Background, Matthew 14
When Jesus heard about the death of John the Baptist he went across the Sea of Galilee, headed to a private place. However, the needy crowds went ahead of him by foot and met him when he landed. Moved with compassion, he healed their sick and multiplied food to feed over 5000 of them.
Key event: Walking on the water
Later in the day Jesus compelled the disciples to head back across the lake while he dismissed the crowd. Afterwards he finally went up into the mountain alone to pray. Rowing against the wind and buffeted by unruly waves, the disciples had gone some distance when Jesus walked out to them on the lake. When the disciples saw him they were afraid, fearing it was a ghost.
Jesus told the frightened men “Take courage, don’t be afraid, It is I.” Peter called out, “Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you on the water.”
Now that strikes me as a strange thing to say. Suppose it wasn’t Jesus? Suppose some other entity (maybe the ghost they were afraid of) had said, Come. Would Peter have still stepped out of the boat? Obviously he didn’t automatically recognize that it was Jesus, either by sight or by the sound of his voice…
In any case, Jesus said Come and Peter stepped out of the boat. Walking on the waves he headed to Jesus – until he saw what the wind was doing to the waves. Even more afraid, he began to sink, although with boisterous waves he was probably beginning to sink from the very first step. Up, and down, rising and sinking. Rising and sinking.
“Lord, save me!” He screamed, so Jesus grabbed his hand and said, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Once they were inside the boat, the wind died down. Hmmm. That would have been even more frightening than seeing a ghost. Storm one moment, no storm the next – and those in the boat worshiped Jesus, saying “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Key question: Who do you say that I am?
Up until that time, who exactly did they think Jesus was? With everything Jesus had done, including just feeding that crowd of over 5000 with 5 loaves and 2 fish, who did they think he was?
Even before that he had healed a man’s withered hand. He had healed the paralyzed man. He had cast out demons and healed everyone who was sick. He had spent a lot of time teaching them, explaining the parables, describing what was going to happen next.
He had performed miracles in their own towns. He had sent them out to do the same things he had been doing, and they did (see Chapter. 10). By now they should have known full well who he was, shouldn’t they? But they didn’t.
In Matthew 16 (and Mark 8) Jesus asked the disciples, “Whom do men say that I am?” They answered, some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets.
“But who do YOU say that I am?” Jesus asked them. Peter answered the question, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”
What did “the Christ” mean to Peter? According to Jewish tradition and teachings, it meant a natural human being, a man chosen and anointed by God to be the final king of Israel, one who would fulfill the prophesies about the coming Messiah. (See Judaism 01: Mashiach The Messiah http://www.jewfaq.org/mashiach.htm)
But if that man didn’t fulfill every one of those prophesies, that proved he wasn’t the true Messiah. The Christ would overthrow Rome, ruling and reigning on his own throne as the Son of David. He would be a warrior king, victorious in battle, majestic head of the kingdom of God on earth. “Messiah” did NOT mean a supernatural human being, God himself come in the flesh.
Peter was certain Jesus was the Christ, as he understood the Christ to be. After all, Jesus had been doing the same things prophets Elijah and Elisha had done, so he must surely be the Messiah. He was God’s son, like David was God’s son. Like many mighty warriors and prophets of old, all sons of the Living God.
But then Jesus began to explain about having to be killed and resurrected from the dead. That was NOT in the traditions. NOT in the definitions, the descriptions, the actions of the prophesied Messiah. The real Messiah would certainly not be killed, he would conquer and reign here and now – not die and have to be resurrected from the dead.
No wonder Peter rebuked Jesus. Despite Jesus’ teachings that the kingdom of God would be spiritual and not physical, Peter didn’t understand. The disciples still didn’t know exactly who Jesus was. And so Jesus sharply corrected Peter in front of everyone else. That must have made an indelible impression.
Key event: The Transfiguration
Soon afterward Jesus took Peter, James and John up into a high mountain. His appearance was completely changed, transfigured right in front of them as Moses and Elijah stepped out of heaven to talk with Jesus about his coming death (see Luke Chapter 9).
Peter, James and John were terrified. Not surprising at all! But Peter had to interrupt that conversation – “Let’s make booths for you, and Moses, and Elijah!” he exclaimed.
This time, Jesus didn’t correct Peter; God the Father himself spoke. He made it absolutely clear to them who Jesus is. “This is my beloved Son,” he explained. “Hear him!” (Mark 9:7) Not a suggestion, that was a command. HEAR him. Pay attention to him. Perceive the meaning of what he says. Believe him.
Surely now they realized exactly who Jesus was. Surely now they understood about the kingdom. Right?
Perhaps not. If they had, Peter wouldn’t have attempted a rescue mission. (See https://estherspetition.wordpress.com/2014/07/03/peter-fishing-industry-businessman/
The rest of them wouldn’t have fled for their lives and hidden from Roman soldiers and the Sanhedrin. They wouldn’t have doubted the women who first saw the risen Jesus.
They didn’t truly comprehend until after they saw him for themselves, after the Holy Spirit was poured out and they themselves were inhabited by Creator God.
Sometimes I think the church at large today is too much like the pre-resurrection Peter. Still needing more proof. Thankfully the Holy Spirit is more than willing to provide it.