[Jesus said:] And 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” (Matthew 16:18).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
It may be the case, that as Jesus meets with His disciples near Caesarea Philippi, He is geographically farther away from Jerusalem than at any other time in His earthly ministry. The town was about twenty-five miles north of the Sea of Galilee, at the base of Mount Hermon. That’s around 100 miles from Jerusalem, a long trip in the day when just about every land journey was completed on foot.
Whether or not Matthew intends the geographical perspective of distance and separation to highlight how far apart the religious establishment in Jerusalem is from Jesus, the comparison is certainly applicable. It is also true that the religious leaders of Jerusalem would have looked down on the inhabitants of this area that had been the northernmost region of the nation of Israel in its heyday, with much the same perspective that the political class and cultural elites of our country look on SW Minnesota as “flyover country.” They couldn’t believe that anything good or worthwhile would ever come from or happen there.
As Jesus has journeyed from the town to town, region to region, the constant theme has been the various answers to the question: “What do you think of Jesus?” In Galilee, religious leaders and crowds alike do not know how to answer that question rightly. The Pharisees and scribes come from Jerusalem thinking that they know how to pose the important questions (Matthew 15:1-12). The Sadducees join the Pharisees in demanding that Jesus give a sign to validate His ministry of words and deeds (Matthew 16:1-14). But Jesus has refused to meet with them on their terms. Jerusalem and her leaders are not the focal point of the new thing that God is doing to reestablish His kingdom of mercy and truth in Israel and in the world. Jesus is that center! Tragically, Jerusalem and her representatives have shown no signs of repenting and believing; they are far away from Jesus.
One begins to wonder: Will anyone in Israel grasp the real significance of Jesus and His kingdom of God ministry? Of all the people that have encountered Jesus, the Canaanite woman we heard from last week has displayed the strongest faith (Matthew 15:21-28). Jesus’ disciples themselves are an uncertain commodity. On the one hand, after Jesus saved Peter from his near-disastrous demand to walk on the water, the disciples in the boat joined in confessing, “Truly You are the Son of God!” (Matthew 14:33). However, in the debates over the traditions of the Pharisees (Matthew 15:1-20), the feeding of the four thousand (Matthew 15:29-38), and Jesus’ warning about the leaven of false teaching of the religious leaders (Matthew 16:5-12), the disciples have not exactly distinguished themselves by displaying a firm grasp on the truth. It appears the knowledge of Jesus’ identity is too high for any human beings to attain. And so, it is.
It is, however, also the Father’s good pleasure to reveal the Son to little children (Matthew 11:25-26), and that is what Matthew offers in this account at Caesarea Philippi that brings the question of Jesus’ identity to a climax.
Jesus begins with public perception. Not because He needs to take a poll to know what anybody thinks about anything. He already knows. In a way designed to set up the false or incorrect perceptions of His identity so as to highlight the truth, Jesus asks His disciples what they have heard from others. Most people seem to put Jesus into a prophetic mold, but beyond that agreement, there are a variety of answers. “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah, or one of the prophets” (Matthew 16:14). Certainly, there are similarities between the careers of Israel’s prophets and the ministry of Jesus, but it is in no way sufficient to name Jesus merely as a prophet of the kind God sent in the Old Testament. Those prophets merely foreshadowed Him and His ministry.
So, Jesus moves on to personal confession. Who do you say I am?” He asks the Twelve. Notice, that Jesus’ question has to do with what they say. It is a reminder that faith in the heart is always accompanied by words in the mouth (see Romans 10:9-10).
Peter’s confession always gets the attention, and rightfully so. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” he declares. Notice that “the Christ” connects Jesus to the people of Israel, while “the Son of the living God” connects Jesus to the Creator and all people. What makes Peter’s confession noteworthy to Jesus, however, is not its specific formulation, but that it did not come from Peter himself. The Father made it known to him, which is how it always works. The Father reveals Jesus and the result is a faithful confession.
Simon’s words have revealed what God the Father Himself has placed into his heart, and so, Jesus proclaims him blessed, one who has been reconciled and restored to the Father. God’s salvation consists of Jesus Himself, and one receives that salvation by being brought to a true knowledge of Jesus—even if that true knowledge is not yet completely formed. Simon is not praised for his great insight; he is pronounced blessed because God the Father has revealed the Son to him.
Jesus continues speaking to His disciples and matches the apostle’s earlier emphasis. Where Simon had said, “You are the Christ” (Matthew 16:16), Jesus says, “You are Peter” (Matthew 16:18). Although certainty is not possible, it may very well be the case that it was at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus first applied the label “Peter” to Simon. This also seems to be the first time in ancient literature that “rock” (petros) ever was used as a proper name. As far as nicknames go, “Rock” is certainly better than “Little-Faith.”
