“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. – Matthew 16:13-20
At the beginning of our reading, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”
Immediately prior to asking this question, Jesus had been confronted by the Pharisees and Sadducees, who demanded he show them a ‘sign from heaven’ to prove who he was. The very fact that they were making this demand suggests they already knew who Jesus was, but they were hoping catch him in his own words.
The really odd thing is this: just before they made their demand, Jesus had fed four thousand people with just seven loaves of bread and a few fish. It makes one wonder just how big a miracle the Pharisees and Sadducees were looking for?
But Jesus’ miracle was big enough to convince the people, and they had begun to speculate on who he was. So the disciples answered, “some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah or one of the prophets.”
If Jesus were here today and asked the same question, what kind of answers might he get? A good man? A great teacher? An important prophet? A model of a spiritually mature being? A myth? Someone who lived and died a long time ago?
The popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia has this to say about Jesus:
“Jesus of Nazareth is the central figure of Christianity, whom the teachings of most Christian denominations hold to be the Son of God… Virtually all modern scholars of antiquity agree that Jesus existed historically… Most scholars agree that Jesus was a Jewish rabbi from Galilee who preached his message orally, was baptized by John the Baptist, and was crucified in Jerusalem on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate. Scholars have constructed various portraits of the historical Jesus, which often depict him as… the leader of an apocalyptic movement, [or] Messiah, [or] a charismatic healer, [or] a sage and philosopher, [or] an egalitarian social reformer…”
The reader is basically left to choose from any or all of the above.
Even within the church people don’t agree about who Jesus is. When I Googled the question this past week I found that some call Jesus “the center of our faith,” some say, “Jesus is Lord of all,” some say, “He’s the saviour of the world,” others say, “Jesus is true God and true man in one person,” and still others say “it is nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity.”
If people in the church can’t even agree about who Jesus is, how do we go about answering Jesus’ question? Should we even try?
I believe we should. I believe the question “who is Jesus?” is probably the most important question any of us will ever answer.
When Jesus was a baby, being presented at the temple by his parents, an elderly prophet named Simeon came up to them and spoke a prophecy over the baby Jesus. Here’s what he said:
“Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” (Luke 2:34-35)
Did you catch that? “So that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” Whatever people think of Jesus, whatever people say about him, reveals their innermost thoughts – says more about them than it does about Jesus. You want to know what a person is really all about? Where a person is really coming from? Ask them who Jesus is.
So Jesus listens to what his disciples say, and then he asks, “and who do you say that I am?”
Peter then makes the great confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
The word Christ back in those days meant Messiah, or anointed one. When a person was anointed it meant that God had chosen him to become king, and the anointing was accompanied by the presence of the Holy Spirit.
For example, in the Old Testament, Samuel anointed David to be king in 1 Samuel 16:13:
“Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward.”
Jesus’ anointing came at his baptism as recorded in Matthew 3:16-17:
“when Jesus had been baptized, as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.””
This is what it means to be anointed. But it means still more to be THE Christ. Not “a” christ, but “the” Christ, the one promised from the foundation of the world.
When Peter calls Jesus “the Son of the Living God” Jesus answers:
“You are blessed! Flesh and blood hasn’t revealed this, but my father in heaven.”
And this is true of us as well. When we know that Jesus is the Son of God, we are blessed – because it’s not our reason or our intellect that got us there. It’s God working in us, teaching us who Jesus is. As the theologian Charles Simeon put it:
“No one has eyes to see this truth, till the veil is removed from the heart, and understanding is enlightened by the Spirit of God.”
The apostle Paul agrees in I Cor 12:3:
“No one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.”
And Jesus himself says in John 6:44
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”
Knowing who Jesus is, is the gift of God through the Holy Spirit. And if we know this we are blessed by God!
Jesus then continues, saying to Peter: “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” This is a play on words in the Greek: “you are Petros (the proper name Peter) and on this petra (a rock) I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overpower it.”
What is this rock on which Jesus will build his church? Is it Peter himself? No. It’s on the rock of Peter’s confession: “you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It is faith in the Son of God that builds the church.
