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The Greatest Question

August 27, 2023 |The Greatest Question|Matthew 16:13-20

JD Cutler

For the sermon audio, click here

We are still working our way through the Gospel of Matthew on Sunday mornings.

This past Sunday morning we looked at the healing of a demonic oppressed Caananite’s daughter at a word from Jesus. Then the disciples head back into the region of Galilee, still in a heavily gentile populated area where we find Jesus continuing his mission of healing and teaching. It is here we find Jesus conducting a familiar miracle. The crowds have been following him for three days and he asks his disciples to feed them, repeating his multiplying miracle, this time with 7 loaves of bread and a few fish. This time he feeds four thousand men plus women and children. He again sends the crowds away, gets into a boat and departs that place.

The scribes and Pharisees come to test him and to see if he will provide a sign from heaven. He rebukes them for their stubborness to not correctly interpret the times, and tells them no sign will be given except the sign of Jonah. They then cross over the Sea of Galilee and head back north, coming to the region of Caesarea Philippi.

Having gotten away from the multitudes, the religious leaders, and the hustle and bustle of ministry, Jesus starts a dialogue with his disciples. It is that conversation we are going to look at this morning under the heading, The Greatest Question.

The synoptic accounts of Luke and Mark give us varying details that help us paint the full picture.

It seems that having come into this district of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus takes time to pray alone, as he often does, and upon rejoining the disciples and starting back on their journey, Jesus starts this conversation with a seemingly simple question that leads to a significant turning point in the disciples' understanding of who he is. This question and its answer begins a new chapter for the disciples as Jesus begins explaining more of what is going to happen to him in the near future.

Open your Bibles to Matthew 16, we will begin at verse 13 this morning. Matthew 16:13.

Let’s read through verse 20 and then we will go back through highlighting the three major divisions we find here, the question Jesus asks, the answer the disciples give, and spending the majority of our time this morning on the response from Jesus to their answer.

Matthew 16:13-20 (ESV) 13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 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.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.

The Question

I say the question, recognizing of course, that there are two questions here. However, the first question in light of the second is best seen as a setup for the real question, a way of introducing the topic if you will.

Jesus wants to see if the disciples are getting it, if they are beginning to understand who he is, so he starts in the general before moving to the specific.

“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Or as Mark and Luke put it respectively, “Who do people say that I am?” or “Who do the crowds say that I am?”

Jesus has been in and out among the people for some time now and he asks the disciples to tell him who the people think he is.

They answer, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

These are of course varying opinions about Jesus, but all that they list share something in common. Most people acknowledge for him to have done the things he has done and to teach the way he has been teaching, he must be a prophet. A spokesman from God.

It is interesting to note that they leave out the negative opinions about who people have said Jesus is.

Two prominent opinions left unstated is that one, Jesus was a troublemaker leading people astray and if left unchecked would spell the end of the Jewish nation. This is articulated in John 11.

John 11:47-48 (ESV) 47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”

Two, some thought he was not just a troublemaker, but in league with Satan himself.

Mark 3:22 (ESV) 22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.”

Even his own family entertained negative thoughts about who he was. After calling his twelve disciples, his family thought he was crazy. Mark 3:20-21 (ESV) 20 Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. 21 And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.”

Leaving all of these negative opinions out, the disciples present him with the popular opinion that he is a prophet, perhaps even a reborn prophet of old. Jesus does not respond to this answer, he doesn’t correct the false opinions about himself, he doesn’t revel in the fact that large groups of people have a favorable understanding of who he is, he presses on the disciples themselves.

But who do you say that I am?

‘But you’ is emphatic here, Jesus is getting to the heart of the matter.

But, regardless of what the crowds say, who do you; those closest to me, chosen to accompany me, to learn from me, to imitate me, who do you say that I am?

Jesus makes this a personal question, addressed to the entire group of disciples. The ‘you’ here is plural. In East Texan, who do y’all say that I am?

It is not enough to understand what other people think about who Jesus is, this is a question that each of them must answer for themselves.

It is not enough to understand what other people think about who Jesus is, this is a question that each of them must answer for themselves.

I would go as far as to say, this is the single greatest question we have to answer in this life. This was THE question for the disciples and it is THE question for us. Everything else hinges on this question.

