The Confession of St. Peter
(Acts 4:8-13, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 5:1-11, Matthew 16:13-19)

Almighty Father, who inspired Simon Peter, first among the apostles, to confess Jesus as Messiah and Son of the living God: Keep your Church steadfast upon the rock of this faith, that in unity and peace we may proclaim the one truth and follow the one Lord, our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Matthew 16:15–16 (ESV): 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Some of us here are old enough to remember the Senate Watergate Hearings in 1973, hearings which ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. A relatively young senator from Tennessee, Howard Baker, Jr., emerged as a key figure in those hearings, not simply by virtue of being the ranking minority member of the Senate Watergate Committee, but by virtue of a crucial question he posed: “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” The issue there was a presidential coverup of a crime: Did the President know that a crime had been committed and, if so, when did he know it?

That same question takes a theological turn if asked about Jesus: What did Jesus know, and when did he know it? Was Jesus born knowing his divine identity or did he grow into that knowledge and conviction as Mary and Joseph told him the story of his birth or as he studied the prophetic scriptures that pointed toward him? Did the Father, at some particular point, reveal to Jesus his divine Sonship? If so, was that at age twelve in the Temple or at age thirty at the Jordan when a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17)? Such questions abound: What did Jesus know, and when did he know it?

I don’t think we can answer that question with certainty; we simply don’t know, and can’t know, what it’s like to be the incarnate Son of God, to know as Jesus knew. The best answer I’ve ever heard, and the best that I think we can give, comes from Canon Stephen Gautier who said, in paraphrase, Jesus knew everything he needed to know, at every point in his life, in order to perfectly accomplish his unique vocation. Yes, I think we can state that with certainty. It answers the question without actually answering the question, and it does so very well.

My own opinion — and keep in mind that it is worth precisely and only what you paid for it — is that, in his humanity, Jesus’ knowledge was much like ours. There were some things he knew with certainty and there were other things that he had to discern through prayer, study of Scripture, wise counsel, signs from God and man. For instance, we know with certainty that God is, that God loves us, that God works all things together for our good and for our salvation. In general, we know God’s will: that we love him with all our heart and soul and mind and that we love our neighbor as ourselves. But, what that looks like in any particular moment, what light that knowledge sheds on any particular decision facing us may not be, and often is not, perfectly clear. And so we pray, we search the Scriptures, we seek wise counsel from spiritual fathers and mothers, we look for signs from God and man. Then, we act in faith, with a desire to please God, believing that, as Thomas Merton wrote, our desire to please God really does please him, and that, if we are in error, God will not abandon us there, but will finally lead us along the right way. If Jesus were fully human as Scripture asserts and as we believe, then I see no reason to suppose his experience of humanity was any different than this.

I believe we see evidence of Jesus using all these methods of discernment in the Gospels. He is living in obscurity in Nazareth, plying his trade as a tekton, a craftsman, when reports reach him of a wild-man prophet down at the Jordan, calling people to a baptism for the repentance of sins and proclaiming that one greater than he is to come, one whose sandals he is not worthy to loose, one who will baptize not with water but with fire and the Spirit, one who will be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Apparently, Jesus discerns in this report the sign he has been waiting for. He lays aside his tools, says goodbye to his family, and makes his way to the Jordan. His act of discernment is then ratified by the voice — God’s voice — from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

But now what? Jesus listens to the Spirit, follows the Spirit, as the Spirit throws him into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. And, in the wilderness Jesus searches Scripture — the Scripture that he has stored in his mind and heart — for the answer to the temptations that Satan hurls at him. He discerns the will of God in the moment.

At the wedding at Cana in Galilee, Jesus first seems reluctant to involve himself with the host’s dilemma, a shortage of wine: “My time has not yet come,” Jesus says to his mother. And yet, when Mary acts very much as if she expects him to do something — “Do whatever he tells you,” she says to the servants — Jesus seems to discern through her actions that it is indeed fitting and right for him to perform the first sign of his ministry.

Before he called the Apostles, Jesus spent the night in discerning prayer as he did also the night before he died.

There is the Syro-Phoenician woman who begs Jesus to heal her daughter. There are many ways to read this particular story, but one way is to see her faith as persuasive — a sign from God that Jesus is to extend his ministry to this Gentile woman and her daughter.

We can multiply examples, but these may suffice to support my supposition: Jesus, in his human nature, seems to have used all those means of discernment that we are so often thrown back upon: prayer, Scripture, counsel — human and divine — and signs from God often through people.

