Now we will look at the question: “But who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15).
Jesus doesn’t want to know what the Apostles have heard among the crowds; He wants to know what they have come to believe about His identity.
And who speaks up? Peter, whose answer — “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” — earns the Lord’s praise: “Blessed are you, Simon [Son of John]! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:16–17).
It’s at this point that Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter, which is actually a name that didn’t previously exist: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). Peter, or, in Greek, Petros, is a play on the word for “rock,” petra.
It’s on the rock of Peter’s confession of Christ’s true identity that Jesus said His Church would be built. That’s why we recognize the authority of the Holy Father and, moreover, why we believe that the Pope, when he speaks authoritatively on faith and morals for the whole Church, enjoys the gift of infallibility from the Holy Spirit. That is, he is guided so that his teaching will not mislead us, because that would endanger our salvation.
We, too, must answer the question of who Jesus is as if He were addressing it directly to us. Do we really know Jesus personally, not just as an intellectual concept but as a person?
Prayer is certainly one way to get to know the Lord in this personal way — to develop the friendship the Lord wants us to have with Him. At the Last Supper Jesus said to the Apostles, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). Through prayer we enter that beautiful friendship.
Do you seek to know Jesus? Sometimes we are afraid to get too close to Him. We are afraid of what He might ask of us, or what He might tell us about our lives. Sometimes, though, we need to hear the difficult truth. The truth sets us free from our confusion and self-centeredness. And then we can look at Jesus and really see the beauty and the goodness of the Lord, which brings us the happiness for which we were created.
St. Augustine said at the beginning of his Confessions, “You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.” That’s why we want to get to know Him personally and to love and follow Him faithfully. Sure, He might point out things we have to change, but we all have to change in order to grow. Cardinal Newman said, “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” We don’t change the essentials of our Faith, of course. But we change in the way we respond to God as we grow to know Him and ourselves better.
And we can even see that St. Peter had to undergo a change of mind and heart. Let’s pick up right after Jesus has praised him:
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Matthew 16:21–23).
Peter had just identified Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. And in turn Jesus identified Peter as the rock — the foundation — of the Church. But when Jesus foretells His Passion and suffering, revealing that He’s not going to be a glorious earthly Messiah with a great kingdom on earth, Peter pushes back.
Now, for Peter and the rest of the Apostles, what Jesus was saying would have been shocking. The Messiah they expected was a glorious earthly king. He was going to establish the kingdom as it had been under King David and King Solomon — even greater than that. He would drive the Romans out and install his followers in positions of civil authority. But now Jesus is talking about being betrayed by the leaders of the people, handed over to the Romans, and put to death.
So Peter takes Jesus aside and pleads with Him, almost scolding Him for saying that He’s going to suffer and die. Jesus sees the eyes of the Apostles on them and realizes that this is a teachable moment. He says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are thinking the thoughts of men, not of God.” In other words, “The Father may have revealed my identity to you, but now you’re not open to His plan. You’re thinking about what human beings want — earthly power and prestige.”
Remember that Satan had tempted Jesus to use His power to do great deeds so that He would become not just the center of attention, but the ruler of a vast domain. What Satan was really trying to do was to lead Jesus away from the Cross. Even though he didn’t realize it, Peter was doing the same thing.
Finding Strength in Jesus
All of us have to grow in our understanding of who Jesus is. We can’t try to force Him to be something more convenient for us, as St. Peter did. It’s one thing simply to say that He’s Our Lord, but we have to appreciate that fully.
Jesus is like a mirror that helps us to see who we are, a mirror that will always tell us the truth. What do we learn in this mirror before Christ? First of all, we have to recognize that we are sinners, because if we don’t recognize that we are sinners, then we fail to recognize our need for a Savior. He said that He “came to seek and to save the lost,” but we have to realize first that we are lost (Luke 19:10).
Secondly, we must remember that we all have weaknesses and that Jesus is our strength. As He told the apostles at the Last Supper, “[A]part from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). We can’t practice any of the virtues of the Christian life without God’s grace assisting us. We would fail, and fail miserably.
Peter did. Not only did he try to dissuade Jesus from His mission, but remember that he also denied his friendship with Jesus three times during Our Lord’s Passion. We are all weak, and so we need Christ as our strength.
Third, we have to recognize our burdens so that we can accept Jesus’ invitation, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). It’s only if we recognize the help we need from Jesus that we can accept that beautiful invitation.
And finally, we have to recognize our pride — our judgmental attitudes and our anger — so that we can learn from Jesus, who said, “[L]earn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29).
It can be very hard to accept these things about ourselves — that we are sinners, that we are weak, that we are burdened, that we can be proud and judgmental and hard on people. But when we accept our faults, Jesus doesn’t use them to oppress us; rather, He lifts us out of them. He gives us that truth that will set us free from our burdens, the truth that all of us need if we’re going to find true happiness in this world.
We must not close our hearts to Him. It is when we close Jesus out, not when we let Him in, that our burdens become unbearable.
In the end, like Peter and the other Apostles, we all have to answer that question: “Who do you say that I am?” Is Jesus number one in your life? If He’s not, you have to reshuffle your priorities, because if Jesus isn’t number one, everything is out of order. But if Jesus is number one, everything else will follow from that, because every other love we have — for our families, for our friends, for our communities, and even for ourselves — flows first from love of the Lord.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Do I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?
- Am I afraid of what Jesus might ask of me if I get too close to Him in friendship?
- Have I accepted my failures and shortcomings so that I can benefit from the strength of Jesus?
- How would I respond to this question of Jesus if it were addressed directly to me: “Who do you say that I am?”