Scripture: Matthew 16:13-23
Last month, CNN Tonight news anchor Don Lemon got into hot water for saying the following:
“Jesus Christ, if that’s who you believe in, Jesus Christ, admittedly was not perfect when he was here on this earth. So why are we deifying the founders of this country, many of whom owned slaves?”
“Jesus Christ, admittedly, was not perfect”? I’m not even sure what point Lemon was making with this comparison. For example, it would make sense if he said, “Don’t worship the Founding Fathers. Unlike Jesus, whom Christians do worship, the Founding Fathers weren’t perfect.” But obviously he said something very different. I don’t know…
What I do know is that Lemon got severely criticized by Christians for saying what he said. Jesus, of course, was perfect when he was here on earth. 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 1 Peter 2:22: “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.” If Jesus wasn’t without sin, then he couldn’t have been our substitute on the cross; he couldn’t have died the death that we deserved to die and suffered the hell that we deserved to suffer; he couldn’t have given us, or imputed, his righteousness in exchange for our sins, and therefore we couldn’t be saved. Simply put, he could not be the world’s Savior if he also sinned.
So Lemon’s mistake showed a fundamental misunderstanding of who Jesus was. Well… he’s in good company. Peter is certainly in danger of misunderstanding who Jesus is. I mean, he rightly understands that Jesus is both the Messiah and the Son of the living God, but he doesn’t yet understand that the Messiah’s mission in the world is not to rescue God’s people Israel from political oppression and suffering under the evil Roman Empire, but to rescue them and the rest of the world from its sins, which means rescuing them from God’s wrath, which means rescuing them from an eternity separated from God in hell.
In other words, Jesus came to solve a problem infinitely greater than any mere political problem.
That’s why, in verse 21, Matthew says that Jesus “began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” His substitutionary death on the cross is what makes possible our salvation. 1 Peter 3:18: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God…” Another way of putting it: Christ lived the life that we were unable to live, and he died the death—the God-forsaken death—that we deserved to die. Christ experienced hell itself, on the cross, so that we who believe in him wouldn’t have to.
So Peter also misunderstands an important part of “who Jesus is”!
So… Let’s go easy on Don Lemon and have compassion on him. The truth is, he probably just believes what most of the world believes about Jesus… that Jesus was some kind of “great moral teacher.” And who can blame him—“do unto others,” “judge not lest you be judged,” “Consider the lilies, how they grow,” “let him who is without sin,” the Good Samaritan, the Beatitudes, the Prodigal Son, forgive 70 times seven times—these teachings are so obviously powerful and influential, it’s hard to deny that Jesus is at the very least a great moral teacher.
Many years ago, I took a philosophy class at Georgia Tech. The professor was handing out course evaluations. Profs would do this at the end of the course… to give students a chance to provide feedback on what they thought about the class and how it was taught. As this professor was handing out evaluation forms, he said—out of the blue—“Often when I receive evaluations from students, they complain that I’m anti-Christian. I’m always surprised by this criticism. I love Christianity; I couldn’t be more sympathetic with it. I mean, I don’t believe it’s true—not literally. I mean, I consider Jesus’ teachings true in the same way that the teachings of the Buddha are true.”
And this professor undoubtedly thought he was paying Jesus a great compliment by saying this. Because after all, he would agree that Jesus is a “great moral teacher”…
Except… If Jesus isn’t also God’s only begotten Son, the Messiah sent to save people from their sins, the Second Person of the Trinity, then he can’t be a great moral teacher. C.S. Lewis made this point beautifully in his book Mere Christianity. Lewis said Jesus is either a lunatic… a liar… or Lord. He said:
You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
My philosophy professor probably didn’t read C.S. Lewis. My professor went on to say that for hm it all comes down to the resurrection: he said, “I don’t believe that Jesus was literally resurrected.”
To this professor’s credit, he gets to the heart of the matter. He rightly understood that if Jesus was literally resurrected, the way that all Christians say that he was, then all bets are off. If Jesus was literally resurrected, then even this very skeptical professor would have to concede that Jesus was no mere “teacher”; if he was literally resurrected, then Jesus is the Son of God, he is the Messiah, he is the world’s Savior…
Indeed, if Jesus was resurrected, then Jesus is God, the Second Person of the Trinity. Therefore everything he said, everything he taught, everything he did, as recorded in God’s Word, the Bible, is 100 percent true. I know some modern-day Methodists like to tell us that the Bible can’t be trusted—or at least certain verses or certain passages or certain parts of scripture can’t be trusted.
Well, that’s not what Jesus himself believed about the Bible; he taught that it was completely trustworthy; he taught that God is its ultimate author.
And if Jesus is God, as demonstrated by his literal resurrection, then are you telling me that Jesus doesn’t have the power to make sure that his Word, this book that bears witness to him, is telling the truth?
That’s crazy when you think about it!
I don’t mean to be a smart-aleck, but given a choice between trusting what some modern-day Methodists believe about the Bible and what the man who was resurrected believed… about the Bible… I think I’ll stick with the man who was resurrected! How about you?
Again, even the most hardened skeptics and atheists—like my philosophy professor— understand this truth: If Jesus was the resurrected Lord, then that changes everything about our lives! Or at least it ought to… right?
And here’s my reason for bringing this up: We easily and often look down on the Don Lemons of the world; we judge them; we get angry at them. I do sometimes! Because I passionately disagree with his particular answer to Jesus’ question in verse 15: “Who do you say that I am?”
