“[Jesus said], ‘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.’” (Matthew 16:18, NRSVue)
Jesus and his disciples arrived in Caesarea Philippi, a city about 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee known for its pagan worship, primarily directed to the goat-like Greek god of nature, Pan. A temple was carved into the reddish rock bluffs, forming a large grotto amid the lush forests and springs that typify the region. In 20 BCE, Emperor Augustus gave this city and the surrounding area to Israel’s King Herod, who, to show his gratitude, built a temple dedicated to the emperor near the entrance to Pan’s temple. Due to its verdant beauty, Caesarea Philippi was where many wealthy people would go on vacation, partaking in recreational opportunities and pagan worship.
This setting was perfect for Jesus to test his disciples’ perception of his identity in contrast to the multiple competing religious options available in the area. He asked,
“‘Whom do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And [the disciples] said, ‘Some say John the Baptist but others Elijah and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’” (Matthew 16:13b-16, NRSVue)
Jesus affirms Simon Peter’s response as the correct answer; however, he points out that Peter didn’t come to that knowledge through his own reasoning. God supernaturally revealed it to him. In honor of Peter’s attentiveness, Jesus announced he would establish his church on the foundation of Peter’s faith. I would love to say that from that point forward, Peter excelled as the “rock” that Jesus declared him to be; however, he continued to stumble his way toward the greatness we recognize in him as the foundation for Jesus’ church. His denials just before Jesus’ crucifixion in Jerusalem exemplify his continuing human frailty.
The tales of Peter’s greatness were much more celebrated after Jesus’ death and resurrection than when he walked with Jesus in the Galilee region and into Jerusalem. Read the Book of Acts to see examples of his many accomplishments. Those stories paint a picture of Peter as more perfect than in the gospels. I’m not saying that God didn’t transform him from an eager and impulsive person into a courageous leader who took the gospel into the world because God did that and so much more. But I think we often “rewrite” the story of people’s lives and make them larger than they were in life. In his years of building the church, I suspect Peter was still a zealous reactionary who bit off more than he could chew. But God continued to use him, nonetheless.
The lesson here is not that God needs our perfect faithfulness to build his church. God can use us, including our foibles and failures, to create a church that is so vibrant and strong that the gates of Hell cannot prevail against it. The success of the church is in God’s hands, not ours. We need only to allow God to reveal his design and will for his church, then do all in our power to honor his intentions so that we reflect his Son, Jesus Christ. Then, with God as our guide, nothing can stop us—not the evil forces at work in this world, but not even the overzealous and impulsive disciples like us who stumble our way to greatness for the gospel’s sake.
I look forward to seeing you on Sunday and don’t forget to invite a friend!
— Senior Pastor Dale Cohen