If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Matthew 16. As we've already noted, Matthew 15 through 17 proves a turning point in the gospel of Matthew. In those passages not only the leaders of the people of Israel but the crowds themselves reject the Lord Jesus Christ. It's not that they have bad thoughts about Him, it's not that they openly oppose Him. It's just that they refuse to recognize His claim to be the Messiah, the Son of the living God.
And in that context, as we come to Matthew 16 verses 13-20, we are coming to what is in a sense a culminating point in Jesus' training of the disciples, because in this passage the disciples articulate the teaching about the person of Christ, which Christ had been conveying to them for many months in His public ministry.
Now this passage has been a point of controversy in the church since the days of the reformation.
Some have tried to use it to prove that Peter was the first pope. There are many other questions that circle around this particular passage. What is the rock that Jesus is talking about. In what sense is Peter the rock which He is speaking of? What are the keys to the kingdom? What does it mean to bind and to loose? We'll be unable to answer all of these questions in detail or do full justice to these things, but as we study today, I hope that you will see great and clear truth from the word of God. Let's look then to Matthew 16 beginning in verse 13.
Our Father we thank You for the truth of this word, and we ask for spiritual apprehension, spiritual understanding of it. But more than that, we ask that by the Spirit you would enable those who have never truly embraced this truth to do so by grace and that those of us who have already embraced this truth would be built up in our faith even now by a surer, deeper, richer understanding of it. We ask these things through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Here in Caessarea Phillipi, the Lord Jesus takes His disciples aside and He asks them two important questions, but you must understand He has one goal in mind. Jesus is desiring to confirm in the hearts and minds of His disciples what He has been teaching to them about who He is over the last months of His ministry. He wants them to be absolutely convicted, absolutely committed, absolutely confirmed in the truth of who He is because from this point on in His ministry He is going to explicitly teach them about the nature of the work that He is going to do on their behalf and on behalf of the entire church in Jerusalem when He dies. And they will not appreciate the significance of His work if they are not absolutely clear on who He is, His person. And so in this passage here in Matthew, Jesus sets forth clearly a claim and a confirmation of who He is, of His person. And I'd like to look with you today at two or three things.
I. The knowledge of God is a gift.
The first thing you're going to see there in verses 13 and 14. This is the first question that Jesus asks the disciples. And here in these verses, verses 13 and 14 we see the crowds view of Jesus. But we also learn an important lesson. And that lesson is that the knowledge of God is a gift. We see that even in the response of the crowds. Notice as Jesus takes the disciples aside here in Matthew 16 beginning in verse 13, He's going to teach them three things. If you look at verses 13-20, you will see that He concentrates there on teaching them about His person, teaching them about His identity, teaching them about His true nature, who He was. But then if you look at the next few verses, from verses 21-23, you'll see that He moves on to teach them about His work.
Notice here how the person and work of Christ are tied together. If you don't understand the one you cannot understand the other. And the other does not make sense unless you have a grasp of who He is.
And then if you look down to verse 24-28, you'll see that Christ goes on to teach His disciples about the cost of discipleship. So Matthew 16 contains some heady stuff: discussion of the person of Christ, the work of Christ, and the cost of discipleship. Now once there in Cessarea Phillipi Jesus asks the disciples this question: who do people think that I am? Now Jesus isn't so much interested in what people are saying about him as He is getting the disciples to reflect for a few moments on that very important issue. Jesus had had people offer to him their estimation of who He was. The Pharisees had offered to Him the estimation that He was Satan himself. The crowds no doubt had offered to Him from time to time testimony about who Jesus was. But Jesus asked this question in order to get the disciples reflecting about this important question.
And the disciples give Him four representative answers that are being given in the crowds. And we find these answers by the way in the gospels in various places. First of all, they say that some people are saying that He is John the Baptist. You remember Herod thought that. Herod thought He was John the Baptist risen from the dead come back to convict him. And apparently there are some people in the crowds who think the same thing. Now of course Jesus and John had many similarities. They were both godly men. They both had vital roles in the work of the kingdom of God. They both proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom in the sense that they preached that the kingdom of heaven is at hand and therefore repent. So their messages were similar and their character was similar. But John was merely the forerunner of the Messiah.
