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Peter's Confession and the Johannine Thunderbolt

by Brant Pitre January 02, 2019 0 Comments



In those two texts are Jesus’ discussion with Peter in Caesarea Philippi and then the so-called “Johannine Thunderbolt” in Matthew chapter 11, and its parallel in Luke. So, let’s look at those together. First, Jesus and Peter at Caesarea Philippi.  We want to look at Matthew’s version because he has the longest version.

Matthew 16 verse 13-20 says this:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesare'a Philip'pi, he asked his disciples, "Who do men say that the Son of man is?"

And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, others say Eli'jah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."

You might remember earlier in the semester I talked about how odd this is because all these people were dead.   He is no ordinary person.  So,

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."


Alright, pause there.  So, notice there’s two parts to Simon’s confession: First, you are the Christ, the Christos, the Anointed One, the Son of the living God, which, by the way, is an inverse of Matthew's account of Caiaphas at the trial — remember we looked at the trial? What did Caiphas say?  In Matthew’s Gospel it’s very interesting.  Caiaphas the high priest says, “Tell us.  Are you the Christ, the Son of the living God,” right? And, then Peter says, in confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It’s interesting too here because, essentially Peter takes on a high priestly role as we saw—remember the little hierarchy of the 12 and the 3 and all that. And, the names “Kepha” and “Caiaphas,” right — they even sound alike.  So they’re like a type and an antitype almost here — it’s very interesting. So, the Jewish High Priest here is denying Jesus Christ as the Son of the living God and the new high priest of the new covenant, Peter, is confessing it.  And, I could go into more details if you look at Matthew's account in particular of the trial it flashes back between Caiaphas and Peter, Caiaphas and Peter as they’re going through that whole drama. So, he even inverts them and makes you juxtapose them in your mind as you’re reading.  Anyway, so in another words, this is a momentous confession on Peter’s part.  And Matthew, in particular, is highlighting how significant it is. And, he does this because he's the only one who tells us Jesus’ full response to it:

And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."

Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.

Alright, so the key element here is this: When Peter makes this confession, Jesus declares that flesh and blood has not revealed this to Peter. And, the word here for “reveal” comes from the Greek word, apokalyptō. What do we get from that? “Apocalypse.” An apocalypse is an unveiling of some heavenly truth, like the Apocalypse of John, the Book of Revelation.  It is a revelation of heavenly realities that you can’t see with your earthly eyes — that a mere human being would not be able to perceive. It's only through the illumination of the Holy Spirit and through John's being caught up in the spirit on the Lord’s Day that he has this apocalypse, this apokalupsis, this revelation of all these heavenly realities.

Jesus uses the same kind of terminology here with reference to Peter except that all Peter said was, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Right, so what does this mean? Well, if you look here and again on page 196 most scholars will agree on this that the only way to really explain Jesus' response is that Simon isn't just confessing Jesus as the King of Israel, right.  Remember Christos is just the name for the Messiah, the King of Israel, right.  So Saul was called a messiah, David’s called a messiah — and other people called Christ the Messiah and he doesn’t haul off and say, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven.”  So, what's going on here?

This is how I put it earlier:  When Simon Peter steps up and answers Jesus’ question, he doesn't just affirm Jesus is the Messiah, which is what the Christ would mean. Simon goes beyond Messiahship when he confesses that Jesus is also the Son of the living God. Here, also again, the Old Testament background is important.  The expression “Son of God” in Jewish Scripture can be used to refer to an angel, or to the Davidic King, or even to the people of Israel — like “Israel is my firstborn son, let them go” in Exodus 4:22 — however in context, Simon's use of the expression clearly means something much more. It seems to be a confession that Jesus is the unique son of God, that is, the divine son of God in a way that's fundamentally different from the sonship of Israel or King David or even the Angels. This, at least, is the only way to explain Jesus’ otherwise baffling response, “Blessed are you for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father who is in heaven.” In other words, Peter's ability to recognize — this is important guys —  Peter's ability to recognize Jesus as the son of God is not in the final analysis the result of his human effort or his intellectual abilities. That's not what led him to this. He was after all and uneducated fishermen as Bart Ehrman likes to point out repeatedly, right.  Peter doesn’t come to believe in Jesus because he was so smart, or because he had finally “figured it all out.”  Instead, Jesus’ words show that his identity as “the Son” is revealed to Peter by the Father — in other words this is a trinitarian mystery — because Peter is open to receiving the mystery. In other words, Peter’s insight into who Jesus really is a result of divine revelation — that’s what this means, right — that this is an insight into Jesus’ divine sonship, into his unique relationship with the Father. We would say his trinitarian relationship with the Father. Therefore it has to be revealed by the Father. And, when it's revealed, right, Peter is receiving nothing less here than a divine revelation, a divine revelation, that can be only received and apprehended by supernatural faith, by divine faith, right.  So this is is a supernatural mystery that needs supernatural faith. It goes beyond his mere human capacity and his human abilities. 

