In his reflections on the conversation in Matthew 16 when Jesus asked his disciples “Who do you say I am?” Richard Schlitt reveals his ardent desire to hear people answer this question rightly and shows that it can only come through deep acquaintance with Jesus, thoughtful reflection, and the revelation that only comes through God’s Spirit. As with the first disciples, those we work with will need time, truth, and revelation to come to a point where they too can say, “You are the Christ.”
Richard Schlitt served in the Philippines for thirty years. During this time he served first among the open-access people and then among a restricted-access people. He spent the next ten years in International Director roles. He has also given much time in non-formal and informal training. Currently Richard is the National Director for OMF Canada. Richard holds a doctorate in Intercultural Studies. He is married to Marilyn, with three daughters and eight grandchildren.
Peter’s Declaration “You are the Christ”
Mission Round Table Vol. 15 No. 3 (Sep-Dec 2020): 42-47
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 Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 16:13–17)
As one who, for many years, regularly shared Jesus with a most-resistant people, the words I longed to hear were, “he is the Son of God,” “he is the way to God.” Whenever those words were said, they were never said lightly, but only after deep reflection. They came with the recognition that this declaration could cost one his or her life. This is not unlike Peter, whose pivotal articulation will be considered in this article. I believe Jesus had waited for this moment. He had intentionally discipled towards it. John MacArthur writes, “For some two and a half years Jesus had been moving to this moment – teaching and reteaching, affirming and reaffirming, demonstrating and redemonstrating, building and rebuilding the truth of who He was in order to establish it completely and securely in the minds and hearts of the twelve.”
Peter’s declaration was a watershed moment. This article will consider what Peter was actually declaring and why it marked a turning point for the disciples and for Christianity. We will consider the journey the disciples made before this declaration was possible. We will also note the significant and intentional steps in Jesus’ discipleship that lead to this point and the marked change in Jesus’ discipleship from this point forward.
Although it was Peter who articulated the great declaration, Jesus had put the question to all twelve disciples and Jesus’ charge in Matthew 16:20 that they not tell anyone else who he was indicates that Peter was speaking for all of the twelve. The disciples collectively had come to this great point of recognition and declaration. Jesus’ discipleship, after this point, would change profoundly. Only now, with this great recognition and declaration, did Jesus speak of his coming death on the cross. Only now would that be understandable and significant. And in fact, it still took a long time before they understood his coming death. They only really understood it, with Jesus’ added explanations, after the resurrection. Such is the nature of discipleship. This declaration allowed Jesus to move to the next stage of discipleship.
Peter proclaims Jesus, detail from stained glass in the church of St Mary and St Lambert in Stonham Aspal in Suffolk. Kevin Wailes (Public domain CC BY 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons.
What was it that Peter actually said in his declaration? According to Matthew 16:16, “Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’” I remember discussing the question of who Jesus is with a door-to-door cult evangelist in the Philippines. Members of this cult believed that Jesus was only a man—a great man and teacher, no doubt, but still, a man. When I pointed to the confession Thomas made after the resurrection, “my Lord and my God,” I was told this was an expression of surprise. In Filipino, “Dios ko!” In English, “My God!”
I frequently hear this kind of expression of surprise now that I am back in Canada. “OMG,” short for “Oh my god.” I cringe every time I hear it. Those who say this have no idea that they are breaking the fourth commandment and taking the Lord’s name in vain. But that was not the case with Peter. A Jew would never lightly refer to a person as God. Jews held the God of creation, the great “I Am” of Exodus 3, in such holy reverence that these words would never just slip off their tongue.
