Sunday, August 24, 2008

Revelation, Recognition, and Reckoning

Texts: Exodus 1:8-2:10; Romans 10:5-17; Matthew 16:13-20

HOW WELL DO WE KNOW the men who are running for President of the United States this year? One candidate, we know a great deal about his public career, but maybe not so much about his private life. The other candidate, we’re still learning who he is as a policy-maker and as a private citizen. One thing good about the way our American presidential campaigns seem to go on and on, it’s more likely that we’ll find out what we need to know about the candidates before the first Tuesday in November.

How are we going to find that out? I doubt any of us here know Senator McCain or Senator Obama personally.

Well, we can listen to their speeches and interviews, and to how they do in the debates this Fall. But how do we know if they really mean what they say, or if it’s all just political rhetoric?

Maybe we’ll rely on our gut feelings about how each man looks and how he carries himself. But haven’t we all known times when somebody who seemed really impressive at first turned out to be a real disappointment? How are we going to get to the real, honest, behind-the-scenes truth about our presidential candidates?

I guess we’ll have to rely on third party sources. Like the newspapers. And the TV news. And talk radio. And Internet bloggers. These sources have revealed a lot about these two men since they first started running-- when was it, sometime in the Teddy Roosevelt administration?-- and hopefully we’ll get enough reliable information from them before it’s time to vote.

But what do we do when there’s something we absolutely have to know about a certain Person, but there’s no earthly, human way we can find it out? What if it’s desperately important that we get a particular answer concerning this Man, and we don’t even know enough to ask the question? What if our very lives and futures--not just for the next four or eight years, but on into eternity--depend on knowing who this Man is and what He is doing? And what if the truth about Him were so cosmic, so unimaginable, that we’d never think or dream of trying to discover it for ourselves?

We’d really be stuck, wouldn’t we? Our own intellect couldn’t tell us what we needed to know. Our instincts and gut feelings couldn’t lead us to the truth. Human authorities and pundits would be no help to us at all. We’d go to our doom and die and rot in dark ignorance unless something more than human, something beyond the circles of this world comes to us and opens our minds and reveals to us the identity and true character of this most important of men.

There is a Man like that, and for the last two thousand years He has been asking men and women of every race and country, "Who do you say I, the Son of Man, am?" Jesus of Nazareth confronts us with His person and His work and demands that human beings confess and acknowledge who and what we understand Him to be. Our whole fate into eternity depends on getting the answer right, and our of our own human knowledge and initiative we never, ever can.

But, we protest, is it really like that? After all, isn’t Jesus like our presidential candidates? Can’t we just be reasonable about Him, too, if we’re deciding if this Man Jesus really is the Savior and Christ? It’s like, the Press gives us the information about the candidates, we make a choice. Same way, the Bible tells us about the teachings and miracles of Jesus, and we say, "Yes, on that evidence, our reason tells us that He is the Messiah and Lord of all." Isn’t it as simple as that?

Afraid not. In our passage in Matthew 16, Jesus and His disciples are making a retreat in the hills around Caesarea Philippi. As they sit there, Jesus asks the disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" Could they honestly answer that the people recognised Him for who and what He really was? No! All those crowds had heard the glorious teaching from Jesus’ lips. The people has seen the miracles our Lord performed. Countless many of them had benefitted from His wonders themselves. Did the crowds get the answer to Jesus’ question right?

No. The disciples had to answer, "Some say you’re John the Baptist raised from the dead. Other people say you’re Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets, brought back to life." The people had all the evidence about Jesus right in front of them, but their reason and gut feelings and human ability all rolled up together could never bring them to the deep truth of who the Son of Man is.

But then Jesus says to His disciples, "But who do you say the Son of Man is?"
And Simon Peter immediately declares, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!"

No human reasoning could have brought Peter to that conclusion. For one thing, Peter as a good Jew, who knew good and well that the Lord, the living God of Israel, does not have sons and daughters the way the pagan so-called gods were said to. The idea was totally beyond his imagining. But he declared it: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!" and it was the eternal truth. As John Calvin puts it, "Though Peter did not yet understand distinctly in what way Christ was the begotten of God, he was so fully persuaded of the dignity of Christ, that he believed Him to come from God, not like other men, but by the inhabitation of the true and living Godhead in His flesh."

How did Peter know? How was he persuaded? Jesus says this: "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven!" God alone, by the power of His Holy Spirit, was able to reveal to Peter and the other disciples who and what Jesus of Nazareth was and is and always will be. Not the opinion of the crowd, not the judgement of the religious leaders, not even the reasoning of Peter’s own mind could have brought him to recognise that truth, only the revelation of the Father in heaven.

