24 July 2013

The Sunday School Answer

by Frank Turk

I am posting excerpts from my talk at the "Call to Discernment" conference last weekend since DJP feels a little dry this week.  You can hear the full audio for my talk, or any of the talks, when they all go live.  I'll post the link here.

The comments are closed until Thursday.

It says in Matthew 16:
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 asks the question which puts us in-focus of what really matters.  Whatever, whoever it is that people say Jesus is, that is what is going to drive what they think about Him, and how they think they ought to relate to Him.  Jesus knows this.  Just up the page in Mat 16, he is confronted by the Pharisees who test him for a sign from Heaven – as if God could send somebody to Earth for any reason, and some men could therefore command that person to do anything.  Jesus of course tells them that the signs are everywhere, but they can’t see them.  This is why he sets up the Disciples with this question, because he knows that someone who thinks of Him wrongly will decide to do all manner of things wrongly.

So Jesus asks this question, and the Disciples say, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”  As I read that, I wonder what would happen if I asked you here, “Who do all of you think that I am?”  If the answer came back, “well, some think you have a sharp tongue like Elijah, and some think you love the people of God like Jeremiah, and some think you are politically dangerous like John the Baptist or one of the other prophets,” that would be a pretty fantastic compliment.  Completely undeserved, completely over-the-top, but extraordinary high praise.

But think about this: people were saying this about Jesus.  People meant it for good – because these are not the things that the enemies of Christ were saying: these were the things that the people who thought much of Christ were saying about him.  They were trying to capture the truth of who Jesus was.  But in that, these people were actually wrong.

Here’s how John Calvin reads this response:
[Here] we perceive how great is the weakness of the human mind; for not only is it unable by itself to understand what is right or true, but even out of true principles it creates errors.  
That is to say this: even in meaning well toward Jesus, and thinking highly of him, men could not know him when they were left to their own devices.  As true as it is that it would be wrong to call me or any of the speakers here today a prophet, it is also wrong to call Jesus only a prophet, only some kind of teacher or messenger.  That answer actually aims too low.

That’s why Jesus responds to this by saying, “who do you say that I am?”

Think about this with me because this is the whole point of this passage.  The Scribes and Pharisees want Jesus to belong to them, and answer their questions, and perform miracles when they command it – because they have somehow put themselves out of the right place in God’s way of running the universe.  The rest of the people, who thought much of him, merely made him someone who rightly serves God for their sake.

What Jesus is looking for is the right answer from someone – an answer which prepares them for something else.
[Jesus] said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”  [and] Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
We have to wonder if Simon knew exactly what he was saying here because of what comes next – which we will get to in a few minutes.  But Simon gives what I think we can call a theologically-precise and sound statement.  In some of our churches, we might call it a “Sunday school answer” – because it uses all the Sunday school words to say something about Jesus.

Simon calls him “Christ” here – in Hebrew, he would have called him “Messiah.”  That is: He is someone God has promised to Israel to do something for Israel.  He is present in the Jewish Scriptures, and predicted by the prophets.  He is not merely a prophet, but someone for whom God has the greatest of intention for – which is the deliverance of Israel from exile and bondage into the foremost place among all nations.  And to make sure he said something which sets Jesus apart from other Messiahs, other anointed ones, he says Jesus is the “Son of God.”  He wanted Jesus to know he was convinced that Jesus had some sort of dignity or station above the prophets, above John the Baptist.
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."  
When Christ says this, he is plainly setting Simon’s statement apart from the guesses of “people” in general about who Jesus is.  When “people” in general looked at Christ and listened to him, they heard something encouraging – apparently, they heard something they liked.  They liked the idea that the oppressors of God’s people like Ahab and his filthy wife Jezebel were going to get theirs, or that if one like Jeremiah had come, Israel would again be returned to the protection of God.  That is: people in general were looking to Jesus for something for themselves.  They wanted God for themselves, on terms they could understand.

But Jesus makes something clear here: Simon’s response is not that like that.  It doesn’t come from the place where Simon is thinking with and about his own flesh and blood.  Simon’s response comes to him from God, as a blessing.