notre dame montreal

Peter's Confession of Faith

Sermon preached by
The Revd Charles Royden
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Matthew 16:13 -20 

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets." "But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And 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. I 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."

I was speaking recently at a school event for old pupils of a school and I included in my talk a reference to the importance of Christians putting aside their denominational badges. I stressed the importance of us speaking about our Christianity and not the denominational labels which we have used to say how different we are to other types Christians.

Afterwards one of the old pupils came up to me and said that she had found this helpful. In her day, she said, Christians were very divided, so much so that Protestants and Catholics were not allowed to share in the same morning assembly of Christian worship. Apparently a room was set aside in the school and when the Protestant children went off for worship, there was a special place reserved for what was described as 'Coughs and Catholics.' What a wonderful phrase to illustrate how ludicrous is our disunity.

Of course one of the passages which has been used to divide Christians is our reading from Matthew today. Somehow we have to be able to read it and find a way forward in this difficult area.

Perhaps we can picture the scene first.

Jesus goes to Caesarea Philippi with his disciples.

Caesarea Philippi was so named because it was rebuilt by the Tetrarch Herod Philip in honour of the emperor Tiberius. Lying 25 miles north of Galilee, it was a beautiful place inMap showing Caesarea Philippi the foothills of the snow capped Mount Hermon. Springs fed by the melting snow from Mount Hermon formed the headwaters of the Jordan River. The site was beautiful and lush compared to the dryness of much of the surrounding countryside. Jesus may have chosen this as a good place to get away from the crowds because it was a beautiful location for a break. This was as close as Jesus was going to get to a holiday.

Perhaps also importantly, this was formerly the area which had been called Paneas in honour of the Greek god, Pan. The inhabitants were largely Gentile, this is Gentile territory. Perhaps the Gentile background of the place was important for Jesus, it is certainly important for us, because it reminds us that the events which follow took place in a time and place in which there were many competing religious voices. Jesus is about to ask the disciples to come to a conclusion and decide who he really is. They were surrounded by other religions and they had to think what was important and make their minds up.

That is very much the context in which we find ourselves, there are for us many different and competing religious movements which try to claim our attention. Likewise, the people whom we live alongside and work alongside are also faced with a multitude of religious choices. People in our society today are exposed to more religions than ever before. Many people are searching for religious faith, but there is now a vast array of choice between religions from all over the world.

So the questions which Jesus asked the disciples is an important one for us today and the answer which we give must have profound consequences not only for our own decision making process, but also for the way in which we think through our responsibilities in the religious market of our society.

Let's consider why

Jesus asks the disciples "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" (For more information on Son of Man see note at bottom of page)

The disciples report a variety of answers. 

  1. The idea that Jesus was John the Baptist has already been mentioned by Herod in Matthew 14:1-2. At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, "This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him."
  2. The mention of Elijah is understandable for several reasons. John the Baptist had been identified as Elijah or an Elijah-type figure. Elijah had also been noted for miracles.
  3. The mention of Jeremiah is unique to Matthew's gospel at this location.
  4. Or one of the prophets. What John the Baptist, Elijah, and Jeremiah had in common was that they were prophets. The people who had seen and heard of Jesus' ministry were describing him as a prophet. The New Testament is clear that Jesus' ministry shared the characteristics of the ministry of many of the prophets. "Prophet" was a common title to describe Jesus.

Then Jesus then asks them the more important question - "Who do you all say that I am?"

The question was to all the disciples, but Peter spoke first,

"You are the Christ, the son of the living God."

At this point, three of the major titles for Jesus are brought together: Son of Man, Messiah (the Christ), and Son of God.

(The English word "Christ" is the English form of the Greek word christos which was the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for Messiah. Technically, it would be possible to replace the name "Christ" with the title "Messiah" everywhere in the New Testament.)

This is the first time in Matthew's gospel that the Messiahship of Jesus has been confessed directly. Several times Matthew has himself indicated that Jesus was Messiah (Matthew 1:1, 16, 17; 2:4; 11:2) but this is the first time it appears on the lips of a character in the story. As messiah, Jesus was the fulfilment of Jewish hopes and he was the culmination of God's involvement in human history to bring us salvation.

Peter also confessed Jesus to be "the Son of the Living God." This exact phrase is found only in Matthew's account of the episode at Caesarea Philippi. Mark 8:29 has only, "You are the Christ (or the Messiah)" and Luke 9:20 states Peter's confession as, "You are the Christ (or Messiah) of God."