So, what had Peter just said about Jesus? What had Peter come to understand? The Jews were waiting for God’s promised deliverer, the Messiah, the Anointed one, the Christ. Peter had just declared that Jesus was this long-awaited Christ. Though he still misunderstood a lot about the nature and work of this anointed deliverer, Peter had recognized that Jesus was the one. Jesus was God’s promised Messiah. The promises that began in Genesis 3, where we read that the seed of the woman would crush the Serpent’s head, had finally been fulfilled. The promises that this one would be of the tribe of Judah, the descendent of King David, were being fulfilled. Peter did not yet understand Isaiah 53’s teaching about the suffering Servant, but he knew that this was the one who would bring in God’s kingdom.
It is insightful to our present-day understanding of discipleship that Peter understood many things while many other things were not yet clear. As Jesus moved from his joyous affirmation of Peter’s enlightenment and the fact that his Father in heaven had given Peter this understanding, he began to speak of his coming suffering, death, and resurrection in Jerusalem. This clearly did not fit into Peter’s new understanding and Peter rebuked Jesus for such a thought.
Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” (Matt 16:22–23)
Again, such is the nature of discipleship. Peter had made such a significant discovery and declaration, but he still could not fit into his new understanding the fact that Jesus would need to die. In Peter’s thinking, the Christ was to be victorious, not killed. Peter still had significant steps to travel in his growth as a disciple before he could understand even the most basic and essential elements of God’s salvation. As disciplers, we can and should rejoice in every measurable step forward an inquirer or new disciple makes, but we must recognize that it is but one, significant step in a much longer journey.
Coming back to Peter’s declaration, two significant things should be highlighted. First, “You are the Christ.” And second, “You are … the Son of the living God.” Commenting on the first—“You are the Christ”—D. A. Carson writes, “The designation ‘Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham’ resonates with biblical nuances. ‘Christ’ is roughly the Greek equivalent to ‘Messiah’ or ‘Anointed.’”  As Carson goes on to note, this one would bring “in the promised eschatological reign.”
Peter, and as we understand, all the twelve together, had come to realize that this one they were walking with, working with, and learning from was in fact the fulfilment of God’s promises and the one who would bring in the new age.
The second of these declarations leads to a question that is of extreme importance for first-century and twenty-first-century disciples. Did God have a Son? Peter had just announced that Jesus was “the Son of the living God.” Much of Christianity seems to give little thought to what this meant, but to two great monotheistic faiths—Judaism and Islam—that statement comes across as blasphemy. How could the Creator God have a son? The Shema Israel of Deuteronomy 6:4 declares that “the LORD is one!” The Shahada—one of the Five Pillars of Islam—also declares belief in the oneness of God. My Muslim friends, quoting from the Qur’an, declare with absolute conviction that, “God neither begets nor is he begotten.” And to what they are declaring, I agree. And, I believe, Peter would have agreed.
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary gives the first definition of “begotten” as the past participle of beget. The first definition of beget is to procreate as the father or sire. The second way Merriam-Webster treats begotten is as an adjective, meaning: “brought into existence by or as if by a parent.” Either of these understandings of the word would lead us to an unbiblical understanding of Jesus as God’s son.
Many Christians are used to the 1611 King James Version translation of John 3:16, which says that Jesus is God’s “only begotten Son.” Seeking to be true to the original text, while writing for today’s English-speaking audience, the English Standard Version refers to Jesus as God’s “only Son”, dropping the word “begotten”. This is a helpful corrective, as the Greek word monogen ē s should rightly be translated “only” or “unique” and says nothing about procreation. Even so, it does not help us understand what Peter might have meant when he said the Jesus was the Son of God.
Once, sitting on a plane in deep discussion with my Muslim seat-mate about their utter rejection of Jesus being the son of God, by God’s grace I gave a response that he found satisfying. First, I admitted that I believed that many Christians did not understand the meaning of “Son of God” as used regarding Jesus. I then explained my understanding—that the Spirit of God placed the Word of God into the womb of Mary, resulting in Jesus being born. Muslims believe that the Prophet Jesus is also known to be the Spirit of God and the Word of God and to be born to the virgin Mary. With this explanation, he was satisfied that we believed the same thing regarding Jesus’ relation to God. While there are still other critical aspects of theology that we could not yet agree upon, we both agreed that the relationship of God the Father to Jesus was totally different to that of a father who had procreated a son.
