In last week’s gospel, the pagan Canaanite woman addressed Jesus as Lord, Son of David. She not only showed respect by calling him Lord, but also by referring to his Davidic heritage and the Messianic promise (2 Samuel 7:12–17). She spoke to his identity. We assume that she had heard stories about Jesus’ cures and that he was a holy person. It was a notable element of the gospel, but was overshadowed in the end by Jesus’ curing her daughter of possession and his declaration, Woman, great is your faith! 


In this week’s gospel (Matt 16:13-20) Jesus’ identity moves from the background to become the subject.

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’

Jesus’ question is curious. He didn’t ask “Who do people say I am”…which is how he subsequently rephrased it. Instead, he asked, Who do people say that the Son of Man is? The Son of Man is a messianic reference from Daniel 7:13:

As I watched in the night visions,

I saw one like a human being (or the Son of Man)

    coming with the clouds of heaven.

And he came to the Ancient One

    and was presented before him.

Even as he asked the question Jesus ascribed to himself an identity… one like the Son of Man… that referred to a divine nature cloaked in humanity. It was a personal pronoun.


The gospel continues with the disciples fumbling to answer Jesus’ question.

And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’

Jesus’ disciples probably lived in a heightened state of awareness when they were around him. Instead of a monotonous, distractible routine, Jesus' presence made them alert to people’s reactions to him; they saw things differently because of his teaching and example; they wondered where he would lead them. The air around him seemed to tingle with expectation. The question of his identity was implicit in their sense of him.

John the Baptist had already been killed by Herod (Matt 14:1-12). Elijah had lived eight centuries earlier and been taken up to heaven (2 Kings 2:11) and was expected to return (Mal.3:1, 23). Jeremiah had worked five centuries earlier and was a frequent reference point for Matthew. (2:17, 27:9) and Jesus made strong allusions to him in Matt 7:15-23, 11:28-30 and 23:37-39. Significantly, each of these prophets had confronted religious complacency and evil and urged people to turn their lives to God. Jesus shared these characteristics and the people saw him from this prophetic perspective. Seeing him as a prophet was accurate, as far as it went, but Jesus needed his closest followers to know him in a different way.

He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’

Note that he changed from asking Who do people say that the Son of Man is? to who do you say that I am?  

In the gospel two weeks ago, when Jesus came to the disciples, walking on the water during a storm then calmed it, those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’ (Matt 14:33) Looking back to this affirmation, one gets the impression that Jesus’ disciples said it more out of surprise than deep conviction, as though his full identity was only coming slowly into focus.


A tantalizing perspective arises from the two concluding words of Jesus’ question. I Am is the name God gave himself when, “Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.”’ (Exodus 3:14) While Jesus used I am in a question, his words identified himself with the God of Israel.


Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’

And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.

This was both obvious and shocking. The miracles Jesus had performed were signs of his divine power. His compassion and teaching aligned with the instructions and examples of the prophets. His Davidic lineage…referred to by the Canaanite woman in last week’s gospel… was consistent with God’s promises and prophecies. His disciples knew him as a holy person, even if they had not fully appreciated his significance. Of course he was the Son of living God…the self-communication of God to humanity. This was his true identity.

At the same time he defied many expectations. He was not a warrior king like David who defeated his enemies in battle. He was a humble carpenter from Galilee. The notion of ‘God’s son’ seemed to violate the idea of One God. The high priest would charge that he had made himself the Son of God (Matt 26:23) and that was blasphemy. Peter’s assertion contradicted conventional teaching and wisdom.

Peter’s declaration, You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God is the first time one of Jesus’ disciples had used the title. It elicited Jesus’ first and only blessing he offered directly to any of his disciples and confirmed Peter’s insight.


God, in Jesus, invites human beings to share in the divine life. Jesus’ presence among humanity is the turning point of history in which humanity became fully conscious of its divine relationship in Christ. Peter’s clear statement recognized Jesus in his full outline…with the full and final definition…his resurrection, and ours… yet to come.


  • Recall a time when you reinterpreted events in your own life: when you came to a clearer understanding of what had transpired. Do you see an analogy between this experience and Peter’s sudden, fuller awareness of Jesus’ true identity?
  • Has anyone ever told you that you were “blessed” or “holy”…not as part of a general blessing, but as a statement about you, personally? It is different from a compliment that you are smart or talented, something that might be attributed to hard work as well as natural abilities. Being told you are ‘blessed’ says, in a way, that ‘you are gifted by God’. Now imagine how Peter felt when Jesus told him that he was Blessed.
  • In Spiritual Transformation in Recovery (STIR) retreats, (for people recovering from drug or alcohol abuse), one of the first exercises is to ask retreatants, “Who is God to you”? It is important to bring this image into focus for subsequent movements of the retreat. Few of the people have considered the question deeply. For some it is an image of an old man with a long white beard in a robe… who judges people. For others it is more abstract and impersonal: a sense of peace in nature. A few talk about the Creator, somehow intimately involved in the creation of the world, but now remote since humankind has messed it up. The question to the retreatants is a version of Jesus’ question to his disciples: Who do people say that the Son of Man is? It is the baseline from which all subsequent activities proceed. For those who answer Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, the retreat is usually much more meaningful. So, who do you say Jesus is? How does that affect your life?