For a moment I want to take you back to 1997. In that year scientists at the University of California and the Space Telescope Science Institute released a so-called “photograph” taken by the Hubble of a massive, “invisible” star. This star was given the name “Pistol” and it stands near the center of the Milky Way, burning as bright as 10 million suns. The star is as large as the entire space inside of the Earth’s orbit. Nonetheless, this star cannot actually be seen by the human eye, nor can it be seen by telescopes because it is clouded by cosmic dust.
So how were the scientists able to take a picture of this invisible star? You might well wonder. Actually, the picture was the product of CGI, computer-generated-imagery. The end product was based upon infrared rays not visible to the human eye but detectable with the right scientific instruments. Computers converted these rays into colors and thus produced the photograph of an “invisible” star.
Can you imagine that? There is a huge star, in the middle of our own galaxy, shining 10 million times brighter than our own sun, but we can’t see it without using some very advanced technology.
As Christians we should not be surprised by that because in the spiritual realm there are also big things that cannot be seen without the right equipment. Today's Gospel reading, Matthew 16:13-20, from the daily lectionary examines one of those big truths—the identity of Jesus of Nazareth.
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”The Scene of the Revelation
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.
The place where the revelation of Jesus’ identity to Peter took place is very important. The place is called Caesarea Philippi. It is twenty-five miles northeast of the Sea of Galilee. It was, in Jesus’ day, outside the area controlled by Herod Antipas and was within the region of Philip the Tetrarch.
Jesus knew that the time left to spend with his disciples was short. He wanted to make sure that they understood who he was. Thus Jesus took his disciples far away from their usual stomping grounds and asked the most important question of all time: Who do you say I am?
In order to understand the power behind the question, we need to understand more about the place where Jesus posed this question to his disciples. First of all, Caesarea Philippi had temples all around belonging to the ancient Syrian Baal worship. When Jesus posed this question to his disciples he was standing in the shadow of one of the ancient gods of the people who opposed Israel.
Secondly, the place where Jesus posed this question was on the lower slopes of Mount Hermon. And on one of these lower slopes, beneath the rocky hillside, was a deep cavern which was believed by some to be the birthplace of the Greek god Pan, who was half-man and half-goat, the most famous fertility symbol in ancient paganism. Thus the original name of Caesarea Philippi was Panias, or as they say in that region—Banias. The legends of this Greek god were hovering around Caesarea Philippi.
Thirdly, in the cave where the god Pan was supposedly born were the springs which served as the main source for the river Jordan—a river deeply important in the life of Israel. Thus this place would have been, for a Jew, full of all the collective memories of Jewish history.
Fourthly, Herod the Great had built a temple of white marble in honor of Augustus Caesar in Caesarea Philippi. Herod’s son Philip further adorned the temple and changed the name of the place from Panias to Caesarea, which means “Caesar’s own town”. Then he added the name, “Philippi”, which means “of Philip”, thus honoring himself as well. No one could look at Caesarea Philippi and that great temple of white marble without thinking of Caesar and how he was worshipped as a god.
So taken all together, here is the picture: we have a poor, itinerant preacher from Galilee surrounded by twelve very ordinary men, mostly fishermen. He stands in an area covered with temples in honor of the gods of three great civilizations as well as in a place replete with the memory of the one true God’s dealings with Israel. And in Caesarea Philippi, of all places, Jesus asks his disciples: Who do you say I am? This same Jesus certainly must have expected at least one of those disciples to say: “You are the Messiah,” for so he had led them to believe. Jesus was clearly setting himself up in contrast to all the gods of the ancient world and offering himself as a different way.
Robert Webber told in his book “Who Gets to Narrate the World?” the story of traveling on a plane from San Francisco to Los Angeles a few years ago. He was sitting next to the window reading a Christian book. The man next to him was obviously from the Eastern hemisphere of the world. Webber’s neighbor asked, “Are you a religious man?”
“Well, yes,” said Webber.
“I am too,” responded the man in the seat next to him.
They began talking about religion. In the middle of the conversation Webber asked, “Can you give me a one-liner that captures the essence of your faith?”
“Well, yes,” said the other man. “We are all part of the problem, and we are all part of the solution.”
The two talked about this one-liner, a statement Webber felt was very helpful. After a while Webber said, “Would you like a one-liner that captures the Christian faith?”
“Sure,” responded the other man.
Then Webber said, “We are all part of the problem, but there is only one man who is the solution. His name is Jesus.”
