There can hardly be any more important question in our time than this one: what about Jesus? Who is He? C.S. Lewis talked about this in his book Mere Christianity. He tells us that there are really only three possibilities. Jesus is a liar, a lunatic, or the Son of God. Whatever else we can say about Jesus, we certainly cannot say that He was merely a great moral teacher. Jesus did not leave that option open to us. He did not intend to, as Lewis says. For Jesus claimed to be God Himself. No great mere moral teacher would claim that about himself if it was not true. He is either a liar, a lunatic, or the Son of God, who tells the truth about Himself. What Lewis said in Mere Christianity he also said in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. You might remember the conversation that Peter and Susan had about Lucy. Lucy was claiming that she had been into Narnia through the door of a wardrobe. Lucy stuck to her story. Peter and Susan went to the professor and told him the whole story. Eventually, the professor told them that there were really only three possibilities. Either Lucy was lying, or she was mad (crazy), or she was telling the truth. They knew from Lucy’s character that she did not tell lies, and one only had to look at her and talk to her to know that she was not mad. Therefore, concluded the professor, until any further evidence turned up, they must assume that Lucy was telling the truth. For our purposes, the question of Jesus’ identity is the key question of this passage. Sometimes we can forget that, since this passage is one of the most disputed passages in all of Scripture, and debates swirl especially around what Jesus says to Peter. We will address those questions. Let us not forget, however, that the key question is about the identity of Jesus.
Well, the average Jew thought of Jesus as a prophet, and with good reason. Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God. Jesus wasn’t afraid to challenge the Pharisees and Sadducees, even calling upon His disciples to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees, which we saw last time referred to the false teaching of those two groups of people. Jesus asked His disciples about the word on the street. What were they saying about Jesus? The disciples, of course, loving their teacher, omitted all the slanderous, nasty things people were saying about Jesus (especially since most of those were things that Jesus had already heard about directly!). Instead, they focus on the question of identity. They mention the names of several prophets: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or another of the prophets. The thing that all those names have in common is that they are all prophets. So the people held Jesus to be a prophet. We might say that believed Jesus to be a great moral prophet. They believed Jesus, in other words, to be a great moral teacher.
But Jesus wanted more from the disciples. He was always aiming, I think, to ask the disciples what their opinion was. So, Jesus asks them a very pointed question: “What about you?” The word “you” is emphatic in the original Greek. Jesus is saying, “Okay, that’s their opinion, but what’s your opinion?” “But you, who do you say that I am?”
Peter is the one who answers. He is probably being something of a spokesman here for all the other disciples. Notice what Peter says. Jesus is not just the Messiah, although He certainly is that, but He is also the Son of the living God. Now, let’s unpack that a bit. The word “Christ” is not part of Jesus’ name. We often think that, because “Jesus” and “Christ” so often go together in the Bible. However, we must remember that “Christ” is actually a title. It is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Messiah.” The Messiah was the one person whom God would anoint to accomplish a specific task, which was to bring in the new age that would be so wonderful. It would be the age of peace and prosperity, not to mention complete freedom from all oppression. The Messiah was going to do all this. However, the Jews usually thought of the Messiah as a political person who would free them from whatever physical oppression under which they suffered at the time. But when Jesus came, He had a different agenda. The misunderstanding that resulted is the reason why Jesus doesn’t want the disciples blabbing around the idea that Jesus is the Messiah. In verse 20, Jesus strictly charged the disciples not to tell anyone that He was the Messiah. So, when we say that Jesus is the Christ, what we mean is that He was anointed by God (in His baptism at the Jordan river) to bring in the new age promised in the Old Testament. But He did this to free us from spiritual oppression, not physical oppression. Freedom from physical oppression will come later, but that doesn’t happen just yet.
Peter also says that Jesus is the Son of the living God. In contrast to all the false, dead gods that surrounded them in Caesarea Philippi (it was a Gentile city full of Baal worship, Greek gods, and the worship of Caesar), Jesus was the Son of the Living and true God. Now, the disciples had always believed before that Jesus was the Messiah. However, they had not always believed that He was actually God Himself incarnated in human form. That is what Peter confesses here. Jesus’ reply tells s that Peter could not have believed or confessed that unless he had gotten it from direct revelation from God. And Peter could not have believed it unless God had made him willing to believe.
And this is precisely what Jesus tells Peter. So the identity of Jesus is that He is the anointed one, and that He is the Son of the living God. This is Peter’s confession of faith, as it were. And now we have to deal with verse 18. Many entire books have been written about this verse, mostly because the Roman Catholic Church appeals to this verse to support the idea that Peter was the first pope, and that the office of pope continued on after Peter. Jesus says this: “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” Now, first we have to note that Jesus is making a play on words here. The name Peter means “rock.” So Jesus is saying, in effect, “You are Rocky; that’s your name. And on this rock I will build my church.” The question is this: what does Jesus refer to when He says “this rock?” What is the rock on which Jesus will build His church? There are three main possibilities. The Roman Catholic Church (and many Protestants too, actually) believe that it is Peter himself which is the rock. The usual Protestant answer is that the rock is actually Peter’s confession of faith. And yet others say that Jesus was actually referring to Himself. Now, whatever we say about the text, the text does not say that Peter was the first pope, and that all subsequent popes take the office of Peter. That isn’t in the text at all. However, I think it is possible to say that the correct interpretation is a combination of something from all three views. See, Jesus was definitely honoring Peter here. Jesus says that Peter was blessed for saying what he said. But what did Peter say? He said that Jesus was the Christ. So, Peter’s confession is the reason why Peter was blessed by Jesus. And yet, Peter’s confession had to do with who Jesus was. So, in a sense, all three views have something to contribute. However, we do not want to say that the rock was all three things at the same time, since that doesn’t make much sense. The most likely interpretation is that the rock was Peter’s confession of faith that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God. That confession is the foundation of the church. And of course, this comes to something very similar to saying that Jesus is the foundation of the church, which we learn from elsewhere is in fact the case. There is really only one foundation of the church, and that is Jesus Christ. As the hymn puts it, the church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord. When the Scripture also says that the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ being the chief cornerstone, what that is saying is that the Word of God is the foundation of the church, and the Word of God incarnate is the chief cornerstone.
