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’. He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’. And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven’ (Matthew 16:13–17).
There is no question more important in the whole Bible than the question the Lord Christ puts to His disciples in the district of Caesarea Philippi: ‘Who do you say that I am?’ (v.15). Who is the Lord Jesus Christ? Who is the Son of Man? This question is an ultimate question – it is a question of eternal and cosmic significance. To know Him, the Scriptures say, is ‘life eternal’ (John 17:3). There can be nothing more important than the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. You are confronted with this great question: ‘who do you say that I am?’ The New Testament provides us with a remarkable picture of Jesus Christ. It’s not merely satisfied to describe Jesus as a teacher, or a philosopher, or a revolutionary. And though He was all of those things, yet He was so much more. He is the highest reality. He is not simply a philosopher – He is Philosophy itself. He is the Wisdom of God manifest in the flesh. He is the Logos, the Reason, the Word, the Sermon of God. He is not simply a teacher; He is the Omniscient God – He is the Answer; He is the Meaning of Life. He is not merely a revolutionary – He is the Saviour of lost humanity. He is the absolute revelation of God Himself in the flesh. We are not dealing with a reality or a being somehow different from God Himself, but with the Man who by His eternal nature is God – very God of very God, the Creator of heaven and earth, the Maker of all things visible and invisible, the one and only Son of God. ‘This Jesus of Nazareth, who passes through the cities and villages of Galilee and wanders into Jerusalem, who is accused and condemned and crucified, this man is the Jehovah of the Old Testament, [He] is the Creator, [He] is God Himself [manifest in the flesh]’ (Karl Barth).
I put to you that this is the teaching of the New Testament – this is the Christ of History. Jesus is the eternal Son of God, who was with the Father and the Spirit before all worlds were made – God of God, Light of Light, infinite, eternal, unchanging, and uncreated, being of one substance with the Father, equal in power and in glory, the One by whom all things were made, in whom all things hold together. And who for our sake came down from heaven, assumed our nature, took a body like our own, and dwelt among us, our life to live, our death to die. He was crucified, dead, and buried – yet death could not hold Him. The third day He rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on High. And He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; and His Kingdom shall have no end. This is the Jesus of the Bible. Peter’s declaration encapsulates all of these glorious truths in single line – ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God’ (v.16). His confession is the ‘epitome of all Christianity’ (Johannes Brentius). It is a systematic theology in miniature. It is a complete body of divinity – the marrow and essence of Christianity theology. Who is Jesus? He is the Christ – the Messiah, the Saviour, the Son of the Living God.
‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’
The disciples are with the Lord Christ in Caesarea Philippi – originally knowns as Paneas in honour of the Pagan deity known as Pan. It is said that sacred waters sprung from a stream hidden within a cave, believed to be the birthplace of this deity. You can see even today the remains of Pan’s temple and the cave where he was worshiped. Paneas was renamed as Caesarea after the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus, and a new temple, built in brilliant white, was established there in his honour. It is important to understand these things. The Christ of Scripture is the Christ of History – He came into the reality of space and time. He came down into geography, to a real place called Caesarea Philippi, which had been devoted to pagan worship and then to the imperial cult of Rome. The Lord Christ came to a particular place, at a particular time, within a particular culture, to put this profound question to His disciples: ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is? He was challenging both the imperial cult of Rome, the old pagan gods, and the pluralistic syncretism of His day. This is what Jesus Christ does – He reveals Himself to be the Son of God and the Saviour of lost mankind. His claim to divinity is absolutely exclusive. He alone is God. Not Pan, not some Roman Emperor, but Christ! He alone is the Saviour. He eclipses the other gods. They pale into nothingness beside Him. These local pagan deities, and humanized gods, and deified men are nothing – nothing at all – compared with the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
