Questions of Identity: A Sermon on Matthew 16:13-20

Preached at United Reformed Church of Clifton, August 23, 2020.

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.  Mt 16: 18

In our Scripture lesson, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” He also asks them, “Who do you say I am.”  He also gives Simon, a new name, Peter, the Rock.  The one who has been a “little-faith” for the last three weeks is now called “The Rock” and blessed by Jesus for his great confession

Our scripture lesson is all about identity.  So this morning I want to consider three questions with you.

  1. Who is Jesus?
  2. Who is Peter?
  3. Who are you?

1. Who is Jesus?

This passage is the mid-point of Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew divides his book by repeating the phrase, “From that time.” The first time he uses it is in Matthew 4:17 at the start of Jesus ministry where Matthew says, From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. The second time he uses it is in Matthew 16:21 which takes place right after our scripture lesson for this morning. There Matthew says, From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem [and suffer and be crucified and on the third be raised from the dead]. Mathew 4:17 indicates a beginning. Matthew 16:21 indicates a second beginning. So if you think of the gospel of Matthew as a college level course, the first half is devoted to the coming of the Kingdom, and the second half is devoted to the suffering of the King.

So this morning we are privileged to sit in on the mid-term exam. For the past 2 years Peter and his companions have participated in every tutorial Jesus has offered about the coming of the Kingdom, and now, before he goes to the second part of the course, he examines them to see what they have learned.  The exam has two questions. “Who people think I am?” and “Who do you think I am?”

The first question is a gimme, an easy one, that takes very little insight on the disciples’ part.  “Who do the crowds say I am?”  To answer this question, all the disciples had to do was pay attention to what people were saying. They had more opportunity to listen in order gauge what the crowd was thinking. So they answer “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 

This is good as far as it goes. The Jewish people thought prophecy had ceased with the prophet Malachi, some 450 years earlier and that after that God had gone silent. So to believe that Jesus was a prophet was to imagine God doing something new and exciting that at the same time was very old and a return to the glory days of the OT.

But is that all Jesus is? Is he just a prophet? Or is he something more?  And so Jesus asks the second question in this midterm: “Who do you say I am?”  Professor Eric Barreto of Princeton Theological Seminar comments,

This question, “Who do you say I am?”  is not just a matter of definition but of formation, not just an abstract, intellectual query, but a searching personal question of heart and soul.  It’s another way of saying, “Why are you following me? Why have you left everything you know? Who do you say I am?”

Eric Baretto, Working Preacher, August 24, 2014

Let these questions sink in for a minute.  Why are you here this morning?  Why are you following Jesus? What would your response be?

Peter nails it! He recognizes that Jesus is not just prophet but that he is something so much more.  Jesus is both the Messiah and the Son of God.  As the Messiah he has a unique role to play in the coming of the Kingdom.  Jesus is the one who will accomplish God’s purposes on earth and in our lives.  As the Son of God, Jesus has a unique relationship to God the Father, that is different from our own.  As Matthew 1: 23 says, Jesus is Immanuel, God with us.  In Jesus, God himself has come to earth and claimed us as his own.  Jesus is in a class by himself.

Jesus is impressed with Peter’s answer and addresses him by his full name, “Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah.”  Now when someone uses your full name you are either in trouble, or about to be honored.  The only times my full name have ever been used was when in I was in trouble with my mother, “Michael Allen Weber, you get down here right now!” or when I was given my diploma at graduation.  Peter is being honored so Jesus uses his full name. James Boyce, emeritus professor at Luther Seminary, makes an interesting observation: For one of the first times in this gospel Jesus does not criticize or qualify Peter’s response as one of “little faith” but instead he commends it for its revelatory power. (Working Preacher August 21, 2011)

Why is this so important? Because Jesus is unique.  He is not just a prophet.  Nor is he just an admirable spiritual person like the Dalai Lama, or Mother Theresa.  He is God’s chosen instrument to accomplish God’s purpose in our lives.  Apart from Jesus, there is no salvation. Peter recognized this when he made his great confession and we must follow Peter’s example.

Who is Jesus?  He is the Messiah, the Son of God.

2. Who is Peter?

Notice that there is an interesting parallel and reciprocity between what Peter says and what Jesus says.  Peter names Jesus and Jesus names Peter.  Peter says, “You are the Messiah,” and Jesus says, “You are Peter.”  Peter says, “You are the Son of God,” and Jesus says “You are the son of Jonah.” Peter recognized Jesus’ mission to be the Messiah and Jesus gave Peter a new mission to be the rock on which Jesus would build his church. Notice that Jesus gives two promises to Peter.  He calls him the Rock on which he would build his church, and he gives Peter the keys of the kingdom. Let’s consider each of these promises in turn.

