Peace be to you and grace from Him who freed us from our sins. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
In relating the words and acts of Jesus the Savior, St. Matthew organizes his Gospel with the purpose of telling people about Jesus in a way that they will be convinced, come to the conclusion and believe what St. Peter says in today’s Gospel, namely, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and in such faith and the confession thereof, be saved from death and hell by the forgiveness of sins and inherit eternal life. Matthew carefully arranges things in the beginning of his Gospel to demonstrate that Jesus is the promised Messiah because He perfectly fulfills everything written about Him in the Old Testament. He relates the words and teaching of Jesus to demonstrate how the Old Testament scriptures find their perfect, saving message fulfilled in Jesus. In addition he provides evidence of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God in the various miraculous works that witness to His divine nature—Jesus does what only God can do. Finally, then, this all leads to the most important part of the Gospel, namely, our Lord’s vicarious, sacrificial suffering and death on the cross and His glorious resurrection from the dead. We are approaching that most important, climactic section of Matthew’s Gospel where, in the very next verses of our text, Jesus begins to clearly tell His disciples of His coming suffering, death and resurrection.
What is so troublesome today in the final third of the first decade of the 21st century, at least in our country, is that it seems most people don’t seem at all interested; that is, most people don’t seem to be aware that there is anything from which they need to be saved or delivered. It seems the biggest problems people face can be fixed or at least addressed by getting the right hair or skin products, the right clothing or the newest drug. Rarely does the next life, God’s judgment or even the prospect of death enter anyone’s mind; and when it does people have all sorts of ideas and theories and fantasies they use to calm whatever fears may lie beneath the surface. Jesus mentions the false and misled ideas of people in today’s Gospel when He says to St. Peter, “flesh and blood,” that is, “people” “did not reveal that to you, Peter.” Reveal what? Well, reveal that the only way to be saved from eternal death and hell is by way of faith, and not just any faith, but faith whose content is Jesus, faith that is all about Jesus—who He is and what He has done.
You see, when Jesus asked His disciples, first, “who do people say that I am,” He wasn’t asking for some information that He did not already know or for something like a Zogby or Gallup poll to see how his reputation was faring in the public square, so that maybe He could adjust His message to be a little more popular. When the disciples answer that they had heard various people conjecturing that Jesus was John the Baptist come back from the dead, or Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets, we, with them, maybe get a little knowing smile on our faces because of all the wrong answers. We know that, because of the spiritually blind, fallen nature of all people, on their own, apart from the revealing or revelation of divine scripture, flesh and blood people are able to come up with only wrong answers when the question is about Jesus.
But stop a minute here and notice something else. The point is not only that everyone was getting the wrong idea about Jesus. But notice that every one of their guesses referred to prophets in the past who brought primarily judgment and bad news! John the Baptist, that fiery preacher as Luther called him, demanded repentance of sin and spoke of the coming Messiah as coming in judgment and fire. Elijah was to come before the Messiah with judgment. Jeremiah spoke words of judgment as did all the prophets, all of whom were rejected and killed or martyred because of their unpopular message of judgment against sin.
How many people don’t think of religion, at least the Christian religion, today as one that comes primarily to judge your wrong behavior and rain on your party? But, of course, that misses the whole point of being delivered from pain and sadness, condemnation, sin and death to real, new life through the forgiveness of your sins, the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.
So Jesus gets personal with His disciples and asks, “But YOU, who do you say that I am?” They, after all, have had the advantage and opportunity to hear the Gospel of Jesus. Peter answers on behalf of not only the other disciples but the whole, holy Church through the world and through all ages when He says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” because that’s the faith and the confession thereof upon which Jesus said He builds His Church. Later, the Apostle Paul would write, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Romans 10:9-10). So, you see, it is not just the silent faith of the heart but also the confession of it with the lips that is involved. St. James in the first epistle to be written in the New Testament goes on at some length to emphasize the importance of faith that expresses itself through the words and actions of your life.
I found, in an old commentary on these words, an interesting observation that speaks with amazing new freshness given the situation of the Church today. It reads, in part,
Jesus wants a confession of the lips, but, of course, only as a true expression of their heart’s conviction. Any other confession is falsehood. Jesus could see the heart, we cannot, and must thus accept the lip confession. Our only aid is the conduct, the acts of the individual, the practice of a congregation or of a church body. This, too, is a confession, and should harmonize fully with the lip confession. When it clashes with that, the confession by deeds is the real confession, by which then we must judge. Deeds and practice always speak louder and are more weighty than words. [Lenski, Matthew p. 600]
I would suggest that it is primarily for this reason that there exists in the Church today a division that calls themselves “confessional.” And it is not just in the Lutheran church but even among other denominations where the clear confession and statement of faith is being confused by certain practices that contradict the confession. So this principle applies to church body, congregation and individual Christian alike.
The faith that saves is not the confession of how much or how earnestly I believe in Jesus, it is the confession of Jesus, who He is and what He has done. Yes there is a play on words between the name Peter, “Petros,” and the word for “rock,” “patra,” and Peter is a most important guy and disciple and apostle. But the bottom line is that it is upon this confession of faith spoken by Peter that Christ says He will build His “ecclesia,” His assembled followers, His “church.”
On speaking of the foundation on which He will build His church, Jesus is also thinking of her enemies and says, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Strange, is it not, to speak of the “gates” of hell? Gates are primarily defensive structures to keep things inside or outside. The implication, however, is that these gates will open and all manner of demonic assault against Christ’s Church will come, as it is written in St. John’s Revelation, “Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations” (Rev. 20:7-8), but the Church will not be overthrown.
Until the Last Day, then, it is the mission of the Church to be all about the forgiveness of sins Christ came to bring. This is the “key” to the growth of the Church—not new laws or bylaws or methods, programs or rules, but the forgiveness of sins. The Church is wherever the Gospel is preached in its purity and the sacraments are administered according to Christ’s institution. No Gospel, no sacraments rightly done, no Church. No Church, no truth, no deliverance, no hope.
By the way, Jesus then charged His disciples not to tell anyone that He was the Christ…YET. Peter didn’t fully understand even what he had just confessed. For the most important days were yet to be, the mystery of Christ’s death on the cross and His glorious resurrection and ascension. Only in that light are we charged to tell everyone everywhere that Jesus is the Christ and the only way of salvation is by faith in Him.
“Grant, then, O God, Your will be done, That, when the church bells are ringing, Many in saving faith may come Where Christ His message is bringing” [LSB 645:5].