Topical Scripture: Matthew 16:13-20
As everyone in the so-called “civilized world” knows, the final Star Wars movie opened this week. The first Star Wars movie, made back in 1977, used 360 visual effects; the last episode has 2,151. The six movies have sold $9 billion in merchandise to date. Darth Vader even made the cover of Time magazine.
I’m not giving away any of the plot to tell you that in the world of Star Wars there is good and there is evil. The Emperor is bad; the Jedi are good. Darth Vader doesn’t wear gray. In the “real world,” of course, things aren’t so simple.
Last week, tattoo professionals attending their convention in New York City complained that tattoos have gone so mainstream that they have lost their “artistic value.” Individual expression rules the day.
A middle school girl in Oregon made the news after hugging her boyfriend in a hallway and getting detention for violating the school’s no-hugging rule. The parents of the students involved are the ones most upset–they don’t understand how school administrators have the right to force their ethics on their children.
In a world of gray, what are we to do with black-and-white passages such as this week’s text? In truth, if we cannot answer that question, we cannot understand the origin and essence of the Christian faith. Let me explain.
What Jesus claimed
The scene is one of the most dramatic locations on earth. Standing 1150 feet above sea level, the massive rock outcropping is the largest I’ve ever seen, gray with streaks of metallic brown, flat and imposing. I will never forget standing on that rock at Caesarea Philippi as long as I live.
As I stared in awe, I could feel the religious significance of the place.
Just a short distance away stood the brilliant white marble temple built by Herod the Great as an altar to the worship of Caesar, hence the name of the place, “Caesarea.”
Beneath our feet was that cavern where the Greeks said Pan, their god of nature, was born. And so I knew that Greek and Roman gods were worshiped here.
Scattered around the place were fourteen temples to Baal, the Canaanite fertility god, where the Syrians worshiped.
Somewhere below was one of the origins of the Jordan River, the holiest river in all the Jewish faith, the water Joshua and the people walked through to inherit the Promised Land. On this gigantic rock, standing in the midst of temples to every kind of god known to his culture, a Galilean carpenter asked, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter declared, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And the Galilean said, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” What “rock”?
Was it Peter? No, Jesus said in the Greek language, “You are petros” [small pebble], “and on this petra [giant boulder] I will build my church.”
Was it Peter’s confession of faith? Many think so, but I don’t think Scripture teaches that God builds his church on our faith. Our faith is too fleeting, too weak, to be the foundation of his kingdom on earth.
I think Jesus pointed to himself when he said, “On this rock I will build my church.” 1 Corinthians 3:11 is clear: “no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” The church, and this church, is built on the foundation which is Jesus himself. Our lives and eternal lives, our future destinies, all depend on him. Not on Caesar, or Roman gods, or Canaanite idols, or the Jewish traditions. On him alone.
Such is the consistent claim of God’s word:
When Jesus stood on trial for his life, the high priest challenged him: “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God” (Matthew 26:63). His answer sealed his fate: “Yes, it is as you say” (v. 64).
Earlier he had told his opponents, “‘My Father is always at work to this very day, and I, too, am working.’ For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:17-18).
Later he claimed, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
When Peter was threatened with his own execution if he did not stop preaching the gospel, he replied, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Let there be no mistake: Jesus believed himself to be the only way to his Father. The apostolic Christians held the same conviction. They did not die by the multiplied thousands for announcing that Jesus was a great moral teacher, or that his message was but one of many ways to the same God, or that sincerity is spirituality. They died for the conviction that Jesus is the only rock upon which eternity stands.
Remember again the most famous words C. S. Lewis ever wrote:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell. 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 patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to” (Mere Christianity).
What the world believes
But we live in a different world now. Relativism is the ethos of our day, the idea that all truth is relative and subjective. Everyone “knows” that our minds process our sense data, and the result is “knowledge.” However, your senses and mine may experience the data differently. Your mind may process your experiences differently. And so words do not describe reality, only our version of it. There can be no objective truth claims, only subjective experiences. It’s fine if Jesus is your way to God, but don’t insist that he must be mine.
The second word for our society is pluralism: different religions are roads up the same mountain. They’re all worshipping the same God, just by different names. A recent poll revealed that 64 percent of Americans believe all religions pray to the same God. Believing that your faith is the only way to God is the kind of intolerance which led to 9-11. It’s fine if Jesus is your rock, your road to God, but don’t make the rest of us travel it.
