Matthew 16:13-23: Who Do You Say I Am?

After people demanded proof of His divinity, Jesus questions His disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”  Earlier, the Pharisees clamored, challenging Him to give them a sign from heaven.  Do not find this as strange, for lack of faith always wants to sense and experience something, not take God at His word.

So, Jesus confronts His chosen followers, asking them what they believe about Him.  “Oh, some say You are John the Baptizer or Elijah, but others think Jeremiah or some other prophet.”  “No, I didn’t ask you this.  Tell me, who do you say I am?”  Outspoken Peter blurts out, “You’re the Messiah, God’s living Son!”  Now, He didn’t come up with this answer on his own, for someone can only believe this by God’s doing. 

A moment passes, and Jesus responds with rock-splintering words, “You are Peter [Petros],” which is a stone.  “On this rock [petra],” which is a rock ledge, “I will build my Church.”  Are Petros and Petra in the original Greek mere wordplay, a switching of synonyms?  No, because an outcropping of rock is more significant than any stone.

Here’s what the enfleshed God is doing.  Though Peter’s name in Greek is Petros, Jesus will not build His Church on Peter.  No, but on the statement of faith Peter made, his Petra, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  The confession is more than the man, which is why this matters.

In his first Epistle, Peter said as much.  With Christ as the “living Stone,” God chooses you and makes you His “living stones” where You become part of His spiritual House (1 Peter 2:4-8).  So, the bedrock of the Church is Jesus.  The Apostle Paul agreed, calling Him “the foundation” (1 Corinthians 3:11).

To be a believer is to be a confessor.  Listen again to Paul, “Confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord…” (Romans 10:9).  The book of 1 John tells us, “God abides in whoever confesses Jesus to be the Son of God, and he remains in God” (1 John 4:15).  “Always be prepared,” Peter taught, “to answer anyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope within you.  Do so, however, with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).

A Christian believes and professes in Jesus.  To this lost and dying world, God gives us both the opportunity and responsibility to confess the Savior, Jesus Christ, into the ears of others.  Still, who is this Jesus?  What is His impact for us here and now?  Much confusion blows about in our culture concerning these questions.  Much misinformation and misrepresentation also abound about what Christians hold to be true and how their beliefs shape their lives. 

Be ready, Peter says.  For what—to explain what you believe and why.  So, if someone asks you why you go to church, about Christianity, or your faith, can you give a solid answer?  Be honest.  Will a stumbling tongue trip over itself, “Well, I’m poor at explaining this.”  “Why don’t you ask my pastor, he’s better at this churchy stuff.”

The Epistle of Ephesians describes believers as belonging to God’s household, with Jesus being the Cornerstone and His Apostles as the foundation.  Next, Scripture says this building, this life-bestowing Church, is only joined together in Christ.  In Him, we become holy temples with God’s Spirit residing in us (Ephesians 2:20-21).

In today’s Gospel, Jesus proclaimed the “gates of Hades” will not overcome His holy Church.  The word “Hades” is ambiguous, which can mean hell, the afterlife, or one’s burial place.  So, which meaning does Jesus intend?  A couple of verses later, He makes this clear when He speaks of going to Jerusalem to suffer and die.  So, He’s using hades to mean “death.”  So, death cannot, and will not, overpower Christ’s Church or her Lord, who will conquer the grave.

First, Jesus reveals He builds the Church, not on Peter, a man but, instead, on someone’s confession of Him.  So, what our Savior does next may cause us to wonder.  For if our Lord’s Church doesn’t rise or fall because of Peter, why does Jesus give him such authority.  Doesn’t Jesus tell him to forgive and retain another’s sins, and not only Peter but later to all the Apostles?  Yes, Jesus commands this of these first pastors in the New-Covenant Church.

Is Jesus undercutting His authority or negating Himself?  No, He is showing whom He authorizes to speak for Him.  In other words, Jesus is calling Peter, His other Apostles, and all pastors to be faithful envoys of His spoken Word.  For the keys Jesus gives are not the pastor’s own, to do with as he likes, but Christ’s.

