QUESTIONS AT THE CROSSROADS
July 9, 2006
The scripture that we are going to read is the crossroads of the gospel record. It is the moment in the Lord’s ministry which everything else leads up to, and it is the time that everything else that happens grows out of. It is a situation in which, if you wanted to get to the heart of what the gospel records tell us about Christ, you would have to come to this passage. But it is also a circumstance in which if you wanted to find one place in the New Testament which there has been more debating over and more questions about down through church history, you would also have to come to this passage. To appreciate what we are about to read, I think it might help to be at least a little bit aware of the place in which this occurs, Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi is the northern most point which we have any record of Jesus ever visiting. It is the eastern most of the sources of the Jordan River. It is placed with nearby Mt. Hermon rising some 7 or 8 thousand feet up just in the distance, snowcapped Hermon, which turns out to be the source of some of the waters that become rivers down to the south. It is a place which was built upon an imposing, huge red bluff. That point will be crucial to appreciating the conversation that occurs in this passage.
It is also a region which has a very difficult religious history which we also need to understand. Not only are there the Canaanite gods who were worshipped as the gods of sources in the background of all of this, but it was the nearby city of Dan where one of Jeroboam’s golden calves had been set up, the event which became a sin to the nation of Israel and really led to the downfall of the nation.
And very importantly for our study, it was at this place where the Greek god Pan was supposed to have had a cave devoted to him. Pan was the ugly, hairy “god” who had horns like a goat and walked on two feet like they were goat’s feet. He was extremely immoral and repulsive and was regarded as the son of Hermes and the grandson of Zeus by the Greeks. His lare in this cave caused the ancients to call the city “Panias.”
More importantly even for our study, during the reign of Herod the Great, in order to curry favor with the ruling family of Rome, Herod had built a beautiful white palace on the big rock there at this location which he had devoted to Caesar Augustus. When Herod the Great died, his son Phillip became the king of that area. He fortified the place more and in honoring the Roman emperor began to call it Caesarea Philippi. Against that background, the Lord brings his band of twelve disciples, they come into these regions, and this amazing conversation takes place.
“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, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him. ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’ Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me for you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Matthew 16:13-23)
In that reading we are going to identify this morning actually five questions that need to be answered at this crossroads place in the New Testament.
The first of these questions is the one voiced here by the Lord himself, and it is the obvious question. That is “Who is Jesus?” You will notice that the Lord had come to the place in his ministry where he thought it appropriate, where he considered it the time to find out what his disciples had concluded about his identity. So he says to them as you noticed, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” There answers took in the greatest of the history of the people of God in the Old Testament all the way from specific examples like “John the Baptist” or “Elijah” or “Jeremiah” down to one of the prophets. Notice that the least any of the people thought Jesus was is one of the prophets. If they considered that to be the case, it seems that they were obligated then to listen to what he said about his own identity. He had been teaching; he had been working miracles; he had been making claims about his relationship with the Father and about why he was sent. And yet folks wanted to say he is John the Baptist come alive or he is Elijah who has appeared or he is Jeremiah who weeps over the sins of the people or he is one of the prophets who made known God’s will, while at the same time they are ignoring what he said about himself. You and I want to be careful that we don’t just write Jesus off as some great one and then reserve for ourselves the right to do whatever we want with him.
Jesus, having heard what other people said, pressed it more personally to the disciples: “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter replies. Peter is not the only one of the disciples who thought this, but he speaks the opinion of the entire group of them. Apparently they have discussed this among themselves. They have wondered about it; they have thought it over. And so Peter makes the good confession. He says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” There are at least two details about that statement which are amazing. First, Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah. He Hebrew word “Messiah” meant “to be anointed with olive oil.” It was the way God’s favor on some individual was expressed, and it was the way in which that individual was marked off as someone chosen for a special purpose, for special tasks. You will notice in Luke 23:35, for example, that the Christ is also the chosen one. The Messiah is the one God chose or anointed and set apart as the king that the people look forward to, as the priest who represented them before God, and as the prophet who would speak God’s will to them. The idea of the Messiah came through Old Testament promises to represent the one who would be the son of David, the king, the servant of the Lord, the prophet like Moses, the Savior, and even the one who would act as God himself would act. Here, Peter is making the amazing confession that this Jesus standing within arm’s reach of him was actually the Messiah they had all been hoping for.
But Peter went a step farther. He said, “You are the Son of the living God.” This is the part that Jewish assumptions generally had not arrived at. They hadn’t concluded that the Messiah was going to be the Son of God. They thought he would be the son of David, the son of man, certainly, but Peter in identifying Jesus in this way was making a more amazing statement of faith than you and I may realize at first reading. Who is Jesus? He is the Messiah. He is the one who has come to do all of the work of that special one that all the promises and all the types and all of the practices of Old Testament times had looked forward to. Everything that God had been preparing for his people was now to be done by Jesus, the Christ. It is significant that when Jesus stood before Pilate at his trials, he made this same confession (Mark 14:61, 62). Pilate wanted him to say whether he was indeed the Christ, the Messiah in other words, and Jesus said, “Yes, it is as you have said.”