When Jesus asked his disciples: “Who do you say I am?” he was asking that question against the backdrop of all the other gods of the ancient world, and Jesus was presenting himself as a unique solution to the problems of the world; he was presenting himself as the Messiah.
The Revelation Itself
Secondly, we need to look not only at the scene of this revelation but the revelation itself. Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” We have seen this title, “Son of Man”, before in the Gospel of Matthew. However, its appearance here along with the titles “Messiah” and “Son of the Living God” is unique. “Son of Man” is a form of Aramaic speech which could be no more than a fancy way of saying “I”. But this title could equally refer to the “one like a son of man, coming on the clouds of heaven” in Daniel 7:13-14. In the book of Daniel this Son of Man is led into the presence of God, the Ancient of Days, and is “given authority, glory and sovereign power. All peoples of every nation and language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
How did the disciples answer Jesus’ question: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They reported that some people believed Jesus to be John the Baptist, raised from the dead. Apparently Herod Antipas was not the only one who thought John the Baptist was an important enough person that he might have been brought alive again by God.
The disciples reported that other people thought Jesus was Elijah come again. In saying this, the people were honoring Jesus for being as great as the greatest prophet of the Old Testament. They were also saying that Jesus was the forerunner of the Messiah; for according to Malachi God had promised, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” (Malachi 4:5)
Still others thought that Jesus was like Jeremiah. It was believed by some that before the exile Jeremiah had taken the Ark of the Covenant and the altar of incense out of the Temple. According to 2 Maccabees 2:1-12, Jeremiah had hid these things and, before the coming of the Messiah, he would return with these items, bringing the glory of God back to the Jewish people.
When the crowds said that Jesus was John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets, they were, in a sense, paying him a great compliment. But all of these so-called compliments fell short of stating who Jesus really was in all of his fullness.
So Jesus brought the question around very pointedly to ask his disciples what they believed: Who do you say I am?
When Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” he was applying two great Messianic titles to Jesus. Christ is the Greek version of the Hebrew word “Messiah” which simply means “Anointed One”. Three types of people were anointed with oil and set apart for their work in the Old Testament: prophets, priests and kings. So by calling Jesus “the Christ” Peter was saying that he was the great prophet, priest and king. Notice: Jesus was not just a great prophet, speaking against the wicked rulers of his time. He was God’s king who had come to replace those evil rulers himself.
“Son of the living God” or more simply “Son of God” was also a Messianic title. It is important to realize that at this stage in the revelation of Jesus Christ, “Son of God” did not yet mean to the disciples: “the second person of the Trinity”. There was probably no thought in their minds that the Messiah would also be God. Nonetheless, some of the things Jesus was doing and saying (like forgiving sins) these things were obviously God’s prerogatives. Some of Jesus’ actions and words must have given his disciples pause to ponder. And after the resurrection all those ponderings led the disciples to believe that Jesus was more intimately associated with Israel’s God than they had first imagined. But at this point Peter is simply using the phrase “Son of God” to mean that Jesus is the Messiah, the King, the one standing in a special relationship to Israel’s God, the one who is God’s special representative.
Today, Jesus asks us the same question: Who do you say I am? And everything hangs upon our answer. We must respond personally and individually to that question. When Pilate asked Jesus if he was the king of the Jews, Jesus in turn asked him, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” (John 18:33-34) God doesn’t want our knowledge of Jesus to be second hand knowledge. It is one thing to know about Jesus; it is quite another to know him. Jesus demands a personal response to this very personal question: Who do you say I am?
Jeremy Bowen, the presenter of a BBC documentary on Jesus stated: “The important thing is not what he [Jesus] was or wasn’t—the important thing is what people believe him to have been. A massive worldwide religion, numbering more than two billion people follows his memory—that’s pretty remarkable, 2,000 years on.”
Yes, it is remarkable that we are still following Jesus 2,000 years later. But we are not just following his memory; we are following a living person who rose from the dead after being crucified for our sins. And it IS important what Jesus was or wasn’t. Jesus made it important. He made that the focus of his ministry. He didn’t say, “Follow these ten steps to a better life.” He said, “Follow me!” And he didn’t ask his disciples, “What do you think about God?” He asked, “Who do you say I am?” Who Jesus was is crucial. Our answer to his question is all important. And now we must look at the result of that answer.
The Results of the Revelation
We see in Jesus’ response to Peter three results of the revelation of Jesus Christ.
First of all, Jesus says to Peter, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” The Church has been puzzling over what this statement means for almost 2000 years. The Roman Catholic Church has taken this statement to mean that Peter is the foundation stone of the Church. They believe Peter was the first Pope and that he passed his power as Pope on to his successors.
