Before we hear from God’s Word for today, from Matthew 16:13-18, listen to how much is in this passage. To begin with, it is the first time Jesus addresses his identity. Up until this time, through 15 chapters in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus has revealed his identity through his actions—through teachings and healings, for example. Now, apparently his disciples are ready to move to the next level of faith so Jesus asks them the questions, who do others say that I am, and who do you say that I am. This passage is the first time Jesus speaks to his identity.
This passage is also the source of the Roman Catholic doctrine of papal ascendancy from Peter. According to that doctrine, Peter is the first Pope, the "rock" upon which the Church will be built and all other popes fall into that line. We’re not going to focus much on that aspect of the passage, but there it is.
What will draw most of our focus in this passage is that it is also the beginning of Jesus’ vision for His Church. The theme for the next few weeks will be "The Church" and each week will focus on various aspects of God’s vision for His Church; what the Church should look like, what we should look like. Today’s passage is the first time in the New Testament the word "church" is used, in the Greek, ekklesia. What is Jesus’ vision for His Church? This passage helps us answer that question.
(Read Matthew 16:13-18)
To begin with, let’s have some fun with Peter’s name. As often happens in Biblical stories, someone gets a new name at pivotal moments in their faith journey—Abram to Abraham, Saul to Paul, as examples. Here, it is Peter. His name is Simon and Jesus adds the phrase "Bar-Jonah," which means "son of Jonah." Although Jonah is a name used today, it’s more common modern day equivalent would be John. I don’t know the etymology of last names—which might be an interesting thing to research some time—but I do know last names came from such things as occupations (Baker, Shoemaker, Smith), locations (Winchester, Brookshire), and who’s your daddy (William-son, Peter-son, John-son). So, we could say Peter’s original name is Simon Johnson. Now, Jesus gives him the name Peter, which in the Greek is Petros, which literally means "rock." So, if this scenario took place today we might call the apostle we know as Peter…Rocky Johnson. And it would fit! Peter seems like a Rocky Johnson, doesn’t he?
Well, on to the more important issues from this passage.
It’s interesting that this scene takes place in Caeserea Philippi. Caeserea Philippi is at the northern extreme of Israel. In 1st century Palestine, it was mostly gentile in population, and had tributes to various gods of that day. The Syrian god, Baal, was worshiped there. Worship of the Roman emperor was evident there, both in the name, Caeserea, and in statues and other tributes. Also, the Greek god, Pan, was in evidence there. In fact, this is a photo of modern-day Caeserea Philippi. Some say this conversation between Jesus and His disciples took place in this cave. Of course, we don’t know that for certain. However, we do know these niches in the stone were for statues of Pan and his cohorts. Even Jewish faith is represented in Caeserea Philippi as it sits at the foot of Mt. Hermon and is the site of one of five headwaters of the Jordan River. Did Jesus deliberately choose this location for the moment when He asks His identity question? William Barclay, in his commentary on Matthew, says that it’s "as if Jesus deliberately set himself against the backdrop of the world’s religions in all their history and splendor, and demanded to be compared to them." "Who do the people say I am? The people who worship Baal, or Pan, or Caesar, or even God-worshiping Jews, who do they say I am?" More importantly, of His disciples Jesus asks, "Who do you say I am?" Caeserea Philippi seems the appropriate setting for such a question.
The question Jesus asks is relevant for today as well. In fact, it is the essential question. Who do you say Jesus is? The "you" is emphasized in Jesus’ question. At some point, every person will have to individually answer the question, Who do you say Jesus is? The question won’t be what did you do for a living. Nor will it be how much money did you make. The question won’t even be what church did you belong to. The question will be who do you say Jesus is.