Just like in Jesus’ day, there are many opinions about Jesus in the world today. Even if we leave out the negative ones, there remain many who have a favorable opinion about Jesus. He was a mighty prophet of God in a long line of prophets. He was a great social activist who stood up for the downcast and marginalized in society. He was a great moral teacher who pointed out the hypocrisy and problems with religious systems.

These claims ultimately fall short of who the Bible reveals Jesus to be and ultimately, as we see in our text, do not answer the real question. It doesn’t matter what other people think about who Jesus is, or was.

Jesus says, who do you think I am? That is the question. Jesus pushes them to distinguish between what the general consensus is about him and what they themselves believe about him.

This is still the question. It does not matter what anyone else thinks about Jesus. It doesn’t matter what your grandmother or grandfather believes about Jesus, it doesn’t matter what your parents believe about Jesus, it doesn’t matter what your spouse or kids believe about Jesus when it comes to answering this question.

Who do you say that Jesus is?

If you have never thought about that or you are unsure, hold that question in your mind for a minute as we look at how the disciples answered it.

The Answer

Peter answers for the group. Remember Jesus put this question to the entire group, who do y’all say that I am?

Peter is often the most outspoken and the quickest to speak, so there is no surprise there. Look at what he says.

Matthew 16:16 (ESV) 6 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Notice Peter does not say, well I believe, or I think, he declares, You are. When asked who he would say Jesus is, Peter emphatically uses two titles to answer the question.

You are the Christ- The Promised Messiah, the anointed one

This is not a surprising confession coming from the disciples.

From the very beginning they had some sense that Jesus was the one Israel had been waiting for.

John 1:40-42 (ESV) 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. 41 He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). 42 He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter).

John 1:43-45 (ESV) 43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

They had at least intellectually assented that there was something special about this man Jesus. But in this moment, Jesus challenges them. So far he had not done anything that was commonly expected that the Messiah would do. He did not even seem overly concerned about overthrowing Rome, he was constantly at odds with the most religious of the Jews, he didn’t make Jerusalem his base of operations. Do you still believe?

Peter says, we do. Even though it may look different than what we expected, we believe you are the Messiah, God’s anointed one. But he goes further.

You are the Son of the Living God- They believed that he was more than a man. He had a special relationship with the Father. Did they fully understand his divinity? Probably not. Could they have articulated the finer points of the doctrine of the trinity? Of course not. But they confessed that something was unique about Jesus the Christ’s relationship with God.

The implications of Peter’s answer are far reaching. The Bible tells us that it is in confessing who Jesus is that we find salvation.

Romans 10:9-10 (ESV) 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.

Acts 16:31 (ESV) 31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved,...

You see, the way we answer this question, not just verbally, by the way, but what we truly are convinced of in our heart that finds expression in our words, is the determining factor in whether we are saved or not.

Not because we say the right words, but because we believe that Jesus is God’s anointed one, that God sent him into the world to save it, that Christ gave his life so that sinners might be forgiven and reconciled, that God raised him from the dead, signifying his acceptance of the sacrifice and to the eternal nature of the Son. Because we know that there is salvation in no other name, that there is hope in no other name, and we repent of our sins, of our trust in ourselves, and we throw ourselves wholly on the mercy and grace of God in providing a way of redemption through Christ.

Though Peter’s faith and understanding were in an immature state at this point, we know that as Jesus revealed himself more clearly, as he unfolded the redemptive plan of mankind and his role as the Messiah, Peter embraced it, believed it, and proclaimed it. This foundational confession of faith in who Jesus was a pivotal moment in the lives of the disciples. Which brings us to our last division, Jesus’ response to Peter’s confession.

The Response

Before we get into this, we acknowledge up front, this is one of the more controversial and debated, and yet pertinent passages concerning Protestantism because it is a foundational passage in Roman Catholic ecclesiology. If we reject their understanding of this passage, the remaining official doctrines concerning ecclesiology of the Catholic church must also be rejected. The way we understand what Jesus says here has far reaching implications.

Matthew 16:17-19 (ESV) 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 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.”

Considering Jesus’ response makes up the main portion of our text this morning, we are going to break it down into three parts: what he says about Peter’s Confession, what he says about his church, and what he says about the keys to the kingdom.