The Lord Jesus came to Caesarea Philippi and was He recognised by Simon Peter and His disciples to be the Messiah, even the Son of God. So, we are confronted once again with this question: ‘Who do you say that I am?’ You believe that Jesus was an historical person, you believe that He was a good man, a prophet, a teacher, an activist perhaps, you nod your head to the facts history. You have an historical faith – ‘Yes, I believe that Jesus was a real person’, you say. Why then, my friend, do you deny the theology of His person? The two are inseparable in Scripture – the history and the theology are flip sides of the same coin. You are confronted with this profound reality – Jesus Christ is theologically declared to be God at Caesarea Philippi at a particular place and a particular time within the reality of human history. So, what are you going to do about it? You can’t sit on the fence. Your mind has been confronted with this great dichotomy. You must either deny the reality of history and descend into irrationality, or you must surely come to your senses and embrace Him your Lord and your God, and confess with your mouth and believe in your heart that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
‘Some say …’
Perhaps you are not yet convinced by this argument. You feel that it’s not a simple dichotomy between belief and unbelief because you are unsure as to the identity of Jesus Christ. ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ There was confusion about this at the time of Christ – ‘Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets’. Is he John the Baptist raised from the dead? Is he one of the prophets reincarnate – a second Elijah, a Jeremiah reborn? Who is He? Who is Jesus? There were all sorts of fantastical speculations and theories about Him. Jesus Christ was an enigma to them – a puzzle, a paradox, a question mark. Who is this man who heals the sick, gives sight to the blind, and life to the dead? Who is this preacher with such wisdom and authority? Is he a great teacher? Is he a prophet? Has he come to herald the beginning of a theocratic millennium? Is he the King of the Jews? Will he overthrow the Roman oppressors? Who is this Jesus? People still puzzle about Him like this today – is he a revolutionary? A great teacher? A philosopher? A moralist? A hero? A superman? A man of God-consciousness? A man of enlightenment? The example of a godly life? Who is He?
We must seriously consider the claims of Christ and of the New Testament if we are to have any clarity in this matter. If we believe that Jesus was a real man, then we must surely be willing to take up and read the Gospels and the New Testament to learn more about Him. You say you have an open mind. You say that you are willing to learn new ideas, to explore new thoughts – then, my friend, consider the claims of Christ. In our text, He claims to be ‘the Son of Man’. That’s a Messianic title from the prophecy of Daniel: ‘I kept looking in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven, one like a Son of Man was coming, and He came before the Ancient of Days, and was presented before Him. And to Him was give dominion, glory and a Kingdom – that all the peoples, of every nation, and every language might serve Him’ (Daniel 7:13–14). This is an interaction between the Father and the Son – a vision of the Ancient of Days and the Son of Man. Here is a covenant between them wherein the Kingdom of the Ancient of Days is entrusted to the Son of Man, and wherein the redemption of lost humanity from every tribe, and tongue, and nation is entrusted to the Messiah. This is speaking of Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus in our passage freely and openly claims to be ‘the Son of Man’ – the One who had stood in the presence of the Ancient of Days as the representative and mediator of lost mankind, the One who would truly come in the flesh as a real man to redeem lost mankind – not only the people of Israel, but all peoples, of every nation, and every language as Daniel says. His Kingdom is not a physical thing. It’s not a place. It’s not only something coming in the apocalyptic future. What did Jesus preach at first? ‘Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’ (Matthew 3:2). It’s here. It’s present right now. It’s come. I am the King, says Jesus, and my Kingdom is here. It’s even in this place today – ‘For,’ as Jesus says, ‘where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in their midst’ (Matthew 18:20). The Kingdom of Heaven is made up of the people who turn away from sin and follow Christ – those, and only those, who by faith have been washed in His blood and clothed in His righteousness, and who will be presented faultless before the presence of His Father, the Ancient of Days, with exceeding joy – that’s the Kingdom of the Son of Man – a Kingdom not for time, but for eternity.