The Gospel of John, which was written sometime after the first three Gospels, does not follow the approach of Matthew and Luke, who tell the story of Jesus from birth to death and resurrection. One of the reasons for this is related to John’s specific purpose for writing, which is clearly stated near the end of his Gospel. “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30–31).
Writing with that purpose in mind, John opens his Gospel with what would have been a mind-bending assertion, but one that provides the needed understanding of the relation of Jesus to God, as “the Son of God.”
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. (John 1:1–4)
Merrill C. Tenney, commenting on John 1:1, makes a number of key points which can be summarized in this way. “In the beginning” recalls Genesis 1:1 where God created the world. “Word” is the Greek logos, which is both the spoken word with meaning, but in Scripture, it is also the creative power. Tenney writes, “To the Hebrew ‘the word of God’ was the self-assertion of the divine personality; to the Greek the formula denoted the rational mind that ruled the universe. John is asserting that the ‘Word’ is the source of all that is visible and antedates the totality of the material world. The use of logos implies that John was endeavoring to bring out the full significance of the Incarnation to the Gentile world as well as to the Jewish people.”
Tenney further comments on the relation of Jesus—the Word—to God as he addressed the “with God” and “was God” of John 1:1. “The preposition ‘with’ in the phrase ‘the Word was with God’ indicates both equality and distinction of identity along with association.” Commenting on “was God,” Tenney writes, “The ‘Word’ was deity, one with God, rather than ‘a god” or another being of the same class.” There is a lot of content in that one verse. I believe this is what Peter and the other disciples had come to understand as Peter makes his declaration.
Christ Walking on the Water by Julius Sergius von Klever (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons. The work is in the public domain in its country of origin, the US, and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.
The journey to this understanding
We have to ask ourselves, how did Peter come to this understanding of who Jesus was? Jesus’ answer was that, it was “not revealed to you [Peter] by man, but by my Father in heaven.” The Gospel story indicates there was a process of revelation and understanding. There was a journey of discovery. Two chapters earlier in Matthew, the disciples had made a declaration that sounded very similar. After Jesus had frightened the disciples by walking on the lake, Peter had walked on the water, began to sink, was rescued by Jesus, and then Jesus stilled the storm. The disciples worshiped him and made this declaration. “Truly you are the Son of God” (Matt 14:33). Why does Jesus respond to Peter’s declaration in Chapter 16 and not the multiple disciples’ declaration in Chapter 14? Was Jesus able to see that they were not quite there yet in their understanding?
Actually, there seemed to have been an amazing declaration of who Jesus was, way back when he was just first calling his disciples. John 1 records the calling of Jesus’ first disciples who would become the Apostles. The other Gospels add to the story by telling us how Jesus interacted with some of the future disciples, but that seems to precede their calling. In John 1, after Jesus gave Simon the name Peter, and called Philip to “follow me,” we read the brief story of Nathanael.
Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” (John 1:44–45)
We need to note that Philip had already concluded that Jesus is the one Moses wrote about. That seems to be far down the road of understanding, but Nathanael goes even further.
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip. When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.” “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” (John 1:46–49)
What more is there to say? In these early encounters between Jesus and men who had not yet been selected to be Apostles, they seem to have made a full and accurate declaration about him. Philip recognized Jesus to be the one Moses wrote about. Nathanael declared that he was the Son of God and the King of Israel. Nothing seems to be lacking and yet Jesus knew that a much longer journey of discovery and understanding was to come.
Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that.” He then added, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1:50–51)
It would have been at least two more years of one-on-one time with Jesus before he would affirm Peter’s Matthew 16:16 declaration as having been revealed by God. It is apparent that even though Nathanael’s declaration sounds similar, Jesus recognized that they are still lacking in understanding.
