Vol. 10 — No. 43 October 26, 1969
When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am? And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Then charged he his disciples that they should tell no man that he was Jesus the Christ.
Heavenly Father, God of all mercy, thou hast established the Church of Jesus Christ, wherein we receive forgiveness of sins, life and salvation: grant unto us opening of the mind to receive the instructions which thou does give us in thy holy Word for the eternal welfare of our souls. Amen.
Beloved in the Lord:
What is the truth about Christ and the church? To be sure there are contrary opinions. Some look upon the Christian church as an arrangement for the shelter and care of those who are not yet able to depend upon themselves. Thus the Russian atheist looks upon it as an opiate for the people. Now, an opiate is made of opium; and it is used to put one to sleep so that he will not feel the pains which he nevertheless suffers. And so, say the infidels, Christianity is but a sleeping potion for those who are not strong enough to get along by themselves. When once men learn to depend upon themselves, say the godless, they will need no church. For the godless that illusion will continue till the day of judgment.
Then there is another opinion of the church and of its Christ, which is more favorable, yes, very favorable, but which is none the less wrong and inadequate. This is the opinion of those who believe that the church is a very fine thing; they admire it; however, they do not themselves actively take part in it, they support it most meagerly, and rarely darken its doors. This is a most dangerous opinion of Christ and His church. For those who have this opinion really consider themselves Christians; but the terrible fact is that they come under that condemnation which the Lord of the church spoke over one of the seven churches of Asia Minor: “Thou art neither cold not hot. I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth,” Rev. 3:15-16, a most dangerous situation to be in, for it is self-deceptive, and the Savior has told us that he who is not warm for Him is cold against Him: “He that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad.” Matt. 12:30. A most dangerous opinion of Christ and His church: to think that it is a good thing, but not to be burning with zeal for it.
Then there is the opinion of Christ and His church which considers them merely to be a social uplift influence. Those who hold this view think that the church should make itself heard in the counsels of the state, in the legislatures, and in the halls of Congress. It should be busy, they say, feeding the poor, teaching the ignorant the rules of better living, and driving evil from the land. This opinion of Christ and His church is dangerous because it has some grains of truth. It is true that the church is to have a good influence in the world; but that is only a fruit of its far greater work! And to believe these good things about the church, without a knowledge of the central and main truth about the church—that, too, is highly dangerous indeed. Half-truth is the most disgusting thing to deal with: you can’t entirely dispose of it with a summary brushing aside; and you can’t correct it, either, without radically making changes.
All this hazy thinking about the church must come largely from the plain delusions of the devil. And if we want to escape the delusions of Satan, we must cling closely and entirely to the Word of God; for in that Word we do have the truth. Let us therefore consider, on the basis of the text before us, with a prayer to God for the guidance of His Spirit,
We learn first that the church is truly built only there where there is a true and right confession concerning Christ, its foundation.
It should he made plain that we are concerned today, not with the visible church, with particular congregations of Christians, or with the various denominations. We are concerned with the invisible church, the total number of all believers, the so-called body of Christ, the bride of the Lamb, the total number of saints who will be with God in heaven for all eternity, regardless of what they may have been called here in this world. That is the church of which we are speaking today; that is the church of which Jesus spoke when He used the word “church” for the first time, at least as far as we have the record in the gospels.
Only where Jesus is confessed to be the Christ, the Son of the living God, is the church truly built.
It is the false and inadequate confession concerning Christ which leads to the many false ideas concerning the church, which we enumerated in the beginning. It was the false and inadequate ideas concerning Christ which made the people of His day want to make Him a bread-king and a social-relief institution. To build a church on those principles, Jesus absolutely refused to do.
Now what were the ideas they had of Jesus? Jesus made a survey of the situation one day when He was in the neighborhood of Caesarea Philippi, the territory to the north of Galilee, to which He had withdrawn after it became apparent that men were turning against Him. Jesus, true man that He was, took His disciples with Him and departed at a distance, the better to let them see the effects of His preaching and teaching. It was like the building of a house; to show someone what it was beginning to look like, Jesus withdrew with them to a distance away so they could see how things now looked.
Full well did He know what men thought about Him; it was for their instruction that He asked the question, “Who do men say that I the Son of man am?” Note well that He asked not merely whom thy thought that He was; it was not merely their reaction to Him as another man that He was concerned with. He wanted to know what they thought of him, the Son of man—what did they think of Him as the Messiah sent of God to be the redeemer of the world? That was the question.
Some thought that He was John the Baptist; and this need not seem so strange, in one way, for John had been put to death only some six months earlier, and perhaps not all knew it yet. This view was seconded by Herod Antipas, who had put John to death, then experienced an extremely troubled conscience and began to wonder whether the man he had executed had really stayed dead. Herod’s opinion may have strengthened the people in their opinion that Jesus was John the Baptist.
Some, however, thought that this Jesus was Elias, that is, the great prophet Elijah. God had said, by a figure of speech, in Malachi the prophet that He would send another Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the Lord as a forerunner to the Messiah. God called John the Baptist, the forerunner, Elijah because he should be great, like Elijah; and the people, who did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah likewise failed to recognize John as the forerunner. That is why they got things all wrong,—just because they failed to recognize Jesus as what He really was. And that is why so many today get Jesus and His church all wrong, too,—they do not realize what Jesus really is; they do not know the truth about Christ and His church.