Now the disciples go on to say that other people are saying that Jesus is Elijah. And again that is somewhat of a compliment of Christ, isn't it. Elijah was a great prophet. He preached boldly against idolatry. He did supernatural healings, great miracles of God, He proclaimed the kingdom of the Lord.
But Elijah was but a mere man, and we see his own failings at the very climax of his ministry. In his very hour of victory Elijah broke under the strain and he ran. What a contrast in a few chapters when we see Jesus in His great climax in ministry right there in the darkness of the Garden of Gethsemane under the greatest weight ever borne by a human in the history of the world. Jesus presses on. So again we see the superiority of Jesus to Elijah. Oh, they may have been alike in some ways, but Jesus was much greater.
And then the disciples say, “You know, some people are saying that you are Jeremiah.” And again, what a great complement. You can think of no minister of God in the Old Testament who is a better example of perseverance under undeserved suffering in the ministry than Jeremiah. And so in that sense, he is much like our Lord, who is called a man of sorrows acquainted with grief by another great Old Testament prophet, Isaiah. Jesus, too, endured undeserved suffering from the minute He came into this world. But He was much greater than Jeremiah. And some of the other people are saying, “Oh, He's one of the other prophets.” You see this generic description that's being given by the crowd.
What's the problem with each of these designations that are being given to Jesus by the crowd? Well, there are basically two problems with them. First of all, notice that each of these relate Jesus to some famous and respected figure in Israel's past, but every single one of them fails to recognize the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. Yes, He may be like John or like Elijah or like Jeremiah or like one of the prophets, but He is far greater. In fact, He is unique. There is no one like Him. He is in a class by Himself. So every single one of these designations by the crowd–it's not that they're unflattering, it's not that they're mean spirited. I'm sure that these people meant to say these as compliments. But they fail to see the uniqueness of Christ.
And secondly, notice that every single one of these designations mixes truth with error. I mean it's a truth that He was like Jeremiah or like Elijah or like John the Baptist, but the only truth is to say a half-truth, because it doesn't tell the whole story. And as Patrick tells us, “A half-truth masquerading as a whole truth is a whole lie.” We don't understand Christ if we only think that He was a great teacher, a great prophet, a man of sorrows acquainted with grief. He was much more than that. And so every single one of these designations falls short.
There are times, you see, when a compliment is not a compliment. If you and I were to go a local gym, and on a particular day there was a basketball player there named Michael Jordan. And you didn't follow basketball very much, and you really didn't know who Michael Jordan was, and you were watching this guy play, and he was pretty good, and after the pick-up game was over and you walk over to him and you say, “You know, sir, there's a semi-professional league that plays here in Jackson,and you know, I think if you tried out for a team you could probably make it.” Now I suspect that Michael Jordan wouldn't take that as a compliment. No matter how sincerely you meant it because it falls far short of the appropriate designation. Mr. Jordan, you're probably the greatest basketball player ever to play on the face of planet earth. That's probably more like it.
Or, you remember the story of the man who very sincerely walked up to an opera singer, I think it was Roberta Peters, and said, “You know, Miss Peters, you sure can sing ‘purty,’ and I believe you're good enough to sing on the Grand Ole Opry.” I suspect that Miss Peters did not take that as the compliment that was intended. Her goal was something that was a little bit loftier than the Grand Ole Opry, however great a compliment that the man intended.
Well, this is something like these kinds of things that are being said about Jesus, meant as a compliment but falling so far short of who He claimed to be, who He was demonstrating himself to be by His exposition of Scripture, and by His miracles,that Jesus counted those compliments as a rejection. Do you understand the message in that for you? It's not enough to think highly of Christ, my friends. If we're going to be Christians, if we're going to be disciples of the Lord Jesus, if we're going to follow Him, we must embrace Him as He has revealed himself in the gospel. We do not follow after a Christ that we have invented in our imaginations, we do not follow after a Christ who is merely a great moral teacher, we follow after a Christ who claimed and demonstrated that He was the very Son of God, the Messiah of Israel, the Savior of the nations. That's the Christ that we worship. And we must realize that anything less, any less of an ascription is actually to reject Christ.
