The Messianic Declaration
This morning, as we continue our chronological walk through the life of Christ, we enter into a new season of His ministry. It appears that Jesus’s Galilean ministry has for the most part, ended. The focus of His great works and proclamation of His Kingdom to the people of that region and the surrounding regions is shifting as Jesus starts to focus more on discipling His disciples- pouring into them, equipping and training them as His representatives. This morning we get to see that focus shift through a beautiful interaction between Jesus and Peter, as Peter makes a declaration of who He believes Jesus to be, and as Jesus makes a declaration Himself in response to Peter. And Jesus said that Peter was blessed because of his declaration, and that blessing is not only for Peter, and not only for the other disciples, but also for others who would declare Jesus to be the Messiah, others who would be built into this new concept of “Church.” that Jesus presented. That would include you and me- let’s take a look at what Jesus says. (Matt 16:13-20)
Now there’s a lot packed into this passage, let’s attempt to unpack it. More than likely, there was a time interval between today’s passage, and the passage that we looked at last Sunday. (Matt. 15:32-16:12) Jesus and the disciples had previously been bouncing back and forth between locations on the Galilee. They had been ministering in non-Jewish territories, then came back to Jewish Israel only to be confronted by the religious leaders, then very quickly traveled back across the lake where Jesus could privately warn His disciples of the teaching (the leaven) of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Now we find Jesus in Caesarea Philippi, which is not to be confused with Caesarea that is on the coast of the Mediterranean, on the western side of Israel. Caesarea Phillipi was near the base of mount Hermon, slightly north of the Galilee, near the source of the Jordan river. Some of your Bibles might say coasts of Caesarea Phillipi, and what that word “coasts” means in this instance is the land in the vicinity of the Sea of Galilee (on the coasts of the Galilee) not the coasts as in the ocean coast where Caesarea is located.
Caesarea Philippi was a Greco-Roman city, with beautiful landscape and temples built to honor Roman and Greek gods. One temple was placed at the front of a cave that was believed to be the gateway to the underworld. Another honored Zeus, and another the goddess Nemesis. On the screen you’ll see an artist’s rendition of what the temples perhaps looked like.
Our next photo shows us what Caesarea Philippi looks like today. There you see the high mountain, and at the bottom of it, the cave.
Inside the cave used to be an incredibly deep pool of water, at the time the pool was well over 800 feet deep. The water then and still today makes its way up to the ground, becoming a river that feeds the Jordan River. This place was designated as the home of the Greek god Pan. Pan was the half goat god of fields, woods, and shepherds, and he is associated with sexuality and fertility. He was also responsible for giving sudden, inexplainable fear- “panic,” the word derived directly from his name, Pan. This city was a main attraction for pagan worship. Bestiality, orgies, and animal sacrifices took place here to please the gods. It was a very wicked place- sin city, and the rabbis forbade Jews to come here. And yet Jesus took his disciples here to establish and encourage their understanding and belief in Him being the Messiah. Jesus had not previously outright told His disciples that He was the Messiah, but by the things He did and taught, He wanted them to recognize Him as such. And right here in Caesarea Philippi at Satan’s throne, at the supposed gateway to the underworld, is where He chose to have His disciples affirm His Messiahship, and then declare to them that the very gates of Hell would not be able to overpower His church.
What a stark contrast. Here we have Pan the god of shepherds and Jesus stands there as the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep. (John 10:11) Pan causes panic, and Jesus had just recently told His disciples “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” (Matthew 14:27) Pan was the god of fertility, and yet Jesus had just recently declared Himself as the one who gives life to the world (John 6:33), and that whoever believes in Him will have eternal life. (John 6:40) There at the cave the deep waters represented an entrance to death, and yet Jesus had just recently told the Samaritan woman
that the water He gives becomes a well of water springing up to eternal life. (John 4:14)
I’m sure the setting made this conversation the disciples had with Jesus just a little more intense. I can imagine them sitting under a tree, perhaps on a slightly elevated knoll, looking at the mountain, the cave, the temples, the spring of water, the people bustling about engaging in their idolatry and Jesus says “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The disciples answer- John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the other prophets. Jesus was like John in His nontraditional approach to teaching and ministering. Jesus was like Elijah in the miracles he performed, even raising back to life the dead- as Elijah had once done for the widow’s son. (1 Kings 17:17-24) Jesus was like Jeremiah in that He too boldly called people to repent and that He too announced the New Covenant- to be more specific Jesus fulfilled and ushered in the New Covenant that Jeremiah prophesied of. It had been over 400 years since a true prophet of the Lord had spoken, and many believed at that time that God would raise up one or more of the ancient prophets before the Messiah came.
