“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’”
It is of no small significance that St. Matthew tells us where Jesus poses His question to His disciples. But then again, there’s not one word in the Bible that is of small significance.
As you can imagine, the region of Palestine had a number of cities named after Caesar. This Caesarea was in the region where Philip was tetrarch and so it was Caesarea of Philip. It was known for its many temples, each one dedicated to the worship of a different Greek god. The most notable temple was made out of marble and dedicated to Caesar himself, whom every loyal Roman confessed was lord and son of god. What an intriguing place for Jesus to ask His question. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
The question is very broad and general. It’s the kind of question that the pollsters and politicians of our day ask – narrowing it down only by certain ‘demographics’ – gender, race, income bracket, level of education.
The disciples answer with what they’ve observed or heard on the street. “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” It was probably out of either politeness or maybe embarrassment that they left out, “and some say Beelzebul, the prince of demons.” Again, all very general – “some,” “others.” No one specifically.
But that’s not really what Jesus is after here. He already knows what ‘people’ are saying about Him. It becomes obvious that He has just been setting His disciples up for another question that is VERY SPECIFIC and PERSONAL and that cuts right through all the GENERALITIES, even to “the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, to discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Heb. 4:12).
“He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?” Here is THE question that lies at the very heart of the Christian faith. “Who do you say Jesus is?”
I’m sorry to have to do this, but there is some ‘grammatical analysis’ here that has to be pointed out just so we hear the question rightly. The ‘you’ is plural. “But who do you all say that I am?” He’s speaking to the 12 upon whom He will build His One, Holy, Christian and APOSTOLIC church. The question He asks is, “how will my church proclaim the faith and answer the question, ‘who do you say I am?’
Which is not to say that this question is not also critically important for every individual. The Church may be as right as Peter’s answer to the most important question ever asked – but apart from individual, personal faith – it is of no benefit to YOU – ‘singular.’ You can be buried with your baptismal certificate and communicant records in hand – but apart from faith in Word and Promises of God that stand behind them, they do you no good.
Individually, these 12, individual men to whom Jesus puts His question will, at times, answer this question with a remarkable lack of faith – Peter himself being the most notorious. “I never knew the man.” All of them will run away in fear for their own lives because they cannot answer His question with the firm assurance of faith they do here.
But here’s the thing. The CHURCH MUST BE CLEAR IN HOW IT ANSWERS THIS QUESTION. Because unless the church can say and proclaim and shout from the rooftops that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” individuals like Peter and the others – like you and me who fall into doubting and confusion and despair – don’t stand a chance.
Who will tell us that it’s safe to come back home again if the church isn’t sure where home is? Who will say, ‘In the name of Jesus, I forgive you (singular) all of your sins,’ if the church isn’t sure that all of our sins have been completely atoned for by Jesus? Or as Jesus Himself puts it, “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit?” (Lk. 6:39)
“But who do you say that I am?” is the question Jesus is putting to His Church.
If we could only for a moment, begin to comprehend the TERRIFYING DANGER and TERRIBLE RISK that Jesus takes in asking His disciples this question. The ‘danger’ and the ‘risk’ is this, from where will they get their answer to this question? On what will their answer be based? Will they look OUTWARDS – to the pollsters and the politics and the current social movements of the day – will their answer to His question be based on these?
Or will they look INWARDS ‘to what their heart tells them?’ Will they huddle up and compromise on one answer that is careful to include bits and pieces of everyone’s beliefs? Or will they express their own belief, but make it so ‘personal’ that ‘what may be true for me may not be true for you?’ Or, will they do what we are all so prone to do now a days and make it all about “PERFORMANCE” – ‘you are a miracle worker, an exorcist, a great teacher, a good person’?
“Who do you say that I am?” Can we begin to see how dangerous this question is and what a risk Jesus takes in asking it?
And if so, then maybe we can also begin to understand Jesus’ remarkable response when Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It’s not just that this is the RIGHT ANSWER that Jesus is relieved to hear. But it’s where the answer comes from that He praises. “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.’”
