(Audio version; Music: "Tell Your Heart To Beat Again" by: Danny Gokey and "Overwhelmed" by: Big Daddy Weave)
“Probius was whipped until the blood flowed, then laden with chains and thrown into prison. A few days later, he was brought out and commanded to sacrifice to the heathen gods. He knew that he would be tortured and killed if he refused. Still he courageously said:
“‘I come better prepared than before, for what I have suffered has only strengthened me in my resolution. Employ your whole power upon me, and you shall find that neither you, nor the Emperor, nor the gods you serve, nor even the devil, who is your father, shall compel me to worship idols.’
“Probius was sent back to further tortures and eventual death by the sword. – Probius, Roman Empire, circa 250 AD”
There have always been times throughout history and places around the world where Christianity has been hated. In our own time, the evils of Islam have swept across many areas of the Middle-East where they have all but whipped out Christian civilizations where Christianity has existed for 2,000 years. All the while, ironically, people everywhere, especially here in America see Christianity as cruel and oppressive. Think about the stupidity of this for a moment, Muslims brutally murder anyone and everyone who doesn’t believe the same way they do with particular disdain for Christians yet Christians are the ones perceived to be cruel and oppressive.
Here in America, where we once enjoyed the freedoms that accompany being a Christian nation, Christianity has steadily lost its influence and popularity year-by-year and decade-by-decade. New laws are regularly adopted that would have been anathema to a Christian nation just twenty years ago. It is easy to find surveys showing that eighty percent of Americans claim to be Christian. However, I have long believed those surveys to be suspect in light of what goes on around us everyday where approximately fifty percent of the population believes abortion, homosexual, sex outside of marriage, greed, and drunkenness are perfectly acceptable. It doesn’t take a brilliant mathematician to recognize that those statistics cannot both be accurate. I have always believed the second statistic not the first. The number of people and organizations who want to see the death of Christianity in America is growing exponentially.
In America, Christianity has long been a foundational platform of the Republican party. That doesn’t mean that there are no Christian Democrats, it just means that Christianity does not specifically inform their political platform in a formal sense the same way that the Republican party allows it to inform their political platform. As always, that foundational platform has drawn the ire of not a few anti-Christian organizations. This week the promoters of a Christian movie, God’s Not Dead 2, wanted to erect a billboard outside the facility in Cleveland, Ohio where the Republican National Convention is to be held this year advertising the film. Included on the billboard were the words that capture the theme of the movie, “I’d rather stand with God and be judged by the world than stand with the world and be judged by God.” The company who is responsible to rent out the sign rejected the movie-maker’s desire to rent the sign stating that the advertisement of the movie was “way too incendiary.” While I can’t say for sure, I’m fairly certain that if Planned Parenthood wanted to purchase space advertising their abortion services (by the way the word “abortion” is a euphemism for murdering babies that isn’t “too incendiary.”), they probably wouldn’t face the same scrutiny.
Persecution of Christians has been part of the community of believers from the very beginning when Stephen was martyred within the first year (maybe within the first few months) after Christ ascended to heaven. And Paul, before his conversion, made it his personal mission to stamp out Christianity. Of course we know that his efforts proved to be futile. Nevertheless, the best efforts of countless religious leaders, rulers and various religious zealots over the two millennia since the Church began have failed to stop the advancement of God’s Kingdom purpose revealed in Jesus Christ.
We can now say without much reservation that the Church is in decline in the West because of spiritual apathy. And Christianity in general is in danger of extinction in predominantly Muslim and Communist regions due to persecution. Further exacerbating the sense of Christianity’s demise is the palpable decline in cultural morality and the growing demand by atheists that their belief in nothing be equally recognized as valid (I’m not sure why being recognized as believing in nothing is so important that it should be celebrated). However, what these alarmists fail to recognize is that just because the Church in the West has created a vacuum because of spiritual apathy, sloth or ignorance that atheism and other cults are attempting to fill, and the population of Christians in some regions has been decimated because of persecution or migration to avoid persecution, the Church universal continues to grow in places where it has historically been unwelcome like China, South America, and Africa. The Church is not like a club that can be outlawed or disbanded or eradicated by intimidation or death. The Church is a living organism having countless branches with the ability to weave its way into unwelcome and unseen places. No matter how many branches are cut off or die for whatever reason, the vine from which the branches grow can never be eradicated because that vine is Jesus Christ. The Vine is eternal and therefore it is impossible to entirely eliminate the growth of the branches that remain connected to it. Even the power of Satan, who motivates those who oppose Christianity, even if they are unaware of his influence, cannot stop the advancement of God’s Kingdom in Jesus Christ. This is why Jesus told us that not even The Gates Of Hell have the power to thwart His plan of salvation. Let’s take a closer look at why Jesus said this and how we can be encouraged by this understanding.
