Sermons, Uncategorized

A Short Step from Rock to Stumbling Block

“The Protestations of St. Peter” by James Tissot

Click here to listen to this sermon.

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” (Matthew 16:23).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

It’s a short step from “Rock” to “Stumbling Block,” from “blessed” to “Satan.” Just ask St. Peter. In last week’s reading, Peter spoke for the rest of the disciples by confessing Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus commended this confession, identifying the Father as its source and its truth as the foundation of the Church’s endurance. In other words, Peter got Jesus right. Jesus pronounced Peter blessed and called him Petros, “Rock.” But now, just five verses later Jesus calls him Satan, and says he is a skandalon, a stumbling block to Jesus and His ministry. What changed? To find out, let’s review the narrative.

The time has come for Jesus to reveal His mission to His disciples. The Father has just shown Peter and the others that Jesus is, in fact, the unique Son of God and the Anointed One Jesus has promised to them a future in which He will build His Church and use them to unlock access to the reign of heaven (Matthew 16:17-19). Now it is time to show them what that will require of Him and them.

Jesus speaks frankly to the disciples about His imminent suffering and death. He has surely spoken of these things before, but the disciples have not really understood. They do not understand what Jesus tells them here either, but in due time they will understand. Nevertheless, at this time, it is necessary for Jesus to go on record as being fully aware of the suffering and death He will soon endure, and also to speak of His resurrection on the third day. It must be clear that Jesus knows what He faces and that He willingly endures it all. He is a willing sacrifice for all our sins, not a helpless victim of the schemes of evil men.

Jesus’ ministry evokes many reactions, including the hatred and opposition of influential people in Israel. Arrayed against Him are the likes of Herod Antipas (Matthew 14:1-2), Galilean Pharisees (Matthew 12:2, 14, 26), Jerusalem Pharisees and scribes (Matthew 15:1), and Sadducees as well (Matthew 16:1). Always before, when the opposition has arisen, Jesus has chosen to withdraw to avoid conflict. Now, however, He declares that He must confront His enemies in Jerusalem, the city where the Messiah of Israel, should be rightly received with faith and acclaimed with joy, but where He must die. The powerful men in the holy city will inflict many pains on Him, and He will be killed. Sin and rebellion will have its way. Jesus will die and He gives His life as the ransom payment for many (Matthew 20:28).

This is all too much for Jesus’ disciples to comprehend. Peter takes Jesus aside, and begins to rebuke Him: “Far be it from You, Lord!” Peter says. “This shall never happen to You!” Peter’s intentions are good. But His denial confirms the old saying: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Peter cannot bear to think of such terrible things happening to his Lord. But he speaks without considering the ramifications. The man who just acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, now presumes to contradict Jesus’ very plain words.

A moment earlier, Jesus commended Peter’s confession of faith. He called him Petros, “Rock,” and pronounced him blessed. Now, Jesus rebukes him sternly, even addressing him as Satan. This is appropriate because Peter is now saying essentially what Satan told Jesus during those forty days of temptation in the wilderness. Forget the obedience and suffering, seize the glory now. This is no ordinary but well-meaning confusion on Peter’s part. His words show that he is taking his stand against the Lord and against His Anointed. There are two ways to think about God’s activity in the world, and Peter has chosen to think and articulate the satanic way, that is to say, “the things of men” (Matthew 16:23).

When Jesus calls the apostle a skandalon, or “stumbling block,” that term refers to a crooked stick in a trap to which bait would be attached. An animal going for the bait would spring the trap and be captured or killed. In the same way, Peter is setting a trap for Jesus. If Jesus steps into that trap, His whole mission of redeeming the world will be aborted. The rebuke Jesus speaks to Peter is in order, and it is important for the other disciples to hear it, too. They have not said what Peter said but have thought what Peter thinks.

In mere moments, Peter goes from “Rock” to “Stumbling Block”, from “blessed” to “Satan.” What changed? The promise of suffering. Peter’s resistance to suffering is so strong, and so natural to his fallen nature, that he is willing to rebuke the very Son of God he just confessed. In addition to contradicting Jesus (which is never a good idea), Peter’s opposition prevents him from considering the resurrection. Jesus is clear. Not only will He suffer and be killed, but He will “on the third day be raised.” But Peter finds no comfort in the promise of the resurrection. He is too disturbed by the suffering.

Isn’t that how it works for us, too? It’s hard to get past the suffering. Most of us have learned that life—even Christian life—involves a certain amount of anguish and affliction. But this knowledge does not make the experience of suffering any easier, and it does not make the desire to avoid suffering any less intense. For this reason, Peter stands again this week as a model Christian. Unfortunately, he is not the type of model to emulate. Peter puts on display our shared determination to avoid suffering at all costs—both for ourselves and those we love. This does not sit well with Jesus.

Jesus reminds His disciples what they must expect as they follow Him. They have long since committed themselves to following Jesus, but they seem to forget what that involves. So He tells them, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24).

This verse is the heart and summary of Jesus’ teaching. He speaks these  words because His disciples have badly misconstrued the character of God’s work in the world. They still do not know what it will mean for God to reign through His Anointed One and what it will mean for Christ to accomplish the work that He has been sent to do. God’s work will entail the seeming defeat of the Christ. He will not go to Jerusalem in triumph, but rather, He will suffer there and be killed.

