Life poses a variety of questions ranging from the trivial to the life altering. They range from “Paper or plastic?” to “Cash or credit?” to “Vacation or Staycation?” to “What will you do after graduation?” to “What career will you pursue?” to “Do you take this man … this woman …?” While these questions are important, there are some that are far more important we need to answer, namely, “Who is Jesus?” “What does it mean to follow him?” and “What is the role of the church?”
In Mark 8:27-30 and Matthew 16:13-20, Peter answers the question of “Who is Jesus?” in the verses that follow, Jesus explains the implication of the answer. The foundation of the church—“What is the role of the church?” (Matthew 16:18-20), and the nature of discipleship—“What does it mean to follow Christ?” (Mark 8:31-9:1), are based on our understanding of the identity of Jesus.
The setting for these life-altering questions is the region of Caesarea Philippi, about 25 miles northeast of the Sea of Galilee. At one point, the region was the center of Baal worship. It was famous for a grotto where the Greek god, Pan, was worshipped. Herod the Great built a temple in honor the emperor, Caesar Augustus.
It was in this multi-cultural, pluralistic region that Jesus posed the question, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples shared a variety of responses they had heard from the crowds of people. “John the Baptist. Elijah. Jeremiah. One of the prophets.” were among the various answers.
Jesus changed the tone of the conversation, moving it from general to personal by inquiring, “But who you say that I am?” It’s one thing to talk about survey results. It’s quite another matter to state your personal convictions. Peter stepped up and stated boldly, “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Promised One. You the Son of the living God.”
The most important question any of can answer is, “Who is Jesus to me?” How we answer that question will determine how we live our lives. But we cannot make a true decision about Jesus by taking a poll of the people. Salvation is a personal matter.
In a world of many options, there is only one Savior. All roads do not lead to the top. There is only one way to heaven and it goes through Jesus’ death on the cross.
Jesus praises Peter’s statement by explaining he didn’t come to it on his own. It was revealed to him supernaturally. In addition, he and his conviction would become the foundation of the church Jesus would build.
Matthew 16:18-20 comes with a variety of misinterpretations. Roman Catholics use it to teach that Peter was the first Pope who passed his authority down through succeeding generations. Protestants go the other extreme to say the statement refers to everything but Peter and his confession.
Jesus is using a play on words to make a point. The name Peter means “rock.” When Jesus says, “upon this rock,” he uses a different word which means “rocky slope” or “mountain.” Jesus commends Peter (“rock”) for his confession and says he will build the church on the rest of the disciples (“rocky slope”) or on Peter’s confession (“mountain”). Based on Ephesians 2:19b-20, it could be both.
“…the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone …”
Peter, as the leader of the apostles, opens the door for the Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles to enter God’s kingdom. But Peter then disappears after Acts 12 when the apostle Paul takes over as the leader of the gospel expansion.
We need to take to heart Jesus’ statement, “I will build my church.” The church does not belong to you or to me. The church is not built through the latest church growth strategy. The church belongs to Jesus and he will build it.
We can take great comfort in knowing the church will triumph. Jesus said, “…the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Some use this phrase to teach that the church is under attack and we need to circle the wagons and take care of our own. While it is true that the church is under attack, you don’t get that from this verse.
The gates of a city are a defensive weapon, not an offensive one. If the “gates of hell shall not prevail,” then it refers to the church attacking hell on a rescue mission. It points out that the church is Christ’s instrument to reach the world with the gospel. Since hades was the abode of the dead, it also helps explain that death will not overcome the church—not the death of Jesus or the death of other Christ followers.
Receiving the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” does not mean that Peter is standing at the pearly gates deciding who gets into heaven. Typically, one uses keys to unlock a door. Once unlocked, the keys are hung on a peg or put away. Historically, Peter unlocked the door of faith for the Jews (Acts 2), the Samaritans (Acts 8), and the Gentiles (Acts 10).
The final phrase in verse 20, “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” has puzzled people for years. It helps to understand that binding and loosing is used in Matthew 18:18 and John 20:22-23 in the context of forgiveness. In that light, when a person comes to faith in Christ, we can say on the authority of God’s word that they are loosed from their sins. If a person rejects Christ or is unwilling to confess their sins, we can say that they are still bound by their sins.
Who is Jesus? Jesus is the savior of the world. What is the role of the church? The church is God’s instrument to reach the world with the good news of salvation. The Church declares that Jesus is the Savior of the world.
Has Jesus saved you from your sins? Are you helping carry his message to the world?
This is the synopsis of a message preached at First Central Baptist Church in Chicopee, MA, on June 7, 2015. It is part of a series in the Gospel of Mark. Please click on the link to download a copy of the sermon notes.