13When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” 14They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.
Our Subject Text has been variously interpreted and a point of contention within the Church. However, a look at the context might alleviate some of the confusion created by Jesus’ teaching. The chapter begins, not surprisingly, with an altercation between Jesus and the religious leaders who want Jesus to perform a miracle for them to prove He is who He claims to be. Ironically, their demand comes on the heels of Jesus feeding five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish (Mt 14:13-21), walking on water (Mt 14:22-33), healing all those who touched him (Mt 14:34-36), exorcizing a demon-possessed girl (Mt 15:21-28), healing the lame, blind, crippled and mute (Mt 15:29-31), and feeding four thousand people with seven loaves of bread and a few small fish (Mt 15:32-39). You might claim that none of the religious leaders were eye-witnesses to any of Jesus’ miracles but they would have to have been willfully ignorant not to have known they occurred—particularly in the case of miraculous healings. It might be possible to refute feeding someone but it is not possible to refute the healing of someone who was lame or cripple when they are standing before you completely whole. Jesus recognizes willful unbelief in the religious leaders at the beginning of chapter sixteen and as He did previously when the religious leaders wanted a miraculous sign (Mt 12:38-45), Jesus tells them that the only sign they will receive is the sign illustrated by Jonah’s experience of emerging from the belly of the fish after three days. Jesus was, of course, referring to His being in the tomb after his crucifixion and death only to emerge alive after three days.
Right before we get to our Subject Text, Jesus warns the disciples about the false teachings of the religious leaders. Specifically, it was important for them to understand who He was and what He was about. The religious leaders had a preconceived notion that the Messiah would be a military figure sent to liberate them from their Roman oppressors and re-establish their national prominence. Their Messiah was a conqueror of men and nations that did not involve suffering, sacrifice or death on the part of the Messiah. However, surrendering Himself to be put to death was precisely Jesus’ mission and He makes that clear in the verses that follow our Subject Text. In order to establish the full meaning of what He was destined to accomplish, it was important that they understood exactly who He was, which is the purpose of our Subject Text.
13When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
Earlier in chapter 16 we learned that Jesus and the disciples were coming from the west side of the Sea of Galilee and had now, according to v. 13, travelled about twenty miles north to the region of Caesarea Philippi. On the way, Jesus asks his disciples a question that draws a line in the sand that creates a boundary line between Christianity and every other faith system. It’s not an insignificant question. How a person answers that question places them squarely on one side of that boundary line or the other. “The question shows that Jesus had been thinking of His past ministry and its results, and it may be taken for granted that He had formed His own estimate, and did not need to learn from the Twelve how He stood…How the influential classes, the Pharisees, and the priests and political men=Sadducees, were affected was apparent. Nothing but hostility was to be looked for there. With the common people on the other hand He had to the last been popular. They liked His preaching, and they took eager advantage of His healing ministry. But had they got a definite faith about Him, as well as a kindly feeling towards Him; an idea well-rooted, likely to be lasting, epoch-making, the starting-point of a new religious movement? He did not believe they had, and He expected to have that impression confirmed by the answer of the Twelve, as indeed it was.”