Our Lord goes on to say, "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it."

The name "Peter" means "a rock," like we might call someone "Rocky." So is our Lord now saying that He will build His salvation community, His church, on the flesh-and-blood man Peter? Some Bible interpreters think so, and they give pretty persuasive answers why. But others point out that everywhere in Scripture only God is described as the Rock of our salvation, and upon Him alone must we ground our faith, for by Him alone we are saved. Jesus has just blessed Peter for recognising what His Father in heaven has revealed to him, and does Christ now undo that and give His glory to a mortal man, however enlightened? Does He say, "You are Peter, Rocky, and on you I will build my church?" No, our Lord says, "You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church," that is, upon the Holy Spirit-revealed recognition and declaration that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

Jesus says, "The gates of Hades"-- all the powers of death and the grave-- "will not prevail against" His church. How will He effect this? He says to Peter: "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."

This word "you" is indeed singular. For Peter is the first representative of how God would use His power on earth to open the kingdom of heaven to mankind. Peter was the first in the church to receive God’s revelation of Christ as God and to confess that it is so. Peter was appointed by God to be the first to preach the word of Christ crucified for our sins and risen for our new life, on the day of Pentecost when he commanded the people to repent and be baptised for the remission of sins. Peter was the first to declare to the Jewish authorities that the name of Jesus Christ is the only one given under heaven by which we must be saved. He was the first to enter a Gentile’s home and open up to him and his household the riches of grace that seemed to be reserved for the Jews.

In all these things, Peter uses the power of the keys, which is nothing less than the preaching of the Word of God, calling people to believe and be saved. It is by the preaching of the Word of God that the Holy Spirit opens the minds of sinners and reveals the saving power of Jesus Christ.

Peter was the first to do this, but he was not the last. What does it say in our Romans passage? "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!" For "faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ." Through the preaching of the Word the Lord our God goes on revealing to His elect people who and what His Son Jesus Christ is, and what He has accomplished on our behalf. With His Word preached comes the blessing of His Holy Spirit, to bring people from unbelief to belief, from self-righteousness to the righteousness of God.

But with this revelation there comes a reckoning. The Word of God preached can bind as well as loose. For as Paul says in Romans, "Not all have obeyed our good news." When the word of God is preached, not everyone recognises that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. They go on thinking He’s only a human prophet. Or a Great Teacher. Or a Good Moral Example whom they can come up to, if they just try hard enough. Sadly, there are those who keep wanting to pull Christ down out of heaven to their level. Others feel Jesus needs their help, as if they needed to pull Him up from the dead. At the end of days, the Word of God will witness against such people in the judgement.

In the days before Moses was born, the King of Egypt stopped recognising the greatness of Joseph. He was blind to the special blessings the Lord had laid on His chosen people, the Hebrews. In fact, he was jealous of God’s people, and set out to destroy them as a separate nation. He certainly wouldn’t have recognised anything special in the infant Moses. But God was working in the Hebrews and He was working in the life of Moses, preparing him to be the one who would reveal God to His people and to all who would recognise the Lord and believe. At the same time, the word spoken by Moses brought judgement to Pharoah and all Egypt with him.

Even more, now, God calls us to hear Him as He reveals Himself in His Son Jesus Christ through His Word read and preached. By His word He brings us to recognise Jesus Christ for who He really is, and to become like Peter, ready to confess with our mouths that Jesus is the only Lord, risen from the dead for our salvation.

It is on the rock of divine revelation recognised, confessed, and proclaimed that Jesus Christ builds His Church, such that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. God reveals Himself and opens the kingdom of heaven by the means He has established, now and forever. Not by the church’s good works. Not by praise bands or well-rehearsed choirs. Not by meetings and conferences and general assemblies. Not by dressing up or dressing down, not by candles and incense or by the latest sound systems or high-tech extravaganzas. These things can support and promote the Word-- or they can detract from it. Despite all our human devices, the God of power and might still reveals the truth of Christ in the way He always has: in the preaching of His word by fallible, erring human beings like Simon Peter, human beings who have been inspired by the Holy Spirit to confess before the world, "You, Jesus, are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."

God gives this message to everyone who believes. We’re not all called to be ordained preachers, or Bible study leaders, or Sunday School teachers. But God instills in every Christian the word that is near us, on our lips and in our hearts, the word of faith that Peter and all the apostles and every faithful preacher has always proclaimed: Jesus Christ is Lord, and all who call upon His name will be saved.

Who do you say the Son of Man is? Believe the good news that your Father in heaven has revealed to you! Recognise your Savior in love and obedience, and may it always be reckoned to you as blessedness, now and in the world to come.

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