His claim to be the ‘Son of Man’ is but one of many extraordinary claims in the Bible. The New Testament ascribes to Him nothing less than equality with God. We are presented plainly and clearly with a Christology from above. Peter says in Matthew’s Gospel and Mark’s Gospel, ‘Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God’ (Matthew 16:16; Mark 18:27–30). Luke’s Gospel says that He is ‘Christ the Lord’ (Luke 2:11). Matthew’s Gospel, drawing upon Isaiah, says that Jesus is ‘Immanuel – God with us’ (Matthew 1:23; Isaiah 7:14; 9:6). The apostle John spoke of Jesus as the everlasting Word – the Logos – the One who makes the Father known (John 1:1–18). The apostle Paul describes the Lord Christ as the ‘image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation,’ and as the Creator of ‘heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible’ (Colossians 1:15–16). The writer to the Hebrews says that Jesus ‘is the radiance of the Father’s glory and the exact imprint of his nature, and He upholds the universe by the word of His power’ (Hebrews 1:1–3). The Lord Christ Himself makes startling claims to be coequal with His Father in Heaven: ‘I and my Father are one’ (John 10:30), ‘He that has seen Me has seen the Father’ (John 14:9), ‘Before Abraham was, I AM’ (John 8:58). He claims the sacred Name of God’s self-disclosure to Moses as His very own (Exodus 3:14). He is the great I AM of ancient Israel – ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life’ (John 11:25), ‘I am the Light of the World’ (John 8:12), ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life’ (John 14:6). The people were amazed at His teaching because He ‘spoke as one who had authority’ (Matthew 7:29; Mark 1:22; Luke 4:32). My friends, He spoke with the authority of God Himself. He walked upon the water of Galilee. He fed the five-thousand. He preached the Sermon on the Mount. He opened the eyes of the blind. He healed the sick. He cured the leper. He turned water into wine. He raised the dead. He broke the chains of death itself. His tomb is empty. The one who had been crucified, dead, and buried appeared in the flesh to doubting Thomas in the upper room with the disciples. He showed Thomas the wounds in His hands, and feet, and side. And Thomas, who had absolutely refused to believe, fell upon his face and cried, ‘My Lord, my God’ (John 20:28).
We are confronted once again with the great question: ‘Who do you say that I am?’ The foolish thing that people often say about Him is, ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, as a philosopher, as a good man, an enlightened man, but I don’t accept His claim to be God’. But, my friend, you cannot say that in the light of the New Testament. A man who said and did the sort of things that Jesus said and did would not merely be a great moral teacher. As C. S. Lewis said, ‘He would either be a lunatic – on the same level as a man who claims to be poached egg – or else he would be as evil as the devil himself’. ‘He either deceived mankind as a conscious fraud, or was Himself deluded and self-deceived, or He was and is the Son of the living God’ (‘Rabbi’ John Duncan). You accept that He was a real man, a good man, a kind man, a wise man, then why don’t you accept the Man He Himself claimed to be? He is not merely claiming to the best man, but the God-man. You say that He was good, and wise, and moral, but no good, wise, moral man would claim to be God unless it were true. So, what are you going to do with the Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God?
‘Who do you say that I am?’
The question our Lord puts to His disciples is emphatic: ‘But you, who do you say that I am?’ The Lord Jesus is catechising His disciples. He wants to tease out their understanding of His person and work. It is easy for preachers to lecture their congregations on the great doctrines of the Bible, but it is a far greater challenge to encourage believers to think for themselves – to reflect upon the teachings of Scripture and formulate doctrine in their own words. Ministers of the Gospel are not only called to preach, but to ‘make disciples of all nations’ (Matthew 28:19). Discipleship takes time and patience. Developing an understanding of Bible Doctrine is a process similar to sanctification. Few of us were born into the Christian faith as systematic theologians. We’ve had to learn – to study, to read, to engage our minds, to revise our ideas, to correct and reform our understanding in accordance with the Scriptures. Far too often, we come to Church as consumers – ‘feed me preacher’. We’ve become so passive in the Christian faith that our minds have grown lazy and sluggish in the things of God. Systematic theology, catechisms, confessions, creeds, doctrines – ‘No thank you,’ we say, ‘That’s dead orthodoxy. It’s as dry as dust’. But the Bible says that we are to ‘love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength, and all of our mind’ (Matthew 22:37). Your mind matters. The apostle Paul says that we are to ‘take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ’ (2 Corinthians 10:5). This is why the Lord Jesus challenges His disciples to think deep thoughts about His person – ‘Who do you say that I am?’
In the original, the emphasis is placed upon the personal pronoun ‘You’ – the second person plural, as Jesus is addressing His disciples as a group. There are all of these ideas and speculations concerning the Lord Jesus floating around – ‘But you, who do you say that I am?’ What do we think of Jesus Christ? Whom do we understand Him to be? We are his disciples. We profess to follow Him. We call ourselves Christians. Do we know Him? Do we know who He is? Do we understand why He has come into this world? It’s not enough for us to say that we follow Jesus if we don’t know what that means. There is nothing more lamentable than a professing Christian who knows very little of Christ. Our desire should be to know more about Jesus – to study the Gospels and the New Testament, to trace the shadows and types of Christ under the Old Covenant, to formulate a coherent doctrine of Christ. It’s was Paul’s foremost concern – ‘to preach Christ and Him crucified’ (1 Corinthians 2:2). Paul says, ‘I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of His resurrection, and participation in His sufferings, to become like Him in His death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead’ (Philippians 3:10–11). Is this our desire – to know Christ with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength?
‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God’
You can imagine the disciples in a group hug – discussing the question. The stakes are high. Jesus is listening. Who is He? Who is this Jesus? Peter draws the short straw and they push him to the front – ‘You answer’, they say. Peter’s sweating. He’s shaking inside. He’s thinking on what Jesus has taught in the past and wishing he’d done more revision. He clears His throat nervously and says, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God’. It’s a remarkable answer. Here is a simple fisherman who has struck gold. He’s nailed it. ‘Blessed are you Simon-Bar-Jonah’, says Jesus! He’s got it! The eureka moment has come. His eyes have been opened by the Spirit of God. He sees that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. It’s a revolution in His worldview. It’s a doctrine that has driven the history of the Church for 2,000 years. Jesus is the Messiah – the Christ. It means the ‘anointed one’. It is a reference to the anointed offices within ancient Israel. Moses, for example, was instructed by God to make priestly garments for his brother Aaron and his sons with him, and to ‘anoint them and ordain them and consecrate them’ for the service of God as priests (Exodus 28:41). The prophet Samuel was instructed to anoint a king over Israel – He anoints Saul and then David as kings (1 Samuel 10:1; 16:13). The prophet Elijah was called to anoint his successor Elisha to become a prophet in his place (1 Kings 19:16). Those anointed with oil under the Old Covenant were prophets, priests, and kings. The Lord Jesus Christ is the embodiment of all three offices. The prophets, priests, and kings of the Old Covenant were shadows and types anticipating the coming Messiah who would fulfil all three offices. The Lord Jesus is the real deal – He is Prophet, Priest, and King. He is the ‘anointed one’.
The anointing itself was a symbol of the Spirit of God upon the office bearer – when Samuel, for example, ‘took the horn of oil, and anointed David in the midst of his brothers, the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward’ (1 Samuel 16:13). In the same manner, the Lord Jesus was anointed by the Spirit of God at His baptism – the Holy Spirit descended upon Him like a dove and His Father spoke audibly from heaven saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’ (Matthew 3:16–17). You remember that the Lord Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up after moving there from Bethlehem, and one Sabbath day He went into the synagogue, as was His custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to Him. Unrolling it, He found the place where it is written:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
Then He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed upon Him. And He said to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’ (See Luke 4:14–20). The Lord Jesus Christ was self-aware concerning His own identity. He understood, as Peter says, that He was the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One – the Prophet, Priest, and King of God’s people.
The Lord Christ as our Redeemer carries out the offices of Prophet, Priest, and King for us, both in the state of humiliation as He suffered in this world, was crucified, dead, and buried, and now in the state of exaltation as He has sat down at the right hand of God:
1] As our Prophet, He reveals to us by His Word and Spirit the will of God for our salvation. He went about teaching and preaching. He made known the Gospel – the Good News of redemption in Him. A prophet under the Old Covenant would face the people of God and say, ‘This is what the Lord says’. He would make known the will of God for salvation. The same is true of Christ. He came to proclaim good news to the poor. He came to show us the way of salvation through faith in Him – and now He instructs us through His holy and infallible Word by the illumination of the Spirit.
2] As our Priest, He offered Himself up once for all as a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice to reconcile us to God by His death. He died that we might have life. He died in our place as our substitute bearing the wrath and condemnation that was due to us for our sins upon the Cross. In Christ crucified, the God-man ‘substituted Himself for us and bore our sins, dying in our place the death we deserved to die, in order that we might be restored to His favour and adopted into His family’ (John Stott). Even as the High Priest would offer up sacrifices for the sins of ancient Israel, so the Lord Christ – our great High Priest – offered up Himself as sacrifice for sin. Theirs had to be repeated ad nauseam because they were imperfect shadows of the Real Sacrifice – even the death of our Lord, ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29). He says, ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30). No more sacrifices. No more temple. No more death. No more blood to be shed. It is finished. ‘With His own blood – not the blood of goats and calves – He entered the Most Holy Place once for all time and secured our redemption forever’ (Hebrews 9:12). Now that the work of atonement is complete, now that He has risen, and ascended, and sat down at the right hand of God, He ever lives to make continual intercession for the people of God. He prays for us before the throne of mercy – the God of heaven and earth upon His knees beseeching the Father with tears in His eyes for sinners of lost mankind. Just like the priests of the Old Covenant would offer prayers and incense in the Temple of God, so our Lord Jesus Christ prays and enables our prayers go up to the Father in Heaven like a sweet-smelling aroma. He makes our prayers effectual before the Throne of Heaven.
