Imagineering Church: Believe Right

Matthew 16:13-20

Jesus doesn’t beat around the bush in this passage. He gets right to the point. “Who do you say that I am?” That’s the question, is it not? And I mean T H E Question. Our answer to that question is the end and the beginning of everything. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature. Old things passed away, behold, new things have come.” There is an ending and there is a beginning. And it all hinges on our answer to the question that Jesus directed to his disciples that day in the district of Caesarea Philippi.

Humanity has long sought answers to the questions of where we began and where we will end. Our pursuits have led physicists from the realm of science to believe that they are able to describe mathematically what our universe was like mere nanoseconds after what they call the “Big Bang.” Unfortunately, the laws of physics and the reason of math dictate that they can never know any earlier. Everything mysteriously seems to break down any closer to that event. So the beginning remains elusive.

Other questions about beginning and ending also endure. Other means of answers beyond the sciences have sought to puncture beyond the veil. Books such as 90 Minutes in Heaven or 23 Minutes in Hell and similar tales are bestsellers. Everyone wants to know what goes on one minute after they die. Not especially what goes on in the world, what the stock market does, who starts or finishes what war, but specifically what happens to me and my conscience or soul and my being in that next minute after breathing and heartbeat quit.

And despite six hundred years of Enlightenment reasoning on our side and scientific method postulating answers and our touch exploring the entire surface of the world on which we live, we are no closer to answering the question of the next minute than the Egyptians, the Mayans, the Babylonians, the Greeks, or even the “God is Dead” philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who most certainly knows the answer now that he is dead, but could offer no certain wisdom beforehand.

You see, we as humans face the same truth that Jesus told to Simon Peter: “flesh and blood did not reveal this to you.” Flesh and blood did not reveal it, because flesh and blood cannot reveal it. Flesh and blood is far too self-interested to be objective in answering such questions. Flesh and blood will always give the answer that is most self-serving. Flesh and blood will always see the other as bad and wrong and worse and the self as good and right and best. We see through a glass darkly, because we look through our eyes and with our own interest.

Flesh and blood cannot reveal truth to us. It has no truth to offer. It only has what it has been given. And what it has been given is an evil and fallen world in which Truth is always copied, but never in a clear way. So Lucifer appears as an angel of great beauty, but the beauty is fleeting. The wisdom of eating the fruit of the forbidden tree seems logical, but it is still wrong. The wisdom of looking after myself first seems most righteous, but it still leads nowhere.

Flesh and blood sees what it wants to see, and nothing else. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Well, let’s run off the litany. We liked John the Baptist, maybe you’re John the Baptist returned to us and can baptize us and make us feel better by telling us what our itching ears want to hear. If that doesn’t work, then we’ll say that Elijah is supposed to come again. He didn’t really die that first time when he rode the chariot to heaven anyway, so maybe you’re Elijah come to preach God’s word to us. Maybe, with the kind of message you’re bringing, you’re Jeremiah returned. He preached doom and gloom with a glimmer of hope after the destruction was over. He composed the Lamentations over Jerusalem. Maybe you’re him reincarnate.

And if none of those sufficed, I’m sure that others had their own ideas and rumblings and suggestions of who Jesus was. Maybe he was Judas Maccabee, come to give the kingdom of Israel a third try. Maybe he was some other figure from history. Maybe he was just a miracle worker who can do good things but has no connection to anyone from history or myth. Or maybe I could care less where you come from as long as you make me feel better (after all, it’s all about me anyway).

Of all things, Jesus was most certainly human, and only human. We humans always cast in our own image. God is most often like the kind of God we want God to be – cast in our image of Him. We think of Him in terms of who our earthly father was, or who we wished our earthly father would have been. We are all in the business of making God into the form of our own Golden Calf. Though it is rarely a calf shape and hardly ever made out of gold these days. We create from our experience, and our understanding of others is no different. Even if that other happens to be a tremendous miracle worker like Jesus. Jesus could never be anything more than human in our eyes or those who were there that day near Caesarea Philippi. There is no way we of flesh could see him as more than flesh. So there were no options beyond the humans that they liked or idolized or knew had spoken from God. Jesus could be like them, possibly actually be them, but that’s the end of it.

That’s all that man can see. That’s all that our wisdom will take us to.