II. Only the Lord can give us a saving knowledge of His Son.
We also learn, don't we, that only God can reveal to you the divinity of Christ and the meaning of His claims. These people had watched Christ do miracle after miracle. They had heard His teaching.
And yet they had not accepted Him. And we learn from that that only God can give saving knowledge of Himself. They had seen His miracles. He had demonstrated Himself clearly to be the one that He claimed to be, and yet the crowds did not accept His testimony and His works. And so we learn that only the Lord Himself can give us a saving knowledge of the Lord. Why? Because knowledge is a gift. It's a gift of the Holy Spirit just like love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and gentleness and faithfulness and self-control. It's a gift. Saving knowledge is a gift of the Lord. But that's not all we learn in this passage.
If you'll look to verses 15 and 16, you'll see the apostles’ confession of Jesus Christ. In response to Jesus' question, they had first given Jesus the estimation of the crowds, and then Jesus asked them another question, “But who do you say that I am?” And in the original the you, the personal pronoun you is emphatic. Jesus wants to know what they think. And by that very question, He is separating them from the opinions of the crowds and teaching them not to be too swayed by those opinions. And He is pressing them to say that I want to know where your commitments are. I want to know what your convictions are. I want to know what you think. I want to know what you're prepared to tell to others.
And Peter answers the question as a spokesman for the group, and he answers it with tremendous conciseness, and yet with great profundity and power: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
And I want you to look at that phrase and think about its context for a few moments.
Notice, first of all, that Peter is called Simon Peter in this passage. Now if you've been doing your devotions in the Gospel of John, that won't strike you as a strange phrase because Peter is called Simon Peter all the time by John. Apparently John was very formal towards Peter in the way he referred to him and he referred to him as Simon Peter. But in the synoptics, in Matthew and in Luke, Peter is only twice called Simon Peter. And both times they come in context of great solemnity and significance.
Great emotional content. And so for Matthew to identify Peter as Simon Peter here, he is giving you a tip that something very profound is about to be said.
Secondly, notice that Peter, as he speaks, represents the whole group. That is not unusual in the gospels. Often Peter represents all the apostles. He is very often the first one to come out of the huddle with a question. You know, the disciples pull off to the side, they huddle, they decide who's going to ask the question to Jesus, they appoint Peter, and Peter comes out and says, “Lord, we were wondering…..” And then he asks the question. Or he makes a suggestion or He makes a comment. Often in the gospels Peter is depicted as a representative of the group. So what we see here in Matthew 16 is not unusual by that count.
Notice also, that though Peter has made stirring professions of Christ–you remember what he said about the Lord after Christ walked to him on the water in the sea. He confessed Him to be the very Son of God there. He had already confessed Jesus to be the Messiah as many of the other disciples had. But Jesus has pulled these men aside because He wants them to make a profession of Him not in the heat of the moment. Not when their emotions are boiling after a tremendous miracle that He has done. He wants them to stop and reflect and say, “This is what I truly believe. This is what I am convicted of. I have embraced this truth. I am committed to it beyond recall for the rest of my life.” He's asking them to stop and reflect and say, men what do you really think about me. Who do you think I am? And so in that context He calls them to give an answer.
Notice the definiteness of this statement. There are only ten words, but in the original there are four definite articles. It's very emphatic. And the way Peter answers Jesus is not subjective, it's objective.
Peter doesn't say, “Well, you know Lord, you know the Pharisees and Sadducees are confused about this and they're the religious leaders of our people. How can you expect uneducated fishermen like us to give you an answer to that question.” Nor does He say, “Well, Lord, you know I personally believe that You're the Messiah, but there are a lot of people who don't.” I mean, Peter's answer is the most unpolitically correct, unpostmodern answer that you could possibly anticipate. He doesn't say, “You know I personally believe that you are the Messiah, but how could I be so narrow and arrogant as to say that that was universally true for everyone else.” No, Peter says, “You are the Christ. You are God's living Son.” Peter makes a universal statement. He pronounces a universal confession and truth. It is a profound statement, and I want you to look at both parts of it.
