October 31, 2008
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 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. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be found in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.
Matthew 16:13-20, NIV
Question: Is Christ the center of my Christian experience?
Peter had a divine encounter with the Father and from that point on his life had a new focus, a new center: Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God. Christ confirmed that this was to be the very experience of all in his church and without this divinely revealed knowledge his church, the very mission he came to accomplish, would not and could not be built. These wonderful words of Jesus have so often been points of contention between Catholics and other Christian denominations that we have largely lost their grandeur and their message of encouragement.
The work of Christ is built upon the divine understanding of who he is, and it cannot be otherwise. In John 6:44 we read, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him,” and here we see Peter giving evidence that he had been drawn by the Father to Jesus the Son. The problems we invent in this verse have to do with the idea of a foundation, and we are probably taking Paul’s writing, “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11), and trying to fit Jesus’ words into Paul’s imagery. This is fundamentally poor hermeneutics. The proper way to understand the Scripture is to let each passage speak for itself, allowing it to use its own imagery and metaphors, and not try to mix them from one part of Scripture to another, from one writer to another.
Three key individuals were involved in the passage: Jesus, Peter, and Matthew, who wrote the gospel, and the key questions are: what did Jesus mean in the context of Matthew 16, what did Peter understand Christ to mean, and what did Matthew mean to convey to us about the scene. Jesus had already spoken about building our lives upon his words and Matthew recorded this in 7:24. But here Christ reverses the imagery, not that we are to build upon him but that he will build upon something. Ah, and what is that something? Is it Peter? Is it Peter’s faith? Is it Peter’s confession? Is it himself?
Peter later clarified in 1 Peter 2:4-12 that Christ is the living Stone, and in that sense the church has no other foundation, but he also described believers as living stones that were being built into a spiritual house. Peter was clarifying the words of Christ, giving them the proper explanation and it clearly fits into the rest of Christ’s teachings and the emphasis of the New Testament and the early history of the church: the life of Christ surging through the members of his church through the witness of the Spirit is an integral factor in the church. This is the point that Jesus was making.
Christ could have at that moment at Caesarea Philippi started his worldwide movement. He could have worked healing miracles and fed the masses, cast out demons, raised the dead, taught morality, and he would have had a very popular religion that would have lasted for some time. But such a religion would not have brought eternal salvation, changed the nature of people, nor reconciled us to God. Instead the very heart of Christ’s work was the cross and the impact on our lives was nothing less than transformation of our hearts by the work of the Spirit in our lives.
Christ told the disciples that after his ascension they were to wait in Jerusalem until they received the Holy Spirit. His work could not go forward until the Spirit came to empower his followers and bring conviction to people’s hearts of their need for Christ. There is something intriguing in his words to Peter, that it was Peter’s confession as to who Christ was, this understanding that he received from the Father, that was the center of the experience, that the building of his church would hinge upon this realization, this revelation from the Father. We would say that this is the revelation that each person must have in order to be saved, in order to trust in Christ for salvation. Christ was not referring to some higher level of Christian maturity, but the simplest and the plainest understanding of who he was.
A ten year old child can have this understanding. This is not of mankind but of God and Christ will build his church upon this foundation of the understanding of who he is, what his work was about, and how he can touch and change us today. Theologians with our tomes filled with deep thoughts are, frankly, dispensible to the work of Christ. Musicians that waft us up into the stratosphere of worship with their gifts and their artistic flare are also, frankly, non-essentials. Organizers and leaders who shape us up and point us in the right direction are also, add-ons that, though useful, are not necessary to build the church of Christ. What is essential, however, is that we lift up Christ and tell his story to people, that the Spirit brings conviction to people’s hearts and then conversion to their lives, and that we keep this message and this Jesus the center of what we do and the center of who we are.
The encouragement is this: whenever someone understands who Jesus is, whenever they have the witness of the Spirit in their life to see his love and grasp that he is God in human form reconciling the world to himself, they are in the very center of the work of God. In the love of God in Christ Jesus all human obscurity vanishes, our problems wane, our potential grows, our prospects bloom and blossom, and our hope soars. If you are understanding who Christ is from the witness of the Word of God and the witness of His Holy Spirit then God is at work within you.
Lord, thank you for calling us to believe you, to follow you, and to know you. We are unworthy for such blessings and privileges but we thank you and praise you for being so gracious toward us. Witness to our hearts in clear tones about who Christ is, built us up in our faith, enrich our knowledge of your word, and lift us from any feelings or thoughts of obscurity. Increase our faith in you, our love for you, and our hope in you. Amen.