The question for the disciples came from Jesus himself, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The problem for Christians today in answering this question might be how to make sense of Jesus’ humanity in the context of his true divinity. For Jesus’ apostles, standing face to face with the flesh and blood of their friend and teacher, the relevant issue seems not to have been was Jesus God, but what sort of man has God sent to us in Jesus.
In puzzling out an answer to Jesus’ question, the disciples drew on what they heard from others and perhaps what they themselves were struggling to figure out: people say you might be John the Baptist, or Elijah or some other prophet. They might have been wondering as they spoke these answers whether Jesus was more than a prophet. Could Jesus be the Messiah? It is difficult, however, to imagine the disciples, all first-century Jewish monotheists, looking at Jesus, even in light of miraculous healings, exorcisms and feedings, and saying, “We think you are God.”
But faith revealed this to Peter. When Jesus asked the disciples to answer the question for themselves, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered boldly, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus affirmed Peter in his answer by telling him: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” But what had been revealed to Simon son of Jonah? Was it that only divine revelation could unveil the faith necessary to affirm Jesus’ messiahship?
Or was it Peter’s faith that had allowed the revelation of Jesus as “the Son of the living God” to emerge? The title “son of the living God” does not necessarily imply more than messianic identity (see 2 Sm 7:14 or Ps 2:7), though clearly by the time Matthew’s Gospel was written, belief in the divinity of Jesus, however inchoate, was emerging. Jesus is affirming both the messianic identity that Simon proclaimed and the depths of Jesus’ divinity that the disciples could not yet comprehend fully but Peter brashly named in faith.
Even more, though, it is through Simon’s proclamation that Jesus makes clear that a true understanding of “who he is” is a “revelation,” an insight given by God, just as the faith given to the “infants” in Mt 11:25 was a “revelation.” Upon this revelation, Simon is given a new name, Petros, which all the Gospels attest Jesus gave to Peter (Mk 3:16, Lk 6:14, Jn 1:42). The Greek word petros, “rock,” translates the Aramaic kepha and indicates not just the faith of Peter but his function as the foundation rock of the church. It is not Peter, mind you, who builds the church, but Jesus himself who “on this rock...will build my church.”
And the rocks with which Jesus would continue to build would surprise his apostles, especially when Paul received his own “revelation” of the risen Lord (Gal 1:12, 16). The apostles were wary of Paul when he came to Jerusalem because “they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple” (Acts 9:26). Could Jesus build the church with Paul, the persecutor of the earliest disciples? Could the one who ripped stones off the foundation now construct like a skilled master builder? The apostles would need to accept that Paul had been chosen to continue to build the church.
Jesus built on the faith of Peter, who had denied him three times, and he would build with the faith of Paul, who had persecuted the church of God. Indeed, Paul continued the work of the Twelve, planting churches throughout the Roman Empire. Paul acknowledged that on human terms he was “unfit to be called an apostle” (1 Cor 15:9), but the Second Letter of Timothy presents Paul offering his last testament, in which he confesses that “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” The faith Peter confessed was the faith that Paul maintained and is the faith handed on to us, by which we are built and by which we build the church today.