“Who Is This Man?” (Matthew 16:13-20)
“Who is this man?” Who is this man Jesus? This is the most important question that has ever been asked. How will you answer it?
The question comes up in the Holy Gospel for today, from Matthew 16. Our text begins: “Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’”
Who is this man? Who is this Jesus? That is the question. Jesus asks this question of his disciples–first, about what they have heard people saying about him: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Jesus often refers to himself as “the Son of Man.” Well, the disciples had been with Jesus for some time now, and they’ve been out among the people and heard what folks are saying. So they reply with the various opinions they have heard: “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
All interesting opinions, but all off the mark. Jesus’ bold preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” reminded people of the message John the Baptist preached. Could Jesus be John raised from the dead? Or what about one of the men of God from earlier in Israel’s history? Elijah? Certainly he was a fearless prophet, and a miracle-worker, too. And Elijah was supposed to come first before Messiah comes. Could Jesus be Elijah making an end-time visit? Or what about Jeremiah? He preached against the false worship going on at the temple at his time, and he suffered a lot of opposition for it. Sounds like Jesus. So these are points of similarity between Jesus and the prophets of the past. But all these speculations and opinions are low-balling who Jesus really is. One greater than a prophet is here. Indeed, Jesus is the one the prophets were pointing ahead to.
And that’s the point. Nice-sounding opinions about Jesus, but they all fall short of identifying just who Jesus is. They all miss the mark, no matter how complimentary they may sound. And this sort of low-balling Jesus is still going on in our day.
Recently I got a new book called “Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?” In this book, the author identifies twelve false Christs that are popular in our day, but all of them miss the mark. These are Jesus as: The Mascot; One Option among Many; The Good Teacher; The Therapist; The Giver of Bling; The National Patriot; The Social Justice Warrior; The Moral Example; The New Moses; The Mystical Friend; The Feminized Jesus; and The Teddy Bear. These are ways people like to think of Jesus, but each falls short of who Jesus really is. For instance, some people think of Jesus as a Mascot “with pom-poms who encourages his followers in their pursuit of whatever makes them happy.” Or Jesus as a Good Teacher, “not the incarnate Divine Lord, and nothing more than a wise religious teacher.” Or Jesus the Teddy Bear, “a cuddly, safe, and tame, crossless and anti-intellectual savior.” Each of these false Christs is Jesus as we like to imagine him, but none of them is the real deal. Will the real Jesus please stand up?
To tell the truth, Jesus is much more and much better than any of these popular misconceptions. The real Jesus needs to be your answer to the question, “Who is this man?” And so Jesus wants his disciples to know and confess who he really is. He asks them, “But you–who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter speaks up with the right answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Yes, that’s who Jesus is! He is the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One, promised from centuries past. God gave the promise long ago to King David, that one of his descendants would reign on his throne forever and have an everlasting kingdom of righteousness and blessing. And Jesus is just this one, the Christ.
And what’s more, this Jesus, this Christ, is the very Son of God, God incarnate, come in the flesh. He is “the Son of the living God.” You have spoken truly, Peter. “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” No one can know who the real Jesus is unless God reveals this truth to him. Jesus himself said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” You and I did not just wake up one morning and decide, “Hey, I think Jesus is the divinely-sent Savior come down from heaven for us men and for our salvation.” No, you didn’t come up with that on your own. God’s Word worked that faith in your heart. Jesus opened your mind to understand the Scriptures. “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit.” But in Holy Baptism, the Holy Spirit called you by the gospel and enlightened you with his gifts, so that now you do believe in Jesus Christ your Lord. God’s purpose is “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Thanks be to God!
Who is this man? Peter says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The confession of this faith–getting it right and confessing it boldly–this is foundational to the church that Jesus has established. As Jesus then says: “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.” Peter’s name is Simon Bar-Jonah, but Jesus gives him his enduring nickname “Peter.” “Peter,” “Petros,” is the Greek equivalent of calling him “Rocky.” Jesus is doing a little play on words here, because he says that Peter’s confession will be the “rock,” the “petra,” on which Jesus will build his church. That is, the apostolic proclamation of the faith–that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God–this will be the rock-solid foundation of the church for all time. And so it is. The church is the household of God, “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.”
