This passage begins to answer the "who is Jesus?" question posed throughout the Gospel, especially in chapters 7—9. After prayer Jesus checks the disciples for a "Gallup Poll" reading of the multitudes: "Who do the crowds say I am?" The answers exactly parallel verses 7-9: the crowds believe that Jesus is some kind of prophet. Many people today also have an elevated view of Jesus; they see him as a great teacher or someone in touch with God's will. But for them Jesus is hardly a unique religious figure. This is why Jesus' question and Peter's answer are so crucial. When Jesus asks, "Who do you say I am?" he is trying to see if the disciples recognize his uniqueness. Prophets have abounded through the centuries, but only one is called the Christ, God's anointed. Peter's answer highlights Jesus' uniqueness.
In considering the uniqueness of Jesus in Peter's answer, it is easy to overstate Peter's meaning in this original context. The disciples eventually came to see that the Messiah is a divine-human figure, but Peter's confession did not have that full force when it was uttered here. The disciples had to learn about Jesus' divinity through his ministry as a whole. The confession of Jesus as Son of God in the Matthean parallel pushes toward this implication, but Peter's attempt to correct Jesus right after this confession in Matthew shows that he was not yet aware that Jesus possessed total divinity. Son could also be a regal title, as Psalm 2 and 2 Samuel 7:11-14 show.
What Peter is confessing is that Jesus is not merely a prophetic revealer of God's way, he is the deliverer who brings God's way, as Jesus has already proclaimed himself to be in 4:16-30. Jesus will stretch this foundational understanding of Peter's into new and higher categories as his own ministry proceeds, but the key step in getting there is to realize that Jesus' uniqueness goes beyond prophetic-teaching categories. Jesus is not the messenger; he is the message. The burden of the rest of Jesus' ministry is to show how that message will be delivered and who the message bearer is.
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