And note the answer Peter gives…and Jesus’ affirmation of it. "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God!" Peter is still very much a work in progress. There are some stumbles to come in his profession of faith. There are the three denials of Good Friday morning. Just a few verses away from this moment in the story, Peter is rebuked by Jesus for his refusal to believe that the Messiah must be killed and then raised on the third day. "Get thee behind me, Satan!" is Jesus’ response. From foundational "Rock" to hindering "Satan" in just a few short verses! He understands the "who" of Jesus. He is the Messiah. But he does not understand the "how" of Jesus. The Messiah is to be killed, then raised on the third day. Peter is definitely a work in progress. But it is a start! "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God!"
In Jesus’ affirmation of Peter response, we see the beginnings of Jesus’ vision for His Church. "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter (Rocky), and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of death will not overcome it."
Jesus calls Peter blessed, not because he knew the right answer to the question, but because he was gifted by God to know Jesus’ identity. "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven." That is the source of Peter’s blessedness. And as the first "rock" of the Church, his blessedness is the Church’s as well. The Church is blessed. We are blessed, first of all, with the knowledge and profession of who Jesus is that comes as an absolute gift from God. It is not the result of our great intellect—flesh and blood has not revealed it to us. It is not even the result of great Sunday School teachers or pastors of our past. Those are not unimportant. They are vehicles through whom the blessing comes. But they are not the source of this blessing—the knowledge of who Jesus is. It is purely a gift from God—"flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven." The apostle Paul understood the blessing this way, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works so that no one can boast," (Ephesians 2:8, 9; emphasis mine). Church, we are blessed to know that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, and it is an absolute gift from God.
What are we to do with this gift? We are called to be instruments of proclaiming these truths about Jesus to others, to make the blessing possible for them. We are blessed to be "rocks" within the stone and mortar that is the Church. In his first letter, Peter, perhaps having this scene and Jesus’ affirmation in mind as he writes, describes the Church in this way, "As you come to him, the living Stone…you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood," (1 Peter 2:4a, 5a). Upon this rock of Peter…and other rocks like him, built up one upon another, Christ will build His Church. We are blessed with the opportunities to be instruments for the proclamation of the gospel.
The rock is Peter, Rocky Johnson. The rock is anyone who shares in the blessing of being a part of Christ’s Church—Paul, Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, John Calvin, you, me—living stones being built into a spiritual house. And, most importantly, the rock is the truth about who Jesus Christ is. It’s "upon this rock," not just Peter, not just you and me, but upon the rock of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God that Christ will build His Church. The Church is blessed with this knowledge of Christ and is called to point others to Jesus. Central to everything we do is Jesus Christ. Remember, the essential question everyone must answer is, Who do you say Jesus Christ is? Blessed with the knowledge that Jesus is Savior and Lord, we are called to be a blessing to others that they might know Christ as Savior and Lord also. Answering the question, who do you say Jesus is with confidence and assurance, "He is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God," we are called to point others to Christ that they might experience the same blessing. We are blessed in order to be a blessing to others.
Dale Bruner, in his commentary on Matthew, says this about proclaiming the rock of truth about Jesus Christ, pointing others to Christ, "This Christ pointing is called christocentricity and it is the gift of this activity, above all else, that builds churches. Disciples and communities who modestly, tirelessly, and faithfully point to Jesus as It, are disciples and communities that Jesus honors by using to build up his church. Christ-centeredness is the key to church building," (Matthew, Volume Two, The Churchbook; p.574).
That is our calling church. Thanking God for the blessing we have received, we move forward in building Christ’s Church.
We do so, first of all, by being clear about our answer to the question, Who do you say Jesus is? He is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God! He is our Lord and Savior! He is It!
Then we build upon this rock by proclaiming Christ to others. We do that, remembering that Jesus was slow to speak to his disciples about his identity. Proclaiming Christ to others is a process, a journey that takes time. We proclaim Christ, first of all, by our example, by how we live our lives. When the time is appropriate, the question is asked, What about you, who do you say Jesus is? Pointing others to Christ, first by our actions and then, when appropriate, by our words, we seek to be instruments of Christ as He builds His Church on solid rock.