“And on this rock I will build my church.” This is Jesus’ church, and he will build it his way. Oftentimes, people in the church want to build it some other way. They think the way to build the church is to have how-to messages by hipster pastors behind plexiglass podiums, with peppy praise bands performing shallow choruses flashed on big screens. Jesus as life coach. No cross. No sin or sacrament talk. But entertainment, yes, and lots and lots of programs! That’ll draw ’em in! And you know what? They may succeed, in terms of numbers. But not much in terms of truly building the church. If you ain’t preaching the real Jesus, Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins, you’re missing the boat. This is Jesus’ church, and he’ll build it his way, regardless of popularity or numbers.
“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Hell is letting loose on the church in our day. Christians are being martyred in Nigeria and Sudan and the Middle East. Christians are being ostracized and oppressed in Europe and Canada and even here in the United States. The church is under attack. Muslim jihadists and secular extremists attacking from without. False teachers undermining the faith from within. But Jesus is watching out for his church. He is guarding his flock and purifying our faith, even in the fire of affliction. They cannot take our salvation away from us. Jesus our Champion has conquered death and the devil and the hordes of hell by his victorious death and resurrection. “I hold the keys of death and Hades,” the risen Christ declares, having conquered in the fight. The church militant will be the church triumphant, because Christ has triumphed over our enemies for us. Jesus is determined to build his church and to care for his church until the end of time. “And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
And then Jesus says to Peter: “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.” Here Jesus entrusts to Peter and the apostles and the church the binding and loosing keys. This is the authority to forgive and retain sins. For the impenitent, the unrepentant, their sins are retained on them. They are bound in their unbelief. But for those who repent of their sins, who recognize their lost condition apart from Christ, there is the precious loosing key, the word of forgiveness, the Holy Absolution, preached and applied. Here is balm for the troubled conscience. Are you troubled by your sins? Good news! Your sins are forgiven you for Christ’s sake! Jesus bled and died on the cross for your sins–yes, for you!–and now you are cleansed, clean and forgiven and right with God. God is not angry with you! God loves you! Christ crucified is the proof! Christ’s resurrection confirms it! You will not die but live!
And now the last verse of our text: “Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.” But thank God, this is not the last word! At this point in their journey, Jesus has to tell the disciples not to tell anybody who he is. Because they still didn’t quite get it. They knew Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. But they didn’t know yet what his being the Christ would entail, that it would mean a cross and suffering and death. But they will. When Jesus rises from the dead and ascends into heaven and sends them the Holy Spirit, then these same disciples will start telling everybody that Jesus is the Christ! The good news will go forth to every nation!
That’s why you’re here this morning. You have heard the good news, and you believe, and you rejoice. You rejoice to answer the question, “Who is this man?” You know, and you love to shout it out, and sing it, and tell everyone you know: “This Jesus–he is the Christ, the Son of the living God! I have life in his name! This Jesus is my Savior! He’s your Savior too! This Jesus died and rose again and lives forever, for me and for you! And because he lives, I will live too. Forever.”
We started out with the question, “Who is this man?” Let’s close by singing again the hymn in your bulletin that answers the question, “Who Is This Man”:
Who is this Man
Who does the things no other can?
He is the Christ,
God’s only Son come from above–
Now we can see that God is love.
Upon this rock
Christ builds His Church, His precious flock.
The gates of hell
Shall not prevail
Against the working of His will–
We know that He is with us still.
No need to search
For other ways to build the Church.
There is but one:
It is God’s Son.
Confessing Jesus Christ as Lord–
He is the key; we have His Word.
God will forgive, and He will bless.
Confess the faith
That saves from death.
Rejoice in Christ and give Him praise,
For we shall see eternal days!
Text: © 2016 Charles Henrickson
Tune: Preparation (LSB 629) 48 44 88