Menu Close

“The Heart of the Gospel”

Matthew 16:13-28
Bob DeGray
January 12, 2014

Key Sentence

The heart of the Messiah’s mission is sacrifice.


I. Recognizing that He is the Christ
II. Acknowledging that his mission is sacrifice
III. Accepting his mission as ours


What is the pivotal moment in the Gospels? The climax, all four Gospels agree, is the crucifixion and resurrection. But the central moment in the account given by the first three Gospel writers is almost certainly the episode we’re studying today. In this text, Matthew 16:13-28, Jesus tells us who he is, what he’s doing and what our response should be. These truths are so familiar that we may not recognize how revolutionary they are. So if you’ve been a believer a long time I urge you to approach today’s message almost as worship, a sacred rehearsal of the truth. If you’re a newer believer or haven’t much time in the Gospels, I urge you to embrace this text with your heart and your mind, the central moment in which the Messiah reveals that the heart of his mission is sacrifice.

We begin with who he is. In a very real sense everything Matthew has told us so far has led up to this moment. Verses 13-20 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 20Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.

Herod Philip, one of King Herod’s sons, built at town at the base of Mount Hermon, at 1150 feet above sea level, and named it in honor of himself and Caesar. The inhabitants were largely Gentile, and Jesus went there mostly to focus his attention on his disciples. His first question is one of the central questions of the Gospel: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” ‘Son of Man,’ of course, is how Jesus referred to himself. They responded that opinion was divided. Some, such as Herod Antipas, thought he was John the Baptist risen from the dead. Some thought he was Elijah, forerunner for a Messiah still to come. Others apparently favored Jeremiah: the mix of authority and suffering that surrounded Jesus may have reminded them of Jeremiah’s ministry. Still others could only say "he must be one of the prophets." But none of these groups had proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, even if a few people he had cured had already hopefully identified him as the “Son of David.”

But that first question, important as it was to the Gospel narrative, was really only a lead-in to Jesus’ second question “who do you say that I am?” Though Jesus asked the question in the plural, ‘who do y’all say that I am,’ it is a question that must be answered by each of us. Over the years this question has often been asked to ‘the man on the street:’ “Here’s the million dollar question, okay, in your opinion: who is Jesus?” “He’s a myth created by man in order to control society,” “I don’t consider Jesus my Savior and my spiritual leader.” “Jesus is, in my opinion, he’s everything; around here; he’s spiritual, everything; earth, water, fire . . .” “I believe he’s a higher power in the form of a man. Everyone else walking around, there’s not another Jesus, there’s just one, so yeah, I believe he definitely did something.” “I mean you don’t know about no Jesus Christ cause there ain’t nobody never seen him. Has you seen him?” “Jesus Christ was just a normal guy who people made out to be a figure head, and it was completely blown out of proportion. I’m sure the guy existed, but I don’t think he was all that he was cracked up to be.” “I think he was just a guy, and I think it’s really strange how there’s a religion based on him.” “Good question. Do you really know who he is?”

None of those is the right answer; but the disciples are learning there is a right answer. Peter speaks for them when he says "You are the Christ," in Mark, "The Christ of God," in Luke; and here "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Matthew likely keeps the long form of Peter’s answer to balance his retention of “Son of Man” in the first question. Jesus is not only ‘Son of Man’ but also ‘Son of God,’ the Messiah King, the Christ, the rescuer.

Jesus responds to this with warm affirmation: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” Even with all the data Matthew and the others have revealed, it takes a work of God in our heart before we really recognize who Jesus is. This truth does not come from man’s wisdom, from flesh and blood, but from God.

Verses 18 and 19 are difficult and controversial because they have long been used to justify the authority of the Pope and of the Catholic Church. Jesus says “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” It may be that Jesus gives Peter his name at this moment, but Matthew’s been using it since chapter 4. But Jesus says ‘you’re Petros, a masculine noun, and on this ‘petra,’ a feminine noun, I will build my church. There may be a distinction here between a small stone, Peter and a large rock, the truth Peter sees about Jesus, on which the church is really built, but it’s not clearly that. What is clear is that a Roman Catholic view which makes Peter the sole and authoritative and infallible head of the church is not supported here and is in fact contradicted elsewhere in the New Testament.