14They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
No doubt the disciples heard the gossip in the local communities. It’s not like they were strangers in the land. The places they visited with Jesus and the surrounding regions were home to them. This was the place where they grew up, lived, and worked. This was the place where their family, friends and peers lived. It would be incorrect to assume that once they became disciples that they no longer interacted outside their small circle. They had to eat, drink and sleep somewhere. They may not have gone home all the time but they didn’t spend all their time in seclusion either. Instead, they were usually in the company of many people who either followed them from town to town or who surrounded them when they came to town. In any event, it is safe to say that they were in a position to hear people talk and Jesus wanted to know what people were saying about him. But what made people think, in v. 14, that Jesus was really John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or some other prophet returned from the dead? Why was it easier to believe that than it was to believe that Jesus may have been the long awaited Messiah? “Some people, like Herod (14:1-2), thought Jesus was John the Baptizer reincarnated. Others saw Jesus’ miracles, especially the resurrection of the dead (9:18-26), and they thought of Elijah the miracle worker (1 Kgs 17-2 Kgs 2; esp. 17:17-24). Also, since John was ‘Elijah who was to come’ (11:12; 17:12; Mal 4:5), this could explain why these two names were next to each other, both in this conversation and in the people’s minds. Elijah was seen as a forerunner of the Messiah, as was John. Still others thought Jesus was Jeremiah, the prophet of doom who prophesied during the final decades before Judah was exiled to Babylon. The list included several of the other prophets, including Isaiah, whose prophecies Jesus fulfilled in Matthew and from whom Jesus quoted quite often.”
15“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Unlike the Jews who relied on their Jewish heritage for their place in life and their eventual salvation, Jesus makes clear that our salvation is a personal matter. Jesus is not concerned with our past; with where we come from, but our future and where we’re going. Jesus isn’t asking you what your parents think of Him; He isn’t asking what your pastor or your youth leader thinks of Him; He’s not asking what your friends think of Him. Jesus is asking you, just like he asked the disciples in v. 15—“Who do you think I am?” In all our lives, we will not be faced with a more important question. How we answer that question will shape who we are and what we will become. “It is not enough simply to connect the Son of Man with the prophetic expectation generally. Through the instruction that Jesus has given his disciples about his identity and mission by using the title, they must now give account for whom they understand him to be.”
16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Peter, who appears to be the default spokesman for the disciples in v. 16, steps up and confesses their collective belief that Jesus is the “Christ” or “Messiah,” which means he is God’s anointed or chosen one. Yet this part of the confession is incomplete without the rest of the confession that Jesus was “the Son of the living God.” Here is the first very clear indication that the disciples, at the very least, believed Jesus to be divine. This is no small matter considering the disciples where all Jewish and well aware of the gravity of their confession. Nevertheless, they were witnesses to all the teachings, miracles and Old Testament prophecies that found their fulfillment in Jesus. The evidence was before them and it demanded a verdict. Anything short of a confession that Messiah Jesus was the divine Son of God was incorrect. “It is not sufficient to call Jesus Messiah, if by that one means merely that he is the Son of David (cf. [Mt.]15:22). For Jesus is the Son of God not merely by virtue of his messianic office, but also, and primarily, by virtue of his being. Anticipated in [Mt.]14:33, Peter’s confession affirms Messiah’s deity.”
How many people, who are not still so ignorant to insist that Jesus was an invented character, are prepared to concede that Jesus is just about anything that can be imagined except the divine Son of God. The great C. S. Lewis once wrote, “I am trying here to prevent anyone from saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
17Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.
Jesus does not deny Peter’s confession in v. 17 but encourages Peter and the others that the revelation of who Jesus was wasn’t an understanding they developed through their own strength of reasoning. Instead, Jesus’ divine identity was revealed to them by God the Father. John records a time prior to this event when Jesus teaches the disciples that no one can come to Jesus; no one can know Jesus, unless the Father calls them to do so (Jn 6:44). When someone comes to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, it is only in response to God’s urging. “The severe limitations of human knowledge are bound up with man’s incapacity due to sin. Only God has infinite power of knowledge and revelation. Hence true knowledge of God is possible only by God’s own self-revelation…For the NT this means the final abandonment of all effort to base the divine revelation on human authority.”