Let’s take a look at this statement and see if we can understand what it really means. In Greek Peter is “Petros” and a rock is “petra”. Peter’s Aramaic name was Cephas which is the Aramaic word for “rock”. So in either language we have here a play on words. Peter receives this revelation of Jesus’ identity from Father God and immediately makes his good confession. Jesus immediately responds and says: “You are Petros, and on this petra I will build my church.”
The thought behind this statement is not unusual within Judaism. The Rabbis spoke of Abraham as a rock. They thought of Abraham as the rock upon which their nation was founded.
But the Hebrew Scriptures also refer to God as a rock. “The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer.” (2 Samuel 22:2)
So what did Jesus mean when he made this statement? We must remember, once again, where Jesus was standing when he said this. He was in Caesarea Philippi, near this great mountain, this rock, on which a great temple honoring Caesar was built. Jesus was talking about building another temple, his church, and he said he was going to build it on a rock. But the temple Jesus built and is building is not one of white marble. The temple Jesus is building is his church, his called-out ones, his congregation. His temple is a group of people. And the first person to be added to that temple, built on the foundation stone of Jesus himself, was Peter, for Peter was the first to clearly confess who Jesus was and is.
I think later on Peter understood very well what Jesus had said to him and what it meant. He explains it, in a way, in 1 Peter 2:4-7....
As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says:Peter makes clear that Jesus is the cornerstone of the church. And Paul makes clear in Ephesians 2:19-20 that all of the apostles are part of the foundation of that church:
“See, I lay a stone in Zion,
a chosen and precious cornerstone,
and the one who trusts in him
will never be put to shame.” Now to you who believe, this stone is precious.
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.So, Jesus is the cornerstone of the church. All of the apostles and prophets are part of the foundation. And each one of us is added to that structure as a living stone when we confess our faith in Jesus just as Peter did. That’s the first result of the revelation of Jesus Christ.
The second result of the revelation of Jesus Christ is that the gates of Hades will not prevail against the church. This is not because we are so strong in our faith. This is true because Jesus is building his church, and he will succeed.
On top of the mountain overlooking Caesarea Philippi there stands today the ruins of a fortress which may well have stood there in the time of Jesus. Jesus may have been thinking of the church as a fortress and the forces of evil as an opposing fortress. But the interesting thing about this word picture is that gates don’t move, do they? The gates of hell cannot move against the church. Jesus is not talking about evil forces trying to plunder the church and the church standing its ground because Jesus is building it. That is an important idea but I don’t think it is what Jesus is talking about here. If Jesus says, and he does, that the gates of Hades will not prevail against the church, will not hold up against the onslaught of the church, then I think that implies that Jesus wants his church to be plundering hell! He wants us to be rescuing people from the forces of evil by the declaration of the Gospel, by inviting people to confess faith in Jesus just as we have.
This leads to the third result of the revelation of Jesus Christ. Jesus says to Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
I believe this picture goes back to Isaiah 22:22. In that verse the Lord says of his servant Eliakim son of Hilkiah, “I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.” The duty of Eliakim was to be a faithful steward of the house of David. A steward is one who carries the keys of the house. He opens the house in the morning. He shuts the house at night. The steward is the one through whom visitors gain access to the king.
Jesus was telling Peter that he was going to be a steward over his house, one who would open the door of the kingdom to many. This statement of Jesus came true on Pentecost when Peter opened the door to Jesus for some three thousand people. However, it is not only Peter who has the keys to the kingdom. Every Christian has these keys. Every believer in Jesus Christ can introduce someone else to the King.
But what about binding and loosing? What is that phrase all about? It is closely connected to the keys of the kingdom. In Matthew 18:18 Jesus says to all of the disciples, “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Jesus had just been talking about how to deal with a brother or sister in sin and how to bring that person to repentance and restoration. So, binding and loosing has to do with forgiving or not forgiving sin.
Thus taken together these two expressions mean that Peter, and all the disciples, and that includes each one of us, have the privilege of opening the door to Jesus for others, of announcing the forgiveness of Christ to others. And what a precious privilege that is.
Have you received the revelation of Jesus Christ? It doesn’t matter that you weren’t there in Caesarea Philippi when Jesus revealed his true identity to his disciples. You can receive the revelation of Jesus anywhere. You can receive it wherever you are today. You can receive it at home. You can receive it at work or at school. You can receive it while driving down the road.
Who do you say that Jesus is? If, along with Peter, you say that he is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, then you too have the privilege of opening the door to a relationship with Jesus for others.