And, should there be any doubt about this interpretation, you only have to go back in the Gospel of Matthew to chapter 11.  Because Jesus has already indicated that this is the case in Matthew 11.  So if you have your gospel turn to Matthew chapter 11 verse 25-27. This passage, Matthew 11 — it has a parallel in the Gospel of Luke as well, I’m just going to use Matthew’s — Matthew 11:25 to 27, the German scholars call this verse in the Gospel “The Johannine Thunderbolt”.  Have you heard that before?  The Johannine Thunderbolt.  It’s called the thunderbolt — actually the original German was “The Thunderbolt from the Johannine Sky.” Why did they say that?  Well, listen to it:

At that time…

Remember this is the synoptics, the “merely human Jesus synoptics,” right, the “low Christology” synoptics.

At that time Jesus declared, "I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes;

yea, Father, for such was thy gracious will.

All things have been delivered to me by my Father;

Let me say that again:

All things have been delivered to me by my Father;

and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.


That’s the Johannine Thunderbolt.  Why do they call it the Johannine Thunderbolt? Because the German scholars recognized that when Jesus is speaking here in Matthew 11 he sounds like Jesus in the Gospel of John.  He sounds like the Johannine Jesus talking about the Father as if he has this unique relationship with him alone, calling himself the son as if he's the only son, right — not just “a” son but “the” son who has exclusive power and authority —“all things been given to him.”  Can you say that?  Have all things — Has God given you all things, right? No. And, here's the key element too: Not only does he have a unique relationship with the Father and unique authority and power, you don't know who the son is unless the Father shows it to you. No one knows it. It doesn’t matter how wise you are.  So, there's unique revelation; it’s an exclusive revelation. His sonship is something that can only be supernaturally revealed by God directly. And, he doesn't do it to the wise; he only does it for the little ones, the infants, which is a metaphor, obviously, for who? The ones who are like children, like he says elsewhere in the Gospel, “Unless you become like little children,” in other words, “humble,” “before the Father, you ain’t getting in.”  You will never enter the kingdom of God.  And you won't know who Jesus is.  You won’t recognize his divine identity; you won't recognize his unique sonship.

So, what these words we have — oh by the way — is this a Johannine Thunderbolt or is it just a Jesus Thunderbolt. It's in the synoptic Gospels after all.  It’s not in John. Why might  — what possible explanation could we have for the fact that Jesus says the same thing in Synoptics as he does in John? Is there any possible explanation for this?  Maybe it's because the Jesus in the Gospel John is the same Jesus.  I’m just throwing that out there as a possibility.  And, look, they have a really hard time with this verse because according to the schema that Ehrman, for example, adopts this high, exclusive, unique, divine sonship Christology — that's only a late first century development we see the Gospel of John — how did it get into the synoptics? And, not just the synoptics, by the way, but the parallel passages in the Gospel of Luke — it’s Luke 10:21-22 —  so it's in Matthew 11 and Luke 10:21-22, which, by the way, if it’s in Matthew and Luke but it’s not in Mark, guess what with that makes it: according to Ehrman, this is… that’s “Q”.  That's the earliest Gospel according to Ehrman.  That’s the earliest gospel tradition. This would put it in the 40s or 50s for them. So, in the 40s or 50s we have a tradition where Jesus is asserting himself as the unique son of the Father whose identity can only be revealed by the Father and who is the only one who can tell you who the Father is. So, he has unique revelatory power too.  And, all things of been handed over to him, right. He has a kind of universal sovereignty and authority.  Well hold on.  How’d that get into “Q”?  I'll give you suggestion: Maybe because Jesus said it.  How about that? Is that a possibility you’d like to entertain.  And if it’s a possibility  — I’m sorry, I’m getting snarky — but this is just frustrating.  This isn’t a Johannine Thunderbolt. This is what Jesus taught to his disciples.

And, it’s not unexpected that it only occurs a few occasions or that it's not all the time or that he’s not going around in public saying it, because he says that it’s revelatory. He says that it’s unique. He says that it's only for those to whom the Father has chosen to reveal it. This isn’t his message to the wider public, so to speak, as he says to the disciples: it's being given to you to know the mystery of the kingdom of God, but to everyone outside it comes in parables. So let he who has the ears to hear listen, okay. Oh, and guess how many times — Ehrman writes a book called How Jesus Became God” — guess how many times he deals with the Johannine Thunderbolt. How many times does he address it? How many pages does he give to it?  I’ll tell you how many: zero. Because in order to maintain the hypothesis that Jesus never claimed to be more than a merely earthly messiah you have to eliminate the evidence that doesn't fit the theory. And, you have to ignore it as if it doesn’t exist and if you have an unsuspecting populace readership who doesn't think about it, or if you have biblical scholars reading your book who assume anything with high Christology is late and therefore unauthentic, you don’t have to address it because you’re all talking to each other.  It’s like an echo chamber.  But in my book you better be able to explain this passage. Or, at least in the book of history you ought to be able to explain this passage, and if you can't you might need to re-think your theory.  Alright, end of rant.

Well, maybe not. Okay, so all of this has to show us, in other words, that Peter's ability and our ability to recognize the unfathomable mystery that the God of the universe became a man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is, to use later theological language, is a gift of grace. It's a gift of grace. So, if you believe that Jesus is divine, if you believe that this man who fell sleep in boats and ate food and grew up like a boy grew up, and was born of a woman —  if you believe that he's the second person of the Trinity, the divine son of God then you need to say a little prayer of thanksgiving.  Because that's a gift that's been given to you.  It’s not because you’re smart; it’s not because you figured it all out; it's because you've been given the gift of supernatural faith.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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