Don Carson summarizes this by saying “Peter is first to make this formal confession and his prominence continues in the earliest years of the church. But he, along with John, can be sent by other apostles; held accountable for his actions by the Jerusalem church and rebuked by Paul. He is, in short, first among equals, and it was on the foundation of such men, Jesus built his church.”

Notice that it is Jesus who builds his church. References to the church are rare in the Gospels, but there is no reason why Jesus could not foresee the expanded use of this word after his resurrection. It was already a common word for an assembly, a synagogue or simply a crowd. Having been recognized as the Messiah, Jesus anticipates the community that will result from his rescue. As one commentator says “A Messiah without a Messianic Community would have been unthinkable to any Jew.” This church is not the same as the kingdom: one refers to the people, the other to the rule or reign of the Messiah. But they are not opposed either, nor do they refer to two separate time periods: his rule and reign is over his people, in that day, now, and in the yet to come.

So solid is this community that the Messiah builds that “the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” The "gates of Hades" have been taken to represent the strength of Satan and his cohorts: the church, because Jesus is building it, cannot be defeated by the hosts of darkness. Other scholars, turning to Revelation 1:18, think this means that death will not prevent Messiah's people from rising to eternal life. In fact the "gates of Hades" was a common expression in ancient literature for death and dying. Because the church is the assembly of people Jesus the Messiah has rescued and given life, death cannot defeat it.

Verse 19: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Jesus changes the metaphor, and Peter now becomes the one who wields the keys of the kingdom, with the power to exclude or permit entrance. He is also given power to bind and loose on behalf of the kingdom. Once again, all this has generated a lot of discussion, but if we look at how Jesus used these words we get some insight. In Luke 11:52 Jesus says of the teachers of the law that they “have taken away the key to knowledge" and have not only failed to enter the kingdom themselves but have "hindered – or bound - those who were entering." By their approach to the Scriptures, Jesus says they are making it impossible for those who fall under their teaching to accept the new revelation in Jesus and enter the kingdom. They take away "the key to knowledge." In contrast, Peter, on confessing Jesus as Messiah, is told he has received this truth, which is the key to the kingdom, by the Father's revelation. By proclaiming "the good news of the kingdom," he will open the kingdom to many who receive it and shut it against many who reject it.

There are many fulfillments of this in Acts. As the Lord added to the church those who were being saved, Jesus was building his church. But the same gospel message also alienates and excludes many. All Peter and the others have to do is proclaim the Gospel; whoever responds will have been loosed in heaven, and whoever rejects will have been bound in heaven: the verbs are future perfect. Peter has no direct pipeline to God; he cannot force heaven to comply; but those he ushers in or excludes have already been bound or loosed by God.

Does this promise apply to Peter only, to just the apostles, or to the church at large? Matthew’s Gospel gives a broad picture: the disciples were called to be fishers of men, to be salt and light, to preach the good news of the kingdom, and, after the Resurrection, to disciple the nations, teach them all that Jesus commanded. In that context the keys of the kingdom are given to all who follow Jesus. We proclaim the Good News, forbidding the pretense of entrance to the hardened, and welcoming the repentant. We are the Messiah’s community: inevitably our assignment sees us using the keys, the Gospel truths, to bind and loose.

So in one sense Peter stands with the other disciples as fishers of men. The disciples in turn stand with all believers in living out the Great Commission. But this doesn’t exclude a special role for Peter. He was the first stone laid in Christ’s church, he plays a key role in its earliest years; so do the others. But notions of priesthood, authority and infallibility, and the weight the Roman Catholic Church tries to make this verse carry is simply not there: the focus is on how Peter will build the Messiah’s community on the truth that he is the Messiah.

So what have we seen? Peter, on behalf of the disciples, recognizes who Jesus is. He is the promised Messiah, and his church will be built by those who thus proclaim him. Yet in verse 20 Jesus warns his disciples not to tell that he is the Christ. He’s not reluctant to accept the title, but he wants people to recognize him for themselves and he does not want them to make him the kind of Messiah they were expecting. His mission was to suffer for his people, and few were ready for that truth. Verses 21-23: From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” 23But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

“From that time,” Matthew says, something new was introduced into Jesus’ ministry. Now that his Father had assured the disciples he was the Messiah, he began to reveal what he would do as the Messiah – and it wasn’t what they expected.

