The gospel lesson this morning picks up where we left off last week. After his little run-in with the Sadducees and Pharisees in Magadan, Jesus and his disciples headed north to Caesarea Philippi. When they got there, he asked his disciples two important questions: Who do others say that the Son of Man is? And who do you say that I am?
I’d like to explore these questions with you this morning, but I’d also like to add a third question, not one asked by Jesus, but called forth as a response on our part. We’ll get to it in just a moment.
First, let me set the scene. We visited Caesarea Philippi on our trip to the Holy Land last year. This particular spot where Jesus and his disciples stood is at the base of Mount Herman. It was the site of a number of pagan temples. You can walk among their ruins to this day and see the footprint of the floors and walls and the little niches carved into the mountainside where various statues were placed.
To the left of the ruins you’ll see the mouth of a large cave partially filled with water. In Jesus’ day water would gush up out of this cave without warning, as if it were spewing up from the depths of the earth. When the water was calm, people tried to measure its depth. Try as they may, they couldn’t reach the bottom. It became known as the “gates of hell.”
In the middle of the pool stands a large table rock, and it was on this rock that children were sacrificed to appease the angry god, Molech. After a child was slain, the body would be thrown into the water. If it sank, Molech was pleased. If not, the sacrifice was in vain.
Knowing this helps us to appreciate the significance of Jesus’ words, when he told Peter,
“I also tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my assembly, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
Well, that’s where we’re headed this morning. Now, let’s go back and take it from the top.
Jesus and his disciples went from the Sea of Galilee up to Caesarea Philippi. When they got there, Jesus asked a simple question: “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” (Matthew 16:13) He got a variety of answers:
“Some say John the Baptizer, some, Elijah, and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” (Matthew 16:14)
There’s something to be said about each of these answers. Richard Donovan explains:
• John the Baptist … was such a powerful presence that the people would not be surprised to see him again. Indeed, Herod thinks that Jesus might be a resurrected John (14:2).
• The prophet Elijah … was expected to reappear “before the great and terrible day of Yahweh comes.” (Malachi 4:5)
• The prophet Jeremiah … opposed the religious leaders in Jerusalem and predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. (www.sermonwriter.com)
No doubt about it – Jesus spoke with authority. Most people assumed he must be a prophet. Even today, it’s a fair question: What do others say about Jesus?
This may come as a surprise, but other religions are quick to recognize Jesus, not only as a historical person, but one of the great religious figures of history. Islam, for example, considers Jesus to be a messenger of God sent to proclaim Good News to the children of Israel.
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The Qur’an mentions Jesus twenty-five times. It recognizes the Virgin Birth and Jesus’ power to perform miracles. It stops short of the crucifixion and resurrection and jumps straight to the ascension, believing that Jesus escaped death altogether. (Jesus in Islam, www.wikipedia.com)
Jews are also quick to recognize Jesus as a wise teacher, a miracle worker, a prophet, the charismatic leader of a Jewish sect. They don’t believe he was their Promised Messiah, and that’s essentially where we differ.
Who do others say that the Son of Man is? It’s not hard to find an answer.
But the more pressing question is not what the world says, but what each of us has to say. That leads to the second question Jesus asked: Who do you say that I am? Peter was first to speak up. He said,
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16)
Now, before you put Peter on a pedestal, listen carefully to how Jesus responded. He said,
“Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17)
Faith is, first and foremost, a gift of the Holy Spirit – not something you can conjure up on your own. If you have faith, praise the Lord. And if you don’t, pray that the Lord will give you faith, according to his will. Just don’t think too highly of yourself if you have a lot of faith, or put yourself down if you only have a little. Faith is a gift of the Spirit. Be thankful for what you have and trust God to give you what you need in order to accomplish his will for your life.
So, Peter made his confession, and Jesus commended him, saying,
“Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. I also tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my assembly, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give to you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven; and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17-19)
This part of the passage has been a stumbling block for the church over the years. Roman Catholics take this to mean Peter was given sole authority to speak and act in Jesus’ name. To this day, the Pope stands in an unbroken line of apostolic succession that goes all the way back to Peter.
As Protestants, we believe that, while Jesus commended Peter for his great confession, he gives authority to speak and act in his name to all who turn to him in faith. We are a priesthood of believers, striving together under the sole authority of Christ.
But let’s not let this point divide us. The critical question is this: “Who do you say that I am?” Is Jesus Christ the Lord and Savior of your life? Only you can say, one way or the other. But make no mistake about it: Professing your faith in Jesus Christ is of upmost importance. As Paul told the Romans,
“…that if you will confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9)
This leads to the unspoken question I mentioned earlier: Who do others say that you are?
