Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is? And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am? Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
This time has certainly been difficult for most of us as we stay home except in cases of urgency such as grocery shopping. When we do go out, we see people wearing gloves, masks, and purposely avoiding others as a constant reminder of the virus that has changed the intended direction of our lives. Businesses are not open, and churches have closed their doors temporarily until this viral epidemic has run its course. Last week was a particularly difficult time because it was Easter Sunday and I remember thinking out loud that we would be having our Son-rise service at this time if it were a normal Sunday. The good news is that we are a church separated and not a church destroyed. We know there will is an approaching day when we will have the opportunity to open the doors again of our church and worship the Lord. We must remember God’s strength compared to the power of this virus. Today, I want to focus on Jesus’ dialogue with his disciples in Matthew 16 and make some points that I hope might encourage us as a church.
A Return to Worship in Crisis
God warned his people for a long time about the consequences of their sins. He sent prophets to warn them and was patient waiting for them to repent and return to the God of their salvation. Instead, their stubbornness and pride created a spiritually deaf people in all the Promised Land. Those residing in Judah saw their northern brothers and sisters fall to the might Assyrian empire in 722 BC, but they refused to return to the Lord. They thought God would not judge them and they took pride in God’s promises while not delighting in the Lord, himself. It took a long time, but God raised up the Babylonians and in 586 BC they defeated Judah and forced them to leave creating an exiled people. They had about 136 years to repent after they saw what happened to the north, but they never repented of their idolatry. One of the most tragic and emotional scenes in the Bible is in Lamentations as the people are forcibly removed from their land. Jeremiah describes the scene in Lamentations 1:1-3, “How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow has she become, she who was great among the nations! She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has none to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her; they have become her enemies.”
Judah’s crisis was not their exile but worship as they served the gods of the surrounding areas. God put them in exile so they could remember what was significant in life. Jeremiah describes the process from God’s judgment to returning to him in worship when he writes in Lamentations 3:16-24, “He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord.’ Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. The Lord is my portion, says my soul, therefore I will hope in him.” This crisis should not be a time of distancing ourselves from God but drawing near to him in worship. Our worship should not become more distanced, but more intense. Worship does not end because we are unable to meet corporately but we must worship the Lord individually. How wonderful would it be for us during this time of isolation to draw near to God in worship as we never have before?
A Return to the Fundamentals in Crisis
This text in John is focused on the identity of Jesus. He asks his disciples who others think Jesus is and who they think he is. This is not a minor point in Christianity, but it is the main emphasis of Christianity. It is not a minute point, but it is of deepest significance. It is identity confusion and rejection keeping many people out of heaven. It is not the one who does good things who shall inherit the kingdom of God, but the one who knows the King. Jesus makes this point in this passage but also listen to what he says in Matthew 7:22-23, “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” Every true heaven-bound person knows who Jesus is as the basis of their faith. This is the reason why Jesus is so focused on his identity in this passage and his earthly ministry.
Our focus needs to be in the right place and this time of isolation is a wonderful opportunity for us to check our intentions and truly realign our priorities with the Lord’s desire and command. Is it possible for us to be busy doing things for the Lord while not obeying what he told us to do? Based on this passage, I think our greatest priority must be to tell people in our community who Jesus is because their eternity hangs in the balance between heaven and hell. There have been many people who have died from the Coronavirus and I am certain many more will die in the following days. Many of them, I am certain, have left their earthly bodies of comfort to find themselves under eternal damnation because of their rejection of Jesus as the eternal Son of God. When the dark night of this virus fades and the sun rises, may we have a renewed determination to be the church and proclaim the excellencies of the One who has saved us by his eternal gospel.
Knowing Jesus as the Son of God is so important that God the Father revealed this truth to Peter and the future church would be identified by its confession. When Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is, Peter replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus then says he will build his church on this truth. The emphasis was never on Peter, the man, but his confession. In other words, any person who claims to be a Christian and rejects this truth will never enter the Kingdom of God. It also took divine intervention for Peter to get this right, which I think implies that every person who believes Jesus as the Son of God needs God working in his or her life convincing and convicting. This truth should encourage us because God does not send us out without his power, but the Lord has gone before us preparing the way.
In summary, I think we need to get back to the fundamentals of our faith and emphasize, focus, and love them again. I think we should reject things, attitudes, programs, and speech that does not build the kingdom of God. I think we should be busy doing the things that will enlarge the kingdom rather than wasting our time doing things that accomplishes nothing, because if I have learned anything, it is, that we are mortal, our time is short, and life is precious.
A Return to the Promises of God in Crisis
Take heart fellow believer because God is not powerless in this crisis, but he is sovereign and powerful over any difficulty in this world and in our life. The church has been through many crises in its history and has overcome all of them. The early church had the crisis of persecution as many believers died horribly painful deaths such as being fed to animals, burned at stakes poorly constructed increasing pain, decapitation, placed on crosses, and being quartered as a few of the worst. The Coronavirus is not even on the same plane of difficulty as the first century church endured. Although, the church has dealt with persecution throughout the years, it also had to deal with disease as we are doing now. The general population including the church met a great crisis in the form of a plague supposedly introduced to the people by fleas on the back of rats. It is believed that nearly ½ of the population of Europe died by what was called Black Death. We will make it through this crisis because God has promised to never leave us nor forsake us.
Our passage also gives to us confidence when Jesus says, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Two things we should pay attention to in this text. First, Satan is against the work of God. The church is not a neutral or safe environment. The church is dangerous because the god of this world would like to shut it down and destroy you. He would like for all of us to be removed from this world and it is by the grace of God we are still here. God certainly has plans for us and our desire should be to glorify the Lord every moment from when we wake up in the morning to when we lie down in the evening. Second, God is active in the world as he builds his church. Yes, we are called to build the kingdom of God, but we cannot do it if the Lord is working against us, but here we learn his will. His desire is for his church and that it would become all it can be, and our comfort is found in the fact that we don’t build the church simply by our plans, but we are able to destroy God’s plans by our sinfulness.
In conclusion, I agree this is a difficult time for us, but it does not have to be a destructive time as it gives us the opportunity to realign our lives and church toward the Lord. Just think of the opportunities. When I was a kid, I always looked forward to the next year of school because it provided new opportunities. There would be new teachers, new subjects, new clothes for the year, and perhaps new students. There was a great hope of expectation and perhaps this summer break from church will renew our spirits and expectations in what the Lord may do in the next season of our church life. To God be the glory and may his people continually praise him until he returns!
Pastor Steven Lookabaugh has been our pastor since 2016 and is passionate about proclaiming the gospel of God through the weekly exposition of God’s Word; believing application is possible when one understands the historical/cultural meaning of the text. He leads our church in fulfilling our purpose toward the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations, and to the Great Commandment as we seek to love one another. He has a Doctor of Ministry degree in Expository Preaching from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with an emphasis on parabolic exposition. He is married to Jennifer and they have three children, Andrew, Kate and Olivia.