Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!  Amen.  “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Matt. 16:13, ESV).[1]  That’s the question Jesus asks his disciples in today’s Gospel reading. Who do people say the Son of Man is?  Who do people believe Jesus to be?

Son of Man was a messianic title from the Old Testament Book of Daniel (Dan. 7:13), and it was one of Jesus’ favorite titles by which he called himself.[2]  “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”  Jesus asks this question against the backdrop of the ancient city of Caesarea Philippi, previously called Panias by the Greeks.  This city lay at the source of the Jordan River, the lifeblood of Israel that flowed south to the Sea of Galilee and all the way to the Dead Sea.  The Jordan began as a deep spring inside a cave known to the Greeks as the Gates of Hades—that is the Gates of Hell.  They believed the cave was a portal to the Underworld, and for many centuries the cave was the site of pagan worship.  Idols to various gods were placed into niches were carved into the walls of the cave and cliffs.  The site was certainly very spiritual, but also very wicked.  And it is here that Jesus asks his question.

The disciples know the word on the street.  People have all kinds of different ideas of who Jesus might be.  Some (such as King Herod) believe Jesus to be John the Baptist back from the dead (cf. Matt. 14:2).  Others claim that he is the Prophet Elijah, whose return was foretold by the Prophet Malachi in the very last verses of the Old Testament (cf. Mal. 4:5-6).  Others believe him to be Jeremiah or one of the other prophets, no doubt because of his piercing criticism of the Jewish religious authorities (Jeremiah was also known for making enemies).

Who do people say Jesus is in our world today?  Many people view Jesus as an important historical figure, a radical rabbi, or a good moral teacher.  Some may even call him a prophet (Muslims include him in the Quran).  But none of those assessments come near enough to the big picture.

So Jesus directs the question at his disciples.  “But what about you guys?  Who do you say that I am?”  It’s a question that confronts us also, one that we must all decide in our hearts and minds.  Who is Jesus?  Who is Jesus to you?  And, perhaps even more importantly, who is Jesus for you?

Without a moment’s hesitation, Simon Peter, the impetuous spokesman for the disciples, pipes up and declares, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” (v. 16).  It is a bold confession.  And even though it’s only a few words—much shorter than our Apostles’ Creed—it packs a powerful punch.

“Christ” means anointed one.  It is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word messiah, which is used throughout the Old Testament to refer to the coming King who would sit on David’s throne forever.  Christ is a title, not a name.  When we call our Lord “Jesus Christ,” we are not using Christ as his last name; rather we are using this title to say that Jesus is the Christ.  Jesus is Israel’s Messiah.

Peter also calls Jesus “the Son of the living God.”  He recognizes Christ’s divinity.  Nobody can do the things Jesus does: calm the sea, raise the dead, give sight to the blind, and forgive sins.  And Jesus is the Son of the living God—as opposed to the so-called “gods” and “goddesses” of the Gentiles.  Remember that this exchange occurs in Caesarea Philippi, the site of the cave with all its pagan cults.  But those gods are dead gods.  They do not breathe or speak or see or hear.  They are unliving idols carved by men out of wood and stone, gold and silver.  They have no life in them.  They never did, and they never will.

But Yahweh, the LORD God of Israel, is the Lord of all the living.  His very essence is life and being.  “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex. 3:14).  The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob “is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Matt. 22:32).  He creates life, and he gives new life to those who believe and trust in his promises.  No other god in which we misplace our trust can do anything for us.  Commenting on the foolishness of idolatry, the Psalmist writes, “Those who make them become like them” (Ps. 115:8).

Peter calls Jesus “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16).  All of that is saying a lot.  Given Peter’s proclivity to blurt out words before first thinks things through, I sometimes wonder if he fully realized what he was saying.  Yet this time he gets it right.  Of course, he didn’t come to this understanding and belief all on his own.

“Blessed are you, Simon Son of John,” Jesus says, “for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (v. 17).  Flesh and blood did not reveal to Peter who Jesus is.  Fallen man in his sinful state cannot see the things of God.  Only God can show us who Jesus is.  God must open the eyes of our hearts.

Jesus reminds us that faith is a gift from God.  We cannot create or attain faith in our hearts.  Faith must be given to us.  The disciples did not choose to follow Jesus; he chose them (John 15:16).  Nor can we make a decision to follow Christ or ask Jesus to come into our hearts.  We do not choose Jesus.  He chooses us.  We do not find Jesus either.  Our conversion and coming to faith is solely the work of the Holy Spirit.

We can’t do anything to be saved.  God must do it all.  He even gives us the faith to believe.  For Jesus says in another place, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him…” (John 6:44).

Jesus has big plans for Peter and the people of God: “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” (Matt. 16:18).  Peter’s name in Greek is Petros and is related to petra, the Greek word for “rock.”  Here Jesus gives Simon the nickname Peter, which is sort of like calling somebody “Rocky” in English.

Jesus tells Peter that he will build his Church on “this rock.”  What rock is that?  It will not surprise you to know that the Roman Catholic Church contends that “the rock” on which the Church is built is the supposed establishment of St. Peter as Pope.

