Peter said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Gandhi said that he did not think Jesus was uniquely divine. I guess that is not unexpected, after all, Gandhi was Hindu and believed that all humanity was divine or at least had divine sparks within. Nietzsche said, “Jesus died too soon. If he had lived to my age he would have repudiated his own doctrine.” In Islam Jesus is seen to be a good and godly man–a prophet in a long line of prophets. Ben Franklin extolled the character of Jesus, but in regard to his divinity he declared himself a skeptic. Even Albert Einstein had a high view of Jesus and referred to him as the luminous man of Nazareth. But Einstein would not commit to the idea of a personal God. In light of what Einstein could see of the universe, that there was a God, made sense, but he did not think Jesus was divine. Who is Jesus really?
Last week we saw Jesus with the Canaanite woman. He was not in Israel. And now he is headed back to Israel traveling through the area of Caesarea Philippi but he isn’t home yet. As they are walking along, Jesus says, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They answer, “John the Baptizer, Elijah, Jeremiah, or some prophet.” OK, but who do YOU say that I am? And Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus says to him, “You are blessed because this understanding you received is from God not something that is simply from human understanding. I am now naming you Rock and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not be able to win! Clearly this is a big deal in the eyes of Jesus. So what happened?
What does he mean that God the Father has revealed this to you? We have seen in Matthew that the disciples already have worshiped him as the Son of God on that night he walked on the water to their boat so why is this profession by Peter so special? Why is this profession the one upon which the Lord will build his church? What we learn here is that true understanding of who Jesus really is, is something that requires the help of God the Father. It requires the Holy Spirit to open one’s heart and mind. And that is what happened to Peter. Peter still had a confused understanding about the mission of Jesus. He had an admittedly confused understanding about what it meant to be the Messiah. Yet, yet from here on there an internal change within Peter. It is because of what is now in Peter that Jesus proclaims that He will build his church. We are not talking about buildings here. Church in the Greek is the word ecclesia and it means assembly or group. So Jesus tells the disciples that He is going to gather a group of his chosen people. And not even the gates of Hades will be able to stand successfully against his group of people. This sounds great but what exactly does it mean? Where are the ‘gates of Hades’ and why are Hades and the church fighting each other?
In the days of Jesus, the important cities all had walls. Jerusalem was comparatively a somewhat unimportant city in the first century. But it had walls that were 40 feet high and over 8 feet thick. That is a pretty substantial wall. Nobody is going to high jump or even pull-vault over that wall. Rome really didn’t have walls until they had to defend against the barbarians in the 4th century. Then they built walls 52 feet high and 8 feet thick. Years earlier the walls of Babylon were 320 feet high and 80 feet thick! So quite frankly, the walls were usually not the attack points. It was the gates. The gates were always the place where the cities were the most vulnerable. Walls were made of stone. Gates were made of wood. Gates were what the armies attacked to get into the city. Understanding that then what Jesus says makes sense. He is not talking about Hades attacking the church. Gates don’t attack. Gates are closed to defend a city; gates are used to access the city. So it is the church which is attacking Hades and the gates will not be able to hold against the church. When the people of Jesus assault the gates of Hades, those gates are going down. The church is coming through and invading and conquering the kingdom of Hades.
And where is Hades? Hades is the Greek name for the place of the dead. It is also known as the grave. In the Old Testament we know this place as Sheol. It is where the spirits of the dead go when their bodies die. So what Jesus is telling his disciples is that his people, the people of his assembly, his church will wage war on the grave and will win! Dr. Criswell, Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, said on one occasion on an airplane flight he found himself seated beside a well-known theologian, a seminary professor. They got to talking as the trip went on. The man told Dr. Criswell he had recently lost his young son through death. The man said the child had come home from school with a fever and the family thought it was just one of those childhood things, but it turned out to be a very virulent form of meningitis. The doctor said we cannot save your little boy. He’ll die.
And so this seminary professor, loving his son as he did, sat by the bed side as his son died. It was the middle of the day and the little boy whose strength was going from him and whose vision and brain was getting clouded said, “Daddy, it’s getting dark isn’t it?” The professor said to his son, “Yes son it is getting dark, very dark.” The boy said, “Daddy, I guess it’s time for me to go to sleep isn’t it?”
His father said, “Yes, son, it’s time for you to go to sleep.”
The professor said the little fellow had a way of fixing his pillow just so, and putting his head on his hands when he slept and he fixed his pillow like that and laid his head on his hands and said, “Good night, Daddy. I will see you in the morning.” He then closed his eyes and died.
Dr. Criswell said the professor didn’t say anymore after that. He just looked out the window of that airplane for a long time. Finally he turned back and he looked at Dr. Criswell with tears coming down his cheeks and he said, “Dr. Criswell, I can hardly wait till the morning.”
You see, the morning is coming. That’s what Jesus is saying, “The gates of hades, the gates of DEATH, shall not prevail against the church!” The spirits of dead will not remain in Hades. Jesus said his assembly; his church will conquer the grave. How can this be? After all, death is still with us isn’t it? Yes, but because of the resurrection of Jesus, we don’t stay dead. We like our Lord Jesus will come back to life.
And the key element in this victory over the grave is that understanding of who Jesus is like what Peter had. It is not simply a human understanding that Jesus was some sort of remarkable fellow and a great ethical teacher. No there has to be an understanding that comes from God. God has to open our hearts to begin to get it. God has to open our hearts to begin to really comprehend what happened through Jesus. Simply trying to follow the ethical teachings of Jesus is not what conquers the grave. You see the true of understanding of who Jesus is includes grasping, however dimly, how much love God shows us in sending Jesus to us. This true understanding that Jesus is the Son of God means that God came here to earth. God came to live among us and then to die as a sacrifice for our sin so that we could be reconciled to God so that we could have peace with God; so we can have a relationship with God. This revealing of who Jesus is that comes from God the Father is exactly what changes our understanding not only of who Jesus is but who God is. At that point we begin to understand how much God loves us. And then we are changed. Then we become new people, his people. And this assembly of Jesus’s people conquers Hades, conquers death. Death has no hold on us.
Who is Jesus? Gandhi, Nietzsche, Ben Franklin and even Albert Einstein did not have it right. May God reveal who Jesus really is to us just as he did to Simon Peter so that we too can be changed so that we truly see Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Amen