After two years of hearing Jesus teach and seeing his miracles, the people of Israel had ample time to form an opinion of him. So, the question Jesus poses to his disciples is eminently proper. “Who do the people say I am?”
He doesn’t ask the question because he doesn’t know. He asks the question as a transition leading to the next question: Who do you say that I am? What concerns Jesus more, is what his own disciples think about him. And now that he asks them point blank, they are required to give a public confession.
Let me just say a word about this whole idea of “confession”. The Christian faith was never meant to be private. There is a reason that the Lutheran church is known throughout the world as a confessional church, or a confessing church. A “confession” is a clear statement of what one believes. A confession is taking one’s faith and not keeping it private, but rather putting it out in the open for everyone to hear and judge. The reason the Christian church throughout its 2,000 plus year existence has developed public documents stating, “This is what we believe. This is what the Bible teaches”, is because there are so many other false teachings out there that are clearly wrong. So, how is the Christian faith distinguished from the many other faiths of the world? How is your faith distinguished from the many other faiths of the world? Through one’s confession.
Romans 10:9-10: “That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.”
So, what do you believe about Jesus?
As the disciples answered Jesus’ question, they rattled off the popular misconceptions of the day. The thing that strikes me is how illustrious their list of people actually was. John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. There were no slouches in that group. These were all top-tier, prestigious figures. A Mt. Rushmore of Jewish greats.
But a fundamental problem of humans is that we make our God too small through false limits of our own. And Jesus is God. He is “the Son of the living God”. And so, as great of company as the people of Israel had placed Jesus into, their opinion of him was not high enough.
And it is the same thing today. Most people will readily admit that Jesus is among the most influential figures of all time. But that’s it. He was just a man, another one of the Jewish prophets. The Islam faith, for example, teaches that Jesus was just a man. A great man. An important man. But nevertheless, just a man, certainly not God himself. Indeed, one reason that Muslims have contended with Christians over the centuries is because Islam vehemently opposes the belief that Jesus is the Son of God.
The Jehovah's Witness—they do not believe that Jesus is God himself. He is a lesser god, not equal to the father. The same is true with Mormonism. Atheism says that there is no God. Jesus was just a historical figure if that. Buddhism views Jesus only as a Jewish rabbi. And as we can clearly see from the disciples’ answer, this opinion about Jesus has persisted for the past 2,000 years.
So, the early Christian church developed documents clearly stating, “This is what the Bible teaches. This is what the true Christian church believes, not this.” They developed the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. And then, as many other errors crept into the church, they developed more confessional statements. That is how the Lutheran church came into existence. People spoke up publicly and said, “This is what the Bible says! This is who Jesus really is!” You can read these confessional statements in the Book of Concord.
So, what about you? Who do you say the Son of Man is? Well, by becoming a member of this congregation you also have made a public confession. You stated, “I believe such and such about Jesus.” And every other member of this congregation has said the same thing. We’ve publicly said, “We believe that too about Jesus. We believe that he, and he alone is the Christ, the Son of the living God”, and everything else that flows from that statement.
Is that true? Well, yes, it is. And the reason we can be so bold in our convictions is because Jesus, himself, says it is true.
Notice Jesus’ response to Peter’s clear confession. “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven” (v. 17). In other words, “What you said is correct, and the reason it is correct is because this knowledge, this faith, is not something you or anyone else made up. Rather, it came straight from the Father who is in heaven.”
You see, all correct knowledge about Jesus is revealed knowledge. What does that mean? It means that humans are incapable of coming to the correct understanding of Jesus apart from revelation, the Word of God. The only way one will ever correctly understand Jesus, and therefore, the rest of the Bible, is if he or she understands him the way God, himself, explains him. But if a man or a woman doesn’t know what God the Father has said about his Son Jesus, or if they flat out deny what the Father has said about Jesus, then the only thing they have to go on is their own imagination and reason. And you know how faulty man’s reasoning really is. It has limits!
