Beginning in Matt. 11, Matthew has us follow Jesus through the cities and land of Israel, making us witnesses to Jesus’s healings, miracles, teaching, and the controversies that his work produces. We now come to the climax of that part of our journey with Jesus as he enters the district of Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi, as its name suggests, is a city on the border between Israel and the Gentile world. It is here that Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
The disciples respond by stating some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets. These responses have the common presumption, a presumption that is not clearly wrong, that Jesus stands in the prophetic tradition. His disciples, therefore, report the opinions of those who are part of the traditions of Israel. It is particularly interesting that some identify him with Jeremiah, for soon he will turn toward Jerusalem, expressing the same sorrow that Jeremiah enacted as the prophet of Jerusalem’s destruction.
Jesus receives the disciples’ reports, but then asks, “But who do you say that I am?” Some worry that when Jesus uses the identification “Son of Man,” as he does when he first asks the disciples who people say that he is, he is referring to the Son of Man in the third person. Yet Jesus’s subsequent question to the disciples leaves no doubt that when he asks about the Son of Man he is asking about himself. Jesus’s question is, moreover, directed at the disciples because they are the ones he has called, they are the ones to whom he has explained the parables, and they are the ones who have seen him still the waves and walk on water. Simon answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
The disciples had identified Jesus as the Son of God as he returned to their boat with Simon, but now for the first time a disciple recognizes that Jesus is the Messiah, the one Israel long expected, the one who alone has the power to free Israel from its enemies. Jesus commends Simon, the son of Jonah, who recognizes that he is the Messiah—a king, but one not easily recognized. Jesus declares Simon, like those described in the Beatitudes, “blessed.”
At his baptism the voice from heaven identified Jesus as “my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). At this time, the voice of the Son declares that Peter is blessed because flesh and blood could not reveal to him that Jesus is the Messiah, but only his Father in heaven. Simon knows what he does only because it has been revealed to him. It is important, however, that Peter’s knowledge that Jesus is the Messiah not be used to develop a general theory of revelation. Simon does not learn that Jesus is the Messiah by some intuitive or mystical mode of knowing. Rather, Simon learns that Jesus is the Messiah because he obeyed Jesus’s command to be his disciple.