The grammar implies that he had to tell them over and over: he must go to Jerusalem, suffer many things from the elders, chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. All this sounds normal to us, but think how revolutionary it is. First, on the level of prophecy, this is a man predicting the manner of his violent death, months or years in advance. That doesn’t happen in normal life. More than that, he was predicting that he would rise from the dead. That doesn’t happen as an event: nobody rises from the dead. It doesn’t happen as a prophecy: no one who said this of himself ever pulled it off. Apart from Jesus the mortality rate is still 100 percent. This is unheard of; someone who can keep this prophecy can hardly fail in anything else he says.

It’s also revolutionary in that it overturns the disciples’ expectations of the Messiah. Even though passages like Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 predicted the suffering of God’s servant, these weren’t what the Jews associated with the Messiah. They expected one who would kick out the Romans, set up a kingdom and reign. So the disciples failed to understand this saying. Well, on the one hand they understand perfectly: Peter would not have rebuked Jesus if he didn’t take somewhat literally what Jesus said. On the other hand they won’t believe the Messiah can be killed; their pre-suppositions don’t include a suffering servant.

That’s why Peter dares to rebuke Jesus; he must be wrong. Verse 22: And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” Peter's strong will, linked to his ignorance produce arrogance: he speaks as if he knows more of God's will than the Messiah himself. ‘You’re wrong: this isn’t the way it’s going to happen.’

Verse 23: But Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” “Get behind me, Satan!” is probably intended to mean ‘get out of my way: do not stand between me and my mission.’ Satan had already tempted Jesus in the wilderness to short circuit God’s will, God’s plan of redemption. He would be tempted that way again in the Garden. When his friend Peter makes the same suggestion, Jesus sees it too as coming from the enemy. Jesus just called Peter a rock. Now he’s another rock, a skandalon, a stumbling block, a hindrance to Jesus. Earlier Peter had been thinking God's thoughts; God truth was revealed to him. Here he is aligning his thinking with men. He’s thinking Satan’s lies out loud. Peter had not yet caught on to the fact that God’s way is higher and more righteous than man’s.

So what have we seen so far? Don’t get bogged down in the details; the important things are very clear: Who is Jesus? He is the Messiah, the one God sent to rescue and to reign. What will He do? He will suffer and die and rise again.

Later Paul will summarize the good news, saying “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” Jesus did what he predicted, and Paul says what Matthew has said, and will say: it was for our sins. He wasn’t going to be the militant Messiah they wanted, but the suffering servant we needed to rescue us from our sins.

Finally, how does he want us to respond: Verses 24-28 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? 27For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. 28Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Though addressed to Jesus' disciples, the thought is expressed in widest terms: “if anyone would come after me, let him deny himself.” To ‘come after’ is simply to follow. Jesus commanded his disciples to leave what they were doing and follow him. But to do so they must deny or disown or renounce themselves. This is so clear: you can either deny God and serve yourself or you can follow God and deny yourself. Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane chose self-denial: “not as I will,” he told the Father, “but as you will.” For us, walking the path of sin, the word repent comes along and helps us see that we need to turn from ourselves to God. And the word believe comes along, telling us to stop trusting ourselves and place our trust in Jesus. But this text uses ‘follow.’ I can deny Jesus and follow self, but salvation comes as I deny self and follow Jesus.

And this self-denial is not at all abstract, because it is linked with ‘taking up your cross.’ This does not mean putting up with some awkward or even tragic situation in one's life. It means walking the road to death. Any Jew in Palestine would have seen the man condemned to crucifixion, forced to carry part of his own cross. After Jesus' death and resurrection, the emotional impact of these sayings must have been greatly heightened; but even before those events, the words would carry visceral images of shame and pain. So Jesus is calling his disciples and us to join him in self-denial with the presumption that it will lead to suffering. It’s not ever promised that by following Jesus we will enter into a path of ease, luxury and freedom from pain. No, just as the path he was on would involve suffering, death – and resurrection, so the path he calls us to can involve suffering, pain, even death – and resurrection to eternal life.