If Jesus asks me, “Who do you say that I am?” I’m going to say, “You’re the resurrected Lord, you’re the One to whom I owe my life and all that I have and all that I am! You are everything to me, Lord!”
Believing all of that, can I claim that my life is as different as it ought to be because I believe Jesus was resurrected—therefore I believe that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of the living God… therefore I believe that everything Jesus did and everything he taught is true… therefore I need to listen to him… therefore I need to believe his Word?
I ought to listen to Jesus and believe him, for example, when he says through faith in him I’m a beloved child of God, adopted into the family; that my heavenly Father loves me even as much as he loves his only begotten Son; that nothing will ever separate me from his great love.
I ought to listen to Jesus and believe him, for example, when he tells me that I have nothing to prove to my heavenly Father, that all my sins—past, present, and future—are nailed to the cross and forgiven; that confessed sin is forgotten sin, so I have no need to feel guilty; that God isn’t mad at me, or disappointed in me; that I don’t have to earn his love because he loves me without condition; in fact, that God wants to show me his favor;that he is working to make sure that everything that happens to me right now—even the “bad stuff”—will be transformed for my ultimate good.
I need to listen to Jesus and believe him, for example, when he tells me not to worry, not to be anxious about anything—that I’m so valuable to my heavenly Father that every hair on my head is numbered—even as they’ve mostly turned gray—that not even a sparrow can drop to the ground apart from my Father’s will, and that, to say the least, I am worth more than many sparrows.
I need to listen to Jesus and believe him, for example, when he tells me that my Father will supply all my needs; that he will always care for me and protect me; that he delights in giving me more of more of his Spirit, more of Jesus, more of himself!
Dear Lord, transform my heart so that I can live my life in a way that’s consistent with these great truths… instead of falling back into the same patterns as the rest of the world!
Because if Jesus is who we say he is, well… it should change everything!
Many years ago, the magician and comedian Penn Jillette—one half of the comic magic duo Penn and Teller—posted a video on his blog about an experience he had after a show in Las Vegas. For context, here’s an important fact: Jillette is also an outspoken atheist. He talks about his skepticism a lot. Anyway, he was signing autographs after one of his shows, when a Christian businessman came up to him and told him that he was a fan, and that he enjoyed the show. Then he gave Jillette the gift of a Bible. The man said, “Listen, I know you’re not a believer, but I want to give you this and encourage you to read it. Because Jesus is everything to me, and I want you to know him, too. This book will tell you how to have eternal life. Please read it.”
And you can see in the video that Jillette, a hardened atheist, was deeply moved by this gift; tears were welling up in his eyes as he was describing this experience.
This outspoken atheist went on to say that he appreciates Christians who “proselytize,” which is the secular word sharing one’s faith. He said he appreciates Christians who are bold enough to bear witness for Christ—even when they witness to outspoken atheists like himself. In fact, he said that he doesn’t have any respect for Christians who don’t do this. He said:
If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell, and people could be going to hell, or not getting eternal life, or whatever—and you think that, uh, well, it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward… how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize them? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? I mean, if I believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that a truck was coming to hit you, and you didn’t believe it, and that truck was bearing down on you, there’s a certain point where I tackle you. And [eternal life] is more important than that!
“How much do you have to hate somebody.” Okay, I get it… the word “hate” is too strong, but don’t you see his point? Would we rather avoid “social awkwardness,” as he calls it, rather than witness, and to warn people that, apart from knowing Christ, something infinitely worse than a fast-approaching truck is on its way—Final Judgment—and that time is running out to change our eternal destiny!
If Jesus is who we say he is, isn’t our failure to witness nothing less than a failure to love? Do we love people enough to tell them about Jesus? To tell them how they can be saved? If not, why not?
And I’m preaching to myself, too. I didn’t tell you the punchline of that story earlier of my philosophy professor back in college. After he finished telling us that he didn’t believe that Jesus was literally resurrected, he said, “But after all, how many of you literally believe in the resurrection?” And I looked around this classroom of 30 or 40 students, some of whom, at least were surely Christians like me, and no one spoke up… no one said a word.
Including a certain future Methodist minister named Brent…
If Jesus is who we say he is… how can we be silent?
That memory in philosophy class haunts me. I’m ashamed. I’ve repented. But who knows who needed to hear my witness that day? Who knows whether my words would have made a difference? Who knows if my witness—if I had said, “Yes, I believe in the literal resurrection and you should too”—who knows if that would have emboldened other Christians in the class that day?
I worry that our silence effectively tells people to stay away from God’s kingdom… to keep out… the doors to his kingdom are locked, and we don’t care enough about you to unlock and open them for you.
Indeed, this is what Jesus is talking about in verse 19, when he tells Peter, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Those are unusual words, I know, but he’s simply referring to what the apostle Peter himself would do at Pentecost in Acts chapter 2, when he preached the gospel, thereby unlocking the doors of the kingdom to repentant Jews. Or in Acts chapter 8, when he and the apostle John unlocked the doors of the kingdom to repentant Samaritans. Or in Acts chapter 10, when he unlocked the doors of the kingdom to repentant Gentiles.
That responsibility now falls to all churches, made up of all believers who say, along with Peter, that Jesus is the Messiah and Son of the living God.
“Who do you say that Jesus is?”
Dear Lord, may our actions live up to our words. Amen.