18And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,
We reach one of the most confusing texts in Scripture in v. 18a when Jesus identifies Simon son of Jonah as “Peter.” The text leads us to believe that this is Peter’s new name even though it is revealed at the very beginning of Matthew’s gospel. Nevertheless, confusion arises when we understand that Peter’s name is translated as “rock,” God is referred to as “the Rock eternal (Isa 26:4), Jesus is referred to as “the rock that makes them fall” (Rom 9:33). It is also commonly understood that the salvation efficacy of a confession in Jesus Christ is rock solid. Consequently, “the rock” upon which Jesus would build his church could be interpreted to mean, 1) Jesus himself and his work on the cross; 2) Peter, the first leader of the church in Jerusalem; or 3) The confession of faith in who Jesus was and is.
A strong argument can be made that by “this rock” Jesus is referring to Peter and that Jesus will build the church on the leadership of Peter. The Roman Catholic church certainly believes that because they have built their entire ecclesiology around the belief that Peter was the first Pope of the church and that each successive Pope perpetuates Peter’s authority over the church. However, Paul did far more to build the church then Peter apparently did. Furthermore, Paul, at one point, had to correct Peter’s theology and behavior (Gal 2:11-21). That’s hardly a solid foundation on which to build something as important as Christ’s church. Finally, Peter is known as the apostle to the Jews while Paul is known as the apostle to the Gentiles. There are currently estimated to be nearly 2.2 billion Christians around the world and of those Christians only an estimated one million are Jewish. I’ll do the math for you—Jews represent .04% of the total Christian population. If Peter was the rock upon which Jesus would build his church and Peter was the apostle to the Jews then wouldn’t the Jews be the foundation of the church? I don’t know about you but something doesn’t make sense to me. Peter was the rock upon which Jesus would build his church yet thirteen of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were penned by Paul and Peter wrote three.
It is more likely that Jesus is making a play on words with reference to Peter’s name meaning “rock.” “Although Peter’s foundational role was later taken to an extreme by the Roman Catholic church to invest Peter with an authority and a succession of leadership, we should not go to the opposite extreme and deny the natural reading of the wordplay…Even though Peter appears to be the antecedent to ‘this rock,’ the reference should not be understood too narrowly. ‘Peter’ denotes more than just the person. It is the characteristics that make Simon a ‘rocky ledge’ that comprise the wordplay…This rock is everything that Peter is at this very moment. It refers to him as the courageous confessor who steps forward, as the representative spokesman for the disciples, as the blessed recipient of revelation, as the first individual to make a public confession of Christ, and the one who leads the disciples forward into the realms of expression of faith. Upon this Peter Jesus will build his church. If Simon functions in that way, he is the rock; if he does not, he can become a stumbling block (Mt 16:23). At the same time, Jesus’ pronouncement is not a conferral of unique, individual supremacy. Peter is given special recognition for all he is and is to be, but he is never placed above or apart from the disciples…Peter is crucial for his role in the foundation of the church, but he is not the only part of the foundation (cf. Eph 2:19; Rev 21:14).”
and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
Jesus is so confident about the strength of the church in v. 18b that he makes the definitive proclamation that not even The Gates Of Hell would be able to overcome Christ’s church. The truth of Jesus’ statement would be tested through some of the fiercest fires of trials and tribulations imaginable. The writer of Hebrews says that Christians were put to death by the sword, stoned or sawed in half. And as gruesome as that seems, things didn’t get much better under the Neronian persecutions where Christians were tied to long poles and lit on fire to illuminate the palace gardens and roadways. In the millennia since then, tomes have been written recording the martyrdom of Christians around the world. Yet Christianity, contrary to what some people seem to think, continues to survive and thrive around the world even though it seems like Hell itself has been loosed upon the believing community. “The Gates of Hades is a Semitic expression for the threshold of the realm of death. The words used here suggest that death itself assaults Christ’s church, but death cannot crush us. The church will endure until Christ’s return, and no opposition, even widespread martyrdom of Christians or the oppression of the final antichrist can prevent the ultimate triumph of God’s purposes in history.”