Jesus emphasizes that the choice to follow self is mutually exclusive with the choice to follow him. Verse 25 “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” The logic is relentless: saving one's life now will result in losing it at the end, and losing it now will result in finding it. Verse 26 furthers the argument with twin rhetorical questions: For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” It is the ultimate foolishness, Jesus says, to possess all created abundance and wealth at the expense of one's soul, one’s eternal life. It’s a bad bargain. There is nothing, Jesus implies, that you can give to rescue your own soul from death and judgment. But if you give up on this life to follow him, you gain eternal life. That’s a good bargain.

Verse 27: “For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.” The Son of Man will come “in his Father's glory.” This is a claim to deity, as is his claim to reign over the angels, who both enhance his glory and serve as his agents of reward, “rewarding each person according to what he has done". This is a quote from Psalm 62, where Yahweh rewards his people, but Jesus gives himself Yahweh’s role. These heavenly rewards, Jesus says, will be the outcome of earthly suffering, of following his example. When he talked about rewards in the Sermon on the Mount, they too were linked to suffering.

In verse 28, Jesus concludes by saying that some standing there would not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” There have been endless debates on this verse as well, but if we discount the idea that Jesus came in A.D. 70 when the temple was destroyed (he didn’t) and the idea that he himself did not know that his return would be long delayed, then the only reasonable interpretation of the verse is to say that the fullness of the Kingdom would be inaugurated by his resurrection. Everything after that is the age of the kingdom, even though he has not returned to earth to culminate it.

So who is Jesus? The messiah. What does he do? Rescues by suffering and rising. What does he call us to? Following him even into suffering. This is the central moment of the Gospel; now all is made known and much is made clear. The Messiah God sent, God the Son and the Son of Man will suffer and die at the hands of sinful men in order to defeat the power of sin and earn forgiveness for those who then take up their cross to follow his example of suffering.

In the videos I looked at for ‘who do men say that I am?’ there were many who correctly saw Jesus as Savior and Son of God and King. But I just couldn’t resist the opportunity to play, again, S. M. Lockeridges stirring remind of who Jesus is and what he did. You remember it, it’s called ‘That’s my King.”

The Bible says my King is the King of the Jews. He’s the King of Israel. He’s the King of righteousness. He’s the King of the ages. He’s the King of Heaven. He’s the King of glory. He’s the King of kings and He is the Lord of lords. That’s my King. I wonder, do you know him? My King is a sovereign King. No means of measure can define His limitless love. He’s enduringly strong. He’s entirely sincere. He’s eternally steadfast. He’s immortally graceful. He’s imperially powerful. He’s impartially merciful. Do you know him?

He’s the greatest phenomenon that has ever crossed the horizon of this world. He’s God’s Son. He’s the sinner’s Savior. He’s the centerpiece of civilization. He’s unparalleled. He’s unprecedented. He’s the loftiest idea in literature. He’s the highest personality in philosophy. He’s the fundamental doctrine of true theology. He’s the only one qualified to be an all sufficient Savior. I wonder if you know him today.

He supplies strength for the weak. He’s available for the tempted and the tried. He sympathizes and He saves. He strengthens and sustains. He guards and he guides. He heals the sick. He cleansed the lepers. He forgives sinners. He discharges debtors. He delivers the captives. He defends the feeble. He blesses the young. He serves the unfortunate. He regards the aged. He rewards the diligent and He beautifies the meek. I wonder if you know him? He’s the key to knowledge. He’s the wellspring of wisdom. He’s the doorway of deliverance. He’s the pathway of peace. He’s the roadway of righteousness. He’s the highway of holiness. He’s the gateway of glory. Do you know him?

His life is matchless. His goodness is limitless. His mercy is everlasting. His love never changes. His Word is enough. His grace is sufficient. His reign is righteous, and His yoke is easy and His burden is light. I wish I could describe Him to you . . . He’s indescribable. He’s incomprehensible, He’s invincible, and He is irresistible. You can’t get Him out of your mind. You can’t get Him off of your hands. You can’t outlive Him and you can’t live without Him. Well, the Pharisees couldn’t stand Him, but they found out they couldn’t stop Him. Pilate couldn’t find any fault in Him. Herod couldn’t kill Him. Death couldn’t handle Him and the grave couldn’t hold Him. That’s my King.