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, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. – Matthew 16:13-20
I don’t know about for you, but this passage is quite familiar to me. I have heard it preached, studied it in Bible studies, or have heard it used as an example of how to confess who Jesus is numerous times throughout my life. And one of the most popular claims I’ve heard about it is that this text is about Peter’s faith and his great confession.
According to this interpretation, this passage is a turning point for Peter. After all, it was only a few chapters earlier when Jesus told Peter that he had little faith because he lacked trust in Jesus and was fearful of walking on water toward Jesus. Yet, here, in Matthew 16, Peter finally confesses who Jesus really is. When Jesus asks the disciples “who do you say that I am?” Peter speaks for the disciples and replies, “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
So it seems to make sense that this passage is about Peter’s turning point and confession.
However, if we look at the passage that immediately follows this one, we might come to another conclusion. Starting in vs. 21, Jesus begins to tell the disciples that he MUST journey to Jerusalem, suffer and die in the hands of the religious leaders, and be raised on the third day.
We would think that a disciple who truly understands who this Jesus – the Messiah, the Son of the living God – is, would accept what Jesus has to say about his mission – even if this disciple does so with reluctance and sadness. However, to our surprise, Peter responds to this by rebuking Jesus and saying: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen!” And to our even greater surprise, Jesus responds to Peter by calling him Satan and saying he is a stumbling block for only setting his mind on human things rather than on divine things.
And this isn’t the only time Peter doesn’t seem to get it. For we all know it is HE who denies Jesus three times after Jesus gets arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane.
So if this text is not about Peter’s confession? What is it about?
To better understand, we need to consider what these titles given to Jesus in Peter’s “confession” meant to both Peter and Jesus.
According to one source, (the Harper Collins Bible Dictionary) the Messiah was an “anointed agent of God, appointed to a task affecting the lot.” However, the title “Messiah” did not always suggest a divine being. In Ancient Israel, this title referred to priests, anointed men who were kings of Israel, prophets, and even to the pagan king, Cyrus. It is not until the Babylonian Exile – where the Israelites were taken from their homeland and longed to return – when the Israelites began to write about a coming Messiah who would be their Savior in the midst of great suffering. And it is not until we read Paul’s letters when we begin to hear that Jesus, the Christ (which is the Greek translation for “Messiah”), is the one who fulfilled the Palestinian Jewish expectations of the coming Messiah.
The title “Son of God” is similar in that it was also used to allude to numerous persons and positions in Ancient Israel, including angels, monarchs when they were enthroned, and people who were considered to be righteous. According to one source, by the first century, this title referred to “a person or a people with a special relationship to God, often with a special role in salvation history.” (Harper Collins Bible Dictionary)
In order to better understand the importance of these titles, we might also consider the location in which Peter made this confession, Caesarea Phillipi. This city was the worldwide center of the Pagan religion that worshipped Pan, the god of shepherds and flocks. This religion involved lustful acts that followers would perform in order to worship Pan. In addition to this, the city represented the imperial power of the Roman Empire, which created a strong dominating hierarchy that uplifted the wealthy and the elite and oppressed the poor, the sick, and the outcasts of society. In fact, the city was given its name by King Herod the Great’s son, Phillip, when he came to power… And you can probably guess who it was named after: Caesar…and Phillip, himself.
Two temples stood in Caesarea Phillipi: one to honor and worship Caesar the great leader of the Empire and the other to honor and worship Pan. This city was basically considered the Sin City of its day, and most Jews would have completely avoided going there.
So, as you can see, this is not the place you might expect Jesus Christ, the Jewish Rabbi who was said to be the Messiah, the Son of the living God, to take his disciples to and ask them to confess whom he really is. We might think that the Temple or one of the synagogues would have been a better place.
And yet, it is quite intentional that Jesus took his disciples to Caesarea Phillipi to reveal his identity to them. You see, in the Roman Empire, people were often forced to worship the empire and it’s leaders. Many of the leaders were even given titles such as “Savior,” “Lord,” and “Son of God.”
What’s more is that in Caesarea Phillipi, there was a cave where Pan was worshipped with a spring that flowed from it. The spring was thought to flow from underground – a place the Greeks referred to as Hades, and where the gods would spend their winters. And the source of the spring was called the Gates of Hades, the same phrase Jesus speaks of in our text.
Now in our passage for today, Jesus goes on to tell Simon Peter that his name shall be Peter, which means rock. And it is upon this rock – or Peter, the spokesperson of the disciples – where Jesus will build his Church. And nothing – not even the Gates of Hades – the location where the pagan gods representing imperial, oppressive power and where the gods exit and enter Hades – not even these gates will prevail against this Church body.
You see, Caesarea Phillipi is the intentional place for Jesus’ identity to be revealed. It is here in the midst of this imperial and pagan center, where Jesus asks his disciples who they say he is, and Peter answers that it is Jesus – not the Caesar or Pan – who is the Messiah, the Son of the living God! It is this Jesus Christ, who will be the one who saves the people who are suffering from this oppressive empire and who is worthy of worship. And not even Rome or Jupiter or any other gods or imperial worldly powers will be able to prevail against him!
And we see throughout Matthew, that it is this Jesus Christ, the Messiah, who begins to bring about a new kingdom, the Kingdom of God, a kingdom so polar opposite of the oppressive Roman Empire that dominated over the lower class folks.