3] As our King, He subdues us to Himself, He rules over and defends us, and He conquers all our foes. He treads sin, death, hell, the world, the flesh, the devil in the winepress of His wrath. He is King Jesus. He is the Victor Christ. He has conquered the great enemies of mankind. The kings of the Old Covenant – even the greatest of them, even David – pale into nothingness when compared with King Jesus, who rules over Heaven and Earth as the sovereign Lord of all.
He is the Christ – our prophet, priest, and king – the anointed Saviour of lost mankind.
He is not only the Christ; He is the Son of the Living God. He’s not merely a great man. He’s not merely a prophet, or a priest, or a king. He is the Son of God. He is the second person of the Holy Trinity. He is God the Son manifest in the flesh. In Christ eternity steps into time, sovereign immensity into space, infinity into a finite world, the unchanging into a world of passing seasons, absolute being into a temporal universe that grasps at becoming for but a moment as stars and galaxies plummet onwards through the fabric of space and time. It’s incredible – veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate deity – our God contracted to a span, ineffably made man. The Lord Jesus Christ is perfect in Godhead and perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable body of soul; consubstantial with us according to the humanity; in all things like unto us as the Son of Man, yet without sin; and co-equal with God as the eternal Son of the Father, who existed before all world were made. And these two natures – divine and human – are perfectly united without confusion, without change, without division, without separation in one remarkable person – even the God-man, the Christ, the Son of the Living God. On this union depends all of our salvation. As the Son of Man, He represents lost humanity as the Mediator between God and Man. As the Son of God, He is mighty to save and all His works are infinitely efficacious.
There is no-one beyond redemption. You may feel that your sorry case is an impossible one – that you cannot be saved from your sins. You think too much of yourself. He is able and He is willing to reach out in power to save you from yourself, from this world, from your sorrows, from sin, from death, from hell itself – for He is the Son of God and so omnipotent to save. There is more power in Him than sin in yourself. There is more life in Him than death in you. He is the Son of the living God. He came into this world to bring us life – eternal life, the life of God in the soul of man, the whole and complete living power of absolute being to dwell within your heart by faith. ‘In Him is Life’ (John 1:4), says the apostle John. ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life’ (John 3:16).
The existentialists and the humanists say that the end of all being is death. That’s all they have – so let us eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die. That’s it. There’s no purpose. There’s no meaning. There is only death – eternal death. But my friend, there is surely more to life than death – for there is promised in Scripture eternal life for those united by living faith to the Son of the Living God. There is life in Him – life to the full, the abundant life, the eternal life, the best life – the life of a new heaven and new earth wherein righteousness dwells. Will you die and face oblivion? Will you die and face everlasting death? Will you die and face the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth? Or will you have life? Will you have Jesus? Will you confess Him to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God? Will you lay hold of Him and His promise of life abundant? If all being is tending towards death, are you ready to die? There is but a string of life between you and a lost eternity. Should that string of life break, and death come sweeping upon you while you are outside of Christ, then you shall know that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God. To quote Dylan Thomas, but perhaps not in a way he would have expected:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.
My friend, don’t be without Christ in death. Don’t be without Him in life. Today is the day of salvation. Today is the appointed time. Today His mercy is freely offered to you in the Gospel – so come to Him while His mercy may be had and find in Him everlasting life.
References & Recommended Reading
Barth, Karl, Dogmatics in Outline (London, 1949).
Green, Michael, The Message of Matthew (Nottingham, 1988).
Hendriksen, William, The Gospel of Matthew (Edinburgh, 1974).
Jones, Mark, Jesus Christ: An Introduction to Christology (Fearn, 2012).
Jones, Mark, Knowing Christ (Edinburgh, 2015).
Lewis, C. S., Mere Christianity (London, 1952).Stott, John, The Cross of Christ (Nottingham, 1986).