The Mighty Messianic Community

April 18, 2021 Speaker: Ben Janssen Series: The King and His Victory

Scripture: Matthew 16:13–20

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And 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. 18 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. 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.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.

Today has been designated within the Acts 29 Network as church planting Sunday, and I would like to invite us all to think a bit more about why the church matters, and why church planting matters, about as much as anything else in the world. It matters because of who Jesus is, because of the community that Jesus is building, and because of the mission that Jesus has sent us to do. This passage speaks to these three issues, and it is a critical and central passage in the Gospels and in the life and ministry of Jesus.

We’re in a series called The King and His Victory. My concern is that for many of us who grew up in the Christian faith, there is a disconnect between the realities of the kingdom of God and what that means for our daily lives. A text like this can be helpful as we understand the significance of the church in the kingdom of God. But to understand the church, we have to begin with Jesus.

The Identity of Jesus

Jesus Christ is the church’s one and only foundation. If we’re going to understand the church, we need to understand Jesus. We need to know who he is. Can there be a more important question than, “Who is Jesus of Nazareth?” The church must know the answer and be clear with it.

The Son of Man

The identity of Jesus is the central concern of this important passage. Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And then he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”

First, however, notice that Jesus refers to himself in verse 13 as “the Son of Man.” It is the title he uses for himself most frequently. But what did he mean by it?

On the one hand, the phrase can simply be a reference to his humanity, a humble way of referring to himself. But the phrase occurs in Daniel’s prophecy in Daniel 7 as a reference to a human being possessing an authority that would normally belong only to God. Jesus also used the phrase for himself while hinting at his upcoming suffering and death (Matt 12:40) as well as his future exaltation and glory (Matt 26:64).[i] So while Jesus used this phrase often to speak of himself, it is not altogether clear what all he meant by it. He seemed to use it to both reveal and to conceal something of his identity.[ii] On the one hand he seems to be claiming something rather bold about his identity, almost as if he is equal to God. But on the other hand, he is claiming something rather humble about himself, something lowly.

A Prophet

Thus Jesus was a rather mysterious person even in his own day. The question of his identity was an important one. So he asks the disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” What does the general public think of him?

The word on the street was that he might be John the Baptist risen from the dead. Or perhaps he was the prophet Elijah who was believed to appear before the arrival of the Messiah (Mal 4:5-6). The Old Testament prophet, Jeremiah, was another option, perhaps because both Jesus and Jeremiah prophesied a message of doom for Judah and the temple.[iii] At any rate, the basic assumption was that Jesus was “one of the prophets.” This does not necessarily mean that Jesus was the same person as Elijah or Jeremiah or any of the other prophets, but that he was a prophet like them in some way. He stood in the lineage of the great Old Testament prophets. That’s what people generally thought of him.

It’s important to note that Jesus does not deny the identification. He was, no doubt, understood by the general people to be functioning in just this way. Jesus was not merely a teacher going around sharing timeless truths. Like Israel’s prophets of old, his task was to warn of a coming disaster and call people to respond to his warning.[iv]

So if we are going to understand Jesus rightly, we cannot merely take him as a teacher. We cannot just look to glean information from him. We have to see him as a prophet, an official spokesman for God, who has come to announce that something significant is on the horizon, something we dare not ignore.

More Than a Prophet

To refer to Jesus as a prophet is not wrong, but it is also not enough. Yes, he is a prophet, but he is so much more.

Jesus now asks his disciples the question directly: “But who do you say that I am?” That’s the question that everyone must answer. What do you say about Jesus? Who is he?

Peter is the first to answer this all-important question. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The word Christ is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew word meaning “the anointed one,” the Messiah. But what is the Messiah?

This is not as simple a question to answer as one might think, for there were various ideas and opinions in Jesus’s day about the Messiah. It basically means “king of the Jews,” but the title is reserved for the one who would bring Israel to its final God-ordained goal. The Messiah would be God’s agent through whom Israel’s exile would end. Through Messiah there would be a new exodus, and the “present evil age” would give way to an “age to come.”[v]

It is not hard for us to understand that the claim to be the Christ is not something a sane person would go around claiming himself to be. It would not be taken as a prideful claim, like a talented athlete claiming to be the best ever at their sport. It would be taken as a threat for those who did not believe the person’s identity. Think of the politician who stands for policies you despise the most. To say that Jesus is the Christ is to say that you are subscribing to his agenda. And Jesus’s agenda was not exactly what anyone had in mind. It surprised even his closest followers quite often. This is the reason why, at this point in his life, Jesus “strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ” (v. 20). 

The Community of Jesus

The secret will not stay hidden for long. Jesus intends for his identity as the Messiah to be made known to the world. The Messiah cannot remain hidden, not if he is going to lead the people of God to the goal of new creation. A community of people will begin to gather around him, a community of Jesus who acknowledge who he is and who subscribe to his agenda. This is not incidental to Jesus and his identity. It doesn’t just happen by accident. Jesus will build his community. As he says in verse 18, “I will build my church.”

The Apostolic Foundation

Immediately after Peter’s declaration, Jesus responds with high praise. “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah.” Peter is “blessed” because, Jesus explains, “flesh and blood” had not made it plain to Peter who Jesus was. This knowledge came directly from God the Father.

We are told in 1 John 5:1, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” To see Jesus as who he really is, the revolutionary leader that Messiah was sure to be, is not something you can figure out on your own. It isn’t something you can just be taught, something you were raised in and find yourself believing just because you always believed it.

