Matthew 16:13-20 / Proper / 21 August 2011 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA
It was a city known for its temples. The Sellucids had built a temple to Pan, the goat-footed god of victory in battle, there. Herod built a temple to Zenodorus there too. Philipp II dedicated it to Caesar Augustus and had just struck a coin with his picture on it, which the Jews considered idolatrous. Caesaria Philippi was a city of many gods and many lords. Little wonder then, that Jesus asks His disciples the decisive question in the region of Caesaria Philippi.
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” That’s a general question, one for the opinion polls. Opinions varied, even with the rabbis. The Son of Man is a rather mysterious figure in the OT. Sometimes the phrase just means “human being,” the son of a man, as it does in Ezekiel. In Daniel, the Son of Man sits at the right hand of the Ancient of Days and receives from Him all authority in heaven and on earth. Son of Man came to be codeword for Messiah, or at least had messianic overtones.
Opinions on the street were mixed. Some held that Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets was the Son of Man. Some believed John the Baptist to be the Son of Man. He had the right look, the right temperament, the right message of repentance. But he also died in Herod’s prison. As for Jesus, well, the jury was still out as far as the public opinion polls went. He’d done some impressive miracles, preached up a storm, and cast out demons, stilled storms, fed thousands, even walked on the water at 3 AM.
“What about you?” Jesus turns His attention to His disciples. “Who do you say that I am?” Notice He doesn’t ask them, “Who do you say the Son of Man is’” but “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter answers for the group, as usual. The question was addressed to all of the disciples, but Peter is usually the one to jump in, like the student that always sticks up his hand with the answer. “You are the Christ,” Peter says, the Son of the living God.” More than simply Son of Man, the Christ – the Messiah and the Son of the living God.” Of all the things you can say about Jesus, nothing really matters until you say that He is the Christ, the messiah of Israel foretold by the prophets. And that He is the Son of God.
People are inclined to say nice things about Jesus, and to lump Him together with the great religious figures of history. A moral example. An obedient Jew. A miracle worker. An exorcist. A teacher of righteousness. Anything less than the Christ, the Son of the living God only scratches the surfaces of who Jesus is. Since Albert Schweitzer in the 19th century, it’s been fashionable to speak of the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith” as though these two were distinguishable. There is the “Jesus of history” the carpenter from Nazareth who became an itinerant rabbi, gathered a following and got crucified. And then there is the “Christ of faith,” the One the church made up, the One who rose from the dead and is worshipped as the Son of God and Savior.
This question from Jesus confronts the disciples with the very essence of the Christian faith. Who is Jesus? Who do you say that Jesus is? And not just “for you,” as if He is one thing to one person and another thing to someone else. Who is He objectively for the world, for all? Peter’s answer is our answer too. He is the Christ, the Son of God. The “historic Jesus” is the “Christ of faith.” They are one and the same thing. This is what Peter confessed and this is what you confess in the Creed. In fact, you might say that Peter uttered the first “apostles’ creed” in saying “you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” That was an actual creed from the actual mouth of an actual apostle.
“To confess” means to say back what you have heard, to say the same thing. Jesus reminded Peter that he didn’t come to this conclusion by his own reason, strength, or intuition. In fact, he couldn’t have learned it on his own. “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you.” We say the same thing in our catechism when we confess, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him.” Yes, you can know that Jesus existed. You can know what He said and did. You can even know that some believed Him to be the Christ, the Son of the living God. But to believe that for yourself and to confess it, is not your doing. It is beyond your reason and strength.
“No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit,” the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians. They were hyper concerned about who had the Spirit and who didn’t. Paul was clear to say that no one who has the Spirit can say, “Jesus be cursed” (as the Roman government demanded on pain of punishment and even death) and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. The civic thing to do was to say “Caesar is Lord” and offer your pinch of incense to Caesar at his temple, like the one at Caesaria Philippi. But no one with the Holy Spirit could do that. No one with the Spirit could deny Christ or curse Him. In fact, what you believe in your heart must also come from your lips. “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Romans 10:9
Believing and confessing, the heart and the lips, go together. That’s why we recite the Creed. We say it out loud. Our lips move. Words come out of our mouths. Those words come from the believing heart that has been given faith by the Holy Spirit. In fact, your confessing the faith is one piece of evidence God gives you that the Spirit is at work in you. No one can say that except by the Holy Spirit.
