The Expository Files


Peter's Confession

Matthew 16:15-16

He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matt. 16:15-16).

Context of the Confession
Before we look at the confession itself, let's take a minute to better understand the context that surrounds Peter's confession.

Prior to Peter's confession, the Pharisees had demanded a sign of Jesus, a demand that He found distressing-He sighed deeply in his spirit (Mark 8:12)-and refused. Instead, he retreats to a boat and travels to the other side of the lake (Mark 8:11-13). And it wasn't the first time that He had retreated from his enemies. What do you suppose the disciples were thinking at this point? Surely, if He just showed them who He was, they'd have to believe! Or, if He won't show them, why doesn't He just wipe them all out? Why does he keep retreating?

After the trip to the other side of the lake, Jesus warns the disciples of the leaven of the Pharisees (Matt 16:5-6). It seems as if they'd sailed in silence from one side of the lake to the other-a silence that must have been deafening. The Lord had retreated from the Pharisees and not uttered a word since, leaving the apostles to replay the scene over and over in their minds, trying to understand what their master was doing.

The silence is broken by this warning. Then, Jesus returns to silence, leaving the disciples to interpret the warning. Their interpretation, however, is superficial, self-absorbed, and far off the mark. They supposed that their forgetfulness-they'd failed to bring bread-was the cause of this warning (Matt 16:7). And so Jesus issues to them a stern rebuke for their lack of understanding. He says, essentially, How is it that you don't get this? (Matt 16:11), and alludes to the prophecy of Isaiah 6 (Mark 8:18), which He had already used as a rebuke of the Jewish leaders. You can hear the undertone in His words: Do I need to apply these words to even you?

Upon reaching the other side of the lake, Jesus heals a blind man. Then, He seeks to make sure that the blind man doesn't tell anyone about it (Mark 8:22-26). Don't even go into the village, Jesus says. And this wasn't the first time that Jesus had done this. Not long ago, he had done the same thing after healing a dumb man (Mark 7:35-36).

This is the context of Peter's confession: Jesus is trying to get people not to tell others about His miracles. He is refusing to offer signs to the religious leaders and instead retreating from them, crossing the lake to get away. He scathingly rebukes the disciples for their lack of understanding, applying to them the harsh prophecy of Isaiah. This is the context of Peter's confession: retreat, rebuke, and repression. If the disciples weren't frustrated and perplexed-perhaps even despondent-at this point, it may have been an additional miracle.

But it is at this very time-maybe one of the lowest valleys of faith the disciples ever entered-that Jesus looks at them and says: Who do you say the Son of Man is?

Peter's Confession
Peter's confession was obviously an incredible confession of faith, but aside from that, there are four things stand out to me about his confession that can help us better understand the confessions that we make.

First, Peter's confession was a confession made in ignorance-or, at least, in some ignorance. Immediately after making this confession, he falls flat on his faith (pun intended) by standing in the way of God's plan (Matt 16:21-23). Later, he will try to stop Jesus from washing his feet (John 13:5-10) and declare the faith to do something which he won't do (John 13:36-38). Finally, he shows his lack of understanding when, at Jesus' arrest, he pulls out his sword and take a hack at Malchus (John 18.10-11). It's quite clear that all of the facts weren't in-at least, not in Peter's mind-when he made this confession.

But though it was a confession made in ignorance, it was also a confession made in understanding, as is made clear by Jesus next words to him: Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven (Matt 16:17). This doesn't, however, necessarily mean miraculous insight. This was not the first time that Jesus had been confessed (cf. Matt. 14:32-33; John 1:47-49) and there is no mention of miraculous insight at any previous confession. It seems better to understand his meaning as it being revealed by God through Jesus: cultivated through the months and years of Jesus' instructions; declared by Jesus himself (cf. John 5:19-27); confirmed by the miracles done (cf. John 20:30-31) through the father (cf. Acts 2:22). Although it was a confession made in ignorance, it was also a confession that was made in knowledge-a knowledge revealed by God through Jesus' teaching and miracles.

Third, it was a confession made in contradiction. Anyone reading the gospel narratives will at once see that Peter's confession stood in direct conflict with what others were saying. The religious leaders called Jesus demon-possessed and said that he was a Samaritan (John 8:48). Clearly, Peter's confession stands in contrast with those labels. But Peter's confession also stood in contrast with the more favorable epithets given (John the Baptist, Elijah or Jeremiah, one of the prophets; Matt 16:14). To call someone a prophet is one thing; to call him God's Messiah and son is quite different.

Finally, it was a confession with implications. Those aren't all clearly spelled out in this chapter, but they are clearly implied by the titles given: Christ (anointed one) and Son of God. If you acknowledge someone as your king (Christ), that means that you're acknowledging yourself to be his subject, that you will follow his lead, offering him full loyalty and devotion. Could it mean any less, then, to acknowledge someone as God's son? And this is precisely how we see the disciples living after the resurrection: full devotion to their king and God, regardless of what men say (cf. Acts 4:18-20).

So what, then, do we learn about our confessions from Peter's confession? First, confession must be based in knowledge, but it doesn't require full knowledge or direct revelation. Even without full insight, Peter fully confessed; there was no need to revise or amend the confession once he learned more. A confession that Jesus is the Christ is sufficient, even if it isn't fully understood. Second, confession that Jesus is the Christ will be in direct conflict with what the world believes and teaches about Jesus-whether they deny him outright or seek to call him a "great teacher." Third, confession implicitly requires submission to Jesus as king and God, a point that should tell us that confession is more than a one-time act, done in front of the church. Confession is daily spoken by one's life and choices. Finally, from the context of the chapter, confession requires faith even in the valleys of the spiritual journey.

By Nathan Ward
From Expository Files 13.10; October 2006