Episode 27: Discover Jesus in Matthew (5) Who is Jesus?
Dan and Laurence get to the heart of the matter in episode 5 of our series on Matthew’s Gospel. They set out to answer the question: “Who is Jesus?” by focusing on Matthew 16, where the disciple Peter declares what he thinks. In the space of just a few verses, four different phrases to describe Jesus emerge and they explore the meaning of each of them in turn. Join Dan and Laurence as they put the pieces together to arrive at a full answer to “Who is Jesus?”
Dan and Laurence start the episode by reflecting on the conversations they’ve had so far in the series, which are all about trying to discover Jesus in the gospel of Matthew. They note that a lot of the content they have already discussed has been building a portrait of the man from Nazareth, but aim in this conversation to pull it all together to help fill in the detail of who he really was.
A pivotal moment: Who is Jesus?
They quickly identify Matthew 16:13-17 as a key moment in the story. Up until this point, the narrative has been building the identity of Jesus with sections of the gospel that concentrate on whether Jesus has authority, or how people react to his teaching and his healing miracles. And then Jesus takes his closest friends to a location in the far north, to Caesarea Philippi, and asks them the crucial question.
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”Matthew 16:13-16
Within this passage, and Peter’s response, we have some key titles of Jesus to consider. These are the answers to the question, “Who is Jesus?” He is the Son of Man, the Christ and the Son of God. Dan and Laurence decide to look at these in turn to try to understand a bit more about what they tell us about Jesus.
But before they do, they turn to another crucial moment in the narrative of Matthew’s gospel, where again these titles appear. This time it’s during the trial of Jesus before the high priest, the night before he was crucified.
And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”Matthew 26:63-64
Again the three titles appear at the same point; the Christ, the Son of God and the Son of Man. Jesus affirms that he is all three. So, what do they mean?
Jesus was the Son of Man
This was the title that Jesus liked to use for himself, (used 30 times in Matthew). Dan heads back into the Old Testament to understand what “the Son of Man” means, and in particular to Daniel 7:9 which is part-way through a vision of how God takes control of the kingdoms of men to set up the kingdom of God. The prophet Daniel sees a depiction of God seated where there are thrones, and then later, “one like a son of man” comes on the clouds of heaven and is seated beside God, from whom he receives power and authority and an everlasting kingdom, (Daniel 7:13-14). This is clearly the inspiration for Jesus claiming that the Son of Man would be seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven in Matthew 26.
The term son of man is an idiomatic expression that means “one of the class of mankind”, i.e. a human being. So the vision in Daniel 7 is of a human ascending and being exalted to God’s right hand. When Jesus uses the phrase for himself, he is both acknowledging that he is a human being, but also claiming that he is the Son of Man who people were expecting to come and be given authority.
This is exactly what Matthew directs his readers to understand. Laurence and Dan take a look at Matthew 9:2-8 and note how Jesus proved that he, the Son of Man, “had authority on earth to forgive sins”, by healing the paralytic. They discuss how some interpret this to mean that Jesus must be in God in some sense. But the gospel record makes it very clear the crowds “glorified God, who had given such authority to men” (Matthew 9:8), showing that the great wonder of the event is that Jesus had received authority from God, not that he intrinsically had it. This is precisely the sort of delegation of authority anticipated in Daniel 7.
Jesus was the Christ
Moving on, Laurence and Dan consider the term “Christ” (used 17 times in Matthew) and note how it is tied together with the “Son of David” (used 9 times in Matthew) right from the opening of the book in Matthew 1:1. This means it is closely linked to the term for the true king in the line of David.
Christ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for Anointed, which is Messiah. When kings in the Old Testament were chosen they were anointed with oil, so the one chosen for the role was called the anointed, or the Messiah. This became the title used for the future king who was anticipated to come to save the people who had been without a king or kingdom for so long. Matthew’s claim, alongside the other gospels and the rest of the New Testament, is that Jesus is the anticipated Messiah, the Christ. Laurence and Dan look back at Psalm 2:1-6 to see how the term Anointed is used for God’s chosen king. They remember that they had already spent some time in this Psalm, earlier in the series, when they discovered its connection to the baptism of Jesus and his wilderness temptations, (see the second episode in this series: Tempted by the Devil).
Jesus was the Son of God
Finally, they turn to the last of the main titles of Jesus, noting that he is called the Son of God 8 times in Matthew. They look at two occasions when Jesus calms stormy waters. After the first, the disciples with him exclaim wonder saying, “What sort of man is this?” (Matthew 8:23-27). When they immediately reach land, however, Matthew records how two demon possessed men come to meet them, and recognise Jesus immediately as the Son of God! (Matthew 8:28-29). After the second storm is calmed later in the narrative, the disciples have now a better understanding of who Jesus is, and they too exclaim, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 14:32-33).
Laurence and Dan think about how the term Son of God conveys that Jesus had God’s power. Again, they discuss how this is sometimes interpreted as meaning that Jesus is God, because only God has power over the wind and the waves. However, it is not unheard of in the Old Testament when prophets are given authority and power over the weather by God. And if Jesus was God with intrinsic power and authority, this wouldn’t be in keeping with everything seen in the terms used so far.
Dan quotes from the New Testament writer N.T. Wright (or Tom Wright) who discusses the term “Son of God” within his commentary on Matthew.
It’s important to be clear that at this stage the phrase ‘son of God’ did not mean ‘the second person of the Trinity’. There was no thought yet that the coming king would himself be divine—though some of the things Jesus was doing and saying must already have made the disciples very puzzled…But it’s important, if we are to understand the present passage, that we don’t read into it more than is there. What Peter and the others were saying was: you are the true king. You’re the one Israel has been waiting for. You are God’s adopted son, the one of whom the Psalms and prophets had spoken.Wright, T. (2004). Matthew for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 16-28 (p. 7). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
N.T. Wright rightly argues that the “Son of God” does not convey any sense that Jesus was God, and far less anything to do with the Trinity. It is linked right back to the expected anointed king of Israel who would be the Son of God.
Who is Jesus in other scriptures?
Laurence and Dan reflect on what they have discovered in Matthew by looking at other scriptures that answer the same question; Who is Jesus? They turn to Acts 2:22 and find Peter preaching the same message:
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know.Acts 2:22
According to the book of Acts, Jesus is a man who was approved to be the chosen one of God by the miracles and wonders that God did through him, which showed that he had the authority from God. This builds to the climax of the resurrection of Jesus, which, Peter continues, shows that God has exalted him as Lord and Christ, (Acts 2:36), like the vision of the Son of Man in Daniel 7.
Laurence and Dan finish off the conversation by looking forward to the final episode in the series where they will think more about the implications of understanding Jesus as God’s Son, an exalted human being, specifically in relation to his death and resurrection.