In Matthew 16, Jesus’ fame and recognition among the Jews are on the rise. At this point in His ministry, people are starting to know who He is upon His arrival in their city. In the previous chapter, we see just how well-known and celebrated He has become. Matthew 15:29-30, “Departing from there, Jesus went along by the Sea of Galilee and having gone up on the mountain, He was sitting there. And large crowds came to Him, bringing with them those who were lame, crippled, blind, mute, and many others, and they laid them down at His feet; and He healed them.” While Jesus is retreating for some personal time upon a mountainside, the crowd hear of His arrival and immediately rush to Him with their sick and lame. After three days spent with the group Jesus plans to depart, but before He goes, He feels compassion for them and decides to feed the entire gathering of 4,000 men (+women and children.) To say Jesus was popular and well-liked among this large crowd would be an understatement at this point!
Interestingly, not long after this point when Jesus is alone with His disciples, He turns to them and asks them two simple questions. Matthew records them in Matthew 16:13-17, “Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” He *said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father, who is in heaven.” At first, Jesus asks His apostles who do OTHERS say that I am before He turns to them and asks the more personal question “…but who do YOU say that I am?” Jesus is looking to the apostles to see what level of faith and knowledge they have of Him. He recognizes that though they are following Him from town to town, this does not automatically translate to them having a genuine faith. These two questions and their answers show the different levels of faith and knowledge people had in Jesus back then and have in Him today.
There are those that, though they know Him and recognize His power, only see Him as a great man that can do great things for them. Just as the apostles responded to Jesus’ first question in Matthew 16, many among Jesus’ day only saw Him as a great prophet. We see this in John 4 when the woman at the well says, “I see that you are a prophet” after Jesus rightly describes details about her life. As the conversation continues, however, she realizes Jesus is much more than that and proclaims that the Messiah was in town. Sadly, many Jews in the day did not make it this next point in their recognition of who Jesus truly is. This lack of acknowledgment on the authority of Jesus directly affected how they treated and reacted to His message and actions.
A great example of this is found in John 5-6. In John 5, Jesus once again feeds a large group of people after spending time teaching them in length. This time, after Jesus leaves, the crowd decides to follow Him across the shore to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. On the surface, this seems like a great testament to the type of faith these people had in Jesus. Jesus, always knowing the hearts of man, sees through this and calls them out for following Him to get another meal. Jesus doesn’t reject them but decides to continue to teach them and reveal who is “I am the bread of life…”. This truth is a hard reality for them to grasp. On account of their surface-level faith in Him John records in John 6:66, “As a result of this, many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore.” They were ready to accept Him as a godly man or a prophet with extraordinary abilities but seeing Him as someone sent down by God was too much for them. Therefore, when His teachings become contrary to the culture or contrary to the norm, many people leave.
On the flip side, those who are closer to Christ and have a better knowledge of Him can have a stronger faith. While all this is going on in John 6, the apostles are nearby and observing everything. Jesus looks to them in John 6:67-68, “So Jesus said to the twelve, “You do not want to go away also, do you?” Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life.” The apostles fully recognize that Jesus is the Messiah and more than just a mere prophet. Therefore, when Jesus’ messages become difficult to understand or His actions become more revolutionary, they stick with Him. How we respond to the question asked by Jesus, “Who do you say that I am?” will decide how faithful we will be to Him in our endeavors as well. I imagine any Christian who is asked this question would be swift to confess Jesus’ divine position, but would our lives confess the same thing? When our actions are examined, does it reflect our verbal confession, or does it look more like we view Him merely a prophet or special person? Far too often, Christians of today confess Jesus verbally as the Son of God but physically do not live a life that reflects this declaration. How would you answer the questions asked by Christ, “Who do you say that I am?”