A DECLARATION FOR THE AGES
Matthew 16: 13-20
As the church staff is making plans for the fall, one thing we will offer is a series of Wednesday evening sessions on leaders of the Protestant Reformation. What is the impetus for such a study? Well October 31st this year will be the 500th year since it all began; the 500th year since Professor Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg Germany. His message, meant for discussion, started a revolution in 1517. Several years later, Luther was called before the Holy Roman Emperor Charles the V. His interrogation was officially called a “Diet,” and it was held in the Germany city of Worms. So the challenge for Luther happened at the “Diet of Worms.” What a name! The Diet insisted that Luther recant—take back—the things that he had said about the Church of Rome, and all would be forgiven. Luther did not speak in an accusative, defiant way, but in a calm and measured protest. It is known as his “Here I Stand” speech. History records him as saying this:
Unless I am convince by testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason—for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves—I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. This I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.
We will learn more about Martin Luther over the next two months. But he made a declaration for the ages. What declarations have you made, if any? Each time you say the “Pledge of Allegiance,” you are making a promise in front of God and others: “I pledge allegiance to the flag, and to the United States of America.” What a declaration that is! How do you live it out? Do you vote your conscience to keep making our nation into more perfect union? Do you agree to uphold the laws of the land; do you agree to pay your taxes? Now I know I’m meddlin’! But a declaration should be taken seriously. As a Boy Scout, when I was in uniform, I would raise my right hand and declare that “On my honor, I will do my best, to do my duty, to God and my country, and to obey the Scout Law. To help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.” I still keep my Scout pledge. I still keep the Pledge of Allegiance to my country. But among all the pledges, the one that is the rock on which I hope to stand now and when I meet Peter at the gates, is “Jesus is the Christ; he is my Savior, and Son of the Living God.” Maybe Peter will high five me when I get there, or he’ll say “well done” or he’ll walk me over to Jesus! I don’t know. What I do know is that life here and in the hereafter seems most in tune with God when my life is based on that solid rock.
The way Jesus asked Simon Peter “Who do you say that I am?” and the place where he asked him matter as I read the text. Just before this declaration, Jesus was on the west side of the Sea of Galilee. To travel into the area called Caesarea Philippi took time and intention. It was 35 miles in one direction, not on the way to any other place Jesus went in the New Testament. So what Jesus planned was a deliberate and special place for his words to be offered. We can surmise two things:
One, Jesus went there to be outside of the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas, who was almost as maniacal as his father, the self named Herod the Great. When Herod the Great died, his territory was divided among his three sons: Herod Archelaus who inherited the territory from Jerusalem to Caesarea (by the sea), and Herod Antipas who inherited Galilee and Perea. Herod Phillip inherited the northeast territory that was the most multicultural of them all. Herod Philip had no interest in chasing Jesus. But in his territory was a special cave formation to which Jesus likely traveled for his special question. Picture this: it was, and still is, a series of cave-like rocks with all the sulfur smells of Yellowstone National Park. How many have been to Yellowstone National Park? Do you remember the odor from the sulfur pits?
That’s what emitted from this cave. And guess what those who lived in that region called it? They called it “The Gates of Hades.” They believed that “down there” was the place of the underworld. Can you imagine the build up as Jesus led the Twelve 35 miles out of their way to that cave? Then he stopped, (I imagine,) looked at the odorous, hissing caves, and then asked, “Who do others say that the Son of Man is?” Notice his term; he is deliberately owning the term: Son of Man; he is not claiming a Son of God status yet. “Son of Man” he calls himself eighty-eight times in the New Testament. Some believe that is a reference to the prophet Daniel, recorded in Daniel 7: “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory, and sovereign power; all peoples and nations of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” What a way to paint a picture, especially to the disciples who knew their Scriptures. There were also superstitions in their day like there are in ours. People in their day wondered if souls could transfer from one body to another! And so they answered Jesus: “Some say John the Baptist (who was just killed), others say Elijah (the great prophet), and still others say Jeremiah (another major prophet of God.) I wonder if Jesus paused, to let those ideas dissipate. He was coming to the main point of his trip. Standing by that cave known as the Gates of Hades, he then asked: “But who do you say that I am? Anyone could have answered; I hope you each are answering that in your heart. But on that day, Simon, called Peter by Jesus, answered him with this declaration: You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God. That’s what Jesus hoped to hear! That’s what he hopes to hear from all who encounter him: that he is the Christ, (the anointed one; the one that has the ear and heart of God) and that also, that he is Son of God. So Jesus, clearly relieved or jubilant, said in a voice not afraid to let others hear it, “ Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah! (This is not the Old Testament Jonah; this is the name of his father!) Then Jesus continues, “Now I will call you Peter (which means the rock) and on this rock I will build my church. “ Then I imagine he motions to the cave when he says, “And the Gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” So on the rock—either Peter himself, or on the declaration that Jesus is the Christ the Son of the Living God—Jesus decided to build his church! Peter is important! What he said was even more important! And to him were given the keys to the kingdom of Heaven! In case you haven’t figured it out, that’s why Peter is always said to be at the gates of heaven in so many jokes: it’s because of this promise from Jesus! What is the warning about the Gates of Hades, or Hell, about? One thing it’s about is what we learned last week: the works of the devil are the works of the flesh: including fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, and the like. Paul, in Galatians chapter 5 says when those happen in your life, you are giving in to your human nature. But there is a better way; it is giving your support to your higher nature; the fruit of the Spirit includes, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Possessing those qualities and seeking to keep them is the “Upward way; the “Christ-like way.” It makes relationships better between family members, friends, neighbors, and strangers. To declare Christ as your Lord is to decide to live as he would live.
Our word is our bond. Declarations are important. And what you believe matters. Do you stand with Simon Peter? Author Paul E. Little worked for years with Intervarsity Press. He wrote two books that have been combined into one: Know What and Why You Believe. To know that and to do that is so important; know what and why you believe! Otherwise you will be a willow, blowing wherever the wind blows, or believing the last thing that you read. Anchor your beliefs! I choose to anchor mine on Jesus Christ, like many through the ages did, including, as I said in the beginning, Martin Luther.
He believed this: 1) Scripture alone is his highest authority. 2) He said we are saved through faith alone; 3) by the grace of God alone and on the merits of Christ; 4) He said Christ alone is Lord and Savior. 5) And he said we live for the glory of God alone.
What a list of beliefs! What do you believe? On whom can you depend? Consider grounding yourself in Peter’s confession of faith as a starting point! Pray about it, and if appropriate, announce it to others. Then go do what Jesus would do.
“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner August 27, 2017