First of all, he says, “You are the Christ.” By saying that, He is saying, “Jesus, you are the Messiah. You are the one prophesied by all the prophets. You are the long-awaited deliverer of all God's people.
You are the Messiah.” Now that's a confession the disciples have made before, but never more emphatic than this time.
And then He goes on to say, secondly, You are the Christ. You are God's unique Son in a sense not applicable to any other human being. You are the very Son of God. You are the divine Son. You are the divine Son of the living one. He is saying that Jesus is divine. He is deity. He is God's own Son and here is no one like Him. Tasker says this: “Peter knew that Jesus was not just another in a long line of prophets to whom God had spoken in many ways in the past, but that He was the Son of the living God who knew, as only such a Son could know, the mind and purposes of His Father.” This is quite an extraordinary claim that Peter is setting forth and this profession, my friends, and it is at the very heart of Christianity. No lesser estimation of Christ will do. Every true Christian acknowledges the divinity of Christ. Every true Christian acknowledges that Jesus is the Messiah. And this means not merely assenting to that truth, it means not merely saying that truth, and it means not merely not disagreeing with that truth. It means embracing that truth, believing it with all our souls from the very bottom of and committing our lives to him as the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Our little membership question, which is used in all the Presbyterian churches of evangelical tradition, asks the question precisely as it ought to be asked: “Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of sinners and do you receive and trust in Him alone for your salvation as He is offered in the gospel?” That is the issue that Jesus is getting to the disciples about. Jesus is wanting the disciples to make a clear confession that they acknowledge that He is the Son of God and Savior of sinners. He is the Messiah and He is the Son of the living God. Last century, Robert Lewis Dabney said this very pointedly, “He who believes in the divinity of Jesus Christ is a Christian. He who does not, whatever his profession, is a mere deist.” Do we believe with all our hearts that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God? Have we embraced His divinity? That confession is at the heart of Christianity. Now there's one more thing that we see in this passage today.
III. That confession is the very foundation of the church.
We have seen not only that the knowledge of God is the gift, not only that saving faith, trust in Christ as He is offered in the gospel, embraces the claim of the gospel that Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of sinners, but we now see in verses 17-20 that the apostolic proclamation of that confession, the apostolic preaching is the very foundation of the church.
Notice in verse 17, after Peter has spoken these words, that the very first thing that Jesus stresses in His blessing of Peter, is that Peter didn't figure that out on his own. That Peter's confession was not simply the result of learning something from another human being. Peter's confession was the result of the enlightening work of God in his heart. I mean, what a contrast. The crowds had seen many of the same things that Peter had seen. The crowds had heard many of the same things that Peter had heard. The crowds had been with Jesus, maybe not to the extent that Peter had been with Jesus, but they had been with Him some as well. They had seen Him act, they had seen Him teach, they had seen Him do miracles. They had seen how He lived. And yet, Peter believes and they don't. And Jesus is saying, ‘The reason that you believe and that they don't, is not because you've been with Me more than they have, it's because God has shown it to you. He has opened your eyes.’
And by the way, Jesus says it in a striking way, doesn't He. He says, “It's because my Father in heaven has revealed it.” Jesus even in that phrase reveals His uniqueness. Do you know that in the gospels Jesus never addresses God as our Father. He always addresses God as either ‘my Father’ or ‘your Father.’ And when He tells us how to pray, He says, “You pray, ‘our Father,’ but Jesus' relation to God is wholly unique because He is the very eternal Son of the living God.
And then Jesus says something that has caused great controversy for many years. He says, if you'll look at verse 18, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church and the gates of hell will not overpower it.” I believe that what He is saying there is that He will build His church on the apostles and upon the apostolic teaching. Now let me stop and explain that, because that in and of itself is a little bit controversial. There have been some who have said that the word rock in this passage refers to Peter and that therefore this passage establishes Peter as the first pope and all his successors as the foundation of the church. Now all you have to do is sneak a peek at Matthew 16:23 to call that view into question. Look at Jesus' words to Peter there. Ok. Any further questions? We'll scratch that view and move on.
