What vs. Who ...

Today is the celebration of Peter in the liturgical church calendar. In the scripture reading for today, Matthew records this scene of Simon's life:

Matthew 16:13-19

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, but others Elijah, and 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 Messiah, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."


First of all, I like that having just visited Caesaria Philippi, the place in which Jesus declares Peter as a rock looks something like this:

It wasn't out in a desert or in a lush green forest that Jesus talks about Simon being a rock - it was in the vicinity of THIS substantive rock. So much of the geography of the land of Israel contributes to the stories.

Second, earlier in the life of calling the disciples, Jesus asked some of them, "What do you want?" or as some translations say, "What are you seeking/looking for?" (John 1:38). But now, after a few years of this former fisherman leaving his nets to follow Jesus, Simon is asked a different level of question: "Who do you say that I am?" The question is deeper than just merely requiring a factual answer or description - for in declaring who Simon believed Jesus to be, Simon also revealed a bit of his relationship and commitment to Jesus.

For example, a husband can respond to his wife asking "who do you say that I am?" with her name, height, eye color, and occupation. That response says something about how he is relating to and/or what he values in his wife. Or he could say, "You are my beloved, given to me, a precious, beloved child of God and deep lover of life and beauty..." This answer reveals something far different about how he knows her, what he values about her, and how he connects with her. Whenever we describe something/one, I think we describe our relationship to that something/one.

A few years after following Jesus, the "what do you wants" don't seem as important now as the "who do you want." I instantly think of my daily prayers and life longings - honestly, too many days I spend more time interceding/requesting and focusing on the what's than the who. Or in family and friendships, there is, sadly, sometimes a subtle, subconscious what am I getting from time/space with this person vs. just being with a person for who they are. (I'm sure I'm the ONLY one who does this ;)

Simon doesn't answer the "who" question with mere facts. His declaration that Jesus is Messiah - means that everything Simon, as a good Jewish boy would believe is true about Messiah, affects how he will live. It reveals how Simon is connected to this Rabbi... he is more than a good teacher and superhuman curiousity. He is Messiah. And in this moment, Jesus - realizing that Simon could not have conjured up this answer (with all its implications) on his own, renames Simon - you are Petros and on this petra I will build my church...

Name changes in the Bible...always signify a new direction...a new focus...a new assignment. Peter has moved from a relationship with Jesus as a "what do you want?" to a "who do you want?" The name change almost marking the spot where Peter staked his life not on a task/what - but on a who. 

Would he do it perfectly? Thank goodness no! I take great comfort in Peter's honest portrayal of imperfection. But I sure want to pursue church and disciple building from a posture of who rather than from a posture what

  • What does this stir in you?
  • How might you celebrate Peter today?
  • What parts of Peter's life do you connect to most and why?
  • Who do you say Jesus is? What does that say about you?




Paula GambleComment