We must also reckon with the last part of verse 18. What does it mean that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the church? At first, we might think that the church is on the defensive here, and Hell is attacking but will not prevail. However, then we realize that gates are not really for attack, but for defense. This would mean that the church is attacking Hell, and Hell will not be able to stand up under the attack. But I think the real meaning is that the gates of hell refers to death. It is a very common expression to refer to death this way. How does one get into Hell? Well, certainly not alive. One enters it through death, both physical and spiritual death. However, if the rock is Peter’s confession that Jesus is the son of the LIVING God, then death will not be able to overcome the church. That is because Jesus will in fact overcome death.
Speaking of gates, and gate-keeping, Peter here is given the keys of the kingdom of heaven. What are these keys? The Heidelberg Catechism answers this question by summarizing Scripture for us. There are two keys of the kingdom of heaven: preaching and church discipline. Both preaching and church discipline open and close the kingdom of heaven. They open the kingdom of heaven in setting forth the Gospel of Jesus Christ so that all who believe (through preaching) and repent (through discipline) may enter, by the grace of God. They close the doors by saying that those who will not believe (through preaching) or repent (through discipline) will not enter the kingdom of heaven. So preaching and discipline work together for the good of God’s people. In verse 19, we learn that the keys are God’s tools whereby what has already been declared in heaven comes to pass on earth. The grammar here is important. The implication is that what happens in heaven actually happens first, and only after that does the binding and loosing on earth actually happen.
Since we are part of the church of Jesus Christ, this passage has extreme relevance for us. Some of the most fundamental truths about the church are given here. First of all, we learn what the church is built upon: Jesus Christ, as He is confessed to be the Messiah, and the Son of the living God. Without Christ, the church has no foundation. Many churches out there are built on something other than Jesus Christ. And the church that does not preach Jesus Christ has lost its identity as a true church. What do we confess? Do we confess Jesus Christ? Have we resolved, along with the apostle Paul, to know nothing except Christ, and Him crucified? Do we believe, along with C.S. Lewis, that Jesus told the truth about Himself when He claimed to be God? Or do we believe that Jesus was merely a great moral teacher, or a great moral prophet?
Secondly, do we understand the importance of preaching and church discipline? Those are the keys of the kingdom of God. There is something that happens in the public means of grace, particularly in the preaching of the Word, that we cannot get even by private reading of Scripture, as important as that is to our spiritual growth. How healthy is our view of the preaching? Now, we are not talking about a particular preacher. I am certainly not seeking to toot my own horn here. I am rather talking about the office, and preaching in general. It has to be preaching that actually preaches Christ. I am reminded of the story of the two men who visited London at the turn of the twentieth century. They wanted to hear the two best preachers in London. So, in the morning they went to hear Joseph Parker. After they heard him preach they said to each other, “He is undoubtedly the best preacher in London.” Then, in the evening, they went to hear Charles Spurgeon. And after they heard Spurgeon, they said to each other, “Jesus Christ is undoubtedly the best Savior we could have.” We do not want to focus on the abilities of the preacher. The preacher’s job is never to make himself look good. The preachers job is to make Jesus look attractive to us. The preacher’s job is to be transparent, so that he is not in the way at all, so that the message of God may go straight from the pages of Scripture right into our hearts.
Church discipline is the other key of the kingdom. Do we understand what discipline is all about? We think only of negative discipline. Negative discipline, of course, is vitally important to the health of the congregation. However, the purpose of this discipline is never to exercise tyranny over the members of the church. The purpose is to have a healthy church full of repentant members. The goal of discipline is always repentance. We will see this very clearly when we get to chapter 18. Even excommunication has repentance as its goal. But discipline is not just negative. Discipline has positive aspects as well. Bible studies, new members classes, visitation, all these are parts of what it means for the church to teach and instruct her members. So discipline happens not only when a member does something sinful, and the church must act to correct that member. Discipline has to happen then. But discipline also happens through instruction. Now, when discipline happens to us, how do we react? Do we resent it? That is of course what most people do. Most people think that discipline happens by hypocrites telling other people their faults. Unfortunately, that is sometimes how it happens, even though it shouldn’t happen that way. But if someone is living in unrepentant sin, and the elders of the church come to that person and call on them to repent, they are only doing their duty. We should all be glad that elders would love the people enough to discipline them when they go astray. God disciplines those He loves, and so does the church. We officers have to answer to God not for how many warm fuzzy feelings we were able to give to people, but by how faithfully we used the keys of the kingdom. We have the burden of people’s souls on our hands. We have to take that very seriously. Help make discipline something joyful, rather than burdensome. Do not resent it when the church does her duty. Instead rejoice that the church loves enough to care.
To sum up then, we have seen that Jesus Christ is not only God’s anointed one to free people from their spiritual bondage, but He is also the Son of the living God. The church is built on this truth, and Jesus Christ will overcome the gates of Hell, death itself, so that the church will also be victorious. The keys of the kingdom, preaching and church discipline, have been given to the church, and we must hold them in proper esteem, realizing that both of those keys must be focused on Christ, and not on the keepers of the keys. Lastly, we must see that, although the disciples were strictly charged not to tell anyone, we live in a different time and place, where Jesus Christ strictly charges us to tell everyone that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. We now have the great commission to make disciples of all nations.