Second, some people have said that this phrase “the rock” refers to the confession that Peter made—“You are the Christ the Son of the living God,” and that therefore Jesus is really saying, ‘Upon this truth I will build My church.’ The problem is the phrase that Jesus gives us here and the phrase that Matthew gives us here in Greek is based most likely on the Aramaic that Jesus would have been speaking, and the word Peter and the word rock are exactly the same in Aramaic. Kephas and kephas–just like Pierre and pierre in French. Pierre the name, pierre the rock. So Jesus is saying something very personal to Peter and Peter representatively of the apostles.
The third way this can be read is that this phrase the rock refers to Peter and the other apostles in view of their confession as the proximate foundation of the church. In other words, all through the new testament it makes it clear that Jesus is the foundation of the church. We are not calling that into question. I could show you dozens of passages that use precisely that language that Jesus is the foundation of the church. But in this passage notice that Jesus is speaking of Himself as the owner and the builder of the church and He sees His apostles as a part of that body of people that He is building the church. But He sees them as the foundation. And there is scriptural confirmation of this. If you have your Bibles, look at Ephesians 2:19-20. We read this: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens but you are fellow citizens with the saints and are of God's household having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” In that passage the foundation is said to be the apostles and prophets. And you know what? When we turn to John's vision in Revelation 21:14 and we see the picture of the heavenly Jerusalem, what is the foundation of the city? The names of the apostles and the elders. Jesus is saying here that the apostles will have a unique role in founding the church. Calvin says this, “Jesus is saying, ‘though you are now a tiny number of men, and therefore your confession has little worth at present time, yet the time will soon come when it will stand out splendidly and will spread far wider.’” And Peter and the apostles' roles in the building of the church are on record. Acts 1-11 in particular stresses Peter's role in that process.
What does Jesus mean when He says “He's giving Peter and the apostles the keys”? He's saying that they now have the power to determine who's admitted and who is barred from the visible church. The phrase binding and loosing is a rabbinic term which indicates the setting of the terms of conduct within the community of the church. Jesus is saying here that He is vesting His apostles with the authority to bind and loose through their preaching and through their discipline in the church and Peter himself provides us the first example. Think of Peter's preaching in the book of Acts chapter 2. And think of Peter's exercise of church discipline in the book of Acts chapter 5. Do you remember that event? Annanais and Saphira have attempted to defraud the Lord. Peter approaches them, and what's the church discipline that's administered? Death. The Holy Spirit slays both Annanias and Saphira for their wickedness. And so we see the apostles exercising the keys in this extraordinary way.
And then Jesus says something absolutely flabbergasting. He says to the apostles in verse 20: “Tell no one that I am the Messiah.” Well, I mean think of it. If they can't figure out that He's not Jeremiah, Elijah, or one of the prophets, what in the world would they do with the acclamation that He was the Messiah? What in the world would they do with that? How would they misconstrue that? And so Christ tells His disciples not to proclaim that publicly because of the potential and danger of misunderstanding.
It is vital to see that what Jesus is making clear here is that no one has the right to rewrite the apostolic testimony which is at the foundation of the church which is Jesus Christ is the Messiah, He is the Son of the living God. That is the proclamation of the gospel, that is the proclamation of the apostles. And it is at the very foundation of Christianity. It is unchangeable. It is at the heart of Christianity, and the Apostle Paul understood that.
As we close, turn with me to Romans 2:16. Paul knew the authority that God in Christ had vested to the apostles, so in Romans 2:16, he says this, speaking of the day of judgment, “On that day when according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.” My gospel. See, the apostle could say that because of what Christ had vested in him. But there is no second foundation. The apostolic testimony cannot be changed. It cannot be altered, and anyone who comes along and says that Christianity is founded on a different truth, on a different foundation than that which Jesus vested to the apostles is a liar. The Gnostics in the second century, they came along and they said, “Oh, we have secret teachings that even the apostles didn't hear about.” Matthew 16 is waiting for them. Oh, no. The foundation of the faith has been laid by Christ in the teaching and the proclamation of the apostles, and no one can alter it. We can only embrace it. Let's look to Him in prayer.
Our Lord we thank You for the truth of Your word and ask that You would shed it abroad with Your love in our hearts. For Christ's sake, amen