Protestants, of course, bristle at the assertion that Peter is the foundation of the Church.  As we just sang in our hymn, “The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.”  Thus, ever since the Reformation, it has been suggested that the “rock” (petra) on which Christ builds his Church is the rock of Peter’s confession.    Honestly, we cannot be certain of either interpretation, and there are good arguments on both sides.But by focusing too much on the identification of “the rock,” we miss out on the point of what Jesus says here.  The important part is not whether the rock is Peter or Peter’s confession or something else.  The important part is Christ’s promise to build his Church.  Jesus says, “I will build my Church.”  This is an amazing statement.  Here Jesus reminds us, first of all, that the Church is His Church (i.e., Jesus’s Church).  The Church belongs to Jesus.  He bought her with the blood he shed on the cross (Eph. 5:25-27).  The Church is the Bride of Christ.  In a sense, we should never speak of Epiphany as “my” church.  It is not the pastor’s church.  It is not the people’s church or the elders’ church or the denomination’s church.  It is the Lord’s Church—his and his alone.

And Jesus promises to build his Church, a very refreshing thought when we consider the increasing hostility towards Christianity in America and the West.  We become too easily discouraged when we look at the graying of our churches, bemoaning the fact that “the young people” just don’t go to church anymore.  We can sound resigned to the fact that half our clergy in the LCMS expect to retire in the next five years.  What will we do with so few pastors?  Who will shepherd the flock?  And we fret about things like the tax-free status of churches as 501(c)3 non-profit organizations and how much say the government has in how we conduct our business.  All of this can make us fearful about the future of the Church.

But the Good News is that Jesus is not afraid about the future of the Church.  The world is full of sinners in need of Christ’s forgiveness.  Jesus says he came “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10), lost sinners like you and me.  So as long as there are sinners in the world, business will be booming for the Church.  And no matter what political, societal, or cultural difficulties face the Church in America, Jesus promises to build his Church.  He can do it with us or without us.  (I hope that he does it with us).  But until the very Last Day, the Church will remain “even when steeples are falling.”  There will never be a day when there are no Christians on planet earth.  So the Church presses on.

Jesus tells us not to be afraid.  The Church is not supposed to retreat from the world and circle our wagons.  We are called to “go and make disciples” (Matt. 28:19), by baptizing and teaching in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God.  If we run for the hills, how will the world hear about Jesus?  The Church is not on the defensive.  Jesus won the war against Satan when he died and rose again.  The devil is defeated.  Christ conquered death and sin by his glorious resurrection.  Read the Book of Revelation: the Church wins in the end, which is why Jesus says “the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it” (v. 18).  Once again, Jesus speaks these words in Caesarea Philippi, with the supposed Gates of Hell, littered with the idols of every demon imaginable, looming behind him.  But Jesus is not afraid.  The Gates of Hell cannot prevail.

Now let me ask you this: what sort of a weapon are city gates?  Are gates a defensive or offensive weapon?  Defensive, right?  (And a very passive defense at that!)  The Gates of Hell are a defensive weapon.  So who is on the defense: the devil or the Church?  The devil is the defender of a crumbling kingdom.  Jesus holds the keys of death and Hades (Rev. 1:18).  The battle is done.  The war is won.  The Church is storming the gates of hell in the final offense against the domain of darkness, and the Gates of Hell cannot withstand us.  Every time that we preach the Gospel, baptize, and come to the Lord’s Supper, Jesus deals another blow to the devil.  Christ will build his Church.  So don’t be afraid!
In the verse that follows, Jesus entrusts to Peter the so-called Office of the Keys, that special power by which the Church can forgive and retain sins.  Jesus says, “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” (Matt. 16:19).  There is much that I could say about this important verse as it relates to the mission and ministry of the Church, including the special authority by which pastors pronounce Holy Absolution, forgiving sins.  But we don’t have enough time for that right now.  Yet allow me to share this: for the sake of a smooth English translation, the editors of the ESV (and most English versions) smooth out the clunky Greek grammar but rob the text of rich theology.  A more literal translation would be this: “Whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven.”  This awkward verb tense is called the future perfect.  But it helps to see that the Church does not set heaven’s agenda; rather, we only ratify it.  The typical translation makes it sound like heaven does whatever we will, when in fact it’s the other way around: the Church carries out on earth what God ordains in heaven.  For isn’t that what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer?  “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

The final verse of our Gospel lesson is one of those strange, disturbing things that show up from time to time in the Bible.  After commending Peter’s faith and bold confession, Jesus strictly tells the disciples NOT to tell anyone who he is (v. 20).  Now what in the world is going on here?!  I thought all Christians are supposed to share their faith with others and tell people about Jesus.  Yes, we are.  But at this point in Jesus’ ministry, the world wasn’t ready for that witness, and neither were the disciples.  Their heads were still too full of dreams about rebellion against Rome and stomping stallions and rivers of blood.  But that’s not the kind of Messiah Jesus came to be.  He did not come to rout the Romans but to root out sin.  He came to conquer by his own death, not the deaths of his enemies.  There is a reason that the Great Commission doesn’t come until the end of Matthew’s Gospel—after the cross and empty tomb.  But that is the theme of next week’s sermon.

Until then, rejoice that God has revealed Jesus to you. Truly, he is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matt. 16:16).  He will build his Church.  And the Church will beat down the Gates of Hell.  And that is wonderful Good News indeed.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] All Scripture references, unless otherwise indicated, are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

[2] “Son of Man” occurs 83 times in the Gospels (compared to only 27 occurrences of the phrase “Son of God”).