What does he say in response to this great confession of Peter on behalf of the disciples?

Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah (this is the Jewish way of saying Peter’s surname or Simon, son of Jonah.) It is interesting that Jesus highlights his heritage here, right before he says that Peter did not arrive at this confession in his own power.

He says flesh and blood has not revealed this to you- This is Jesus’ way of saying Peter did not figure this out on his own, it was not a result of human teaching, human intuition, or human reasoning.

This is interesting because if anyone could have figured it out, it would have been Peter, right?

He was given the privilege of being with Jesus 24/7, of having parables explained to him. He was tasked with proclaiming the kingdom of heaven, he was given power to heal and cast out demons. He saw, at a word from Jesus, himself enabled to walk on water. He had seen Jesus multiply loaves of bread and fish, and personally distributed them. Do you see what I am saying?

If anyone was going to figure out that this Jesus was the Messiah, the son of God, it was Peter. But what does Jesus say?

Flesh and blood is not the reason you know this, my Father who is in heaven has revealed it to you.

Don’t miss the implications of Jesus' statement!

If someone is going to come to a saving knowledge of Christ, if they are going to come to a place of confessing him as savior and Lord it is going to be because God the Father revealed it to them. This is absolutely consistent with what Jesus says elsewhere when he says John 6:44-46 (ESV) . 44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. 45 It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me— 46 not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father.

If someone is going to come to a saving knowledge of Christ, if they are going to come to a place of confessing him as savior and Lord it is going to be because God the Father revealed it to them.

Friends, we are called to proclaim the gospel to a lost and dying world, we are called to share the gospel with friends, family, and strangers from those closest to us to those farthest from us. These are our marching orders, but we must never fall victim to the thinking that we can convince someone that Jesus is Lord through human effort.

We should strive to be eloquent because the message we have is from God. We should strive to be well-spoken because we represent the king of kings and Lord of Lords.

We should strive to be winsome because we do not want to be stumbling blocks to unbelievers.

We should strive to be wise because we owe it to Christ to represent him well.

But we must never elevate ourselves to the position that God reserves for himself. He draws men and women to Christ, it is his work inside man that gives him the ability to understand and respond to the message of the gospel, not yours and not mine.

We lift up Jesus but God draws men to him.

Before you say, well if God is going to draw men to himself, why do we need to do anything? Friends the same Jesus who said no one comes to him unless the Father draws him, says “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:15-16)

Our job is not to convince or draw, but to proclaim. God uses the proclamation of his word to do a supernatural work in man to draw him to Christ.

This is the first thing we see in Jesus’ response to Peter’s confession.

The second is what Jesus says about his church.

First notice that Jesus says that it is his church. Jesus uses this terminology only twice in the gospels, here and in Matthew 18, which we will look at in a few weeks, which is closely related to this passage. Obviously the disciples would not have understood him to be talking about church as we know it today. They did not yet know that Jesus would die, be raised again, and ascend into heaven and pour the Spirit out, but Jesus makes it plain that there will be people who gather in his name. This is the meaning of the word church. It is a gathering, a group of people called out from their homes into a public assembly.

Jesus will build HIS church, but how will he do it.

In response to Peter he says, And I tell you, in essence, Peter you have confessed who I am, let me tell you who you are.

You are Peter. Jesus had given Simon this name when he met him but here is the first time we are given any indication why.

There is a play on words here. Peter and rock are closely related in Greek and the same word in Aramaic which is likely what Jesus spoke it in.

Jesus says, You are Rock, and on this rock I will build my church.

What does Jesus mean?

The Roman catholic church teaches that Jesus is appointing Peter to be the foundation of the church and giving him authority over his church, which is then handed down through apostolic succession.

It is not difficult to see that Peter does have a place of prominence in the early church. He leads the disciples in replacing Judas, he is the one who preaches at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit is poured out. We see him regularly being the preacher of the group while they are in Jerusalem. He is the one who denounces Ananias and Sapphira’s judgment when they misrepresented their gift before God.

But even if we accept that Peter has a prominent role in the early church there is no reason to either elevate him above the other apostles or think that his position is one that is handed down in an ongoing succession of Popes.

