When I was in journalism school, the instructors taught that good reporting on a story required answering the five W’s: who, what, when, where and why.
I figured the five W’s could help us expand on today’s Bible passage, Matthew 16:13-20. In doing so, I pray we’ll better understand the full importance of what happened on this particular day in Jesus’ ministry.
The story revolves around the “who” questions Jesus asked, but I’m going to begin with the where. The backdrop for the story is enlightening. We’re told Jesus and his disciples went to the district of Caesarea Philippi.
In other words, they left the very Jewish world where they had been teaching and ministering to escape for awhile into the Gentile world, where it was far less likely they would be recognized. Caesarea Philippi was named such in part because it was the home of a temple dedicated to the deification of the Roman emperor, the caesar, who expected his subjects to see him as lord over all things. As Jesus had his conversation with his disciples, it’s likely they saw this gleaming white tribute to human hubris.
The district also was the home of multiple pagan shrines, serving these Jews as clear symbols of humanity’s desire to follow something other than the One True God.
It was in that setting that Jesus began to ask his “who” questions. First, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The disciples’ answers were quite flattering, the highest and holiest descriptions Jews would apply to a mere human being. They reported the people placed Jesus among the great prophets, the ones seen in one way or another as declarers of the Messiah, the one who would save Israel from oppression.
In followup, Jesus asked, “But who do you say that I am?” No pause is indicated, but I’ve never been able to read this passage without imagining one. Peter’s response seems too bold to have tumbled out one beat after the question.
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Peter said. That’s a lot of “who” to attribute to anyone. Peter was saying Jesus was fully aligned with God, more important and more powerful than any caesar or anything else that had ever or would ever presume to take on the role of God.
In doing so, Peter also caused a “what” to come into existence for the first time. The foundation of the church was laid. Jesus was being clever when he played on the name of the disciple before him, calling him what is recorded as “Petros” in the Greek text. Almost certainly, they stood there speaking Aramaic, their native language, and Jesus actually said, “Kephas.” Either way, Peter’s name literally meant “rock,” and Jesus said, “On this rock I will build my church.”
As in most news stories, the “why” in this story is a particularly powerful fact. The Messiah had come not just to save Israel, but to prevail over death and build a church to participate in the process. Some older English versions of the Bible are misleading, translating Matthew 16:18 as saying about the church, “the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.”
The Greek word translated incorrectly as “Hell” is Hades, and that word shouldn’t be confused with our modern understanding of Hell as a place of torment for nonbelievers. Both the Jews and the Greeks of Jesus’ day thought of the afterlife as having one common abode, a sort of waiting place until the time of the general resurrection and judgment. Jesus was saying he was going to do something so incredible that he would break the power of death.
That incredible something, of course, was his crucifixion. Death took Jesus, briefly, but Death had to release God’s Holy One on the third day, unable to contain what had given the very universe life.
As for the when—well, in some ways, the answer is eternal. Jesus always was and always will be. The universal church of believers always will be, even after we reach the time when death and evil are fully destroyed before our eyes and nothing remains but blissful worship and celebration.
The answer to when also is “now,” however. Who do you say Jesus is? Every moment is an opportunity for you to affirm for the first time, or again, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”
Next week, we’ll focus on what it means to live out that creed moment by moment.