Which makes Peter’s answer to the question that much more remarkable. “You are the Christ,” he says. That itself would have been an outrageous claim, however much the Jews of the day longed for the Messiah’s arrival. But Peter didn’t stop with just the claim that Jesus was, in fact, the Christ. He went on, “the Son of the Living God.” That was something entirely new. Someone would have had to have a unique insight into Old Testament literature to arrive at the conclusion that the living God would have a son. After all, the greatest cry for Jews was the Shema, found in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!” Not one plus some extraneous family members. Not one plus a son, the way the other nations’ gods often procreated. Just one God. Peter’s answer, entirely cast of Truth, was not something that he could have come up with out of his own wisdom. This required something more than just his own wisdom.

You see, man’s wisdom is futile. Solomon, when he came to the throne of Israel, was offered by God the granting of one wish, whatever he wanted.[1] Solomon asked for wisdom. God was pleased with this request, and so granted him not only the wisdom he asked for, but also and honor, wealth, and the promise of a long life for faithfulness to Him. Solomon was granted a great measure of wisdom and is generally called the wisest man who ever lived. Most of the proverbs in the book of Proverbs are thought to have been collected by him. And he is also thought to be the teacher or preacher of the book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes records the preacher’s quest to explore the world and its wonders in a seeking of real wisdom. In the eighth chapter, he concludes this: “When I gave my heart to know wisdom and to see the task which has been done on the earth (even though one should never sleep day or night), 17 and I saw every work of God, I concluded that man cannot discover the work which has been done under the sun. Even though man should seek laboriously, he will not discover; and though the wise man should say, "I know," he cannot discover.[2]

Repeatedly throughout Ecclesiastes the preacher repeats the phrase over and over: “this too is vanity and striving after wind.” Vanity is thinking more highly of yourself than you really ought to think. It is thinking how impressive you are for being able to do or accomplish or be whatever you think you have done or accomplished or become. Striving after wind is a fruitless endeavor. Have you ever successfully caught a gust of wind? Perhaps on video, or in a still shot of a tree bent over by a strong wind. But never in your hand. Striving after the wind is a pointless exercise. Nothing will come of it. After trying every pleasure and seeking every explanation, the preacher came to this conclusion in Ecclesiastes 12:13, “The end of the matter, all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”

As Solomon found out in his endless pursuits, the mind of man on its own leads nowhere. Nothing satisfied him. Nothing brought meaning and purpose to his existence. The best that we can do of our own minds and hands is nothing but a vanity and a striving after wind. The only alternative to this futility is to follow, seek after, and depend on God and what He has said to us.

And this is the truth that Jesus tells Peter outside of Caesarea Philippi. Flesh and blood didn’t tell him this truth. God revealed it to him. Peter would not and could not get there on his own. The best he could have achieved would have been to compare Jesus to Elijah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, or another prophet, leader, or perhaps king. But Peter had another source on his side that told him what his brain and his own reason could not achieve.

The question we must answer is this: Who do you say that I am? The answer is something that we must be granted knowledge of: You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” This truth, and indeed, I believe all truth, must come from God. He is truth and the source of truth. It comes from no other.

Theologians are good at creating categories for the mysteries of God, and God’s revealing of truth to us is no exception. Theologians speak of God revealing the truth to us in two ways. They call them the general revelation and the special revelation.

General revelation is just that: general. It is broad and available to everyone. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, tells them that all men stand condemned before God for their unrighteousness and ungodliness. But how can “all men” stand condemned of something for which they never knew? Well, I – and Paul – am glad that you asked. For Paul goes on in Romans 1:18-20 to explain why God is just and right in condemning everyone for their failure to seek Him and live according to His standard. And the reason why is this: they know about Him, or at least they should know about Him. Listen to Paul here:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.

This is the general revelation. It is the world around us that cries out and testifies without compromise or doubt that there is a Creator, a God who loves us, a God who gave us life and is interested in us. It is built into our DNA, literally, that we should know about God. To ignore or deny it is to sin and fall into ungodliness and unrighteousness – and therefore be justifiably condemned.