Jesus takes them on a journey towards greater understanding. In John’s account, three days after meeting with Philip and Nathanael, Jesus performed his first recorded miracle. At a wedding feast, about to go horribly wrong as a groom was about to be disgraced by running out of wine, Jesus turned water into wine that made up for the lack and caused experts to gasp at its quality. John’s closing statement on that story is very insightful. “This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him” (John 2:11). Thus, at a very early stage of their journey of faith and discovery, the disciples “put their faith in him.” Though this was a significant step, they were still far from having adequate understanding to receive the salvation that comes through faith in him.
It is worth noting how these phrases of observation come at the end of many Gospel stories. They show the new insight that has been received. They mark the next step forward in the journey of faith. I will include just a sampling of such phrases of observations. The first three show the growing understanding of the wider group of followers.
The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. (Mark 1:22)
The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him.” (Mark 1:27)
He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2:12)
In Mark 4, as Jesus stills the storm, it becomes evident that the twelve have still not come to an adequate understanding of who Jesus is. “They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (Mark 4:41). They clearly had not yet understood the statement John made in the first verse of his Gospel that Jesus was God the Creator and therefore able to control the elements of his creation.
Saint Peter Walks on the Sea by James Tissot. Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper, 19.5 x 11 cm. From Brooklyn Museum, https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/4514.
As intentional disciplers, we should listen for similar phrases of observation and celebrate every insight that people receive. These moments of insight and teachable moments are there for those who are ready for more. We can recall that in the record of Matthew 13, the crowds received the parables as stories of insight, but Jesus’ disciples received a second level of explanation and teaching. The discipler thus needs to observe the indicators of a disciple’s understanding. There is generally no value in teaching difficult truths that a disciple is not ready for. At the same time, we must keep the process moving towards an adequate understanding until there can be a commitment of faith that brings salvation.
In the discipleship process, not all come through to understanding and faith. John’s Gospel makes it clear that some who were following Jesus and seemed to have arrived at this point of commitment, pulled back. We find this clearly in John 6 in the context of what are known as Jesus’ hard teachings.
Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.” He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.” From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:53–69)
This passage reveals a great many discipleship insights. One that we must not miss is that people only come to Jesus because the Father enables them. This reminds us that discipleship is not just a calculated process. While there is every evidence that Jesus is calculating and intentional, the work of the Spirit of God is essential for spiritual enlightenment.
In this John 6 interaction, Jesus had just preformed an amazing miracle by feeding the five thousand. Again, the people were amazed. Some of them concluded that, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world” (John 6:14). Through the miracle, they seemed to have come to a greater recognition of who he was. One would expect Jesus to rejoice at this recognition and to confirm it. But we are told in 6:15 that Jesus knew this was about to go the wrong direction. They intended to make him king by force because they did not understand the road that was necessary for him to travel in order to fulfil prophecy. Jesus had to stop them from taking action that would have hindered him from travelling the right road so that the prophecy could be fulfilled. Had he given in, their incomplete understanding would have actually sabotaged the process. Jesus thus responded by making himself unavailable by withdrawing to a mountain by himself.
The whole series of interrelated events was not finished. The twelve had another encounter with Jesus. While they were struggling to cross the lake at night against strong winds, Jesus came to them walking on the water. They were immediately terrified, but when Jesus identified himself, they allowed him into the boat and the storm stopped. They had another impactful encounter with Jesus. This time, instead of the storm being stilled, the boat immediately reached the shore. Again, Jesus had shown the twelve his power over the natural world.
The Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons. The image is in the public domain in its country of origin, the US, and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.
