36. Peter's Great Confession (Luke 9:18-21)

Gospel Parallels §122
Audio (19:38)

James J. Tissot, 'Saint Peter' (1886-94)
James J. Tissot, 'Saint Peter' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, 13.6 x 9.7 in., Brooklyn Museum, New York.

"18  Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, 'Who do the crowds say I am?' 19  They replied, 'Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.' 20  'But what about you?' he asked. 'Who do you say I am?' Peter answered, 'The Christ of God.' 21  Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone." (Luke 9:18-21, NIV)

There are times when we are called upon to clearly state what we believe -- no more time for religious words or theories -- just time to come out and say what it is we believe. This lesson is one of those times for Jesus' disciples.

Jesus, grieving over the murder of his cousin, John the Baptist, is seeking solitude where the crowds will not follow. The Feeding of the Five Thousand takes place in a relatively unpopulated area near the town of Bethsaida, at the north end of the Sea of Galilee.

Location of Caesarea Philippi
Location of Caesarea Philippi (larger map)

Both Matthew's and Mark's accounts indicate that Jesus now heads for Caesarea Philippi, a Roman city about 20 miles north of the northern shore of the sea of Galilee (see the account in Matthew 16:13-21 and Mark 8:27-31). They don't report that he went to the city itself, but to the "region of Caesarea Philippi" (Matthew) and "the villages around Caesarea Philippi" (Mark). And Jesus didn't go to teach or preach, but to be alone and pray and prepare himself for the next part of his mission -- a much more difficult and confrontational time, far from the familiar towns and villages of his native Galilee. Things are about ready to change, and change quickly.

Today's lesson is a watershed in the Synoptic Gospels' account of Jesus' life and ministry. Prior to this he ministers in Galilee, training his disciples and helping them understand who he is. From now on, his ministry orbit moves more and more to his destiny in the Holy City, Jerusalem, and death.

As Jesus is preparing for this, so also must he prepare his disciples at the same time.

Luke's Record of Jesus' Prayer Life

Matthew and Mark tell us of the trip to Caesarea Philippi, but not about Jesus' praying. Luke tells us about Jesus' prayers, but not about the trip. More than any other Gospel writer, Luke preserves the disciples' recollections about Jesus' prayer life.

  • Prayer at his baptism (3:21).
  • "Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed" (5:16).
  • All night prayer on a mountainside before choosing the apostles (6:12).
  • Prayer on the mountain prior to his transfiguration (8:28-29).
  • Jesus' praying on one occasion, triggering the disciples to ask how to pray, and Jesus' teaching of "The Lord's Prayer" (11:1ff).
  • Parables and teachings on praying persistently (18:1-11).
  • Seeing the temple as a "house of prayer" (19:46).
  • Exhortation to pray to escape the terrible events of the end time and stand before the Son of Man (21:36).
  • Prayer for Peter, that his faith may not fail (22:32).
  • Prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, while sweating drops of blood (22:40-46).

Many of these references we find nowhere else but in Luke's Gospel. How thankful I am that prayer was on Luke's heart and that he was guided by the Holy Spirit to record these for us!

Praying Privately (Luke 9:18a)

"Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him...." (9:18)

I wonder what it was like to be around Jesus for three years and watch him pray as a way of life? I seriously doubt that prayer was a way of life for his disciples before they started "hanging out" and traveling with Jesus. Sure, they probably offered the rote prayers prescribed before meals -- at least when their wives and children were within earshot. It appears that Jesus prayed these "standard" prayers, too. Though the Talmud hadn't been written yet, it indicates a number of prescribed prayers, both for the home and in the synagogue.

I belong to an evangelical tradition that values extemporaneous prayer over memorized prayers or prayerbooks. But I'm learning that I am richer for using others' prayers to address God also. Often others have words that seem to fit me sometimes and make prayer easier.

But I am sure that Jesus' practice of going to lonely places to commune with his Father included more than rote prayers. When you examine Jesus' prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (22:39-46), he asks his closest disciples to come with him and watch and pray with him as he retreats farther into the olive grove. And though they drop off to sleep, they remember the gist of his prayer: "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done." This tells us that Jesus must have been praying out loud. He isn't "leading in prayer" for a group of people; this is a very personal, private, gut-wrenching prayer. The ancient Jews commonly prayed out loud, though Paul indicates that they could pray quietly if they desired (1 Corinthians 14:28).