I believe that Jesus in asking “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”, was really just a question that prepared and lead the way for Him to ask the next question, the real question that He had intended for His followers: “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter, often speaking on behalf of the other disciples, and/or the first one to want to give his input replies in verse 16 “You are the Christ” (which translates into the “Anointed One”- meaning the Messiah), and he then adds, “the Son of the living God.” Though Jesus did not carry the outward pomp or grandeur that was expected of the Messiah, Peter saw that indeed Jesus was the Messiah. He realized that not only was Jesus the Messiah, the Anointed One, The Christ- but he saw that Jesus’s relationship to God was different. His sonship to God the Father put him in a higher class and esteem than John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or any other prophet. The Christ, and also the Son of the living God. And notice Peter doesn’t say “I think” you are, or “I say” you are, but He declares definitely “You are” the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Peter hits the nail on the head, and Jesus lets him know that he is correct in verse 17. “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona”- “bar” meaning son, so Jesus calls Peter “Simon (his original name) the son of Jona.” Jesus responds back imitating Peter’s declaration. Peter says “Jesus, you are Christ Son of God.” And Jesus says that’s right- and Peter, you are Simon son of Jona.” And then Jesus validates even further Peter’s response, basically saying that mere mortals didn’t convince him of the truth of who Jesus was; mere mortals can lie and deceive and convince most people to believe anything. Rather, God Himself- the Author of the Universe- is the One who stands by this truth of who Jesus is, and the One who sets this truth in the hearts and minds of men.
The following verse 18, has experienced some difficulty in translation in determining who or what the rock is, upon which Jesus will build His church. If we could have only seen Jesus’s hand gestures as He said “this rock”, then we perhaps would know exactly what He was referring to. The church of Rome understands Jesus to have been pointing to Peter as He said this, referring to Peter as the rock. After all, Peter was the new name that Jesus had given him, which means stone or rock. And it would make sense perhaps that because Peter answered first, and correctly, that Jesus gave him a special blessing as being one of the first who would be monumental in laying the foundation of the church. And Peter did end up having the honor of laying the foundation of the church among the Jews and Gentiles after Jesus’s return to Heaven. But Jesus did not mean, as Roman Catholics say he did, that Peter was to be exalted to supreme authority above all the other apostles, or to say that he was the only one upon whom Christ would build His church. We see that the early church did not translate Jesus’s words as such. In Acts 15, during the Council at Jerusalem, the early Church actually followed not Peter’s advice, but the advice of James. And in Galatians 2 (Gal. 2:11-21) Paul describes confronting Peter to his face for Peter’s hypocrisy. No, Jesus did not say here nor anywhere else in the Bible that Peter would have infallible successors who would be earthly representatives of God. If Jesus was referring to Peter as the rock in this passage, then what was intended was that Peter would have an honored privilege of being a distinguished preacher in building the early church and making Jesus’s gospel known among Jews and Gentiles. Ephesians 2:20 says that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (not just the foundation of Peter), and then it says that Christ Jesus himself is the cornerstone of that foundation.
This verse, along with other verses that describe Jesus as the rock such as 1 Corinthians 10:4 or 1 Peter 2:8 would lead many to say that perhaps Jesus pointed to Himself when he said “this rock.” In other words, perhaps Jesus said “upon myself I will build my church.”
Others tweak that interpretation just a bit and say that Jesus was perhaps speaking of the truth that Peter had just confessed as being the rock Jesus was referring to. In other words, they would say that Jesus meant, “upon this confession of truth that I am the Messiah I will build my church.”
Those are the three most common suggestions for interpreting what Jesus said, but I’m going to offer yet one more possible interpretation. If we consider again the setting where Jesus was with His disciples, and we look again at the picture of the giant rock mountain and cave- perhaps Jesus, when he said “this rock”, He was referring to the actual rock they were standing on at that time. Perhaps Jesus was saying “You are Peter (the rock), but upon this rock right here right now that we are standing on, the rock that is considered by society as the gateway to the underworld, the very gates of Hell, here, right now, I am building the foundation of my church with you as my disciples, who now understand who I am as the Messiah.” Jesus was building His church right there in full view of all the powers of darkness, in full declaration that His church would not be overpowered by those gates of Hell that they were looking at right then and there. I don’t believe it was mere coincidence that Jesus brought them to this specific location, well out of the way from all their other travels, to confirm to them His Messiahship, and declare to them and to the powers of evil, that His church would have the victory.
This is the first occurrence of the word “Church” in the New Testament. The Greek word written is “Ecclesia”, which during that time meant “the assembly of free citizens”- those of a society that held judicial and legislative power- citizens with rights. Foreigners and slaves did not enjoy those rights, they were not part of the “Ecclesia.” This was a new word Jesus used to describe His kingdom people. Jesus was saying that His kingdom was going to be built into a society that enjoyed special rights and privileges as members of that society.