Does this undercut a person’s belief in Jesus?  Not according to Him, for He expects us to believe and confess and a congregation’s pastor to absolve and, if needed, to retain sins.  These don’t contradict but work in harmony, one upholding the other.

Listen to the grammar Jesus uses to keep things clear.  “Whatever you bind on earth [present tense] has been bound [which happened earlier] in heaven.”  So, a pastor doesn’t change God’s mind.  No, he only pronounces what Jesus earlier made real in eternity.  No pastor is in control—God is—like all stewardship is meant to be.

So, Jesus tells His first servants of the Word to be stewards of His sin-forgiving and sin-retaining Word.  Though we might think this obstructs our relationship with Christ, not so.  No, He’s revealing where we are to receive His words, which the Spirit enables you to trust in, which, in turn, your tongue can confess.

The Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ day considered the soon-to-be Apostles as deluded fools.  In their world, to become one of those unhinged followers of Jesus meant being cast out of the synagogue and forsaking God’s favor.  Not so fast, our living Lord teaches, for He authorizes His pastors to speak what He gives them to say.

So, who is Jesus?  Some might claim He is only a myth.  For others, an excellent teacher or gifted philosopher.  A holy man, another might conclude, but circumstances went beyond His control.  A religious leader, one may think, who strove to do something worthwhile in this world.  The shallow-rooted will accept Him as a historical figure but allege His teachings are obsolete in the world today.

Nevertheless, the question Jesus spoke is still the central one, “Who do you confess Him to be?”  Not a difficult request, and Romans 10:9 supplies the answer.  “Confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart God raised Him from the dead and you will be saved.”  By the way, Paul wrote those words to Christians, not unbelievers.  For those who are saved will also receive their salvation on the Last Day, who learn and confess as much in Christ’s Church.

The Lord Jesus instituted the pastoral office when He breathed on His disciples, making them Apostles and pastors, commissioning them for His holy tasks.  In resolute words, He bequeaths His mantle of authority, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom.”  Next, He goes to the cross as the Suffering Servant to earn those keys.

On the day He breaks out of His cold and stony tomb, after crushing Satan’s head under His feet, He again gives these keys to His first pastors.  Recognize what Christ does, for He didn’t tell those men about forgiveness, or about some message for them to share.  “Go and tell people about this forgiveness,” is not what He told them.

No, Jesus didn’t give His pastors some vague mandate about something.  Listen to His directive on Easter evening, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven if you retain them, they are retained” (John 20:23).  So, pastors don’t tell others only about God’s amnesty of sin and stop.  No, they bring Christ’s absolution to another, opening the door to life everlasting.  The pastor who doesn’t bring Jesus’ divine pardon to the repentant is no pastor but a charlatan, refusing the orders his Lord gives him.

So, when God forgives your sins, the gate to heaven is unbarred, its door unlocked.  Not so when He retains them, closing the entrance to eternity.  With God’s forgiveness, you dwell with Him forever, filled with His Spirit, and brought from death into life.  No longer a dying soul but a living one, Jesus reverses your future from a one of death to one of blessing and neverending life.

The Lord gave His Apostles the power to proclaim words and clothe sinners with His righteous perfection.  For the unrepentant, Jesus also gave them the authority to voice His word of condemnation.  Today, this is how Jesus chooses to preach to you when your pastor is saying what Christ commands him to say.

The sinful nature will deny this because we want God on our terms—but faith will celebrate this.  For Jesus ensures you can be confident His purity and holiness are covering you, making you holy to God.  Now, the guessing is gone.  All because Jesus chose to give us words to receive, which tell us so—and so, we confess as much.

In humility, Jesus came, hiding His glory under a cloak of human skin.  Now, if Jesus did this in His incarnation, don’t be startled by Him choosing to come to us today through called-and-ordained men to save and nourish His people.  Can He do this?  Yes, because He is also God, the “I AM.”  To this, faith can only confess, “Yes!” 

Rejoice, for Christ forgives you.  Believe this and live.  Amen.