This bring us to the text for this feast day, The Confession of St. Peter. Hear it again.

Matthew 16:13–19 (ESV): 13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 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. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

There is much we need to explore here, and we’ll do a bit of that in a minute. But first, I want you to hear the next two verses, which weren’t included in our reading.

Matthew 16:20–21 (ESV): 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.

21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

Peter’s confession was an inflection point in Jesus’ ministry. Conflict with the Jewish authorities had been increasing for awhile; the pressure on Jesus was growing. It seems clear that Jesus knew the end of his ministry was drawing nearer and the cross was looming larger. But this — Peter’s Confession — was the moment when everything seems to accelerate, the moment when Jesus begins to make clear to his disciples what he knows to be coming. In short, it seems that Jesus discerns Peter’s Confession as a sign from God — from whom the revelation came to Peter — that this is the moment to draw all things to Jerusalem, to Gethsemane, to Golgotha. This was the sign he may well have been waiting for, and now he accelerates the pace and takes some decisive actions, not least by revealing his glory six days later in the Transfiguration and by calling his disciples to cruciform discipleship: Take up your cross and follow me.

I may be wrong in my understanding of what’s going on here; remember, we do not and cannot know what it’s like to be the incarnate Son of God. But this reads like a moment of discernment in which Jesus, in his humanity, perceives a sign from God through Peter directing him toward the climax of his ministry. I find that encouraging, that the man Jesus discerned the will of God just as we must do. I find it helpful to see how the man Jesus did so: through prayer, in Scripture, through the words and deeds of others, and through signs from God acting through men and women.

This is how I see Peter’s Confession working in the Gospel narrative. But, the content of the confession is central to the Gospel, too, and we need to turn our attention to that, at least briefly.

“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Peter says. He probably doesn’t know what he’s saying; it is a revelation from God, remember, and not a rational deduction from Peter. He certainly doesn’t know fully what he is saying. That will take some time to flesh out: time and the Resurrection and the the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. But we know now the meaning of what Peter said then, and what he grew to understand.

You are the Christ, the Messiah, the one anointed by God to inaugurate the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, the one appointed to fulfill God’s covenant with Abraham to bless Israel and through Israel to bless the world.

You are the Son of the living God. Here we have to be a bit careful not to let our modern ideas interfere with, and even limit, the biblical notion of sonship. We think in terms of biology, DNA. But, I would suggest that the Bible looks at sonship through the lenses of image bearing, authority, and obedience.

The son is the one who bears the image, the imprint of the father. To look at the son — not just at his appearance, but at the totality of his being — is to look at the father. A man may have several biological sons, but of one it might be said, “He is really his father’s son.” In our ordinary speech we mean that this one son, among all the others, best images his father, best shows forth who his father is. Jesus was uniquely the Son of the living God in just that way: the perfect image bearer of the Father. So St. Paul writes:

Colossians 1:15 (ESV): 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.

And again:

Colossians 1:19 (ESV): 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.

The son bears the image of the father. But, there is more. The son acts with the authority of the father. Jesus combines these characteristics of sonship in his response to Philip in the upper room:

John 14:8–11 (ESV): 8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.

And again, Jesus emphasizes that he bears the authority of the Father in the Great Commission:

Matthew 28:18 (ESV): 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

Though the Father is not mentioned explicitly, Jesus makes clear throughout his whole ministry that he has come to do the will of his Father, that he has come to make the Father known, that he does only what he sees the Father doing, that his entire ministry and the authority for it are under the auspices of the Father. The Son is the one who acts with and under the authority of the Father.

And that means that the Son is the one who perfectly does the will of the Father, is perfectly obedient to the Father in all things. We have it directly from the Lord:

John 6:38–40 (ESV): 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

And again, in the ultimate moment of decision, it is Jesus’ submission to the will of Father that shines through:

Matthew 26:39–42 (ESV): 39 And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” 40 And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? 41 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42 Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”

The Son does the Father’s will, even unto death.

I doubt that Peter understood the true depth of what he was saying. I doubt that we do, even now, thought the Church has had two millennia to ponder it. But his confession was an inflection point Jesus’ ministry and, if I am even vaguely correct in my reading of it, an example of the man Jesus discerning the will of God. It was also a further revealing of Jesus as the Messiah of Israel, and, through that, as Saviour of the world; a further revelation of Jesus as the Son of the living God — the perfect image-bearer, the one who acts with the authority of the Father, and the one who seeks only the will of the Father. It is the perfect model for our own confession.

Matthew 16:15–16 (ESV): 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”


About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s