In verse 19, Jesus says to Peter he would be given the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and I believe Jesus wasn’t just speaking to Peter, but to the other disciples as well. Just a short time later, we see in Matthew 18:18 that Jesus repeats this statement to all of His disciples, confirming to them that what they bind and loose on earth will be bound or loosed in Heaven. The phrases “to bind” and “to loose” were often used by the Jews. To bind meant to prohibit or forbid something, and to loose meant to permit or allow it to be done. Jesus was giving them some authority and say so in the responsibility He had given them in the building of His church society. In the book of Acts we see the early church faced with various obstacles, and they made decisions together seeking to honor Jesus and build up His church in a way that would please Him. They choose to pray in certain ways, asking for certain things, and God answered those prayers, allowing them “say so” in not only the physical things of this world, but ultimately in the spiritual things of Heaven as well.
In verse 20 Jesus warned the disciples not to spread the word that He was the Messiah. The timing was not yet right. This truth of Jesus’s Messiahship was extremely important to know and believe, but the disciples weren’t to announce that truth until the powerful grand proof of Jesus’s Messiahship was given- His resurrection. If announced publicly before the resurrection, they perhaps would have been squashed by the religious and political leaders as if they were attempting a coup or uprising. Before the resurrection, the disciples didn’t have a complete understanding of how the Messiah would bring about His kingdom. But after the resurrection, they understood much more fully everything that Jesus had done and taught. After the resurrection, the testimony and proof were powerfully in their favor, giving them much better success of spreading the good news.
The keys of the Kingdom of Heaven weren’t just given to Peter, and they weren’t just given to the other disciples- the keys of the Kingdom have been given to you as followers of Jesus, as members of His church. The knowledge of who Jesus is, what He did, what He taught has been given to you. That knowledge, that understanding is a key, giving you access to His Kingdom. You can open that door for yourself, and you can close that door for yourself. And by your words, life, and testimony- you can also, in a sense, open the door to the Kingdom of Heaven for others. And unfortunately, you can also to a degree, close that door for others. May none of us ever be responsible for aiding in closing that door to others by our silence in sharing the gospel, or by acts of hypocrisy.
You might say, “Whoa, I don’t want that responsibility- I don’t want the keys to Heaven. I’m cool with the disciples having those keys, but not me- I’m just an average, normal, struggling person.” If that’s you, let me remind you of the passage that describes Jesus calling His first disciples. I’ll read from Matthew, chapter 4:18-22. It says…
This is how Jesus, the greatest Rabbi (Teacher) chose His students. JD Greear points out how Rabbis traditionally choose their disciples. He says: “All Hebrew boys went to Torah school starting at age 5. By age 10, all young boys knew the Torah, and the best students went on to study the remainder of the Old Testament. The rest returned home to work in their families’ businesses. At about age 17, if a boy wanted to go on and make a career out of religious studies, his next step was to find a rabbi he admired and apply to become one of his disciples. When he found one, he would go and sit at his feet. That was his request to learn. And the rabbi would examine him with questions and put him through a series of tests to see if he was worthy to be his disciple. The rabbis could choose the smartest, most talented boys to be their disciples. Another reason the rabbis were so picky is that when they chose a disciple, they were choosing someone whom they believed could become just like them—to not just know what they knew, but to do what they did. For several years, these young disciples would follow their rabbis, imitating them in every way. The goal of a disciple was to be like the rabbi.”
This passage in Matthew shows us that Jesus didn’t pick the cream of the crop religious students. These guys didn’t make the cut- they were fishermen- part of the B-team. They weren’t the best of the best. JD goes on to say that “when Jesus chose His squad to build His movement, He chose the B-team. He chose the B-team because His work in the world wouldn’t come from their abilities for Him, but from what He would do through them.”
God wants to use you in your family, with your friends, at your workplace. And He doesn’t need your ability, He needs your availability. He chose you- if you are Jesus’s disciple- then He chose you! Again, traditionally the normal way one would get paired with a rabbi was if you were the best of your class, and you applied by sitting at his feet, and if he liked what He saw, he would choose you back. The rabbi’s selection would give the disciple great confidence. If that disciple ended up struggling, he could say “It’s ok, my rabbi believed in me and chose me.” But Jesus’s disciples didn’t even come sit at His feet, He came seeking them when they weren’t even looking for Him. Some of you might be struggling now, but remember, if you are His disciple- He chose you! You have within you the knowledge and power of Christ, you have the ability to responsibly use the keys of the Kingdom.
I’m asking that we each determine one individual with whom we can use the keys of the Kingdom that we have been entrusted with and open up to them the Kingdom’s door. It will be their choice whether to walk through that door or not, but it is our responsibility as key bearers to open the door and give them opportunity to share in this gift of knowledge we have in knowing Jesus to be the Messiah. Be encouraged, Jesus wants to use you to build His church, and we have His promise that the gates of Hades will not overpower His church. His church and Kingdom will be grown and built, and ultimately, will have the victory.