Who is Jesus? Just who is this man who walked the earth 2000 years ago? That is the question posed to us in Matthew 16:13-20.
By this point in the reading from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has been teaching and healing enough that many people in the region had heard of him. So, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” This title – Son of Man – was Jesus’ preferred way of referring to himself. This title appears 83 times in the New Testament, mostly in the Gospels, and mostly used by Jesus to refer to himself.
And it comes from a vision that the Old Testament prophet Daniel saw and recorded in chapter 7 of the book of Daniel. He wrote:
“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7:13-14).
So, the prophet Daniel saw one “like a son of man;” that is, he saw one who appeared to be a man presented before the Ancient of Days. In fact, what Daniel sees is the Son before the Father on His throne. The “son of man” is the Messiah, the Christ, whom God had been promising to send to us ever since Genesis 3:15. So, Daniel sees this Christ – one like a son of man – before the Father.
We also get a hint that this man who is before the Ancient of Days is not just a mere man. For he is “one like a son of man;” he has the appearance of a man, but we know that he is no mere mortal, for he is before the holy Father, and no sinful man can see God and live (as God told Moses in Exodus 33:20).
So, this “one like a son of man” is born of a woman and yet is sinless, and it is he whom the Ancient of Days anoints with “dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” for everlasting.
King David had seen something similar, when he wrote in Psalm 110:
“The LORD says to my Lord: Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool” (Psalm 110:1).
David saw something similar to what Daniel would later see. God the Father giving dominion over all things to His Son – the Lord speaking to the Lord – the Ancient of Days speaking to the Christ. This Christ would come as “one like a son of man” to have an “everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away … , and … shall not be destroyed.” Both true God – because He came from the presence of the holy Father – and true man, because he was born as “one like a son of man.” This “Son of Man” is the one anointed by the Father to have an everlasting dominion. This is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
So, in the text from Matthew, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” That is, he’s asking them who people are saying that he is. And the disciples answer, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” These are actually reasonable answers, as far as reason can take us. For Jesus has been healing, preaching, and even raising the dead, like Elijah. These men to whom people are comparing Jesus were prophets, they spoke God’s Word to His people.
And yet, they did so as ones bound to that Word; the Word was not their own, but was given to them to proclaim.
But, does this description match Jesus? Is he another in the long line of prophets? Does he speak a Word that is not his own? Well, in Jesus’ sermon on the mount, recorded earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, after Jesus had finished speaking, Matthew says, “… the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:28-29). For the scribes would say things like, “God says” or “the Scriptures say,” but Jesus said “I say,” and taught as one with authority; and he did so because He was given this authority by the Father, just as the prophet Daniel and king David had foreseen. The Son of Man speaks God’s Word as one who is himself the Lord God.
So, in the text today, some people are saying that Jesus is a prophet. Yet, that’s not really good enough; even Muslims today say that Jesus is a prophet. But, Jesus is more than a prophet. And so after his disciples report what people are saying about him, Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” What is the disciples’ response to people when they have the wrong idea about who Jesus is? What is our response when we encounter people even today who think that Jesus is simply a prophet or good man?
Simon, the apostle nicknamed Peter, gives us our answer. He replies to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Let’s break down what Peter is saying. First, he is saying that Jesus is the Christ. The Greek word Christos, or its Hebrew equivalent Messiah, means one who is anointed. So, when Peter calls Jesus the Christ, he is acknowledging him as the one anointed by God to bring salvation, similar to what Daniel saw when he saw the Ancient of Days give an everlasting dominion to the Son of Man, and what David saw when he saw the Lord speaking to the Lord, the Father seating the Son at His right hand of power.
Then, Peter calls Jesus the Son of the living God. We’ve talked before about how you beget something that is of your own nature, but create something that is of a different nature than yourself. So, we as humans beget human children, but we make cars. Likewise, God created all things, but His Son is begotten, since His Son is also God – this is the mystery of the Trinity: that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all equally the one Lord God even though they are distinct people. And Jesus is the Son of the living God; the Ancient of Days is a living God, not a dead god like the pagans have, which is carved from wood or stone.
So, Peter is calling Jesus the Christ and the Son of the living God; Jesus is both man and God, two natures united in one person, just as Christ unites man and God in his body and in his Church, which is his bride and also his body.
Now, Peter’s confession of Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” forms the basis and foundation for what follows.
Jesus replies to Peter’s confession by saying, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” That is, Peter’s faith in Jesus is not based on his own reason or study, but rather on the revelation of Jesus as the Christ and Son of God. Faith in Christ was worked in Simon Peter by God Himself.
A few weeks ago, Romans 10:13-17 was in our readings. We didn’t focus on it then, but in that text Paul writes about how we come to faith in Christ for our salvation. Paul wrote:
“For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
So, Paul notes that the word of Christ creates faith through hearing. God’s Word creates faith. We can not decide to have faith anymore than we can decide to trust someone; trust must be created by the one in whom we are to trust, just as faith must be created by the one in whom we are to have faith. And faith is created through the hearing of the Word of Christ. So, Simon Peter came to faith in Jesus as the “Christ, the Son of the living God,” through God’s Spirit working in the Word of Christ. Jesus as the Christ was revealed to Simon through the working of the Word.