J.W. McGarvey in his commentary on this passage makes the point that this is the answer to the greatest question which has ever been asked. It has to be because if Jesus is the Christ, then so many of the other questions in life are already answered by that great fact. For now, I just want us to be amazed with this whole situation in which this question was asked and answered.
William Barclay, for example, writes of this moment of what a dramatic picture this really is. “Here is a homeless, penniless Galilean carpenter with 12 very ordinary men around him. At the moment, the Orthodox are actually plotting and planning to destroy him as a dangerous heretic. He stands in an area littered with the temples of the Syrian gods, in a place where the ancient Greek gods looked down, in a place where the history of Israel crowded in upon the minds of men, where the white marble splendor of the home of Caesar worship dominated the landscape and compelled the eye. And there, of all places, this amazing carpenter stands and asks men who they believe him to be and expects the answer the Son of God.” Isn’t that amazing? Who do you believe Jesus is?
The second question in this great event here is “What is the rock which is mentioned in verse 18?” Notice that Jesus commended or agreed with the confession that Peter had made. He said first that Peter was blessed in having made it, and secondly that it had not come to him by human discovery but instead that the Father had revealed it to Peter. He had revealed it by means of the signs and wonders Jesus had done and the things that Jesus had taught. “And the Lord said, ‘I tell you, you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” This verse has had more discussing done about it than just about any other verse in the New Testament. You see, there are many who have concluded from this saying that the church is built upon Peter, that he himself personally is the rock in this passage. That has led, of course, to the idea or the development of a papal office, a pope so to speak, supposing not only that Peter is the rock but that he had successors in that role. Look at the picture as it stands here, and notice carefully what takes place. Jesus says what he does to Peter in this passage as almost a mirror of the statement Peter made in verse 16. Peter had said, “You are the Christ.” Jesus said, “You are Peter.” Peter had said, “the Son of the living God.” Jesus says, “On this rock I will build my church.” The reason the Lord talks like he does to make this point is a mirror response to what Peter had said. And further notice in the reading of this passage that there is a play on words using the term “rock.” The name “Peter” is from a Greek word which is a masculine word, and it means a stone or a rock which may be moved, a smaller rock. And then the word for rock is a feminine word. Peter is “Petros.” The rock is “Petra.” They are similar, but this feminine word means a big ledge of rock, a solid rock. The play on words which is here is not to emphasize or suggest that the church is going to be built upon Peter, who himself has his weaknesses and his problems as we will notice later in this text, but that the church is to be built on a more solid rock than that.
I notice that Bro. McCord in his translation of the New Testament makes the point this way: “I assure you that you are a small rock, but upon this foundation rock I will build my called out people.” Notice the contrast between a small rock and a foundation rock. The stone in this passage is not Peter. It is not the one who before the conversation is over is being addressed as Satan. Isn’t it interesting how many people want to read verse 18 and say that the church is built on Peter, and then not read verse 23 where Jesus called this same man Satan and told him to get behind him. The church is built on something more solid than Peter. It is in fact built on the truth which Peter confessed that day. Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus commended him in that and then said, “On this rock I will build my church.” There is not anything taught anywhere in the New Testament that suggests that the church is built just on Peter. All the apostles are made a part of the foundation at the end of Ephesians 2 and in similar passages to that. But that which is the solid rock upon which the church exists is who Jesus is. Notice further that the theme of this entire text is not the identity of Peter. The thing that is under discussion in this whole passage is the identity of the Messiah. The theme that ties this all together is that Jesus is the Christ or that Jesus is the Messiah. When the Lord said, “Upon this rock I will build my church,” he was stating something that is taught throughout the New Testament, and that is that his people are built upon his being, the Christ or the Messiah. Even Peter, when he wrote about things with this image of the rock which is important through the whole Bible, didn’t refer to himself as the stone upon which the church is built. Remember I Peter 2, verses 4 and following: “As you come to him (the “you” here is people who have purified their souls in obedience to the gospel), a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Christ.” Notice that Jesus is the living stone upon which living stones are built to become the house of God. Who is Jesus? He is the Messiah. What is the rock? It is the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Third, we need to ask, “What are the gates of Hades?” at the end of verse 18. Some of the versions will translate it “the gates of hell” and that is more familiar to us. But the words are literally, “the gates of Hades.” To understand that, we need to think for a moment about two words – first, Hades, and then gates. Hades is a term which, as I understand its background, originally referred to the leader, or the god of the dead. Hades became the unseen world or the realm of the dead or the place of the dead. We might even refer to it as the grave and that would be an appropriate understanding. Gates, on the other hand, were the part of an ancient city’s which were the strongest. The gates would be the especially fortified places of the cities. The gates would be the places where the forces of those cities would come marching out following their leader to do battle, to inflict harm on their enemies or to attack. What Jesus is saying here is that if you take the grave or death itself and think of all that it can do, then not even the strongest attacks of death will be able to prevent what I am talking about here. That makes the “it” here important. “The gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” What is the “it?” Again, there have been all kinds of discussions about this. They have ranged all the way from the truth the church is to preach to members of the church being raised up from the dead even if they were to die in the service of the Lord to the idea that death would not keep Jesus from being the Messiah. The line of thought that seems to me to be more in keeping with the entire discussion going on here is the thought, “Upon this rock I am going to build my church and not even the strongest things death can do can prevent the building of my church.” Jesus could be taken and put to death; Jesus could be lied about; Jesus could be mistreated; he could be nailed to a cross and put in a grave; his disciples could walk away discouraged, but not even that could prevent him from doing what God had given him to do.
