Peter’s famous confession in Caesarea Philippi is to tell Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”?
“Messiah” is a Hebrew word that means “anointed one.” To be anointed was to have holy oil ceremonially poured or smeared on some part of your body, usually the head. In the Old Testament this happens mainly to kings and priests; and sometimes to prophets. When Peter says, “You are the Messiah,” he means “You are the anointed one,” meaning “You are the king/priest/prophet expected by Israel.”
When he calls Jesus “the Son of the living God,” the same reasoning applies. In the Old Testament, the “son of God” is most often the king. Sometimes it refers collectively to the people, Israel. It is also used of a heavenly figure. Put all this together and Peter proclaims Jesus to be the promised prophet, king, and high priest of Israel.
Traditionally we think of Jesus as prophet, priest, and king, probably because these were the figures who were “anointed” by God. The Westminster Confession and Catechisms have long sections on Jesus as prophet, priest, and king. Calling Jesus by these titles has consequences. They are not just honorific, they have deep meaning.
To call Jesus a prophet is to see him mostly outside of the established religious institutions. The prophets paid close attention to the moral life of the people and the leaders. They predicted the dire consequences of disobeying God’s law.
Jesus never calls himself a prophet; but he acts like one. He upholds the moral law of the Old Testament. He says that at the heart of the old morality, based on God’s law, there is one core truth, which is love. Start from there, and all the rest falls into place.
To call him a priest is a bit more consequential. Priests worked within the religious establishment. Since he was not part of their exclusive group (although his mother did come from a priestly family), the claim that Jesus is a priest would have been a challenge to the priests actually holding office at the time. They accuse him of blasphemy and eventually crucify him for it. Certainly Jesus is a religious reformer, as we see in the disturbance when he drives the commercial interests out of the Temple.
But Jesus never calls himself a priest either. But his followers, especially after his resurrection, call him the great high priest who was to come and renew the people’s faith. As priest Jesus fulfills and completes the religion of God’s people, revealing its true character, boiling down its elaborate rituals into one simple meal of bread and wine, representing God’s saving, liberating, loving presence.
But the most substantial claim made by Peter when he calls Jesus “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” is the inference that Jesus is king. If he is king, the people actually holding political office are false usurpers. This makes him a political revolutionary. The leaders see this very clearly and have him crucified for sedition. It is this, kingly, political aspect of being the anointed one that Jesus proceeds to talk about as he continues to respond to Peter’s confession.
Peter is realizing that Jesus demands our complete allegiance and loyalty, in the moral, religious, and the political arenas. There can be many prophets, even working at the same time. There can be many priests, although only one official High Priest. But there can only be one king. When Jesus allows himself to be called king, it is a direct challenge to whomever happens to hold the title of king.
The people expected the Messiah, the anointed one, to be a king. They hoped for a political leader who would be like his ancestor, King David, and liberate the nation from its enemies by force, so they would be free forever. The people are willing to call Jesus a prophet; but he doesn’t look like the promised anointed king. So they don’t identify him as such.
Jesus does not come to reform or restore the political order. Not in the sense of a new kind of government or constitutional framework which is imposed by force. He doesn’t come to be chief executive or commander-in-chief. In fact he rejects that kind of kingship and power way back at the beginning of his ministry when Satan tempts him with it in the wilderness. His kingdom, as he says to Governor Pilate in a different gospel, is “not of this world.”
But his kingdom is in this world. Jesus is starting a new political order if by that we mean a new community that lives according to new rules and standards, but which is voluntary. Everyone is invited into this community; but only some know themselves to be called to it. Jesus establishes this community as his church; the Greek word for church is “ecclesia”. It means “called out.” His community consists of people called out of the world dominated by Caesar and Pilate, and gathered into his new community, ruled by him as king through the Holy Spirit.
Jesus says Peter is specially blessed. Jesus declares Peter to be the foundation upon which Jesus’ new community will be built.
Jesus intends Peter to be the leader of the church. And then he gives several important central characteristics of this church, moving forward.
First, he says “the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” The gates of Hades represent both death and the condemnation of hell. This community will be a refuge against these awesome powers that cripple and corrupt human life. Because it will be rooted in his resurrection, the church will be a place of eternal life. It will be a place where people are connected to and participate in the very life of God.
Jesus says, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” As Jesus did not come to the world for condemnation, neither does his church make it its business to condemn, reject, judge, or punish people. Rather it is a place where God’s love overpowers death and banishes condemnation. It is a place of forgiveness, peace, hope, and compassion. It is a place of justice and equality.
Jesus also intends this new community to be the gateway, the entrance, to the Kingdom of Heaven. They will have the “keys” to unlock the mystery of God’s saving presence with and among us.
Finally, this new community will be the venue for the interpretation of the law. The church will decide what Scriptures are binding, or how loosely to interpret them.
Later, in chapter 23, Jesus will rail against the scribes and Pharisees because they “lock people out of the kingdom of heaven.” It was the religious establishment that was binding people under a strict and uncompromising legalism, even while they were more lax towards themselves and their rich friends.
Clearly Jesus does not give the church these keys to the kingdom so they can lock people out, or demand an admission fee. They are not given to make faith more difficult. The keys are for opening. Jesus intends the keys he has entrusted the church with to unlock the Kingdom of Heaven so people may come in. If people are not allowed in, it will be the fault of the church. They had the key and didn’t use it as it was intended.
The church, the gathering of people who have been called out of a world dominated by death and condemnation, is supposed to witness to Jesus’ welcoming, inclusive, accepting love. We are supposed to make the Kingdom of Heaven more accessible, more available, and more present to people. He orders his church to be a community of forgiveness, healing, restitution, and liberation.
It is not a place where every literal detail of every law is absolutely binding on everyone. Rather it is a place where the gathered community, guided by the Spirit, administers with the love of our anointed king the keys of binding and loosing. The community decides what is binding and what may be more loosely interpreted. He gives the community awesome power here.
The last thing Jesus says is that they should not go around telling people he is the Messiah. Messiah was a word with a lot of baggage. He didn’t want to have to define himself relative to this baggage. The worst thing that could happen would be if people argued and chose up sides over whether he is the Messiah or not, and no one changes their lives. He didn’t want people to be distracted about this or that title, or doctrine, or theological category. He wanted people to live together according to the love of God he reveals.
He also does not want his Messiahship to be reduced to a verbal proposition that people cognitively agree with or not. Even if we don’t tell anyone in words he is the Messiah; by all means we should live our lives convicted of the truth that he is the Messiah, God’s anointed. People will know he is the Messiah by the quality of our discipleship.
So who do you say that he is? And how is who you say he is expressed in your actions? Is Jesus your prophet, who shows us the moral life in its integrity? Is Jesus your priest, who by giving his life reconciles us to God and each other? Is Jesus your king, the one whose will you obey, the one who shapes our life together, the one who welcomes us into a new community, the Kingdom of Heaven?