First, Jesus promises Peter that he will be the rock on which he would build his church. Traditionally, Roman Catholics have used this promise to argue for the pope’s authority and the apostolic succession.  However, this promise is not a timeless principle that applies to all of Peter’s successors. Rather, this is a one-time promise to the specific man, Peter, for the founding of the Christian Church in the first generation after Jesus’ ascension.  There is no mention of an apostolic succession in this verse.  Furthermore, Peter himself in I Peter 2: 4-8 says that Jesus (not Peter) is the cornerstone upon which the church is built. 

What is true, however, is that Peter played a crucial role in the founding and growth of the church. A quick look at the beginning chapters of the book of Acts shows Peter’s crucial historical role in the foundation of the church.  Peter led the first apostles to find a replacement for Judas.  He was the primary preacher on the day of Pentecost.  He was the one who defended the faith before the Sanhedrin.  He was instrumental in converting the first Gentile, the Roman centurion Cornelius.  And he also presented scriptural proof at the Jerusalem council that Gentiles should be included in the church without keeping kosher or being circumscribed.  As RT France points out,

In principle, all the apostles constituted the foundation, with Jesus as the cornerstone, but as a matter of historical fact it was on Peter’s leadership in the earliest phase of the church’s development that the foundation of the church depended. That personal role, fulfilling his name, “Rock,” is appropriately celebrated by Jesus’ words here.

RT France, NICNT the Gospel of Matthew, p. 623

Jesus used Peter to get the church going.

Secondly, Jesus also promised Peter that he would be given the keys of the kingdom.  Now traditionally, people have interpreted this to mean that Peter is the gatekeeper at heaven’s door and that he looks in the book of life and decides if you are in or out.  However, Jesus has a different image in mind, not of a gatekeeper, but of a steward who is charged with faithfully overseeing the finances and well-being of the king’s household.

Jesus words are taken from Isaiah 22:15-22.  Here we read of a man named Shebna, who was an unrighteous steward who squandered the king’s resources to live an opulent life and carve himself marvelous tomb.  In response, God sent Shebna exile where all his pilfered riches did him no good. In Shebna’s place God establishes Eliakim as the new steward and God makes this promise about Eliakim, “I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open.” (Isaiah 20:22)

Jesus words to Peter in verse 19, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven (whatever you shut will be shut), and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven (what you open will be opened),” are an allusion to these words in Isaiah.  So they are not talking about opening and closing the gates to heaven.  They are talking about opening and closing the doors to the king’s storehouses.  So what Jesus really mean, is “Peter, I’m going to appoint you as a steward in my kingdom.  It will be your job to watch out for my interests and to care for my people. “

Both the giving of the keys and calling Peter “the Rock” are not privilege or honor, they are about mission.  Who is Peter?  Peter is the man with a God-given task, who has been commissioned by Jesus to carry on Jesus’ ministry. 

3.  Who are you?

Thus far, we have seen that Jesus is the Messiah and that Peter is the Messiah’s servant who carries out the Messiah’s mission.  That leaves one final question: “Who are you?” and “Who am I?”

And the answer is: we are people who also hold the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  We are people to whom has God a given mission carry on the work of Jesus. We also are stewards.

Although, Jesus gave Peter the keys in this lesson it is also implied that he gave the same authority to the other disciples.  Peter speaks on behalf of the disciples, so that his confession is their confession, and he also receives the authority of Jesus on behalf of all so that his authority is their authority.  In Matthew 18:18 Jesus repeats his promise not just to Peter but to all 12 of the disciples. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. So clearly the keys belong not only Peter but also to the 12 and, NOTE THIS, also to you. If you recognize Jesus as the Messiah, you, too, have been given the keys of the kingdom.

Pastor Neil White at his blog, “The Sign of the Rose,” makes an interesting observation.

The keys to the kingdom mentioned in this section have been historically limited to the understanding of forgiveness of sins within the church, but I don’t think that is what Matthew intends for us to hear. Sin is never mentioned in Jesus’ words to Peter in Matthew 16. … As Jesus proclaims the nearness of the kingdom of heaven and grants his followers the ‘keys to the kingdom,’ I think he intends for them to understand they now have the agency to do the things Jesus has done. Just as Jesus released those in bondage to sin and the devil, he tells the disciples, they now have the agency not only to resist but also to bind the forces that approach from the gates of Hades.  With these keys they also have the authority to release those in captivity to those sin and death. The things that they do upon the earth will be enacted by the forces of heaven.

Sign of the Rose, May 14, 2020;

If you have confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, then you too have been granted the keys of kingdom.  You are not to use those keys to shut people out, but to let people in, to set people free.  Just as Peter was entrusted to be a steward and to carry on the mission of Jesus, so also are you a steward. Like Peter you are to carry on the mission of Jesus.  

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