19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
We’re not finished with interpretive difficulties within our Subject Text when we get to v. 19. What does it mean when Jesus says that he will give Peter the “keys” to the kingdom of heaven so that what is accomplished on earth will likewise be accomplished in heaven. Some believe the text implies that Peter will have the authority to forgive sins or withhold forgiveness of sins. Others believe that the “keys” being referred to by Jesus is the Gospel message which is the means for forgiveness and rejection of that message means the lack of forgiveness. Most likely, it refers to the latter of the two. “More immediate parallels suggest that one should pursue the imagery of keys that close and open, lock and unlock (based on Isa 22:22) and take the binding and loosing as referring to Christians’ making entrance to God’s kingdom available or unavailable to people through their witness, preaching, and ministry.”
20Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.
Our Subject Text ends in v. 20 with a familiar instruction from Jesus to his disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Christ. Remember what I explained earlier in the Context section of the lesson. The religious leaders and by extension the people had a preconceived notion of what the Messiah would be like—a powerful, conquering, military hero that would crush Israel’s enemies and lead her back to prominence and power in the ancient world. But Christ, the true Messiah, was powerful not because He was able to conquer some earthly opposition but because He would conquer the ultimate enemy of all humanity—death. However, in order to do so, He had to first offer Himself as a sacrifice to pay for humanity’s sins as we will learn in the closing verses of chapter 16. “Here the reason for the secrecy is about to become particularly clear. Jesus is not the kind of Messiah that the masses have in mind. Far from overpowering the evil powers of the world there and then and establishing a national-political kingdom, Jesus is now to talk of another, dramatically different path upon which his messianic calling will take him.”
I try not to use sports analogies very often because I know that not everyone plays sports. But it seems particularly applicable in this case. Let me ask you a question: How would you play a sport, any sport, if you knew in advance that you were going to win; Regardless of the score at any point during the event, in the end you would win? You could play the game for the joy of the game without concern over the outcome. In some ways, Christianity is like this personally and corporately. Upon accepting Christ, we received the seal that is the Holy Spirit that is the promise of salvation that can never be taken from us. Remember Paul’s words when he said, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:38-39).” In the same way, our Subject Text is the promise that nothing will succeed in conquering the Kingdom force that is the Church.
I’ll let you in on a secret—the Church does not consist of a building that can be burned to the ground, a religious system that can be outlawed, beautiful music that can be silenced, brilliant lights that can be turned off, or a holy book that can simply be discarded. The Church consists of all believers united under the banner that they have been saved by the Christ, the Son of the living God. And because nothing can separate us from the love of God through Christ, we can live a life of faithful obedience with joy, knowing that we cannot be defeated. I know it doesn’t always look like it or feel like it because I know some of you are experiencing severe oppression and persecution. Some of you are even facing death because of your faith, so I don’t say these words casually. We are on the winning team! Let’s live like winners! Live a life of obedience to Christ even if people think you’re a kook; share your faith with anyone and everyone, inviting them to be on the winning team; care for your fellow believers; care for family, friends, and strangers; forgive each other quickly and easily; and cherish your relationship with Christ and others because love is the one thing that binds the Church together in all places and at all times. That sounds like a winning team; an unstoppable force that can withstand the threat of oppression, persecution, hatred, spiritual laziness, and even death. In fact, this picture of the Church is a force that has been, is and will be able to stand firm and persevere against anything, even The Gates Of Hell until Christ returns.
 dc Talk and The Voice of the Martyrs, Jesus Freaks, Vol. 1, (Tulsa, OK: Albury Publishing, 1999), p. 60.
 W. Robertson Nicoll, ed., The Expositor’s Greek Testament, Vol. 1, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983), p. 222.
 Stuart K. Weber, Matthew—Holman New Testament Commentary, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2000), p. 249.
 Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew—The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), p. 558.
 Walter A. Elwell, ed., Baker Commentary on the Bible, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1989), p. 742.
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), p. 56.
 Colin Brown, gen. ed., New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 1, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986), p. 222.
 Wilkins, Matthew—NIV Commentary, pp. 564-565.
 Craig S. Keener, Matthew—The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), p. 272.
 Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew—The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992), p. 254.
 Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14-28—Word Biblical Commentary, (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1995), p. 474.