Last week, we learned about different ways that people responded to Jesus and perhaps considered our own response to Jesus. This week we turn to varying expectations about what kind of king the Messiah would be and different people’s ability to recognize Jesus as the Messiah.
This week’s reading has a clear climax or hinge point: Peter’s three encounters with Jesus, recorded back-to-back by Matthew in chapter 16:13-17:13 (day 4 reading). First, Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah, then Jesus calls Peter a stumbling block to his ministry, and six days later Peter is invited to witness the miraculous and mysterious transfiguration.
Let’s back up for a moment and consider the mindset of the disciples leading up to these key events. Remember, this intimate group of 12 men is not a blank slate, they come with their own cultural expectations of what the Messiah will be like-- expectations any one of us would probably have held too if we had lived in 1st century Palestine. For the people of Israel, their entire history and identity is founded on waiting through the ages for their God to restore and bless them. The BIG PICTURE of salvation given in the Old Testament is deep and wide. It speaks of an expansive relational wholeness-- a salvation for all of creation in which the world is fully restored from its sin-corrupted state (fraught with brokenness and suffering) and regains right standing with God as King.
Within this BIG PICTURE view of salvation, there is also a clear focus on the salvation of Israel in which they are blessed as God’s chosen people with the intent that they would then become a blessing to the whole world. In the Old Testament, God repeatedly promises the Israelites that He would be their God and they would be His people, that He would make them into a great nation and that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12).
However, the people of Israel have either forgotten or misunderstood God’s original intention and their calling to be a blessing to all people. Their primary focus is an expectation that God will bring them religious freedom, political dominance and blessing through victory over their pagan oppressors, and they have narrowed the BIG PICTURE vision of salvation into a predominately NATIONAL salvation.
They are expecting the Messiah to be:
1. A victorious conqueror: a powerful figure with political authority and military prowess.
2. A crusader for Jewish ethnicity: in order to be “for” Israel, the Messiah would need to be “against” other nations.
3. A man of God: greater than Moses, blessed with divine power and glory to bring freedom for Israel.
This week’s readings start off with a disturbing story about the beheading of John the Baptist. Upon receiving the painful blow of John’s death, a grieving Jesus withdraws to be alone but ends up being followed by the crowds. Having compassion on them, he channels his own grief and attends to them with healings and the miraculous feeding of the 5000. Jesus shows himself to be radically different than either the merciless Herodian and Roman rule or the victorious conqueror people expected. Instead, Jesus is a King who chooses love and service over power and is even willing to suffer (which does lead to his true victory).
Jesus continues to demonstrate his divine power with miracle after miracle. The miraculous feedings of the 5000 and the 4000 not only echo the historical narrative of manna in the desert with Moses. They also make a bold and surprising statement about the gentiles (non-Jews) since the crowd of 5000 was a Jewish audience and the crowd of 4000 was non-Jewish. Although the gospel of Matthew is written with a Jewish audience in mind, the author is clearly showing that while the people of Israel are God’s chosen people, the gifts of this Messiah are not only for Israel. This is supported by Jesus healing the Canaanite woman’s daughter. We learn that faith trumps ethnicity and Jesus has come as Messiah for everyone, not just for the people of Israel. Jesus is modelling what the people of Israel had been called to but neglected-- to be a light and blessing to all nations.
What are the disciples thinking through all of this? They know Jesus is a man of God. They have had front row seats to watch Jesus perform miracle after miracle, showing his divine power and glory. They are terrified and awestruck when Jesus walks on water and then stills the wind. They listen to their teacher attentively, but Jesus’ upside down teachings often confuse them. They are definitely noticing the cultural and religious leaders becoming increasingly agitated by Jesus’ teaching. The tension is escalating. Jesus is vocal in contrasting his ways with those of the Sadducees and Pharisees. He challenges the Pharisees’ self-righteousness and ethnocentrism which stems from their “small picture” goal of a political and ethnic freedom. As Jesus proclaims an invitation into a deeper kind of freedom and unity with all people, the Pharisees simply can’t fit Jesus into their “box.”
The disciples are still fumbling for meaning through all of these experiences, not quite clear about what it all means until Jesus asks Peter that pivotal question: “Who do you say I am?” The importance of this question and Peter’s remarkable answer cannot be overemphasized. Jesus clearly affirms his identity when Peter, full of the Holy Spirit, responds, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Peter’s response is like a light switched on in a dark room. Why is his response so remarkable? Surely, the disciples had already discussed this possibility amongst themselves, but no one was able to come right out and say it with clarity or certainty until the Holy Spirit revealed the truth to this impetuous fisherman. Jesus responds to Peter saying, “on this rock I will build my church.” Far more than just predicting Peter’s future leadership role in the church, Jesus is emphasizing that the “rock” or the "foundation" of his Kingdom is not Peter himself, but the actual declaration that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
The puzzle pieces were finally starting to fall into for the disciples. However, shortly after this glorious moment for Peter, he shows his weakness by rebuking Jesus for talking about suffering and dying. Peter is truly a model disciple. In one moment he stands sturdy with Spirit-filled courage and wisdom, and the next he cowers in doubt, unbelief and fear. This is the man who would become the leader of the Church and yet he shared the very same human struggles that you and I wrestle with each day.
Next we head to the glorious account of the transfiguration. The three disciples witness something like Jesus’ humanity being peeled back and the glory of His deity being displayed. The brightness of his glory is as brilliant as the sun, and God the Father repeats his baptism proclamation over Jesus. Moses and Elijah are thought to be representations of the Law and the Prophets. The transfiguration scene is a powerful culmination showing that God has had a plan of redemption from the beginning and that the plan always included partnering with humanity. Now Jesus has invited three disciples into this glorious experience, showing that they (and we) have a role to play. The BIG PICTURE of salvation centers around an invitation (to all of us!) into purposeful partnership with God and with each other to bring wholeness to more and more of the world.
Jesus is the kind of king who conquers sin and death victoriously, not by might, but by selfless love. He comes to bring freedom not just for Israel, but for everyone. He radiates divine power and authority and teaches us how to find true heart-freedom. If this is the kind of king Jesus is, and if we are invited to be co-creators of His kingdom, then we truly get to be a part of the best story that the world has ever heard!
Day 1: Matthew 14:1-36
Day 2: Matthew 15:1-28
Day 3: Matthew 15:29-16:12
Day 4: Matthew 16:13 - 17:13
Day 5: Matthew 17:14-27
As you read through the daily readings for this week, reflect on the questions below. All the questions could apply in one way or another to each day’s reading, and you may find that they help you see a different side of Jesus’ identity and purpose when you ask them each day...
Where do you see Jesus revealed as a King of power, might, glory and authority in these chapters?
Where do you see Jesus revealed as a Messiah who is a gentle, loving, suffering servant king in these chapters?
God called Israel to both be blessed and be a blessing so...
How is God extending an invitation to you right now to be blessed by Him?
How is God extending an invitation for you to be a blessing?
Imagine Jesus asking you the question, “Who do you say I am?”
What have you been expecting Jesus to be or do for you in your life lately? How have you been susceptible to a narrow view instead of a BIG PICTURE view of Jesus’ purposes and the calling on your life?
Talk to Jesus in prayer about that.