There are two parts to our text this morning. The first part of our text is the question of Jesus’ identity and the second part is the giving of the Keys to the kingdom of heaven. As for the first part, Jesus gathered His disciples together and He asked them this question, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” His disciples answered, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
If you will remember, John the Baptist had been beheaded. It was Herod’s fear that Jesus might be John brought back to life. So some thought Jesus might be John. Others thought Jesus might be Elijah. Again, you may remember that before the Messiah was to come, Elijah was expected to prepare His way. Every year when the Passover was celebrated an empty chair was always made available just in case Elijah might return. Of course, we are looking back and can clearly see that Elijah did return in the spirit of John the Baptist (as Jesus Himself tells us) and he was preparing the way for Jesus the Messiah. Still others thought that Jesus was either Jeremiah or one of the prophets, namely Moses having come back to life. I guess if you want to pull some bit of good out of these possibilities, at least all the people thought highly of Jesus, enough to think that He was one of the great people in their history.
If the question of “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” was poised today, I would offer that some people would say He was a good man. Some people would say He was a good teacher. And still others would say He was a good example. But just as almost no one recognized Him as the Messiah when He first came to earth, so, not everyone recognizes Jesus as the Messiah still today. As a matter of fact, just as His presence caused division when He came to earth, so His name still causes division today.
Anyway, having obtained these wrong answers of who He is, Jesus moves past any comments and asks His disciples directly, “But who do you say that I am?” Immediately, Peter speaks for himself and for the disciples and says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” As usual, Peter speaks without thinking and in this instance this is not a bad thing, for Peter was not speaking from within himself, but he was speaking as he was moved by the Holy Spirit and by Jesus’ Father in heaven. As Jesus tells him, “. . . For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” The disciples’ time with Jesus was not wasted time. They knew who Jesus was and is and they confessed the same.
But what about us, today? What is our confession of Jesus? Do we say the same thing as Peter? Do we confess with our lips, with our hearts, with our lives, with our thoughts, words and actions that we believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God? And if we do confess as such, do we realize that our confession is not our own, but is given to us by the Father in heaven as well.
In the explanation of the third article of the Apostles’ Creed we confess, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the last day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ.” If we confess faith in Jesus it is not because “I chose Jesus as my personal Savior,” rather it is because He has called us and given us faith and a confession of that faith. And He calls us to faith, in particular through the means of Grace, the Word of God. He enlightens us and strengthens us with His gifts, confession and absolution as well as Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. He keeps us in the true faith. Notice that this is not from within, this does not come from inside of us, but this comes from outside of us, from the Holy Spirit working in us.
Of course, we understand that in our text Jesus is speaking to His disciples who we see already have faith. The third article is speaking to us to remind us of how we are brought to, given and kept in faith. Our text presumes we understand our nature and our need for a Savior. Our text presumes that we understand that we are conceived and born in sin, that we daily sin much and add to our sinfulness, that we are destined, on our own, to eternal spiritual death, that we understand that the cost, the price, the wage of sin is eternal spiritual death, that is that blood must be shed so there might be forgiveness. And our text presumes that we understand that as we confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God that we realize that this confession recognizes that we have complete faith and trust in Jesus as our substitute, that He is the one who paid the price, who shed His blood for our sins so that we might have forgiveness of sins.
Which brings us to the second part of our text, the giving of the Church and the Keys of the Church. Unfortunately there has been some misunderstanding in this text and the question of on who or on what is the church built. After Peter’s confession, Jesus says, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, . . .” One understanding of this text, or I should say, one misunderstanding of this text, is that the church is built on Peter. However, a closer look at the words of this text will reveal that the church is built, not on Peter, but on Peter’s confession.
Jesus is making a pun. The name Peter is a masculine name and basically means a pebble. Jesus tells Peter that his flesh and blood confession is important and would be a confession proclaimed in a church building built by flesh and blood people. But, Jesus goes on to say, on this rock, which is petra, the feminine form of the word petros, or the feminine form of the word Peter, which means a solid rock or a foundation stone, on this solid foundation, which is Peter’s confession, He will build His Church, the Holy Christian Church, the invisible Church. In other words, our church building is built by human hands but our Church body of believers is built on the confession that Jesus is the Christ, that is on the Word of God, not on a human person.
We know about keys. Keys are those things which we need to give us access to the buildings and to the various rooms in the buildings. Keys are those things which are used to open doors and to lock doors. It does not surprise us, then, when Jesus gives the keys of the kingdom of heaven. The keys of the kingdom are for opening and locking the kingdom of heaven. They are for the preaching of the Gospel, the administering of the Sacraments, and the forgiving and retaining of the forgiveness of sins.
Of course, we understand that with keys comes duty, responsibility and privilege. We have the duty, the responsibility and the privilege to proclaim the Word of God in all its truth and purity, to rightly administer the Sacraments, the privilege of forgiving sins and the toughest responsibility of retaining sins when there is no confession or change in behavior to reflect repentance.
We can forgive sins. We can say, “Your sins are forgiven.” This privilege, above all others, is our because Jesus came to give His life for ours. He earned forgiveness for us on the cross. He gives us the privilege of sharing this forgiveness with others, but only as we confess with Peter, with the disciples and with all the saints, that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God, that He is true God and true man, that He is the Savior of the world.
The world today is still confused concerning the identity of Jesus. Some say He was a good man, a good teacher, a good example and yes, He was all those things and more. Others say He was a fictional character. Others say that He is a crutch for weak people to lean on. Still others outright refuse and reject Him and want nothing to do with Him. But what about us? Who do we say He is? We say He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God and we say this, not of our own ability. We say this because this has been revealed to us by the Holy Spirit working through the Gospel, working through the Words of Holy Scripture, working through our Baptism, working through the Lord’s Supper. We say this as we are moved by the Holy Spirit. And because this is our confession, the Holy Spirit, also, continues to stir in our hearts the joy to confess our faith to others through our thoughts, words and actions so that still others might have a part in the Kingdom of Heaven.
So what does this mean? In his letter to the Romans, that is, in our Epistle lesson for today, Paul reminds us of just how “big” God is, that is that He is so much bigger than we might think or imagine. He is so big that He is unsearchable and inscrutable. All things come from Him and through Him. It is important that we know who Jesus is, because it is by faith in Him alone which brings eternal salvation and it is only as we confess His name that we have a part in His kingdom. And as a part of His Kingdom He gives us the right, the duty, the privilege and the responsibility to rightly use the Keys of the Kingdom, which we do only with His help. And He does help. As we make regular and diligent use of His means of grace, remembering our Baptism, reading the Bible, having personal and family devotions, spending time in prayer, being in divine service and Bible class, as often as possible and coming to the Lord’s Table to partake of His body and blood. Through these means our Lord shows Himself to us so that we might be strengthened in our faith and so that we may boldly and rightly confess who Jesus is and not be confused in our confession. May the Lord stir in your heart to be diligent in making use of His means of grace so that you might be strengthened in your own faith and confession and so that you might be better prepared to give a witness to the hope that is in you so that still others might join with us in proclaiming, to God be the glory. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.