Jesus goes on to say “I will give you the keys of the kingdom, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
I don’t know about you, but at this point my mind begins to drift off to cartoons of St. Peter at the pearly gates, an old man with a long grey beard holding a set of keys and checking a list to see who’s on it. That’s not exactly what Jesus has in mind.
On the other hand some people think Jesus means this generically, that the keys belong to all believers everywhere… and that’s not exactly the meaning either. In the phrase “I will give you the keys of the kingdom,” the word “you” in the Greek is singular. Jesus is speaking to Peter individually, not to the disciples as a group. And that’s because Peter has a job to do. Peter is the one who will organize the first church in Jerusalem. Peter is the one who will be the first to understand that God receives Gentiles, allowing those of us who are non-Jews to hear the Gospel and become believers. Peter “had the honor of opening the church to both Jews and Gentiles.” (Simeon)
So what is this talk about keys then? The concept of keys in this sense is foreign to us, because in 21st century America, we don’t have walled cities and we don’t live in castles. We don’t lock up the entire town at night. But let me share an experience that might help make some sense of this.
A number of years ago I visited the Tower of London in England. The Tower is kind of like a castle in the middle of downtown London, made up of a number of towers as well as museums and homes for some of the Queen’s elite guards. It takes up a few city blocks. A long time ago it’s where they kept prisoners and held public executions, but these days it’s where the Crown Jewels are kept, and it’s a popular tourist destination.
One of the little-known secrets of the Tower – worth looking into if you ever go there – is the way they close the Tower at night. It’s called the Ceremony of the Keys and it’s a military ceremony that has been done the same way every night for over 700 years. If you’ve ever seen the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington DC – that will give you an idea of the kind of gravity and ceremony of the event. The men who guard the Tower join together in a 30-minute ceremony to lock the doors of the Tower for the evening.
After the doors have been locked, the guard with the keys comes over to our small group of guests and explains that the Queen’s keys – the keys he holds in his hands – legally represent the Queen herself. Her keys temporarily give him her authority. And it’s considered a great honor to be chosen to hold the keys and lock the Tower door.
The guard holding the keys then looks around at us visitors and says, “has it occurred to any of you yet, that the Tower is now locked for the evening, and YOU are still inside?”
And suddenly one becomes very aware of exactly what it means to live in a kingdom – because our fate now rests in the good will of the Sovereign and her representative. The man holding the Queen’s keys has both the right and the authority to keep us locked in the Tower if he so chooses, and no power on earth can change that. Or he can choose to set us free. And of course, following the Queen’s wishes, that’s what he does.
That’s the meaning of what Jesus said to Peter. Our fate, every one of us, rests in the good will of the Sovereign – Jesus the Lord, with His Father in heaven. Peter is given the right to hold the keys, to guard the crown jewel – the church – and to invite into the kingdom those his Sovereign invites.
Peter will spend the rest of his life carrying out this commission.
The passage then ends with a curious charge: Jesus says to his disciples, “don’t tell anyone that I’m the Messiah.” Why would he want to keep it a secret? We don’t know for sure but most theologians agree it’s because the time wasn’t right yet. If Jesus had revealed his true identity sooner, he would most likely have been put to death sooner – and he still has more to do before He goes to the cross.
So what does all of this mean for us today?
Like Peter, we need to be ready with an answer. When we hear people say things like, “all religions are the same” or “Jesus was just a good man” we need to be ready with an answer. When someone asks, “why do you follow Jesus?” or “why do you go to church?” we need to be ready with an answer.
Like Jesus, we also need to be ready with questions. “What do you think public opinion is about this issue or that? And what do you say about it?” – using leading questions to lead into conversations about things that really matter.
And finally, the building stones for the church are the same today as they were two thousand years ago. Jesus is the anointed one, the one and only Messiah, the Son of the living God, and on this truth the church is built. By faith in Him, let us continue to build up the church.
And while we are doing that, the one holding the keys of the kingdom says, “The door is open. Welcome in.” Amen.
Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, 8/24/14