Just as Jesus had prayed all night prior to calling the Twelve Apostles, now he has drawn apart for a special, private time of prayer with his disciples. But why was this time of prayer in the region of Caesarea Philippi special? Three momentous changes are upon him:

  1. He is about to ask for a confession of faith from his disciples,
  2. He is about to inform his disciples of his crucifixion for the first time, and
  3. The locus of his ministry is soon to move from Galilee in the northern portion of Palestine to Judea in the south.

And so he prays.

Reporting the Rumors and Speculations (Luke 9:18b-19)

"Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, 'Who do the crowds say I am?'
They replied, 'Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life'." (9:18-19)

He seems to be in the midst of his prayer time when he turns from his Father to his disciples and asks a simple question: "Who do the crowds say I am?" When he asks the disciples the second question he has planned, he doesn't want speculation and tentativeness, so first he allows the disciples to voice all the speculations:

  1. John the Baptist. While some sects of first century Judaism denied the resurrection (i.e. the Sadducees), the disciples -- and Jesus -- embraced an important tenant of Pharisaism: a belief in the resurrection. Perhaps John has been raised from the dead.
  2. Elijah was widely expected to return at the end of the age to usher in the era of the Messiah (Malachi 4:5-6). There was speculation that Jesus was Elijah, though later Jesus clearly identifies the promise of Elijah's coming with John the Baptist (Mark 9:12-13; Matthew 17:11-13).
  3. One of the prophets. Other prophets, such as Jeremiah, were also part of the speculation. Various people had appeared in the early first century who had claimed to be one of the prophets resurrected.310

Herod Antipas had heard the same rumors and had wondered. (9:7-9). The disciples' report was finished. They had voiced the rumors, and now were silent.

A Time for Personal Faith and Confession (Luke 9:20)

"'But what about you?' he asked. 'Who do you say I am?'
Peter answered, 'The Christ of God.'" (9:20)

It is possible to keep an academic distance from Jesus -- reporting what one religion believes or what some person says. But the time for reporting others' theories is over. Jesus is asking his disciples what they themselves believe. "You've told me what others say about me. But what about you? What do you believe about me?"

It's a question that leaves us quite defenseless. We can hem and haw. But there is the question, waiting for us to answer. It is an important question, a vital question, a question that deserves to be answered squarely and honestly.

Peter answers for the disciples with simplicity and directness: "You are the Christ of God."

Jewish Beliefs about the Messiah

As we've discussed before, the Greek word christos (transliterated "Christ") and the Hebrew word māshîaḥ (transliterated "Messiah") mean exactly the same thing. They both mean "anointed one," literally, one who has had oil rubbed or poured on him.

In the classic accounts of kings being anointed by Samuel, the prophet would pour oil over the chosen man's head. When Samuel anointed Saul (1 Samuel 10:1-13), the Holy Spirit came upon him, and he began to prophesy. When Saul failed to be obedient to God, Samuel was directed to anoint a successor, David, son of Jesse, to be king. The Scripture says, "Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came upon David in power" (1 Samuel 16:13).

David became the prototypical anointed king. Later the prophet Nathan spoke to him by the word of the Lord,

"Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever." (2 Samuel 7:15-16)

David died, and the kingdoms of Israel and Judah eventually went into exile. But the Jews still looked to the promises God had made to cause a descendent of Jesse of the tribe of Judah to reign again upon the throne of David. The prophet Micah spoke of a ruler who would come from David's hometown of Bethlehem:

"But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times." (Micah 5:2)

Isaiah prophesied:

"A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit....
In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples;
the nations will rally to him,
and his place of rest will be glorious." (Isaiah 11:1, 10)

Daniel, too, spoke somewhat cryptically of the coming of the Anointed One (Daniel 9:25-26).

I could cite many more references in the Old Testament, in the Jewish apocryphal literature, and from the Jewish historian Josephus about this messianic expectation. But suffice it to say that, as Jesus came on the scene, messianic expectation was white-hot. Some claiming to be the messiah had already appeared, and others would follow.

So when Peter answered Jesus' question, "Who do you think I am?" with "You are God's Messiah," it was a powerful declaration that Jesus was the long-awaited messiah who would act for God and bring about the salvation long promised to Israel.

A Command of Secrecy (Luke 9:21)

"Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone." (9:21)

Jesus' command of secrecy doesn't mean that Peter's identification was wrong, but that it was right. On a few occasions, Jesus acknowledges that he is indeed the Messiah.