And pluralism typically leads to universalism, the idea that everyone is going to heaven, no matter what they believe. Only two percent of Americans are afraid that they might go to hell. Sixty two percent say it doesn’t matter which God we believe in, so long as we’re sincere. We’re all on the road to God, whatever we might believe about him.
Make no mistake: if this conventional wisdom is right, Jesus was wrong. The Bible was wrong. The first Christians were wrong.
If the world is gray, if good and evil are only the subjects of Star Wars movies and fairy tales, then we need to change a few things around here. We need to take down the painted glass window over the baptistery with its Great Commission mandate to “teach all nations,” because we have no right to do so. We need to remove “Night Cometh” from the clock tower, and the cross over those words, lest they offend someone.
If your neighbors and friends who are good, moral people but haven’t trusted Christ as their Lord–if they are going to heaven along with the rest of us, if the gospel is not truth but only opinion, if the Bible is only a religious diary and Jesus only one way among many, then the church is only a social agency. Our missions and evangelism ministries are a waste of time and money. As Paul said, “We are to be pitied more than all men” (1 Corinthians 15:19).
But Jesus, and his word, and his first followers weren’t wrong. Relativism is wrong. To claim there is no absolute truth is to make an absolute truth claim. Everyone I know believes that the Holocaust is wrong, and that terrorism is wrong, and that AIDS should be cured. Absolutely.
Pluralism is wrong.
If Buddhists are right, you and I will one day experience Nirvana after multiple reincarnations, and we will cease to be. If Hindus are right, we will be absorbed into Brahman and cease to exist individually. If Muslims are right, we will spend eternity in heaven or hell based on our obedience to the revelation of Allah as given in the Koran. If the Orthodox Jews are right, we will be judged on the basis of Torah. If any of these is right, the others are by definition wrong.
No other religion believes the deception of pluralism. Muslims are doing all they can to convert the world to Islam. Hindus and Buddhists are actively seeking to spread their worldview to as many as possible. Darth Vader and the Jedi are not different roads up the same mountain–they are very different mountains.
Universalism is wrong. God’s holy word is clear: “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15).
So the ignorant must be told. A third of the world has never had a chance to hear the only news which can save our souls from hell for heaven. We must redouble our efforts to pray for missions, to give to missions, and to go as missionaries.
The informed must be won.
Every person you will meet this week stands without excuse. They have access to the truth of God’s word. They have heard of God’s Son. They will spend eternity in either heaven or hell.
And you are the Bible they will read, the Jesus they will meet. Their relativism and pluralism and universalism keep them from coming to hear me, so they must hear you. You have the only cure for their eternal cancer, the only hope for their hopeless hearts.
For whom are you praying by name? When last did you tell someone of your faith? Invite them to something spiritual? Tell them of God’s love in yours? To believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and to refuse to tell those who need to know him most, is not to believe it at all. It’s practical universalism.
And Jesus must be Lord of all. He is not only the only way to life eternal, he is the only way to life present. He came to give us life to the full, now. His Spirit wants to fill us with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). But he can give only what we will accept.
So begin each day at his feet. Start the day in his word and worship. Seek his will first. Pray before you act. Submit to his Lordship. And you’ll build each day on the only rock which will withstand the storms of life.
I was reading about the Golden Gate Bridge this week, one of the engineering marvels of its day. It was completed in 1937, at a cost of $35 million. It stands directly over the San Andreas Fault, and yet it can withstand an earthquake measuring 7.0 in the Richter Scale. Why?
Its two great cables contain enough strands of steel wire to circle the globe three times. The concrete in its piers would pave a five-foot wide sidewalk from New York to San Francisco. But the cables and the concrete are not the secret to the bridge’s great stability.
The secret is simple. Every part of the bridge, from the concrete roadway to the steel railings and cross beams, is related ultimately to two great towers and two anchor piers. The towers are deeply imbedded into the rock foundation beneath the sea. In other words, the entire bridge is totally committed to its foundation.
So must we be. Each of us. In the midst of the earthquakes and storms which surround us, stand on the rock. Invite all you know to join you. This is the invitation, and the command, of God.