Perhaps it was his Jewish audience that made it important for Matthew to clarify that Jesus was much more than simply the Jewish messiah. The theme of Jesus' divine sonship has been important throughout Matthew. The voice from heaven announced it at Jesus' baptism. Satan tempted Jesus at that point in the temptations. The disciples had all acclaimed Jesus Son of God already in Matthew 14:33 after Jesus (and Peter) had walked on the water.

Now it is combined with the titles Messiah and Son of Man to provide the most complete identification of Jesus to yet appear in this gospel.

Israel had waited a long time, old Judaism still waits today for the Messiah. But Peter'c confession expresses the fulfilment of the Jewish dream and makes us the real Jews. For we have welcomed the Messiah

This is the root of our identity as Christians. To know who Jesus is, is vital.

  1. It is not enough to believe that he is very important.
  2. It is not enough to believe that he is like the other prophets and messengers of God.
  3. It is not enough to believe he is like the Buddha, a very important religious teacher.

When Peter declares: "You are the Messiah", he is saying what has to be said for us to be called Christian. To be Christian means believing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Anything else -- anything less -- might be religious, but it is not Christian.

How does Jesus respond to Peter

Jesus uses the name in Aramaic 'Petros', in Greek 'Cephas'. Whether Jesus would have used the Aramaic or Greek is irrelevant because in both languages the word refers to a rock or stone. Protestants have argued that it is the confession of Peter which is important and not Peter himself. However we should acknowledge that Jesus does give Peter a special place. Clearly this was an important moment and Peter was to be a foundation of the church in a special way but-

  1. This passage has been used perhaps more than any other to justify the papacy. But the text says nothing about the successors of Peter, or infallibility or exclusive authority. Whilst Jesus gives this blessing to Peter, there is no suggestion that the blessing can be passed on -- or that any succession is intended.
  2. The granting of authority to Simon Peter is also for all the apostles (v. 19), for elsewhere in Matthew (18:18) and John (20:23) this bestowal of power is on all of them.
  3. We have to be careful of putting Peter on a pedestal, we all know what a mess Peter went on to make and how he completely misunderstood what being Messiah meant, so much so that Jesus said to him 'get behind me Satan!' 16:23 One minute he is a foundation, the next a stumbling block!
  4. Clearly Jesus is the church's foundation 1 Cor 3:11, Ephesians 2:19 and all the apostles are involved as foundations.

Jesus gives the keys

Jesus then speaks of giving the keys. Keys are a symbol of power and authority. 

I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.  Rev 1:18

If you have keys then you hold power of entry and admittance. Of course it does not follow that Jesus was speaking about priestly roles of absolution and forgiveness. When Jesus said to Peter

'I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven'

He is speaking specifically to Peter. This must indicate that Peter has a special role. Peter was the foundation, the first stone laid. He has primacy in salvation history. However I cannot see that it therefore follows that Peter has any special position of hierarchy, indeed such teaching seems alien to the whole message of Christ. We should think of the rest of Jesus' teaching where he speaks of the 'power' which all the disciples have - They are fishers of men 4:19; they are salt 5:13; light 5:14.

The disciples collectively are called to speak words which will offer entrance to life. Jesus says that not even Hades, not even death can prevail against these words of life. Hades is the abode of the dead. Jesus will break death's power by his own resurrection, which is but the first fruits of the many faithful who will be raised from the dead (1 Cor 15:23). Not only Jesus, but all the redeemed among the dead, shall rise again and stride confidently through the broken gates.

Because death is of Satan, the church need not be afraid of any evil. The church and those who are a part of it will never die, they will conquer all. These words of Jesus should not surprise us. The Christian gospel holds supernatural power, it is a power which can unlock people's lives.

So where does that leave us today

1. The question to us 
As we hear Jesus' question to Peter, it is asked of us too. Can we also say, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God...?"

Peter responded with his declaration of faith in Jesus. Peter might have felt proud of himself working out who Jesus really was. His pleasure would have been short lived, because Jesus told him that his response was not because he was a really clever person at all. Jesus says that the only way that he could have worked it out was because of God

'flesh and blood has not revealed this to you....'

If you and I are able to worship Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, then we represent the power of God at work in our lives. So, are we now willing to make the kind of life changing investment which is required of his disciples? If we mean what we say then we are a part of that holy people called to live a different and challenging Christian life? It is worth remembering that those Apostles gave their lives for their faith, literally. We cannot be sure of the accuracy of tradition which tells us how they died. But what is clear is that the tradition all points to the fact that they all gave their lives and many died violent deaths for their faith. (See note below)

2.Our task 
The church is not a group of Jesus supporters who go along on Sunday to watch how well Jesus performs. As the church we are spirit empowered disciples who are the active representation of Christ on earth. You and I hold spiritual keys and just like those first Apostles we are called to be fishers of men.