A Kingdom that will even oppose, challenge, and tear down the hierarchical powers and forces of that Empire.
And this new kingdom is one where Jesus, the only truly great ruler and king – rules not with a militaristic, exclusive, and dominating power over others, but rather rules with love and equality and lives with and uplifts – not the elite, wealthy and powerful – as the Empire did – but rather the poor and sick, the women and widows, the immigrants and ethnic minorities – those who were considered the last and least in society.
Now, we have come a long way since first century Rome. So it may seem very difficult for us to understand or even comprehend the repercussions of such a violent and oppressive Empire. And yet, we don’t have to walk too far from the front steps of Unity Lutheran Church or listen to the local, national, and international news too long before we start to realize that the United States is dangerously moving toward – if not already living into – a modern day Roman Empire.
Don’t we live in one of the most powerful and rich countries in the world, where wealth, status, and capitalism are often worshiped… Where some in our country make 1000s of dollars an hour while others are struggling to even make $8.50 to $9 an hour? And as a result of this, those of us who are privileged often live well beyond our means, while millions of our neighbors lack opportunities and resources and even suffer from hunger and homelessness?
Don’t we live in a country with more resources than much of the rest of the world can even comprehend and with a fairly low population density and yet, when some 60,000 terrified unaccompanied children desperately try to cross the border in order to flee violence, we detain them and call out to send them back instead of providing them with care and assistance?
Don’t we live in a country that proclaims its moral superiority over many other violent nations and yet it is the sole country that funds the majority of military equipment that is creating over 200,000 Gazan refugees and killing more than 2000 of them, almost 500 of whom are children?
Don’t we live in a country where racial inequality is so prevalent that there is still an incredibly disproportionate amount of people of color who are unjustifiably being dehumanized, sentenced, imprisoned, or even killed by police, and when done so, such actions are “justified” or covered up – as we see in Ferguson and in the case of Marissa Alexander? And when people who choose to exercise their First Amendment Rights to peacefully and lawfully protest against such hate crimes, they are being met by tear gas, rubber bullets, and forceful arrests by a militant police force armed and dressed as if it were ready to declare war?
In our present-day oppressive Roman Empire, our worship of the Caesars and Pans – of consumerism, materialism, power, and wealth – not only push so many people in our own country into the margins of society, but our nationalism – our worship of our country – leads us to view other nations and people of other ethnic and racial backgrounds as inferior to us and as less human than we are.
While it is okay and even important for us to recognize and be thankful for the many blessings and privileges we have in our lives, we must always remember that while we may sing “God bless America,” God does not bless American any more than any other nation. And, as followers of Jesus, we can never worship a nation, social status, wealth, capitalism, a particular racial or ethnic group, or any other Caesar or pagan god. Because it is Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God – not Caesar or Pan, not the United States or any other nation, not our material possessions or our successful careers, not our military weapons, borders, politicians, or our powerful police forces. It is Jesus Christ and it is ONLY Jesus Christ who is our Lord and Saviour.
We hear this truth proclaimed throughout the Scriptures, and we particularly hear it preaching out of our text in Matthew today.
But our message does not end here with this confession of Peter about who Jesus is. As Jesus is about to start his journey to Jerusalem and toward the cross, he tells Peter an important thing: that although Jesus will leave this earth, his ministry of challenging and breaking down the oppressive imperial walls/forces and spreading his good news of love and salvation from injustice to ALL people – is not over.
This ministry will continue. It will first continue through Peter and the disciples who will be the rock on which Jesus will begin to build the Church… But it will also continue through all of Jesus’ disciples – through all of Jesus’ followers.
No longer does it matter that Caesar holds the keys to an oppressive kingdom that excludes those on the margins of society, because now it is Peter and the entire Church body who hold the keys to a new Kingdom that is built on love, peace, equality, and justice.
So we can see that our passage in Matthew begins with a confession and it ends with commission. A commission not just to Peter, not just to the other eleven disciples, but to all of us who truly proclaim that it is Jesus – the Messiah, the Son of the living God – and it is ONLY this Jesus – who is our Lord.
We may wonder how on earth we are to respond to this commission. For some of us, it might start with listening to the voices around us who are being shut out and recognizing the Caesars and Pan gods we currently worship… and learning to give them up. For others of us, it might be figuring out how to tear down the imperial powers that oppress and push people to the margins in Chicago, in the U.S., and throughout the world by spreading the word about such injustice, signing petitions, and standing with others at marches that demand justice. For others it might be figuring out how to open the doors of this Kingdom of God to the people in our midst who are being excluded by our present-day Empire.
However we may do it, we – as followers of Jesus – are called to not just confess who Jesus Christ is, but we are also called to respond to his great commission. So let us not just leave this place and go back to our busy schedules forgetting what we have heard and confessed this morning. But let us boldly and loudly respond to Jesus Christ, our Messiah, the Son of the Living God, both in word and in deed.
A Few Ways to Participate in Advocacy in your Area:
– Follow on Twitter: @SideofLoveCampaign, @FergusonUnity, @BTSFblog
GAZA (End the Siege on Gaza):
– Follow on Facebook and/or Twitter: @jvplive (Jewish Voice for Peace), @codepink, US Palestinian Community Network
Children at the Border:
– Follow on Twitter: @SojoImmigration, @RI4A (Reform Immigration For America)
Fightfor15 (Campaign to raise minimum wage):
– Follow on Twitter: @SEIU, @Fightfor15