The rest of the crowd who had enjoyed the teaching and the free lunch the previous day on the other side of the late, wanted more. These included the group that wanted to make Jesus king by force. It would seem Jesus needed to dissuade them and therefore, when they did find him, he rebuked them for the shallowness of looking for another free meal. He then entered into the very deep teaching about his body being the real food and his blood the real drink. The discussion was effective in turning them from making him king by force, but it accomplished something else as well. Many who hitherto would have been identified as his disciples, stopped following him. This whole encounter that seemed to have been taking the Jesus-movement great steps forward, has just faced a great reversal. Now, fewer people were following him than before.
Jesus is aware that this is a critical point of decision for the chosen twelve. From his question, and their answer, it would seem he does not expect them to have understood his “hard teaching” either. They are, however, confronted with a difficult decision: continue to follow based on what they do understand or give it all up. Peter articulates the decision very well. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68–69).
There was now enough that they were sure about regarding Jesus that they could cope with what they did not understand. Even so, it was some time after this, and many experiences and teachings later, that Peter made his great pivotal declaration: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16). While these statements do not appear to be that significantly different, Jesus perceived a new level of understanding that allowed him to move to the teaching of the cross.
I believe it is clear that the chosen twelve spent at least the first two-and-one-half years pondering the question of who Jesus was. Some of their early declarations seem to be so complete and accurate that they would have made every disciple-maker rejoice. They seemed to have really understood it all early on. And yet, Jesus took them through a three-year progressive process of encounter, observation, and discovery. The Matthew 16 declaration seemed to be the level of understanding Jesus was looking for. It was a pivotal point. It is noteworthy that in Matthew’s, Mark’s, and Luke’s recording of this declaration, Jesus immediately followed it by speaking for the first time of his coming suffering on the cross. This would now be a new focus of teaching for the remaining time that Jesus had with them. But in each rendering, that new piece of information about the coming suffering was not understood, but rejected. In Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts, Peter, who had just been commended for having received this insight from Jesus’ Father in heaven, is rebuked in the strongest way. “Out of my sight Satan.” Having heard and accepted an insight from the Father, he now heard and accepted a lie from Satan. Such is the nature of discipleship.
Peter’s declaration in Matthew 16, “you are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” expressed the profound recognition of the twelve disciples of who Jesus was and what he came to do. It was a recognition that was divinely inspired, and at the same time, reached through a progressive understanding. Finally, after their two-and-a-half years of one-on-one time with Jesus, Peter and the twelve had come to understand that Jesus was the Christ, the anointed Messiah, the one who would fulfil God’s promised salvation, and was, in fact, God. That acknowledgement, however, did not come with the understanding that, to complete the role as deliverer, Jesus needed to endure the cross.
Peter’s journey of discipleship and discovery reflects the journey of those we disciple today. We can similarly expect them to make great steps forward, and to slip back. We would do well to follow Jesus’ example of being intentional disciplers, introducing new truth at the speed in which our listeners can receive it, while recognizing that they are on a spiritual journey that requires the Spirit’s enlightenment. As difficult as it will be to accept, we recognize that some will not follow through to a saving faith. As Jesus persisted with Peter and the twelve, may we persist in faithful, intentional discipleship.
While acknowledging the “two steps forward, one step back” nature of discipleship, Peter’s understanding that Jesus was the Christ, the anointed Messiah, the one who was, in fact, God, was pivotal in his discipleship. It is equally pivotal today in the journey of each disciple of Christ, and a confession that we should long to hear.
 Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from the NIV, 1984.
 John MacArthur, Matthew 16–23, MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1988), 17.
 D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Frank E. Gaebelein, ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, electronic version).
 Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, s.v. “begotten,” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/begotten. (accessed 9 December 2020).
 William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago and Cambridge: University Press, 1957), 529. See also, Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 105. Morris gives numerous examples to show that “only begotten” does not express the meaning of the term, particularly since “Etymologically [the term] is not connected with begetting” but with being. Morris, John, 105, fn. 93.
 Merrill C. Tenney, “The Gospel of John,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Frank E. Gaebelein, ed. (electronic version).
 Tenney, “The Gospel of John,” (electronic version).