Fourth, what are the keys of the kingdom? The keys of the kingdom in this passage have been taken by some people down through time as Peter’s right to be the head of the church and for his right to say what would be right and what wouldn’t and what the church could do and what the church couldn’t do. Again, there is a background to this picture that needs to be kept in mind. In Isaiah 22:22 there is this statement, “I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open and none shall shut. He shall shut and none shall open.” That is the background of our text here in Matthew 16. Look at the fact that it tells us what someone with a key would do. He is somebody who would open so that nobody should shut it, and somebody who would shut and no one should open. That is what it meant to have the key. In Revelation 1:18 where Jesus is said to have the keys of death and Hades, it means that he opens and closes. He provides entrance or prevents escape. And in Revelation 3:8 this picture appears again. Notice what it says: “I know your works. Behold I set before you an open door which no one is able to shut.” He talks to them about their using the little power that he has. So having the key meant to open the door to allow entry that nobody could prevent. It is interesting that this picture appears again in Matthew. In Matthew 18:18-19, it is talking about what happens if a brother sins. If a brother were to sin, then action was to be taken to try to cause him to repent from that fault. If finally it led to the church being involved, it said here, “Truly I say to you whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven. Whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” He said this to all the apostles, not just Peter. “And I will say to you if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I among them.” It had to do here with access to forgiveness of sins. To have the keys and to use them was not to decide what would be bound or loosed and then to cause heaven to endorse that. It is to be doing what heaven wanted done. It should be translated “shall have been bound in heaven” or “shall have been loosed in heaven.” They would be doing what heaven wanted. It had to do with access to forgiveness, to cleansing, to the kingdom of the Lord. Remember that on the day of Pentecost, Peter is the spokesman whose words are recorded. He told people from the Jewish background what they needed to do for their sins to be forgiven. They were to repent and be baptized in the name of Christ. In Acts 10 it was Peter again who spoke to people from a Gentile background about what they needed to do to have access to forgiveness. Again, he taught them so they could believe and then commanded them to be baptized into Christ (Acts 10:48).
There is one other question I want to quickly call your attention to. What does it mean to be the Messiah? If Jesus is the Messiah and that truth is the rock and the gates of Hades can’t prevail against it and the keys of the kingdom would be sufficient to give access to it, then what did it mean to be the Christ? Notice in verse 20 that Jesus strictly charged them not to tell anybody that he was the Christ. That seems to us who are commissioned to tell everybody that he is the Christ to be an odd statement. Why did he say that? The subsequent conversation shows exactly why he said it. They still didn’t understand what it meant to be the Christ. They understood that Jesus was the Christ but they still had a picture that didn’t match with what God’s intention was. They thought that meant glory, easiness, a political kingdom in this world. Peter heard Jesus began to say that he would go to Jerusalem and suffer and be killed and on the third day be raised, and this man who had just said you are the Son of the living God took that fellow aside and began to correct him. Satan was using Peter then to exercise the same temptation that he had brought to bear against Jesus in Matthew 4 to the effect that he could be the Christ and not suffer. And so was rebuked for that here in this passage. Jesus tells him to get behind him because he is not thinking like God thinks. To be the Messiah meant to suffer, to be buried and to be raised up.
There are lots of things that may be confusing to us. But there are some things in this passage that need not be. Jesus is the Christ. His church is built on that bedrock truth. Not the worst that death can do can prevent Jesus from continuing to build his church. Access is available to all of us to the benefits of his work as a Messiah. We can be forgiven through what the apostles of Christ have taught us to do in response to Jesus. But we need to remember that we are going to be following somebody who took up his cross and so we are going to need to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow the Lord from day to day as verse 24 says.
What have you decided about Jesus? What action have you taken about who he is? How are you needing to respond to him today? If we can help you in saying “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God,” would you let that be known right now while we stand and sing.