This is an important point. To be raised within the Christian community is an enormous privilege, a blessing in itself. But Messiah’s people—Christians—are not defined by their ethnicity or religious background. They are defined by faith in Messiah, the kind of faith that no one would ever come to were it not revealed to them by God himself.

Today there are millions of people who believe that Jesus is the Christ, but the first one to confess it was Simon Bar-Jonah. That’s why Jesus refers to him as Peter, a name which means “rock.” Of course the Roman Catholic Church wants to make too much of Peter based on verse 18, but Jesus is making much of Peter as the first to make this extraordinary confession.

The Church

But Peter will not be alone. Starting with Peter and the rest of the disciples, Jesus promises to build his community, a new Israel, the new people of God. Ethnic Israel is not entirely abandoned by Messiah; his first followers were all Jewish and the movement originates within Israel’s own story. But this community is now reformed and expanded in a way that no one anticipated.

When we hear the word church in verse 18, we bring to it all sorts of things that are not implied by this context. Notice that none of the disciples are said to have asked Jesus, “Now wait just a minute. What is a church?” The idea here is simple. If Jesus is indeed the Messiah, then central to that identity would be the assembling of followers around himself.[vi] You don’t have a Messiah if you don’t have a community of people around the Messiah.

Now this is what a church fundamentally is. That is the “church” that Jesus promised to build. He did not promise to build the organization that we might call “church.” He promised to build his church, his people, his community.

Surely this means that the church will grow numerically, an external growth that comes as more and more people believe and confess the same thing that Peter did. But just as importantly, Jesus will build his church internally. The Apostle Paul refers to this kind of building of the church in Ephesians 4. As the community around Jesus speaks in love the truth about Jesus to one another, we will “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph 4:15). To be one of the Messiah’s people, then, is to be in community with the rest of his people. His promise to build his church is carried as his people are joined together like a human body, with each part working properly, “so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph 4:16).

The Success of the Church

And because Jesus is the one who is responsible for the building of his church, we can be sure that his church will succeed. He will build his church, verse 18 says, “and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Now what does that mean?

It means, yes, that this community of Jesus will be invincible, unstoppable. But the statement is not a figure of speech, (that team is so good not even hell could stop them from winning a championship), as if Jesus’s primary assertion here is that no human power could successfully oppose his church. Jesus means what he says; the church’s primary opponent is “the gates of hell.”

We are told that the setting for our passage is “the district of Caesarea Philippi” (v. 13). The location is at the base of Mount Hermon, considered to be a primary pagan religious center. Jesus means what he says. He is building a community of people around himself who will put the very gates of hell, the realm of the dead, under assault.[vii] And if Jesus really is the Messiah, then there is no question about who is going to win this war.

The Mission of Jesus

But this also means that the church—the true church, the real people of God—has a very clear and consequential mission. The church is promised to succeed in the mission that Jesus has for his church, not in the mission that we might have for it. If we get this mission out of focus, we will become more and more disillusioned with the church.

The Real Enemy

To keep the mission in focus, we should keep in focus the real enemy the church is against. The real enemy is not of this world. We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against “the gates of hell,” against the powers of the realm of the dead. The church gets off mission when other people in this world become the target of our attack.

But to fight against the gates of hell does not at all mean that the church is unconcerned about this world. The enemy of God’s people is very much involved with this world; we first find him and his devilish scheme in the Garden of Eden. So if we’re going to target the gates of hell, we cannot avoid engaging with the world around us where the devil is on the prowl.

So we cannot stay silent when, for example, yet another unarmed black man is killed by the police. We should have something to say, something that engages the real enemy. God’s people should find themselves in the middle of the controversial conversations of the day, engaging in such a way that brings light to everyone, whichever side of the controversy people say they are on.

The Keys of the Kingdom

What should we say to the controversies and concerns of our day? Jesus said that he will give to his church “the keys to the kingdom.” The purpose of keys is to let people in or to keep people out. According to Luke 4:23, the keys to the kingdom are wielded as the good news of the kingdom is proclaimed. What citizens of the kingdom ought to be bringing to the conversations of the day is the light of the gospel.

This will take some thoughtfulness on our part. The gospel we proclaim cannot only be some pre-packaged presentation that is often irrelevant to the issues of the day. The gospel is bigger than that, and far more applicable than we might think. In Luke 11:52 Jesus rebukes the teachers of the law for taking away “the key to knowledge” and hindering people from going into the kingdom by how they failed to read and apply the Scriptures.[viii] The way we present the gospel, and the way that we read and apply the scriptures, will either help or hinder people from seeing Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah that he is.

So we need to learn how to preach this good news that brings people out of darkness from every political spectrum and from every worldview. The message of the kingdom cuts straight across all of that, bringing people out in a new exodus and into a new way of living.

And it starts with us, the people of God. It starts with us as we seek first his kingdom and reorient all of our lives around the reality of who Jesus is. This is the mission that Jesus sends his community on. This is the mission of the community of the people who know Jesus is the Christ.


[i] See Leslie T. Hardin, “Son of Man,” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), n.p.

[ii] D.A. Carson, “Matthew,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 213.

[iii] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007), 616.

[iv] N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1996), 172.

[v] Ibid., 482.

[vi] Carson (“Matthew,” 369) calls this “classic messianism.”

[vii] Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 283-85.

[viii] Carson, “Matthew,” 373.

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