And, of course, this is why there exists religion among every people-group of the world, and why there exists opposing religions among every people-group of the world. Each people-group makes it up. And because it is made up, it doesn’t stand up to the scrutiny of the next people-group that comes along. But the Word of God, you see, is not limited to what humans can imagine. The Word of God reveals what only God himself can possibly know, and therefore, what really is.
And what has he revealed to us? That Jesus Christ is his Son, co-equal, and co-eternal with the Father and the Holy Spirit. And that this person Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the one anointed by God himself as the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).
Now, this is the central truth of the Bible. And, therefore, this is the central truth of everything else you and I believe about God. It is the foundation of our faith. Peter is not the foundation of our faith. The Papacy is not the foundation of our faith. The human organization of the Christian church is not the foundation of our faith. No! The teaching that Jesus is the Savior of the World is the foundation of our faith.
And that is why it will never be overthrown. No matter how many other false ideas pop up. No matter how many unbelievers outnumber the Christians. No matter how bad the world gets before Jesus comes again, there will always be this clear, concise, confession of Jesus in the world. There will always be a group of people who confess, along with Peter and the rest of the disciples, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and therefore he alone is our Savior. Not Jesus plus something else. Not Jesus plus my own efforts. Not Jesus plus his mother Mary. Not Jesus plus the Catholic saints. Just Jesus! Because only Jesus can take away the sin of the world. And here is the best news: He already has!
You see, when Jesus spoke to his disciples in Matthew 16, he hadn’t yet died for the sins of the world. But he was about to. In fact, the very section that follows our text is titled Jesus Predicts His Death. And, of course, Jesus did die for the sins of the world. And he rose again, showing that he has now conquered sin, that the punishment of sin—death—has no power over him. No matter how hard the devil rages against Jesus, the game has already been decided. It is a checkmate. The gates of Hades will not overcome it.
Which means the gates of Hades will not overcome you. For you are the Church. The Church is not this building. It is not a religion. It is not confined to any one nationality, race, or culture. The Church properly defined is an assembly. That is what the word means. It is the assembly that has been gathered throughout the entire world by God himself. Again, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.”
Every person who holds to this confession—that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, —is part of the Christian Church on earth. Which is why it is very important to know what you believe. Do you know what you believe? Which is why it is very important to know what your loved ones believe. Do you know what they believe? Well, how are you going to know? Through what they confess. Through what they say. It must be said out loud.
What is the comfort of putting it out into the open? People might disagree with you. People might even make fun of you. People might even be mad at you and persecute you. But not even the gates of Hades will not overcome you. Not because you are so strong. We tend to waver and doubt like Peter who even after this denied Jesus three times. No, our foundation is the truth of Jesus. That truth of Jesus is rock-solid. The wind, and the sea may beat against us. Because the foundation of what we put our faith in is firm, we also will remain firm. Not even the reality of death can take away what God has in store for you.
And what is in store for you? The kingdom of heaven. That is what awaits us. “But what if I don’t get in?” No. The foundation is firm. The gates of Hades cannot take it away from you. Jesus himself has given us the keys.
Keys open and close. If a person denies that Jesus is the Christ, the door to heaven remains locked to them because only Jesus can take away sin. But to those who confess that Jesus is the Christ, they are forgiven. And the gates of heaven are flung wide open. How can we be sure? Christ tells us in his Word, “You are forgiven!” He tells us through the voice of the pastor. “You are forgiven!” He tells us through the voice of the mother, father, or spouse. “You are forgiven!” He tells us through the voice of a friend. Yes, through the voice any Christian Jesus still speaks today.
The question is, do we still speak today? Do we still speak publicly today? Well, yes, we do. By the very fact of coming and worshipping God here with others, you are saying, “I believe. I don’t believe what other people believe who deny Christ. I believe what the Christian church believes. And I’m not ashamed of it. Why would I ever be ashamed of my Savior?” The person responds, “Who is your Savior?” “He is Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God.” Amen!