It’s easy to say that Jesus is the Lord, but that doesn’t mean much until others are able to see him at work in your life. One of my elders used to put it this way: “If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Is the way you think and act decidedly different from the world around you?
One of the most disturbing passages of scripture I know is where Jesus told his disciples,
“Many will tell me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, in your name cast out demons, and in your name do many mighty works?’ Then I will tell them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you who work iniquity.'” (Matthew 7:22-23)
To know Jesus as the Lord is more than to know who Jesus is; it’s to know him in your heart; to live in relationship with him, day by day; to be led by his Spirit. It’s to be instructed by his teachings, to feel his presence, walk in his footsteps and follow his example.
I never owned one, but I liked the little W.W.J.D. bracelets I used to see people wearing: W. W. J. D. – What Would Jesus Do? There are no clear-cut answers, but to ask the question is a great way to live by faith.
Ask yourself, in whatever situation or circumstance you face, “What would Jesus do here? What would Jesus say? How would Jesus react?” It can help you get beyond your own gut-level feelings and respond in a more Christ-like manner.
Do this routinely, and, over time, it’ll transform your life. You’ll be less critical and more forgiving. You’ll find it easier to love those who are rough around the edges and to be patient with those who grate on your nerves. Best of all, you’ll find your greatest pleasure, not in the trappings of this world, but in the simple gift of serving others.
Here’s but one example: I have a friend who’s principal of an elementary school in North Texas. One day there was a minor altercation on the playground – a second-grader pushed one of his classmates off the slide, and, while she wasn’t hurt, it could’ve been dangerous. The teacher sent for the principal.
She talked with the children in the hallway outside their classroom. She got their story and then explained the seriousness of playground safety and how important it was to be nice to each other. When she finished, the little boy apologized, and that was that.
A couple of days later, she happened to see the little girl with her mother in the checkout line at the grocery store. She smiled and they waved discreetly to each other. She got into the adjacent checkout line, but was in earshot of the little girl. She overheard the mother ask her daughter, “Who was that lady who just waved to you?” The little girl said, “She’s works at our school.” “What does she do?” the mother asked. The little girl said, “She helps people apologize.”
My friend told me later, “It helped me to think much more clearly about what I do in my work, beyond titles and status, to what actions I take that make it meaningful.”
When you think about it, the world knows us mostly by who we’re related to and what we do for a living. I asked Cliff if I could pick on him this morning, and he said it’d be all right as long as I was nice about it, so here goes: Cliff’s the son of Buddy and Babe Knowles of Magnolia; he’s Lisa’s husband and Matt’s father; he owns Greening-Ellis Insurance Company, and he’s a long-standing member of the Kiwanis Club.
There’s a lot more you could say about Cliff, but you get the picture: The world knows us mostly by who we’re related to and what we do for a living; and, if we’re not careful, that’s the way we come to think of ourselves. Just read the way most obituaries are worded.
In reality, there’s so much more to life than that. Real life is not defined by what you do for a living, but by what you do with your life; and the more what you do with your life has to do with helping others in Jesus’ name, the more others will come to know you as one of his disciples.
So, who’s Cliff Knowles? He’s the guy who helps our youth know what it means to be children of God. Translate that into your own life, and it’ll give you a better idea of what’s truly important and meaningful and lasting. For example,
• Dr. Douglas is the man who helps children get better when they’re sick.
• Priscilla and Francisco are the couple who keep our church clean and smelling nice.
• Until we got married, Kathy was the lady at the bank who helped a lot of people make their dreams come true.
A band director friend told me about going back to a community where he’d once taught. He said it was fun getting acquainted with band parents and friends he hadn’t seen for years. He said he was standing on the sidewalk downtown when a young man came up and asked, “Do you remember me?” He didn’t have a clue, but then, he’d taught a lot of students, and they had long-since grown up. He said, “You’re going to have to help me out here.” The young man told him his name and said, “You’re the one who introduced me to the world of music, and I just wanted to say thank you.”
Let’s wrap it up: Three questions – two, Jesus asked; one, rising from the text:
• One: Who do others say that the Son of Man is? Flesh that out and you get a variety of answers.
• Two: Who do you say that I am? That’s the critical question – is Jesus Christ the Lord of your life, or not? Only you can say.
• Three: Who do others say that you are? To confess Jesus as the Christ is to know him in your heart and walk in his footsteps, serving others to the glory of his name.
What I hope you’ll take home with you this morning is this: The closer your relationship with Jesus, the more others will come to know you as one of his disciples; and the more you live as one of his disciples, the more complete and content your life will be. Let us pray:
“Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart; Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art. Thou my best Thought, by day or by night, Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.
Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise, Thou mine Inheritance, now and always: Thou and Thou only, first in my heart, High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2011, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.