In today’s well-known passage from Matthew’s gospel, we find Jesus in the region of Caesarea Philippi in the far north of Israel, near to the source of the river Jordan. This was one of their stopping points on their journey to the Mount of Transfiguration. It is here that he asks his disciples a fascinating question… “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” Their response would show how “in touch” they were with the society and culture that they were part of. From the response of the disciples though, it is clear that the people of that area had no grasp that Jesus himself was the ‘Son of Man’.
The title ‘Son of Man’ is one that Jewish people would have been very familiar with. It occurs 107 times in the Old Testament for example, and typically means an individual person as a part of the human race – in other words a human being, or literally a son of mankind. In Daniel though we learn of one “like a Son of Man” who will be exalted. But what does it mean in this context?
The significance of this is that in his first coming Jesus had to come as the ‘Son of Man’, the suffering servant, in order to identify himself in his humanity in order to take on the sin of the world, to come if you like as the second Adam, and to fulfil Old Testament prophecy. Yet in doing this he never lost his deity. He was fully man and fully God. We can therefore look to Jesus as the author and finisher of our salvation, the one who represents the human race because He shared our humanity, but was perfect. The point is this…if the Jewish people had fully understood prophecy in Hebrew Scripture, they would have realised that there are two kinds of Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament – the “Suffering Servant” prophecies (seen in the Servant Songs of Isaiah and elsewhere, and in some of the psalms of David), and also the “Davidic Messiah” of the conquering triumphal King who will subdue the enemies of God, establish the Kingdom and bring in worldwide peace, reigning from Jerusalem.
So what the Jews in Jesus’ time missed is that the Messiah had to come twice for these prophecies to be fulfilled. First, the Messiah – Jesus – had to come as the ‘Son of Man’ to identify with all of humanity – like a second Adam – and to be the ultimate sacrifice to conquer sin and death once and for all. Second, the Messiah – Jesus – had to return in his second coming as the ‘Son of David’ / ‘Son of God’ as a conquering King in all his resplendent glory. This would accomplish many things, not least of which is the “grafting” of the Gentiles (non Jews) to the Jews. In the Old Testament the Jews were called to be a “light to the nations”. In the New Testament, the Church is called to be a light to the Jews. It was always God’s plan for this.
What isn’t apparent from the text itself is that Caesarea-Philippi was not always called such; this was the name given to the region in the early Roman period. But the region was originally known as Banias, and then became known as Panion or Paneas in the Hellenistic period which preceded the Roman period. Its history was filled with conflict, and for many years it was not in the hands of the Jewish people. In this time, it was known for the cluster of sacred shrines dedicated to pagan gods and most notoriously Pan, the pagan God associated with nature. This explains why the region used to be called Panion, and the subsequent spiritual ‘blindness’ of the people who didn’t recognise Jesus as being the ‘Son of Man’. Archaeological evidence in support of this still exists today.
With that in mind, we can see why Simon Peter’s response to Jesus’ question “Who do you say I am?” is so significant. Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of death will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” It is so important that we understand who Jesus is. If we think Jesus was a mere man, then his sacrifice means nothing. If we don’t believe that there will be a second coming, then where is our hope? In Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit we have been given privilege and authority; we may seek to bind up the brokenness that we encounter in this world through service and prayer, and to loose or release people from spiritual bondage into their full potential in Christ. Let us pray that we might not be spiritually blind, but might welcome Jesus the Messiah and say Lord, may your kingdom come, may your will be done. Let us pray that as we seek to exercise the responsibility that comes with privilege and authority, we may have opportunities to bind up the brokenness that we encounter in this world through service and prayer, and to loose or release people from spiritual bondage into their full potential in Christ. Amen