Now I know there are people who will say, “But anyone can mouth those words, even if they don’t have the Spirit or believe.” Yet the fact is they don’t because they won’t. When given the freedom to confess or deny Jesus, the unbeliever will quite naturally, willingly, and easily deny Him. Peter couldn’t stop himself. He had to confess what the Father had given him to say.
And that confession was not for Peter alone. It was for the whole Church. In fact, the Church is built on the foundation of what Peter confess that day. “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” Confessing Peter is faithful Peter who is built on the rock who is Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God. And built on that confession, he is immovable, standing on rock solid ground, so that not even the gates of Hades can prevail him. Or you. Or the whole church, which is why it has survived all these years. Our Confessions quote the church father Hillary who wrote, “On this rock of confession, therefore, the church is built. This faith is the foundation of the church.”
The opposite of confession is denial. To deny that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God is to deny the very thing that the Father said of Him at His Baptism in the Jordan, the very thing that His death and resurrection testifies to, the very thing the Holy Spirit preaches into our ears. It is to make God into a liar and to call all those early Christians, many of whom laid down their lives in martyrdom to confess the creeds we say with such comfort and ease.
We deny Christ both with our lips and with our lives. With our lives by our attempts to justify ourselves, to be Christ for ourselves, to live as though God did not matter and as if all that mattered was Me. We deny Christ with our lives when we seek to atone for our sins with our own blood, or at least with our own guilt, or the blood of others, when we offer to God bargaining sacrifices attempting to get in on His good side and merit His mercy.
We deny Christ with out lips when we refuse to sing His praise, to confess His Name, to pray, praise and give thanks for what He has won for us. When we sit in stony silence refusing to confess and yet claiming to believe as though heart and mouth were disconnected. We deny Christ when we make His Word into nothing but a human opinion, His sacraments into nothing more than a religious ceremony, when we deny His presence among us in the Word, in the bread and cup, we are denying the very Word of Christ that is intended to bring us life and salvation and will open the kingdom of heaven to us poor, miserable sinners.
Jesus said to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Keys are authority, the authority to open and close, to bind and set free. “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Jesus wasn’t making Peter the Pope, as the Roman Catholics claim. Jesus was making Peter, the confessing disciple, an apostle, sent with the authority of Jesus Himself, whose confessing mouth would bind the devil and free men from bondage to sin and death.
What Jesus is saying to Peter and to us is this: “You need not look grope around in heaven, in fact, you cannot now even ascend to heaven. Your flesh and blood, infected with Adam’s sin, cannot inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t look to heaven; listen here on earth. Listen to my Word. Listen to the preaching that I am the Christ, the Son of the living God who has come to save you. Those words are the keys to the kingdom. With them, the gates of heaven swing wide open to those who hear. Sinners are freed from their sins. The devil and his minions are bound. Sin and Death are no more. So open your mouth, Peter, and preach it. Confess it before the world, even as they crucify you upside down, because the gates of Hades cannot contend with my Word.”
We need to cling to these words, my friends. The faith we confess is not our own. It is not the invention of clever men seeking to exert their power. It comes from the Father Himself, through the Son who died and rose to establish His kingdom and to include each of you in it, by the Holy Spirit who lays these words on your ears with the full authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God.
It has become fashionable these days to make much of the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s become a kind of litmus test of one’s patriotism and even one’s religious beliefs, whether one says the Pledge and recites the phrase “under God.” People take immediate note when the Pledge is missing or the phrase is skipped. Letters are written, boycotts are threatened. The symbolic value of the Pledge, written by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister who also happened to be a Christian socialist, cannot be underestimated. Anyone who thinks “words are just words” needs to ponder the Pledge and its place in our society.
How much more the Faith and Creed we confess in words delivered from the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit! Words that flesh and blood cannot know on its own, or teach. Words that must be taught by God and heard and confessed. Not recited. Confessed. We recite the Pledge; we confess the Creed. And I hope we know the difference.
Peter confessed Jesus as Christ and Lord that day in Caesaria Phillipi, the citadel of idolatry and paganism. We confess the same Lord Jesus Christ today in the midst of not only idolatry but also atheism and skepticism. We confess it knowing that our confession does not originate with us but by the will and Word and Spirit of God. We confess knowing that by these words heaven is opened, the devil bound, and we are set free from Sin and Death. We confess and we are blessed.
“Blessed are you, Simon, Bar-Jonah! Blessed are you, dear baptized believer!”
In the name of Jesus,