Still others took Jesus to be Jeremiah, the grand prophet, concerning whom it had come to be a legend that he would one day return again to the earth. And still others were content to think that Jesus was one of the old honored prophets who was revisiting the earth,—they didn’t specify just which one they thought Him to be.
Now, note it well, that every one of these opinions concerning Jesus is a very high opinion, very respectful, perhaps even devout and pious. But every one of them, even if it ascribes to Jesus a lofty and divine mission, fails to identify Jesus as what He is in truth, the heaven-sent Messiah, the Son of God, who came to seek and to save that which was lost, the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world, whose blood cleanses from sin!
In this verse we find the positions of those who in our day do not see Jesus for what He is. Here we find the Reformed view, which sees Jesus as the Way-shower, who teaches us so to live that God will finally accept us. This way looks upon Jesus as divine, yes; but it holds that our good works are necessary if we are to be saved. Here is the Roman view, which says that Christ did the greater part, but that He only made it possible for us to save ourselves by our good deeds, by our penances, and by our atonings.
Not one of them rings with the clear confession of Peter’s words when he made answer to the question of Jesus, “Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?” “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” That statement of Peter’s is the truth about Christ. It is a complete statement concerning His person and His work. It identifies Him as the one, the only-begotten Son of the living God; beside Him there is no other. And it identifies Him as the Christ, the anointed one, the one appointed of God to be the Messiah, the atoner, the redeemer, the substitute for mankind before the wrath of God against sin. Only where men look thus upon Christ will Christ build His church, that is, bring men by way of that Christ to eternal life. “No man cometh unto the Father but by me,” said Jesus; and that Jesus is not the way-shower only, the greatest man that ever lived, or the one who showed us how to live in order to save ourselves; He is the Substitute for us, who died the death of one cursed upon the cross that we might live.
Only where men come to know Christ in that way are souls saved. Regardless of what may be preached, regardless of how great the cathedrals, regardless of what is the public confession of the church-body, regardless of what may be the size of its membership; yes, regardless of the fact that the public preaching may be a rank denial of Christ; even if the heads of the church be worse hypocrites than the head of the Jewish church in Jesus’ day; even if the preachers talk about how best to raise potatoes (as was once done in Norway) or advocate one man for public office in preference to another (which they have no right to do), regardless, we say, of anything under the sun, only where Christ as the sole and only Savior is believed and confessed by the individual man or woman or child will souls be brought into living relationship with God. Only where that truth is believed about Christ will Christ build His church. It shall be built there; the gates of hell shall not prevail! And that is the truth about Christ and the church.
And if you and I as individual believers come to this, the saving truth about Christ, it is not the result of our own reasoning or natural ability. Our sinful nature would never bring us to such a confession about Jesus as our Savior. God has given our hearts such a faith. The same is then true of us as was true of the disciple Peter; of him Jesus said, “Blessed art thou Simon Barjona, for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.”
Then there is this other truth about Christ and His church: wherever men have the true confession, there Jesus, the Lord of the church, deposits the right of His believers to declare remission of sins to others, if they repent, and to declare their sins bound upon them, if they do not repent.
Believe it surely: wherever men come to the confession of a disciple Peter, such as his confession is recorded in our text, there Jesus, the Lord of the church, proceeds to build his church, to add unto it such as confess their sins in heartfelt repentance.
Peter, with his true confession, had much to do with the founding of the New Testament church; he is the prominent figure in the early church as it is recorded for us in the Book of Acts. Wherever the other apostles went, with the same confession concerning Christ as the atoner for our sins, there the church was built, souls were added to the total number of saints.
And note how the church is to be built: one Christian is to announce the grace of God to another person who repents. Absolution from sin is to be pronounced over the one who turns from his sin. That is just another way of announcing the good news of the Gospel to one who has become terrified because of his sin.
Peter had just made the correct confession; therefore Jesus speaks directly to him, saying, “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” But this does not put Peter in a place above all the following apostles, for two chapters later in St. Matthew we read that Jesus gives the same powers of binding and loosing to the whole congregation, to each individual believer. Peter was used as a chief instrument in the founding of the early New Testament church, to be sure, but he was not placed above the others in privilege; in fact, he himself refers to himself in his epistles as a fellow-pastor with the others.
But the truth about the church, the congregation of believers, is here laid down: God gives to them the privilege and the duty to pronounce forgiveness to him who repents; and he charges them to bind the sins upon those who do not repent. What a privilege for believers to be distributors of divine pardon! When you speak the gracious word “Thy sins are forgiven,” to a repentant sinner, there is an emphatic “Amen” in heaven. Similarly, when you are compelled to refuse to speak this word to a hardened evil-doer, that stern note of yours is given approval above. And in doing these two things, you are not doing something of yourself; it is all by the will and command of Christ; but he is using you in the building of His church.
If men really knew this great truth about the church, how completely would not they change their attitude toward it! It is only believers with the true confession concerning Christ, believers with the true Christ, that can bring to us the same pardoning grace of God. If the church’s Christ is not the blood-Redeemer, there can be no forgiveness of sin, life and salvation. And that is the truth about the church.
The last verse of our text was a temporary restriction that was removed when the risen Lord commissioned His church to make disciples of all nations. That is our task and our privilege. Lord, give us grace and courage to testify of Thee. Amen.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the King James Version.