At this point in the journey, these 12 disciples have with Jesus for two years. Think of all that they have heard and witnessed. And yet, Jesus doesn’t pronounce His “blessed are you” upon them because they’ve been such good students and pass the final exam. If anything, what we have seen so far in this journey is a startling lack of comprehension and faith on the part of the disciples.
No, the emphasis is on “my Father who is in heaven who has revealed this to you.” It’s the only question on the most important exam you will ever be given – and the Father has revealed the correct answer to you. It is by grace alone that you are saved.
Luther captures the essence of Jesus’ response to Peter in his explanation to the 3rd Article of the Creed. “I cannot by my own reason or strength, believe in my Lord, Jesus Christ, or come to Him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, and enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”
Thanks be to God that He doesn’t leave it up to us to figure out the answer to this life and death question ourselves. All of the danger and risk in His question has been relieved. The Father reveals the truth about Jesus through His Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit REVEALS the truth to us through the APOSTLIC WORD. And we may make Peter’s confession our own “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
And Jesus confirms the INSPIRATION of the REVELATION in perfect unity with the Trinity. Peter confesses Jesus to be “the Son of the living God.” And Jesus responds by calling the living God, MY FATHER 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.” Remember, all this takes place “in the district of Caesarea Philippi.” Which of us would be surprised if Caesar’s temple wasn’t visible in the background, or maybe that this entire episode took place right in front of Caesar’s temple.
“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.” We need to let this word sink into our ears and take root in our hearts.
First, He calls THIS CONFESSION the rock on which the church is built. This is what the church is all about. It’s not about beautiful buildings made out of marble or on worship attendance or denominational loyalties or on the right social or political agendas. It’s all about confessing Jesus to be “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And so the first thing that the Church must keep right is its PRIORITIES. It must first and foremost proclaim Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Second, He calls this church that is built on the right confession of faith – “MY CHURCH.” “On this rock I will build MY CHURCH.” Long before this, the same Christ put it this way, “they shall be MY PEOPLE and I will be THEIR GOD.” “Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, for YOU ARE MINE.” (Is.43:1). This is the language of a husband for his bride – “You are my wife, for I have laid down my life FOR YOU.” And so the second thing that the church must always keep right is its IDENTITY. This is HIS CHURCH and you belong to Him.
Third, “On this rock I will build my church, AND THE GATES OF HELL SHALL NOT PREVAIL AGAINST IT.” In a day when nothing seems sure and everything seems so fragile, and who knows what tomorrow brings and what this world will look like a year from now – and even in the best of times, death gets one day closer every day – THIS MUCH WE KNOW – THE GATES OF HELL will not prevail against “MY CHURCH” that is built on the right confession of Christ, the Son of the Living God. There are two things that are ultimately certain, and they are not death and taxes. They are the return of Jesus in great glory, and the preservation of His church until that day. And so the third thing that the Church must always keep straight is its HOPE.
“Built on the Rock the Church shall stand – EVEN WHEN STEEPLES ARE FALLING…” (LSB #645:1)
It is to THIS CHURCH, MY CHURCH – the Church that confesses the revealed truth about the Christ – that Jesus entrusts with the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. This is the church that knows how to use these Keys rightly – unbinding the chains of guilt and the fear of judgment of those who confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God by unlocking the forgiveness and life He won for all by His cross; and fervently praying for those who refuse to confess even while they remain bound. And so the fourth thing that the Church must always keep straight is its RESPONSIBILITY to use these keys for the forgiveness of sins and the exercise of church discipline faithfully.
“Then He strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.” Here’s the only part of our text that doesn’t apply to us today.
The Christ, the Son of the Living God has been crucified and risen from the dead, ascended into heaven, has sent His apostles go to all nations, confessing Him to be the Christ in a world of idolatry, paganism and skepticism.
And so today, we confess the truth about Jesus, knowing that by this confession, the lost are found and brought home, heaven is opened, and we are blessed.