’ ministry as he prompts those following him to reflect upon his identity. It all stems from the probing question that Jesus asks his disciples: “who do people say the Son of Man is?”
Jesus used this title, Son of Man, as a messianic title – a name to describe the Messiah. The best explanation for this term is to be found in Daniel 7:13-14:
“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
Studying this conception of the Son of Man, we can see that:
- The Son of Man comes with the clouds of heaven;
- The Son of Man is able to approach God, and stand in his presence, suggesting an absence of sin;
- The Son of Man has been given authority, glory and power to rule by God;
- The Son of Man will be worshipped by all nations, by people who spread every language;
- The Son of Man rules over a “dominion” that will last forever, that will never be destroyed.
This is who Jesus no doubt has in mind when he asks his disciples, “who do people say the Son of Man is?” He is asking, who do people say is the Messiah, the sinless, powerful, eternal ruler, given authority by God himself?
That’s quite a question!
Jesus disciples don’t shy away from an answer, though. Their response suggests that the Jewish community was experiencing heightened anticipation for the coming Messiah. Some think that John the Baptist is the Messiah. Some believe that Elijah is the Messiah and would be returning soon. (Indeed, some thought John the Baptist was Elijah; it is certainly true that he was an Elijah-like figure). Some believed that one of the prophets of the Old Testament was actually the Messiah.
Jesus then redirects this question to his disciples, and to Peter in particular. “What about you?” he asks. “Who do YOU say I am?”
We know that the disciples’ response is going to be insightful. They, after all, have spent lots of time with Jesus. They have followed him from place to place. They have listened to him teach. They have seen him perform miracles. They have seen him heal.
So who DO they think that Jesus is?
A great teacher? A magician? A prophet? A fraud?
No, Peter answers for the disciples: “you are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”
Peter believes that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God. Peter believes that Jesus is the Son of Man.
Peter’s response suggests that Jesus is the one who stands in God’s presence, who has been given authority, glory and powder to rule by God. Peter’s answer suggests that Jesus is the won who will be worshipped by all nations, and who rules over an eternal kingdom.
Whether Peter fully understands the implications of what he says is unclear. Indeed, from Mark’s account of this episode in Mark 8, it is likely that Peter didn’t have the full picture of what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah. But we do see here a burgeoning understanding amongst Jesus’ disciples that their master is different – he is not merely a teacher, but someone who will make a significant impression on the world.
How would WE answer this question? Who so WE say that Jesus is?
This is one of the most important questions we face, and it’s definitely worth reflecting carefully on our answer, as well as thinking through the implications of our answer.
If we believe Jesus to be the Son of Man, the Messiah, how does this change our lives, how we live, what we do?
What better time could there be than advent to think about this? As we think about that baby born to Mary all those years ago, as we attend Christmas services, as we share the joys of the season with our family and friends – who do WE say that Jesus is?