This speaks volumes about the nature of the world as well as the plan of God in Christ to reclaim the world and reign over it in grace. The world is filled with violent men. All, by  nature, are such, and all such would seek to snatch away the kingdom of God and destroy it. To be sure, God is King, and in Jesus, His reign has broken into the creation. The mighty deeds and authoritative Word of Jesus have demonstrated that full well. In the unexpected way of God, however, this same Jesus must yield to those who oppose Him and suffer the unjust fate of vicarious suffering and death. Only in so doing, by God’s design, can God’s people, all people, and all creation be saved from sin and its henchman, death.

After dying, Christ will rise to eternal life, and this sequence can neither be changed nor interrupted. Those who belong to Jesus will follow in this world the same sequence and path—first the cross, then glory. Death first, then resurrection.

The first and primary obstacle to such following, however, comes not from the world around, but from within. The enemy lies within the heart of every disciple. So Jesus’ call begins: “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24). Even as the “things of men” are allied against God’s plan in Jesus, within each person who would be a disciple is the “world” in microcosm, which must be rejected. This reality is so prevalent and deeply rooted in the corrupt human nature that Jesus says a person must “deny himself.” This is the opposite of what Peter has just done. Instead of saying no to himself, Peter has just said no to Jesus.

There probably is no limit to the specific applications of what it means to deny oneself as Jesus commands. There are so many sinful desires in our hearts! The context of Matthew 16, however, emphasizes two related tendencies that are alive and well in every fallen human creature, who, by God’s gracious invitation, wants to be Jesus’ disciple.

The first tendency is to think—and insist—that God’s way of dealing with the world and its evil should conform to our way, that is, a way of power and success. We reason: If evil really is evil, should not God, the omnipotent Creator of all things, simply come forth in might and overcome it? Moreover, shouldn’t Jesus’ disciples be allowed to be participants in such work, separating wheat from chaff and uprooting the sons of the evil one (Matthew 13:28)?

God’s mysterious answer is, simply, no. The Christ Himself will not deal with the world in that way—at least not yet. To deny ourselves means that we will not assume or believe that God’s way of working in the world will conform to our expectations or definitions of success or efficiency or glory.

The second tendency, related to the first, is for a disciple to insist that God work in humanly powerful ways, so that the disciple desires to exercise power over others, especially over fellow disciples, so that he can accomplish what he believes should be done. Living in each disciple is that dark conviction that can destroy unity and do untold damage to the cause and name of Christ: “Put me in charge, and I’ll set things right.” This conviction can take the forms of ambition, a disguise considered good, even in the Church. It readily sprouts forth as criticism, competition, and one-upmanship. More introverted sinners might choose to worship Lord Self wit quiet, prideful comparison in which one doesn’t actually do anything, but merely demeans a brother or sister. Ambition, comparison, and criticism are all ways of embracing and exalting oneself, rather than denying oneself.

The way of Jesus, however, is the way of humble obedience and submission to the will of Another. When first confronted by Satan (Matthew 4:1-11), Jesus set aside His own power (Matthew 4:3-4) as well as the presumption that His Father’s powerful provision would rescue Him from reckless independence (Matthew 4:5-7). Instead, Jesus chose the way of service and obedience and suffering for the sake of Israel and the world. Now He calls every Christian to look at the darkness within, at the desire for power over others, and to deny that desire whenever and wherever it shows itself. Let us deny ourselves and take up our cross.

This is not some terrible task; this is the life of the Christian. By the Law of God, we know what our old sinful nature is like, with all of its selfish tendencies. By the grace of God, we deny ourselves—we deny our sinful selves the authority and respect the Old Adam desires. We declare to the Lord that we naturally follow our own will, not His, and we pray that He would forgive us for the sake of His crucified Son.

We say this, though often in different words. Words like, “I, a poor miserable sinner confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You.” We sing, “Lord have mercy upon us,” and “O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us,” praying that He—who died for our sins—would forgive us.

He does! You hear the truth proclaimed in words like these: “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins.” The pastor announces that Jesus forgives you! Furthermore, he traces a cross toward you as he says them, to convey this awesome truth: You are forgiven because Christ has died your death on the cross, and He has shared His death with you in Holy Baptism. His cross is your cross! This is the cross that you bear! St. Paul makes that clear in Galatians 2: “ I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (v. 20). He also says in Romans 6, “We were buried therefore with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Jesus had placed His cross and His victory over sin upon you, and that is the cross you bear.

And that is why Luther advises us to draw that cross upon ourselves each morning and evening, as we rise and go to sleep with prayer, that we might constantly remember that we bear His cross—that we have died with Him to sin. And because He pours out His grace and gives us faith, we daily confess our selfish sinfulness, put it to death once again, and live as His forgiven people.

So, like St. Peter, we cling to the Word of our Lord—the Word of Christ, the Son of the living God who suffered many things, died, and rose again. Oh, rejoice to deny yourselves and confess your sins, for you do so knowing that the Lord has died to set you free from your selfish, sinful nature that seeks to kill you forever. And you rejoice, all the more, knowing that the Lord has died your death and made His cross your cross; and that He gives His cross and life to you in His Word and His Sacraments. You will battle your sinful self each day, but the Lord is present with His grace; and you are forgiven for all of 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.

Sermons, Uncategorized

The Gates of Hell Shall Not Prevail

“The Protestations of St. Peter” by James Tissot

Click here to listen to this sermon.

[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.” [1] 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.


[1] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (p. 34). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

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