And your faith is also a product of God’s Word working on you. Holy Baptism bestowed on you the Word with water, and your faith is sustained each week in the Word that is preached and in the incarnate Word that is inwardly digested with bread and wine. God’s Word does it all. For Jesus was revealed to you as the Christ, the Son of the living God, not by flesh and blood, but by God Himself. Those who have preached to you and administered the Sacraments to you throughout your lives have given you not themselves, but the good Word of Christ.
And so, after Peter confesses Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus says to him, “… you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” So, Jesus calls Simon “Peter,” which means “rock,” and then says that “on this rock I will build my church.” Is Peter the rock on which the Church is built?
Well, Peter himself answers this question for us. In chapter 2 of his first epistle, Peter calls Christ “a living stone” and the “cornerstone” on which the Church is built. So, Peter himself recognizes that he is not the rock on which the Church is built, but rather Jesus and the confession of him as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” is the rock on which the Church is built. In fact, in the Greek, Jesus calls Peter “Petros,” which is the masculine form of rock, but then the word that Jesus uses for “rock” is “petra,” which is the feminine form. So, Petros and petra are too different things. Simon is nicknamed Petros, or Peter, because he holds to the confession of Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” but Jesus and this confession of him is the “petra,” or “rock,” on which the Church is built.
This is very important, and it seems so simple, and yet people often forget this fact: the Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord. The Church rests on the confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God; Christ is the cornerstone of the Church, upon which we are all built up as believers as living stones, living rocks, as Peter calls us in his epistle.
And because Jesus Christ is the foundation of the Church, the “gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The Word used here for “hell” is Hades, as opposed to the other word for “hell” that is sometimes used in the New Testament, which is “Gehenna.” “Gehenna” denotes a place of everlasting torment, while “Hades” is the more general term for the place of death or the grave. So, Jesus is saying that the Church will conquer death and the grave, just as he himself conquered death and the grave. When the apostle John saw the risen Christ in his vision in Revelation, he wrote that he saw “one like a son of man” who said to him: “I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Revelation 1:18).
And so, because Christ has conquered, you too are conquerors. The Church Militant lays siege to Hades, but the gates of Hades will not be able to keep the Church from conquering it. For when Christ returns, death and the grave will be no more and only he and His Church will remain, in everlasting communion with each other, for “She is His new creation, By water and the Word. From heaven He came and sought her, To be His holy bride; With His own blood He bought her, And for her life He died.” Therefore, “The Church shall never perish!”
And Jesus says, “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.” This is often called the office of the keys, or the power to forgive and retain sins that Christ has given His Church. He made a similar statement following his crucifixion, when he said to the disciples in John 20:
“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld” (John 20:21-23).
So, the Father sent the Son and the Son sends the Church out into the world to forgive and retain sins, to loose sins or bind sins. And how does the Church do this? – through the Word of Christ. For God’s Word is double-edged. One edge binds sin through the Law; God cuts to the heart and kills the sinner with His Law; the sinner is bound in sin and death. But, the other edge looses sins through the Gospel; God raises up the dead sinner to new life in Christ; the sinner is forgiven of all his sins through Christ. The Law makes sin known, while the Gospel makes known God’s forgiveness of this sin through Christ. The Word of Gospel reveals Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
So, in Baptism, God drowns the old person in the waters, killing him and his sins, and then raises up a new creation in Christ, one who is forgiven of all his sins. So, in your Baptisms, you have been killed, but are now alive through Christ, and so you too will conquer death and the grave, because you have already been buried and raised in Baptism. You are already victors through Christ.
And this then is the mission of the Church – to go out into the world armed with God’s Word. The Church is bound to the Word of Christ. For, the only way people come to faith in Christ for their salvation is for their sinful, broken condition to be revealed to them through God’s Law and then God’s reconciliation of them to Himself to be revealed to them through the Gospel of Christ; for “…faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” So, the Church is sent into all the earth, bringing this Good News of the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God through Christ to all people. The Church is in the forgiveness of sins business.
But, in the text, Christ tells the disciples “to tell no one that he was the Christ.” He did this, because he still had a mission to accomplish; he still had some things to do. For, as it says in the next verse, he “… 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.” Christ still had to die and rise, before the Church could proclaim him as “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” For Christ’s death and resurrection is what saves the Church from death and the grave and is the proof of who he says he is, that he really has conquered Hades and that you will also.
But, after his death and resurrection, Christ commissions his Church to go into all the earth, baptizing and making disciples. The Church is to confess, like Peter and all those who have come before us, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. And this is what we are blessed to do as His Church as we proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all nations.
And we may experience setbacks, disappointments, doubts, fears, and uncertainties, but in the words of St. Paul:
“… in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-39).
(Image: By Didgeman – https://pixabay.com/en/christ-jesus-religion-mosaic-898330/, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56824694 )