The exchange between Jesus and His disciples in Matthew 16 is quite incredible. There is drama and passion, twists and turns throughout. He has just warned them about the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Then He broaches a topic that gets to the heart of discipleship itself. He asks, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” What is the word on the street? What do people think? Do they believe you are following a narcissistic maniac, a delusional wannabe, or something else entirely? What are they saying? Well, it turns out most people think lofty things about our Lord. Some think He is John the Baptist, the very one who was just beheaded by Herod. John the Baptist back from the grave. That is powerful. Others say Elijah, the great prophet who was carried to Heaven in a chariot. Still others think He is Jeremiah or one of the prophets, for scripture was rich in the promise of a prophet to come again to the people of God. So, it is not like they think Jesus is just a looser, out scrounging for fame. No, they ascribe to him very weighty titles.
Of course, this is not the real point. It is not really about what the people out there are saying about Him, it is far more import for the disciples themselves to know who the son of Man is. Therefore, Jesus asks them, “But who do you say I am?” You who follow, who is it you are following? Peter steps up first and makes an awesome confession concerning the identity of Jesus. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” You are the Christ, which is the Messiah, the long awaited coming of God to His people. To be the Christ is to be the one who promises reconciliation with God and the restoration of His people, but Peter’s confession goes even further. He rightly says that to be the Christ is to be the very Son of the living God. Jesus is not a prophet, not a great teacher, not a mystical leader, but the Son of God Himself.
Peter nails this one, and the response of our Lord not only praises him for it but offers us some insight into just how Peter came to such a bold confession. He says, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in Heaven. 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.” Now, you can hear this as either Jesus blesses Simon Peter for the confession or He is saying Peter has been blessed and was, therefore, able to make the confession. This is what Christ is getting at. He is telling Peter he is blessed, not because he made such an incredible confession, but he is blessed because he has received a revelation of a truth which is beyond what flesh and blood can give. He is blessed because the Father in Heaven has given to Peter a divine revelation concerning who Jesus is. This revelation of the truth, this gift of God found in the mouth of Peter is put forth as the foundation upon which the Church is to be built.
Jesus also makes a play off the name He gave to Simon Bar-Jonah. The name Peter, of course, means “rock,” and this blessed confession of Peter is the rock upon which the Church is to be built. With this, our Lord is establishing the revelation of God as the foundation of the Church. The Word of God is the immovable rock that stands against the very gates of Hell itself. Later, Peter will say, “We have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place… knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:19-21). This is the rock on which the Church is to be built. Here is the only sure foundation, the very Word of God.
Many years ago, I learned how the reformers spoke of the Scriptures as the norma normans. There is some Latin you can use to impress people at your next cocktail party if you run out of small talk. The norma normans is the norming norm, or perhaps better put, it is the ruling rule. It is a way of saying Scripture is the absolute authority, all other rules, norms, or practices of our faith are to be ruled or governed by the Word of God. As Saint Paul writes to Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” There is no other source of authority above the Word of God. All the philosophies and teachings of men are subject to the Word, and that makes sense, right? This is the foundation of our faith. It is the source of God’s revelation of Himself. This revelation can stand against all the twisted attacks of Hell itself.
There is a reason why, in the Garden of Eden, Satan focuses his attack on God’s Word. “Did God really say?” If there is doubt regarding the Word, if there is distrust about what God has said, then things begin to unravel quickly. That, in fact, is what happens. The centrality of the Word of God to the practice and life of the people of God is crucial. For the center of Scripture itself is our Lord Jesus Christ. To shift away from the Word is to risk losing our confidence, our confession, our hope, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. It would be to build on shifting sand instead of solid rock. Peter is blessed because he has received a revelation from God, and you are blessed because you too have received this revelation. You have been given faith to receive the testimony of Scripture as God breathed, as the foundation for your faith. And the core of that Word, the center of this blessing is the promise of salvation in Christ alone.
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.” How incredible is that? This is what the revelation of God produces. It is the place upon which the Church is built, and the Church is the location of the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. The act of binding and loosing, which is the work of locking and unlocking, resides on earth. It belongs to in the place built upon the rock, established on the revelation of the Word of God. And what does the Church lock and unlock? Your bondage to sin. These words will be repeated in John’s Gospel when our resurrected Lord gives the Holy Spirit to His disciples and says, “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven. If you do not forgive, they are not forgiven.” The gathering of the people of God, the Church built upon the Word is a powerful thing. It exists to set people free from their bondage to sin, to open for them the Kingdom of Heaven itself.
How amazing is this? Our gathering right here, which is built upon the Word, and confesses Jesus is the Christ, the Son the living God, this place effects eternity. The forgiveness that happens here echoes throughout Paradise. Of course, congregations can and will do a lot of things. They can be causes of social change. They can feed the hungry and give aid to the poor. They can and often will attempt to live out the love of Christ for their neighbor; after all, faith without works is dead. But the truth is they are to be employed for a greater cause than all of that. The center of what we are about, the core of what we are to do is to make a stand against the gates of Hell while opening wide the gates of Kingdom of Heaven. We can only do this if we are being built, not by our own desires or our own teachings, but by the Word of God alone.
So, here we stand, upon the Word, upon the Rock, upon the promise that you are set free. You are forgiven. You are blessed with life everlasting.