After giving Simon a new name, Jesus makes a promise. “On this rock I will build My church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).
Jesus speaks the promise to Peter, who is standing as the first among equals in the company of the other apostles. Jesus promises that He will build His Church upon the rock of Peter and his confession of Christ. And that is precisely what He will do: He will call, equip, and put in use in wonderful and terrible ways the men who were the unique and unrepeatable group of the holy apostles, whose chief task it was to speak the truth about Jesus.
What is more, Jesus promises: “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Jesus acknowledges that during the time when He is building His Church upon the apostles and their confession of Him, this assembly of disciples will find itself under assault. If one wishes to specify more exactly what threat Jesus’ words envision, perhaps it is the idea that Satan will send his forces out of the gates of Hades to assault Jesus’ disciples, the Church. The battle, as Paul will later say, will not be with mere flesh and blood, but with spiritual rulers of evil (Ephesians 6:12).
As fierce as the battle may be, however, the Christ, God’s Son, will not allow Satan and his ways ultimately to gain the upper hand. In the battle when Jesus’ disciples cry out in faith, God will honor the prayer that Jesus taught the Church to pray: “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”
This confession of Peter and Jesus’ reply isn’t just an earth-shattering moment; it’s a hell shattering moment. Jesus has just declared that He’s come to defeat sin, death, and devil. Not only that, but He’s going to share the victory with His people—He’s going to build His Church upon Himself, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
This promise does not, of course, guarantee that any particular congregation or denomination or historical manifestation of visible Christian fellowship or confession will never pass away. Christ’s Church is here thought of in general terms, as we might say, the una sancta, “the “one holy catholic and apostolic church” (Nicene Creed). This is a tenet of faith to which we cling despite the fracturing, corruption, and demise of so many Christian institutions.
“On this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).That is what Jesus promises to and about His Church. It is a timely promise for us. The pandemic is putting Jesus’ assurance to the test. Many congregations across the country have not resumed in-person worship services. Congregations like ours that have returned to in-person worship services are still seeing a significant decline in participation that already had been dropping precipitously the last few years. None of us knows what the future holds.
We have traditionally measured engagement in the Church and maturity of faith with Sunday morning attendance. Not only is this no longer a reliable measure, but we are also being forced to consider why and how we have been measuring things that way, as well as why we do what we are accustomed to doing as the Church every week. What are the essentials?
As we consider such foundational questions, Jesus’ promise of endurance becomes crucially significant. Whatever the “new normal” may be, and whatever Bible study, worship, and our life together may look like in the short and long terms, the Church will endure. Not even the gates of Hell will prevail against it. In a context where just about everything else seems up in the air, there is certainty in Christ. Two things are ultimately certain in life, and they are not death and taxes. It is Jesus’ return and the preservation of His people until that day.
The justification for this promise is Jesus’ resurrection. The gates of Hell, which He encountered in His death (“He descended into Hell”), did not prevail against Him. Neither will they prevail against His body on earth. History gives us plenty of examples of times when this promise was tested. Every time Jesus has delivered. The existence of this congregation in worship (whether online or in-person) is the latest evidence locally.
In Article VII of the Augsburg Confession, what has been called the Magna Carta of the Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Confessors addressed Jesus’ promise and defined “Church”: “Our churches teach that one holy Church is to remain forever. The Church is the congregation of saints [Psalm 149:1] in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered.”  Where you find the Gospel purely taught and the Sacraments correctly administered, you find the Church. There, in the means of grace, God’s people are blessed.
So, here, at this time and this place, by God’s grace, you are blessed. You are just as blessed as Peter. By His Word, the Father has revealed to you Jesus—the Christ, the Son of the living God. By His Word, the Lord has shown you by your sin: by His Law, He has let you feel them bind you so that you repent, and by His Gospel He releases them from you so that you might have salvation.
It is sure, because Christ had conquered sin and death, devil and hell.
So next time you hear the Absolution, listen carefully: it’s not just words, but a proclamation so powerful that the devil can’t contradict it, that the very gates of hell can’t prevail against it. When you kneel at the altar, rejoice that you receive the body and blood of the Son of the living God, the body and blood that opens the gates of heaven for you. You are built on Christ, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against Him or His people. Where Christ is, the devil must flee; and when your sins are loosed, he has nothing left to work with. So let us send the evil one scurrying away again:
In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.