With the Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar, there is this exchange:

"The woman said, 'I know that Messiah (called Christ) is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.'

Then Jesus declared, 'I who speak to you am he.'" (John 4:25-26)

"Again the high priest asked him, 'Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?'
'I am,' said Jesus. 'And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.'" (Mark 14:61-62)

But while Jesus clearly acknowledges he is the Messiah, he wants to keep this hushed for now. If he came publicly claiming to be the Messiah he would rapidly attract a following with political and revolutionary goals, and his ministry would be cut short by prison and death. In order to continue the ministry that the Father has laid out for him, Jesus instead calls himself the more ambiguous "Son of Man" (See the Appendix on the "Son of Man.")

A Question for You

Some of you who are on the JesusWalk with us are here because you don't know who Jesus really is and want to find out. That's good. Some of you haven't labeled yourself "Christian." You've been learning and investigating as I invited and encouraged you to do. Like the Twelve who followed Jesus, you have watched and listened, observed and questioned, tried to understand who Jesus is and what makes him tick.

But like his twelve disciples, the time has come for you to reflect what you have learned. At exam time at college you prepare yourself to be able to discuss all the theories and write them down in your exam book. And so you can probably list various theories about Jesus:

  • Jesus was a remarkable teacher.
  • Jesus was a prophet.
  • Jesus was a man who believed himself to be the Messiah.
  • Jesus was the unique Son of God in human flesh.
  • Jesus was one of the great masters pointing people to God.
  • Jesus was the founder of the Christian religion.
  • Jesus was a compassionate and powerful healer.

Those are some of the leading theories, the kind of theories you might learn in a college religion course. They are the kind of speculation Jesus called for when he asked his disciples, "Who do the crowds say that I am?" This wasn't a personal question; it was asking for the opinions of others.

But after the disciples had voiced the various theories and speculations that swirled about Jesus, they were silent. And then Jesus asked them a personal question: "Who do you say I am?"

That is the question I want to ask you right now. After this time of learning and investigation, who do you believe he is?

Most of you will affirm your long-held Christian beliefs, and that is good. But for some of you, the answer to this question will be the key to your future -- both in this world and the next. Some of you are right on the brink of saying, "I believe Jesus is the Messiah of God sent to save and rescue me from my sins," or something like that. The Apostle John, who also wrote a Gospel, said near the end of his story of Jesus' life:

"These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." (John 20:31)

Whatever it is that you have come to believe, I encourage you to write it down in your Bible and put today's date next to it.

We're not finished with the JesusWalk yet -- and neither were Jesus' disciples. But at this point in their journey, Jesus felt it important that they explicitly stated their belief in him. It is this explicit statement that moves us from one point to the next. Until the bridegroom says, "I do," out loud and in front of witnesses, he hasn't moved from being fiancé to husband. The Apostle Paul put it this way:

"If you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved." (Romans 10:9-10)

So, how about it? Who do you think Jesus is? If this is your first time acknowledging Jesus, why don't you let me know what you believe about Jesus?311 Or tell your pastor, or a pastor in a Christian church in your city. There are two parts of this: believing something in your heart, and then openly stating that belief to someone else.

Today is the day for you to answer that question for yourself.


Lord, there is a time that this JesusWalk gets personal, and today is that day. I thank you for putting faith in my own heart, and the courage to say it, many years ago. Today some of my friends who have been walking with me on this journey are struggling to put into words what they believe. Help them with your Holy Spirit, I pray. Lead them to faith in You, just like you did your first disciples. Thank you for your great gifts of love and patience and full forgiveness. In your Holy Name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verse

"But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?"

Peter answered, "The Christ of God." (Luke 9:20)


Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions that follow -- your choice.

  1. Why do you think Jesus waited to ask these questions until he could be alone with his disciples? Why do you think he was spending time in prayer before asking these questions?
  2. Why did Jesus ask about what others believed before he asked his disciples what they believed?
  3. Why is it difficult to be able to express simply and clearly what we believe? What are the obstacles you face in expressing this?
  4. If you have never openly stated your faith in Jesus Christ, please do so today, and let others know that this is a new statement for you. If you have stated your belief in Jesus prior to this, please share with others the circumstances of when you made a declaration of your own faith in Jesus.
Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.


Abbreviations and References

[310] See TDNT 6:812-828.

[311] You can contact me at www.joyfulheart.com/contact/

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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