When scripture does refer to the foundation of the church, Peter is not singled out but the apostles are lumped together as one.

Ephesians 2:19-22 (ESV) 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

Jesus is the foundation stone of the church, not Peter.

Then what does Jesus mean here? On this rock I will build my church

It is my opinion that Jesus is referring to his divinely revealed confession of who Christ is.

It is on this, this God given understanding and exercising of faith in who Jesus is that Christ will build his church, one believe at a time.

This is what Paul is saying there in Ephesians that we just read. How did they become no longer strangers and aliens? How did they become fellow citizens and members of the household of God, how were they added to the foundation of the apostles?

Ephesians 2:4-9 (ESV) 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

Christ’s church is built on the confessing believers who have been made alive by the power of God.

Christ’s church is built on the confessing believers who have been made alive by the power of God.

This is the distinguishing and foundation confession between those who belong to the world and those who belong to the church.

Peter confesses who Jesus is, and Jesus says, Yes Peter! This God revealed, faithful confession is it, this is the kind of person who belongs to my church, you being the first confessor of many more to come as my father draws men to himself.

Jesus adds that his church will advance, it will grow, and not even the gates of Hell will prevail against it.

Which is at first, an unwieldy picture.

Jesus seemingly combines a defensive element, gates, with an offensive word, prevail against, or overcome.

But as we dig deeper, there is an important truth here. The gates of hell, or Hades, literally the gates of death will not be superior in strength. Death cannot stop the kingdom. Our immediate thought is the resurrection of Jesus. Death could not hold him and could not defeat him. Secondly, our minds should be drawn to what Paul says about being made alive when we were dead. The power of God overcomes our spiritual death, bringing us life. Death cannot hold us.

Finally, we hold the hope that physical death cannot prevail against us, those who belong to Christ, his church will ultimately be with him forever. Death of this mortal body does not remove us from his church.

All of this speaks to the power of Christ and his church. The disciples were to be encouraged, not even death will prevail against what Christ will build.

Which brings us to the last part of Jesus’ response, which is also often used to elevate Peter’s status.

19 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.”

There are two important notes to make up front in dealing with this statement.

One, as one commentator put it, ‘whatever this means, it was soon expressly stated to all the apostles in Matthew 18, so that the claim of supreme authority in the Church, made for Peter by the Church of Rome, and then arrogated to themselves by the popes as the legitimate successors of St. Peter, is baseless and impudent.’

Two, understanding the tense of the original Greek renders our understanding more complete.

The tense indicates that binding and loosing in heaven had already occurred, the apostles were to concur with what had already happened. A literal translation might be “Whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound.”

The idea that Peter and subsequent popes can say who gets into heaven and who does not completely misses the point of this passage.

Rather when Peter stands and declares that the response to the gospel message at Pentecost is “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”

He is not making that decision, he is declaring the decision that has already been made in heaven.

When Peter stands before Cornelius and proclaims the gospel to the gentiles for the first time he says, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him, he is not opening the way to the Gentiles, he is proclaiming that God has already opened the way.

Jesus is saying when he establishes his church on Earth, the disciples will have the authority to declare what God has decreed. Amen?

This is an important point that will come up again in Matthew 18, where the entirety of the church is given the task of binding and loosing, here given to Peter. The keys to the kingdom are entrusted to the people of God and they are given the authority and responsibility to declare both what God has opened and what God has not.

Admittedly, this morning has been more teaching than preaching. But I pray that you see in the midst of better understanding this passage that it is not just about understanding what we find here, but asking ourselves this same question. The greatest question.

Who do you say that Jesus is?

Each of us has to answer that question for ourselves.

If you believe that he is the Savior, the Son of God, then know that you did not figure that out yourself, but that God has revealed it to you. We are called to confess that in faith, place our trust in it, and rest in his finished work.

Finally, having confessed that, realize that you have been brought into the eternal church of Christ. And having been brought in, you now have the responsibility and privilege to proclaim the message of the Kingdom to the world. That God has made a way to be reconciled to himself through the substitutionary atonement of Christ, who gave his life on the cross for our sins, who rose again, ascended into heaven and now is seated at the right hand of God until the kingdom is completed.

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