Life of Christ, Part 9: Testing the faith of the apostles

4 mins read

This is the ninth in a 12-part series looking at the life of Christ.

Jesus’ discourse on the Eucharist was a turning point. In it, he called himself the Bread of Life whose real flesh and blood his followers must consume — and nothing in his public ministry was quite the same after that. Many of his listeners left him in disgust. Even the apostles were shaken, and perhaps it was then that Judas began toying with the idea of betraying him.

Even so, Jesus continued his preaching and teaching mission. He worked a second miracle of multiplying loaves and fishes to feed a large crowd (Mt 15:32-39). He kept up his running argument with his critics among the Pharisees who, in the face of the wonders he worked, brazenly challenged him to give them a sign from heaven that would testify to his authenticity (Mt 16:1-4).

But then, as if to put distance between himself and places where his fame seemed for the moment to border on notoriety, he headed north, to the farthest reaches of Jewish Palestine and the Golan Heights (often in the news today as an area much contested between Israel and Syria).

Here Jesus decided on a bold and potentially risky move to test the faith of the apostles.

It happened at Caesarea Philippi, an ancient city about 40 miles southwest of Damascus that the tetrarch Philip, son of King Herod the Great, had renamed in honor of the Roman emperor Tiberius Caesar. Matthew’s Gospel gives the fullest account.

Peter’s confession

“Who do people say I am?” the Lord asked the Twelve one day.

The answers varied, the apostles said: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or some other prophet.

“But who do you say that I am?”

As usual, it’s Peter who speaks up. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

This is the answer Jesus hoped to hear, and Peter’s reward is not long in coming: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”

Then he conferred on Peter “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” — the teaching power of the papal office — concluding, rather surprisingly, by instructing the Apostles to “tell no one that he was the Messiah” (Mt 16:13-20).

Jesus predicts his passion

Why the secrecy? Because, as we now know, other things — ugly, dismaying things involving rejection and seemingly final defeat — had to happen before these men would grasp the full reality of a Messiah who had come to give his life for his people. More preparation was required before that was possible. And so, the Gospel says, “from that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.”

But that, too, brought a quick response from Peter: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.”

Jesus’ reply is one of his strongest recorded rebukes: “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

Was it fair to call poor Peter “Satan”? Recall that Jesus had heard this solicitation to turn aside from his vocation before — and would hear it again on Calvary — from the father of lies, Satan himself. And so, knowing what lay ahead, Jesus had no intention of humoring Peter in unwittingly doing Satan’s work. Instead, his words to the Twelve concerning what following him would entail are stark and uncompromising: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mt 16:24).

Transfiguration of Jesus

These significant events are followed by the mysterious incident known to us as the Transfiguration. Taking Peter, James and John with him, Jesus ascends a mountain and there, flanked by the prophets Moses and Elijah who speak with him about “his exodus, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem,” he undergoes an extraordinary change — “his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white.” Peter, astonished, blurts out something about marking the spot and is interrupted by a voice from heaven: “This is my chosen Son; listen to him” (Lk 9:28-36).

It is customary to say that in manifesting his glory in this way, Jesus was looking ahead to the brutal shock that his suffering and death would deliver to his followers’ faith and attempting to bolster the faith of these three stalwarts so that they would bolster their companions’ faith when the time came.

Pope Benedict XVI’s interpretation of the Transfiguration
Pope Benedict, in his trilogy on Christ, offers a different but complementary explanation that carries Jesus’ reference at the Transfiguration to his impending death (“his exodus, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem”) to a deeper level and links it to his role as a Messiah who redeems.

Taking his cue from Luke’s Gospel, which says explicitly that Jesus “went up the mountain to pray,” Benedict describes the Transfiguration, first of all, as a “prayer event; it displays visibly what happens when Jesus talks with the Father: the profound interpenetration of his being with God.”

As for his dialogue with Moses and Elijah, this makes it clear that the entire episode of the Transfiguration points to and illuminates Christ’s redemptive suffering and death. Peter naively blurts out something about marking the spot. But, Benedict writes, “Peter has to learn once again that the messianic age is first and foremost the age of the Cross and that the Transfiguration — the experience of becoming light from and with the Lord — requires us to be burned by the light of the Passion and so transformed.”

Boy with a demon

In this life, however, sublimity seldom lasts very long. All too soon, Jesus is plunged once again into the grubby reality of half-hearted faith. As he descends from the mountain, he meets a “large crowd” gathered around an agitated father from whose son the apostles have been trying to expel an evil spirit but have had no success.

“O faithless and perverse generation,” Christ exclaims, “how long will I be with you and endure you?” Very likely, these words were directed at everyone there — the crowd, the apostles, even the upset father. This was about as close to being weary and disgusted as Jesus ever got. And with reason. How tiresome the blindness of people whose minds he had labored hard to raise to the point of seeing reality in the light of God’s truth must truly have been for him at times!

But the mood quickly passes. Jesus has the boy brought to him and performs the healing. And as everyone marvels at what has happened, he tells his disciples: “Pay attention to what I am telling you. The Son of Man is to be handed over to men.”

Yet again, as so often happened, they didn’t grasp what he meant, and, not understanding, “they were afraid to ask him about this saying” (Lk 9:37-45) It hardly mattered. Events soon enough would make his meaning painfully clear.

Russell Shaw is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.

Russell Shaw

Russell Shaw writes from Maryland.