3. God's promise 
In all of this we must remember that we hold spiritual keys, not human one's. The task of building the church is not ours, Jesus does not say to the disciples 'you build my church' rather he says,

I will build my church

The building of the church is a work of Christ. It is a godly work, not a human one. It is for this reason that the church will endure and triumph. So thankfully the future of the church in Bedford does not depend upon our marketing skills, or the good judgement of those chosen to select the new Bishop of Bedford.


Additional Information

Son of Man

The meaning of the phrase, "Son of Man," has received considerable discussion by modern scholars. Almost all the times this title appears in the New Testament (over 80 times) (e.g. 8:20; 9:6; 10:23; 11:19; 12:8, 32; 13:37,41; 16:13, 27; 17:9, 12, 22; 19:28; 20:18, 28; 24:27, 30, 37, 39; 25:31; 26:2, 24, 45, 64). it appears on Jesus' own lips or is spoken by someone in response to Jesus' use of the title. It appears to have been Jesus' favourite term to describe himself. It is frequently used as a substitute for the word "I" and that appears to be its usage here. (The parallel passage in Mark 8:27 reads, "Who do people say that I am?"). The most common opinion is that Jesus drew the phrase from Daniel 7:13 where it refers to a heavenly figure who is coming in the future. Jesus appeared to prefer the title "Son of Man" since it was not widely used or understood in Judaism. That enabled him to define his identity in his own way.

Here in Matthew 16:13 "Son of Man" is simply a substitute for "I." Jesus is asking who people think him to be.


What Happened To The Apostles

Some have commented how wonderful it must have been to have been chosen as one of the apostles, or to have been John the Baptist, or to have been among the earliest of Christians who actually saw and heard Jesus Christ in person. It certainly would have been a great honour and joy to have been among those pioneers of the true church. However, with the knowledge and understanding came responsibility. They were expected to go out into the world and be active witnesses of what they saw and heard. That was their purpose. In the political and religious climate of that time, the God-defying hatred that got Jesus Christ killed (which really has not changed at all), many of them lost their lives as well.

The Bible does not record what happened to all of the apostles, however there are other references to their activities. Some are rather fanciful, while some are more trustworthy. From those sources, a general consensus has been established among historians.

From the information that we have, it is very likely that John was the only one of the original Twelve Apostles to escape martyrdom, at least at an early age. After he wrote the book of Revelation, while a prisoner of the Romans, even he too may then have been killed.

John The Baptist 
John The Baptist was beheaded by Herod. (Matthew 14:1-12)

The account of Stephen is very well documented in the Bible (Acts chapters 6 and 7). He is generally regarded as the first Christian martyr. It has been estimated that about 2,000 Christians, along with Nicanor, one of the seven deacons (Acts 6:5), also suffered martyrdom during the great persecution that arose after Stephen (Acts 8:1).

James, the brother of John 
James was "put to death with the sword" by King Herod (Acts 12:2)

Reportedly suffered martyrdom at Heliopolis, in Phrygia. He was severely flogged, imprisoned, and later crucified.

The former tax collector, he was killed with a halberd (a pike fitted with an ax head) in Nadabah.

Stoned and clubbed to death in Jerusalem.

He was stoned, then beheaded at Jerusalem.

Andrew, the brother of Peter 
He was crucified on an X-shaped cross, two ends of which were in the ground. Hence the origin of the term, "St. Andrew's Cross".

Mark was reportedly torn to pieces by a mob in Alexandria after he told them that their god, a statue carved from stone, was worthless. 

Peter was reportedly crucified, upside down, during the reign of Emperor Nero.

Beheaded, or torn to pieces by wild animals in the arena, during the time of Nero. 

The brother of James, often called Thaddeus. He was crucified at Edessa.

Tortured and crucified in India.

Thomas was reportedly killed with a spear in India.

Luke was the author of the Gospel which is called by his name, and also probably the Book Of Acts. One account states that he died of old age, while another says that he was hanged in an olive tree in Greece.

Simon the Zealot 
He travelled widely, and is believed to have been crucified in what is today Britain.

John took care of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, after the Crucifixion (John 19:26-27). He went on to write the Book of Revelation while a prisoner on Patmos. He may be the only apostle who escaped a violent death.

Barnabas is believed to have been killed about 10 years after Paul.


Bible Readings and Notes  for 25th August 2002

Top of Page