We know God by what He has made. We know God because the universe exists. From the tiniest building block quark particle, whether the strange one, the up one, or what have you, to the largest family of galaxies in the universe, they all cry out as with one voice: there is a God. Learn about Him from the beauty and care you see in me! This sunset, this physical law, this fascinating Fibonacci sequence in nature, this joint connection, this eyeball, this spider’s web, this rock formation, they all say one thing. God made me, look how much He cares and loves. So we are all without excuse before God regarding Him, because we are surrounded by His witnesses. As Psalm 97:6 says, “The heavens declare his righteousness, And all the peoples have seen His glory.”

So that’s the general revelation. God also provides a second means of revealing himself to us. Theologians call this special revelation. This is God Himself stepping into history. When he visited Abraham at Mamre. When he spoke to Moses from the burning bush and again on top of the mountain, where his finger traced out the letters of the Ten Commandments. When He told Samuel: not this one, not this one, not this one, not this one to each of the ones that Jesse brought forward and Samuel had to ask about the youngest one left out in the field to tend the sheep. When Isaiah stood in the heavenly temple and wept for his sinfulness in the presence of such holiness. These are all special manifestations or revelations of God. They are granted to individual people, or an individual group, rather than made generally to the whole world.

There are two very important and primary forms of special revelation. One is the coming of God in the flesh in the form of Jesus, whom Peter identified as God’s Son. Jesus was the word made flesh, as John tells it. Paul said that Jesus willingly left the throne of heaven for the humility of human flesh, not even thinking twice about it. Jesus, the God-man, is the ultimate special revelation. God as one of us, living among us, calling out Twelve to Him to build His body, His bride, the church.

The other important form of special revelation is the book we read from each week here. Not the hymnal, the Bible. It is the word of God for everything from encouragement to lament to righteousness to apocalypse. Reading the Bible, we read the mind of God as He has chosen to reveal it to us.

It is through these means of God revealing himself to us – the general and the special forms of revelation – that we can know God. That we, like Peter, can come to the confession: You are the Christ, the Son of the living God! And these things are again God acting to reveal himself to us. He created. He spoke. He lived. He inspired. Revelation always moves in one direction: from God down to us. That’s what Peter learned.

And just because God reveals himself to us doesn’t mean that we catch it right. Peter knew that Jesus was the Messiah – the Christ – and God revealed that to Him. But Peter didn’t have a good understanding of what that meant. He had yet more to learn. In the very next paragraph, Jesus calls the one to whom he just granted the keys of the kingdom of heaven Satan and tells him to get behind him because Peter denies that Jesus will suffer and die. Peter doesn’t yet understand fully the mind of God and what it means for Jesus to be the Christ. That revelation will come later. And it will still come from God.

Now you’re looking at me thirty minutes into this wondering: last week he told us that we’d be talking about what it means to be the church in the coming weeks. What in the world does all of this have to do with us here at Monte Vista? Well, in one word, everything.

Jesus told Peter that he would be the rock on which the church would be built. Peter would be that. Or, as some might say, Peter’s confession of Christ would be the founding block. Peter’s identification and confession that this is who Jesus was – this confession creates the space and possibility for the fellowship assembly that will be both Christ’s body and his bride. This is the first time that the Greek word for church, assembly, or congregation is used in the New Testament. It can’t show up until Christ is properly confessed as coming from God.

Our church begins and depends on our recognition of who Christ is. On our answer to the question: Who do you say that I am? And this truth, this confession, this doctrine, this belief is like all truth, all confessions, all true doctrines, and all right beliefs: it is a gift from God granted down to us. We do not rise to God on the wings of our right theology. The right theology is granted as a special gift to us from God above. The church begins by believing right about God. By God granting us this right belief as we encounter Him.

And that’s my point this morning. If we are going to be a church of God, we have to encounter Him. We have to meet Him. He must reveal Himself to us so that we know Him, as Peter knew Christ in that moment to be something that he could not possibly have articulated prior to arriving there.

There are more beliefs about God, who He is, and what He does than there have been people who ever lived. But we must find the right one. We must confess Christ completely and truly if we are to be built into His body. If we are going to be the Church of Christ, a visible expression of His heavenly body, we have to know Him. Not guess that we know. Not hope that we know. Not suppose that we know. We have to know.

This is where church begins. All these things you have seen and heard about Jesus, all the experience you have of Him in and around your life, where does it bring you? This morning, He is asking you, He is asking me, and He is asking us this question: Who do you say that I am?

Let’s pray.


[1] 1 Kings 3:5-14

[2] Ecclesiastes 8:16-17

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